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Which French and English online resources are helpful but not always reliable?

grant-hamiltonA simple question, I thought, but not so simple to answer

By Grant Hamilton, C. Tr.

I wasn’t sure I was the right person for the job when Circuit asked me this. As an agency owner, I don’t actually translate much anymore. Admittedly I teach translation. And I hire and train translators, and sometimes revise their work. But translate? Others are probably more up to date than I am.

I also wondered, is this the question to ask?

It’s as though there’s a list somewhere of best and worst websites, and all you need to do is get your hands on that list. I believe it’s more complicated than that.

I consult dictionaries and lexicons and style guides less and less. Of course they can be helpful, and I use them for specialized terminology and specific points of grammar and style, but I tend to look more to unilingual sites that are not specifically related to language. That’s because my overriding concern is how people actually speak and write English.

A very anglophone thing to do

I have found that paying homage to usage is a very anglophone thing to do. The question we tend to ask is “How do people use this word?” not “How are people supposed to use this word?”

That’s because English is a very fluid and slippery tongue, one that borrows shamelessly from other languages and tolerates all sorts of deviations from the norm. There is no single authority, no geographic locus for setting down rules. The very thought of an “English Academy” or an “Office de la langue anglaise” is culturally inimical.

But surely, you say, English has rules of grammar

Indeed it does. But even rules that appeared ironclad and unchanging three decades ago are in flux, reshaped and transformed by the force of usage.

The McDonald’s slogan, “i’m lovin’ it,” would have sounded truly odd to my ears in high school, because copula verbs like “to love” could not be conjugated in the present progressive. And a Twitter follower of mine recently told me that my use of the subjunctive mood with the expressions “It is recommended that” and “It is suggested that” sounds quaintly archaic.

Telling right from wrong

So we tell right from wrong in the English language the same way we tell right from wrong in English courts of law—with the cumulative and ever-changing wisdom of those we ask to pass judgment. And the magistrates of the English language are the journalists, writers, teachers, advertisers, communicators—and, yes, translators—who work with the language every day.

This puts the onus on us to observe these arbiters of English attentively and to ascertain the current consensus. Is it okay to split an infinitive? Is it permissible to use a third person pronoun with a singular subject of unidentifiable gender? Can “beg the question” mean “raise the question”? Your answers will join with the answers of others to make up the common law of English language usage.

What’s a translator to do?

You could say that English is more a language of style preferences than rules. There is no rule per se on using hyphens, because people use hyphens in all sorts of different ways. This means that translators have to be aware of style issues and take sides.

Pick the English style guide that best reflects your philosophy and approach, then follow it on every job you do. (But don’t ask me which one. You’re going to have to rely on your own professional judgment!)

For example, I have written this article without capitalizing anglophone and francophone, just as The Globe & Mail does, but the last time I submitted an article to Circuit, the editor switched it to Anglophone and Francophone. Neither is right or wrong. They are simply different.

Don’t mix and match styles

You can be preppy or grunge, casual or formal, but you can’t be everything at once. You have to choose a style and make it work for you.

So here’s another piece of advice: have an opinion on everything. You know whether you like a pocket square in your suit or padded shoulders on your blouse, so you should know whether you like to write Washington, D.C., with a comma and periods, or Washington DC. If you don’t have an opinion, you run the very real risk of inconsistency. And you’ll be caught short when your client asks why you wrote “D.C.” in the first paragraph and “DC” in the fourth.

It’s not quite the same in French

The French language, like many aspects of French society, is more codified. There is an innate acquiescence to authority and an innate resistance to change. People are actually paid to think up new words and suggest them as translations. So the reflex is to look up the rules and follow them scrupulously.

This is a fine tradition. It is also suitable for a language group that is at unequal arms with English and geographically concentrated in its European homeland. What’s more, it’s how the French tend to organize society. They have a “civil code” of language made up of Le Petit Robert, Grévisse, and company.

Which French and English online resources are helpful but not always reliable?

The fact is, no online resource is always reliable. Each one needs to be approached with caution, some more than others. Even the best have holes in them.

But there is something very empowering about all this. As translators, we get to exercise our professional judgment every single day. We are part of the jury whose rulings set the course of language.

The key is to believe that your opinion has worth, to trust your language instincts, and to know deep in your heart of hearts that you are a subject matter expert, because you have pondered and pronounced on these issues. And if you do, not only will you be a better translator, but you will wield actual influence in today’s linguistic world.

A certified translator and graduate of Laval University, Grant Hamilton owns and manages Anglocom, an agency in Quebec City, Canada. He also teaches a French-to-English translation course in marketing and advertising as part of the certificate program at New York University, and regularly organizes training conferences for translators.


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