When we think of the French language, often the images that come to mind are French cultural symbols, like French art, or the Eiffel Tower. It can be easy to forget that French is spoken all over the world. In fact, French is an official language on every continent except for Australia, but including Antarctica. People all around the world are raised speaking French, and therefore business, as well as science and medicine, are conducted in it every day. This is why it is so important that there be a smooth interface between the English-speaking and French-speaking worlds. There are all kinds of people who fulfill different rolls in this exchange, and if you ever find yourself needing to translate a medical or scientific text between these two languages, there are some things you need to understand.
The French Speaking World is Cohesive… Mostly
French is spoken differently in different places. This is of course to be expected of any language, and especially a language spread around the world in the wake of an empire. English-speakers can relate to this, as most of us have grown up consuming TV and movies that feature accents from former British colonies around the world. There’s a popular cartoon out now called The Octonauts. It’s an educational children’s show about undersea explorers and it features crew members from England, Scotland, Australia, and the southern United States. All the crew members can understand each other, though, and your average English-speaking child can easily understand them all too. One might hope the scientific community could be something like that cartoon, everyone speaking with their own accents, but in a way that all can understand.
During the Age of Discovery, France mostly colonized parts of the Americas. Those Francophone communities have spent about as much time separated from their European counterparts as, say, the United States has from Great Britain, and Cubans or Argentinians have from Spain. They have been evolving rather separately for centuries.
France, however, had a second wave of Empire in the nineteenth century. This is why people from Senegal, Morocco, Lebanon, Cambodia and many other countries are also known for speaking French. They were under a different sort of colonial rule that came later in history, comparable to the British in India. Many people in these countries now grow up speaking French, but they are more likely to speak French in school and another language at home.
The good news is that these three broad categories of French: the original European along with the first and second waves of colonies, can understand each other rather well. This renders French a very effective language for diverse international avenues of communication: a true Lingua Franca.
Translations Are Like Flights, There’s an Origin and a Destination
You might ask, why is it important to understand all this? It’s important for the simple fact that there is no single version of French translation. An American who learned French as a second language would be best served translating from French into American English. Such a person could probably write in French quite fluently, but might occasionally translate an English-language colloquialism word-for-word if they have never encountered one like it in French. In much the same way, they could have a fluent conversation in French, but anyone would know they were not a native speaker. Such a thing is generally accepted in the spoken word, but not in writing. This is why someone fluent in both languages is sufficient to perform spoken interpretation, but for best quality a native speaker should really translate into their native language.
Then Come the Technical Terms
There is another aspect to making sure you have the right kind of language professional working the right job. Not only should they belong to the audience they’re translating for, they will need to be familiar with the subject matter as well. If you are seeking to translate a document designed to help hospital patients understand their treatment options, an instructional manual for a complicated piece of equipment, or important legal guidance, then you need a translator who is also knowledgeable about the subject matter. It isn’t enough to be fluent in the source and target languages. If the translator isn’t familiar with the relevant terminology, they will mistranslate niche terms and phrases, leading to confusion. It’s very important to make sure that you are trusting your documents to be translated by someone who understands the subject matter and is an expert in their own right.
How do I Find These People?
Good question. It can seem daunting to find a translator who is a native speaker of the target language and who understands the topics that are most important to you and your clients. There is one highly practical solution: Use an agency. The whole purpose of a translation agency is to organize people by language pair and expertise. They cast a wide net to gather up the right people. They also have systems in place to guarantee the quality of their translations. A similar option is to use a network or website that helps companies and translators find each other. If you do this, however, you will be the one casting a wide net, and will have to vet a large number of translators yourself.
Decades ago, before these tools were available, the standards for translations simply weren’t as high. The burden of understanding a second language often fell on the audience. Nowadays, however, businesses are competing to serve a diverse clientele. This is why knowing who you’re looking for, and being familiar with how to find them, is crucial for translating from French, or any language.