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French-to-English freelancers in Québec: A portrait

By Ann Marie Boulanger, Certified Translator

In Québec, where French is the native language of more than three-quarters of the population, French-to-English (FR-EN) translators are often asked the question, “What exactly do you translate?” The answer: What don’t we translate! 

Essential services clients

FR-EN translators specialize in myriad subjects, informed by their expertise and interests. However, if the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has underscored anything about the translation market in Québec, it’s the vast potential for work into English represented by our province’s essential services sector. Think healthcare and frontline services, municipal and provincial governments, public transit, finance, and telecommunications, among others—all pivotal areas of activity in which organizations recognize the importance of providing crucial, timely information in English for their non-French-speaking clienteles. 

Many FR-EN translators working in fields that have been “de-prioritized” amid the pandemic have seen their bottom line shrink in recent months. Conversely, those with a client base weighted toward essential services can barely keep up with demand. Québec’s health and social services sector is an especially lucrative and seemingly inexhaustible market for FR-EN translators, even in so-called normal times, since Section 15 of the province’s Act respecting health services and social services recognizes English-speaking Quebecers’ right to receive health care and social services in their language (subject to certain limits).

Agencies and direct clients 

FR-EN translators are not unique in that many derive at least part of their regular business from translation agencies. For freelance translators, agencies are a steady, plentiful, and “easy” source of work. However, that convenience comes at a price, namely lower (or even much lower) rates than a direct client would pay for the same services.

Direct clients are the bread-and-butter of freelance translators, in any language combination, to be carefully cultivated and attentively served. They require more effort to land and secure, but once a relationship is established with a direct client, it often proves to be long-lasting—and beneficial for both client and translator. FR-EN translators work for direct clients in many sectors of Québec’s economy, but some in which the demand is especially high are administration, occupational health and safety, life sciences, education and academia, marketing and communications, museums and tourism, arts and culture, environmental science and agriculture, and the list goes on. 

Official documents

The translation of official documents can also be a profitable venture for certified FR-EN translators who are interested in adding this service to their repertoire. These documents include school transcripts, diplomas, birth/marriage/death certificates, driver’s licences, judgements of divorce, wills, etc. There are many reasons why clients (individuals and businesses) may require an English translation of these vital documents: to study abroad, for work visa/immigration purposes, to settle an estate outside of Canada (most often in the United States), to get married outside the country, etc. Many official documents issued by the Québec government and academic institutions are available in French only, making them an unlimited supply of work for certified FR-EN translators. 

Array of target audiences

There’s no question that a main target audience of many FR-EN translations produced in Québec are anglophones and allophones living in the province. This is because select messages, issued primarily by the aforementioned “essential services” organizations, must be understandable to non-French speakers. However, English-speakers outside the province are also a target audience of many Québec-based businesses owned and operated predominantly by French-speakers, who opt to have their content translated to English to reach a broader market. It’s somewhat ironic that the expression “faire rayonner” tends to trip up FR-EN translators, since that’s precisely what they help these companies do: showcase, promote, and sell their products, services, ideas, and creations outside the relatively small Québec market, by translating their content into English. 

Not without challenges

Freelancers in any language often struggle when it comes to marketing their services, and FR-EN translators are no exception. In Québec, this is compounded by the context of cultural and linguistic protectionism, where French prevails. This can make it difficult for FR-EN translators to sell public authorities and businesses on the need for polished, professional-quality English translations, especially at a time when machine translation has become omnipresent and its output considered “good enough.” However, once this hurdle has been overcome—and it can be, with patience, persistence, and professionalism—English translators can become invaluable partners to their clients, not only as translators, but as highly appreciated and trusted language consultants.

It would be fair to say that the community of certified FR-EN translators in Québec, at just 258 members, is dwarfed by the certified EN-FR contingent of 1,717 (out of a total of 2,240 members of OTTIAQ, as at March 31, 2020); it is also scattered throughout the province. Because these two factors can result in a sense of isolation, it is important for FR-EN translators to build and maintain a strong network with other FR-EN translators to share and exchange ideas and information. Not to be overlooked, however, are their numerous colleagues working in the opposite direction, from English to French, who have the potential to become excellent allies and sources of referrals. Despite the impression of “two solitudes” that can appear to extend to Québec’s translation industry, when this is a two-way street, it frequently blossoms into the best kind of mutual admiration society.

While Québec’s cohort of FR-EN translators may be small, it’s definitely mighty, forming a tight-knit network of professionals who are active in all sectors of the provincial economy, conveying key information and propagating culture—not merely surviving, but thriving! 

Ann Marie Boulanger has been a commercial translator for over two decades. She is the owner of Traduction Proteus Inc., a translation course lecturer at McGill University, and a mentor for aspiring OTTIAQ members. Her English translation of Annie Perreault’s La femme de Valence (2018, Éditions Alto) is forthcoming from QC Fiction. 

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