How to Translate English into French

Ah… la belle langue française! French is one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world, behind only English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, Arabic, and Bengali. Unsurprisingly, many companies around the globe choose to translate and localize their websites and apps into this beautiful language.

Unfortunately, it’s easy to make certain rookie mistakes when completing English translations into French. Even seemingly minor errors can hurt the quality of your document translations and negatively impact your brand image. Continue reading to learn five key tips for translating English-language content into French.

1. Be Careful with English Grammar and Vocabulary Rules

English and French are similar in a variety of ways. For example, both languages typically use the subject-verb-object pattern. On the other hand, it’s important to remember that each language also has unique grammar and vocabulary rules that aren’t shared by the other. Google Translate and other translation tools and online translators often make mistakes involving these nuances.

Example: ‘I lived in India for five years.’ The French word for ‘for’ is pour, so a translator might come up with j’ai habité en Inde pour cinq ans using a French-English dictionary.

However, native French speakers are more likely to use the word pendant instead of pour when discussing time. With that in mind, a more accurate translation would be J’ai habité en Inde pendant cinq ans. The same sentence written with pour on your web page would stick out as machine translation to a French-speaking audience.

2. Look for Equivalent Idioms

Keeping the same tone in translation is notoriously difficult, and that’s especially true when it comes to idioms. If you translate word for word, you might be left with something that has a totally different meaning to your target audience. On the other hand, non-native speakers may not know an equivalent idiom in the French language off the top of their heads.

This is another case where the literal meaning won’t convey the intended effect. Instead, you should do some extra research to find phrases that French speakers use to communicate the same message. Keep in mind that the French dictionary definitions of the words may be completely different, even if both phrases are generally used in similar situations.

Example: English speakers use the phrase ‘break a leg’ to wish people good luck. When translated word for word, the French version is casser une jambe, which means ‘to break a leg.’ However, a French speaker would only use that phrase when discussing actual broken legs.

The French word merde literally means ‘shit,’ but it’s actually the closest equivalent to ‘break a leg.’ The French believe that wishing someone luck is bad luck, so they instead wish them ‘shit.’ The sentence merde pour ton examen is the best translation of ‘break a leg’ during your exam.

3. Watch out for False Friends

Some English and French words sound and look alike—for example, appartement in French means the same thing as ‘apartment’ in English. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. False friends are words that appear to mean the same thing in two languages but are actually used very differently.

Even if you know a French word that’s spelled exactly the same as an English word you want to translate, you still need to confirm that it’s a suitable translation. False friends are one of the most common sources of errors in human translations, particularly with languages like English and French that share some words but have also developed separately in other ways.

Example: The French words attendre, avertissement, supplier, and coin might look familiar to English speakers, but they actually mean ‘wait,’ ‘warning,’ ‘beg’ and ‘corner.’

4. Remember the Tu and Vous Forms

The English language tends to be more informal and relaxed than French. Similar to other Romance languages like Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, French has formal and informal versions of both verbs and pronouns.

While English speakers use things like tone and phrasing to adjust their speech in different contexts, French speakers can adjust the formality of their sentences by switching between the tu and vous forms. Understanding these nuances is crucial if you want to produce quality translations between English and French.

Example: In English, the word ‘you’ and its variants can refer to absolutely anyone. Whether you’re speaking to your child, your partner, your friend, or your boss, you can generally refer to them as ‘you.’

When translating into French, it’s important to use the version of you that matches the context and your relationship to the reader or listener. As mentioned above, the French ‘you’ has two variants. The formal vous is typically used with strangers, elders, and superiors, while the informal tu is more likely to be used with friends, family, and children.

In a marketing context, it’s almost always a good idea to stick with vous rather than tu. Native French translators will be able to help you navigate the nuances of the two forms and present a professional image to your audience.

5. Account for Dialects

Every language has its own dialects and idiosyncrasies, and French is no different. In fact, French is incredibly diverse, with a wide range of variants spoken in different francophone countries and even in different areas of France.

The French spoken in Paris is very different from the French spoken in Nice. Again, the French spoken in any area of France will be distinct from the French spoken in Canada, Switzerland, Algeria, or any other French-speaking country.

Example: A ‘chocolate croissant’ would usually be called pain au chocolat in most areas of France, but inhabitants of the country’s southwestern region call it a chocolatine.

Optimize Your French Translations with Localize

You need to work with translators who understand the differences between French and English. They also need an understanding of region-specific variants in order to localize your content for specific audiences.

These differences and other important elements of translation involve nuances that only a local translator can fully understand. Your expert translation service can work seamlessly with the Localize platform to deliver the highest-quality French translations.

Visit our website to see how we can make translating English into French easier than ever before.


And check out more of our content for tips on translation and localization into other languages:

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