French English Translation: the Clash of Roots and Grooves

By: Armando Riquier

One would think that the fair number of commonalities between English and French would help make French English translation simpler. Both are subject-prominent languages and have word orders that are relatively fixed as SVO (subject-verb-object). Literary traditions, however, also play a large role in translating between the two languages, and here they differ enormously.

English and French are both Indo-European languages, English deriving from the Germanic branch and French from the Italic. English is the only Germanic languages that does not have V2 word order (that is, syntax that requires the verb to be in the second position in the sentence) while French is the only Italic language that is not a null subject language (that is, the subject of the sentence can be dropped because it is implied by the verb's conjugation). Out on separate branches of the Indo-European tree, both French and English have become relatively strict, subject-prominent SVO languages that no longer inflect as much as Old Germanic or Classical Latin did. Nonetheless, remnants from the past, other possible syntactical structures, still exist in both languages:

VSO Questions:
French: Parlez-vous anglais? (Do you speak English?) - word for word: Speak you English
English poetics, Shakespeare: Met I my father? (King Lear)

SOV With all pronoun objects:
French: Il me promet. (He promises me.) - word for word: He me promises
English fossilized expressions: Til Death do us part.

While the syntax of both French and English is relatively analogous, French English translation is made more complex by the divergent literary traditions of the two languages. Native English speakers are counseled against run-on sentences throughout their secondary education. An overabundance of commas connecting subordinate clauses is frowned upon. In modern French usage, however, clauses - either appositives or subsequent actions - can be stacked, thus creating sentences that are extremely long by English standards and which translate clumsily. A good French English translator will break down a overly long sentence so that English readers can swallow it. He does so by either forming independent clauses (with the aid of a period or coordinative conjunctions, and or but) or by varying the way the stacked clauses are shown to be subordinating (demonstrative determiners that or which or, in some cases, a dash). Of course, the pace of the original is lost once the text is made more "English." Another problem that crops up in French English translation is how far apart a noun phrase and its modifier may be. French, having retained more of its Indo-European morphosyntax, makes use of noun gender and verb conjugation. As a result, French readers have no trouble identifying which noun phrase a clause is modifying. But English has no grammatical gender and very little conjugation, so prescriptive grammarians have traditionally told writers they should keep nouns phrases and their modifiers in close quarters, that is, as direct neighbors. At the end of the day, translators must shuffle sentences around and do little linguistic dances so that this distance is reduced to zero and the translation sounds like proper English.

Some think, erroneously, that the common background of French and English makes French English translation an easy matter. Even if the two languages do have the same grammatical ancestor, they are divided by centuries of literary tradition.

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