Tricky-to-translate terms and expressions

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Posted: 
September 23, 2019
Written by: Barbara McClintock , MA, C. Tr.

Many French terms that appear quite similar to English and therefore straightforward can actually be tricky to render in English, even for seasoned translators. Here are a few that might be lying in wait for you. Don’t let them trip you up!

Acteur

When “actor” is used to mean “participant,” it doesn’t sound very English. Try “player” or “stakeholder.”

Le Canada est un acteur mondial dans le secteur de l’énergie.
Canada is a global energy player.

Confiance

We translate both “trust” and “confidence” as confiance in French. However, in English there’s a slight difference in meaning between trust and confidence. Trust means you put faith in someone; confidence is having faith in yourself.

Climat de transparence, de confiance et de respect
Climate of transparency, trust and respect

Engager (1)

Some years ago, “engage” became a popular buzzword meaning to attract and hold someone’s interest.

Engager les employés et communiquer
Employee engagement and communication

Engager (2)

“Engage” versus “commit”: Among other things, “engage” means to hire, to interact socially or to enter into, while “commit” basically means to pledge oneself to do something.

Engager un avocat
Engage a lawyer [especially British English; in Canadian English, “engage” is often used with “the services of”: engage the services of a lawyer]

Engager une conversation
Engage in conversation

Engager le combat
Engage in combat

Le gouvernement s’engage à prendre des mesures concrètes.
The government is committed to taking concrete action.

Inviter

Be careful when translating inviter as “invite.” Inviter is very commonly used in French, but “invite” is not as common in English unless there’s a real invitation involved.

Je vous invite à prendre connaissance du rapport.
I encourage you to read the report.

Participer and personne

“Participate” in English indicates active participation, so “attend” is a better bet when you don’t know the details of the situation. Perhaps the attendees only listened and didn’t ask questions or interact. Please also note the translation of personnes by “people” (more general, as opposed to “persons,” which is more specific) in the following example:

L’an dernier, 195 personnes ont participé aux ateliers et aux formations.
Last year, 195 people attended workshops and training.

Présenter

Be careful as well about translating présenter as “present.” Like inviter, présenter is very commonly used in French, but that is not the case with “present” in English unless there is a real physical presentation of something in front of someone.

Je vous présente mon frère Robert.
I would like to introduce my brother Robert.

Est-ce que vous voulez vous présenter l’année prochaine?
Are you going to run next year?

Veuillez vous présenter à la succursale.
Please visit the branch.

Elle présente des inconvénients.
It has disadvantages.

Nous présenterons les résultats au Conseil d’administration jeudi.
We will present the results to the Board of Directors on Thursday. [The presentation will be in person.]

Produire

“Produce an advertising leaflet or text” may be appropriate in a production environment, but if it doesn’t sound very English to you, try substituting “prepare” or a synonym.

Produire un dépliant ou un texte publicitaire
Prepare (or write) an advertising leaflet or text

Réaliser or organiser une exposition

To update your text, why not use the verb “curate”? According to TERMIUM Plus®, this term is derived from “curator” and thus applies well to exhibitions. Please note that “organize” is also correct in English in the following example, whereas “realize” would not sound very English.

Organiser une exposition
Organize or curate an exhibition

Territoire

“Territory” is not a common word in English, so try to avoid using it. Remember that you don’t need to translate territoire if it doesn’t add any additional meaning.

Avis d’évacuation immédiate sur un secteur du territoire municipal
Immediate evacuation notice for a sector of the municipality

I’m sure you’ve come across many more faux amis, by which I mean French terms and expressions that look like English words but that are tricky to translate. I’d love to hear about them!

Disclaimer

The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Barbara McClintock

Barbara, who holds a master’s degree in translation, has been a certified translator from French to English in the public and private sectors for over 15 years. Barbara currently works for the Translation Bureau and is a frequent contributor to OTTIAQ’s Circuit magazine.

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Useful tips, Barbara! Thank you!

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