The Seven plus One Guidelines for French-speakers writing Business or IT Documents in English.
Guideline 1: Simplify what you are saying in French, then translate it into English
To English-speakers, the French always seem to use abstract and complicated ways of saying simple things. The English, the Americans never speak about the “evolution” of a system, they speak of changing it; they don’t “conceive” new applications, they design them. Evolution applies to species and conception is a stage in the natural process of reproduction.
“The French take linguistic prowess as a proxy for intellectual agility of all kinds. For many ‘prowess’ is a mastery of the complexity (some of it quite pointless) of the written language”. The Economist, Feb 27th 2016, Johnson."
This is probably the most important point of all, and the most difficult to understand for French-speaking professionals. It is more than just a problem of translation: there are many cases when English-speakers don’t merely say the same things differently, they don’t say the same things at all and they cannot understand why, in these cases, the French are saying what they are saying.
More to the point, write about “just the facts” and express them in concrete and practical terms.
Never try to make it sound better, or show how deep your understanding of it is: to English ears, that is just pretentious. What sounds clever in French tends to sound hollow in English. As you will be thinking in French and be used to a French way of presenting, your first task when writing in English will be to detect the “superfluous” (to the English ear) and cut it from your text. We are going to illustrate it with an example taken from a French project management software application reference manual. It is a technical document, where you expect a lot less “superfluous” French than in a commercial document. Take the introduction.
Le présent manuel se propose de présenter les principes qui régissent le suivi d’un projet avec l’application, ainsi que les fonctionnalités offertes par le logiciel dans sa version 2.0
If you had to write this in English you would do better to initially remove what should be considered as superfluous, in the sense that English would just do without it, and reduce it to:
Ce manuel présente le suivi d’un projet avec l’application et les fonctionnalités de la version 2.0
This can be more easily translated:
This manual presents the monitoring of a project with the application and the functionality of v. 2.0
The second sentence sounds better even in French, but the first one is quite usual French style. The problem is that the first one, translated into English, would sound extremely pretentious. In addition your chance of finding a grammatically correct equivalent in English for the first version is indeed quite small.
Here is another example, taken from the same manual, just to show that even in a technical description you need to be very careful:
Cet état permet de visualiser l’avancement du projet ou d’un élément de découpage du projet en termes de charge produite et de reste à faire
This report shows the progress of the whole project or of a specified breakdown unit. It lists the man days used to date and the effort needed for completion
Take special care of “permettre de” in French. It is quite possible to use it in English (“to enable to” or “to allow to”, but not “to permit to “which means to give permission) but only if it really means something, in other words, if what is now “allowed” would have been impossible before. In French it has become a usual way to say “this is what it is used for”, but not in English.
More generally, one of the best ways to avoid these problems is
Never use an English word or expression in a figurative sense. Try to use all words in their most literal meaning.
There are fewer cases of commonly accepted figurative meaning in English than in French and when there is one it usually does not match the French sense. For example: “gérer” is “to manage”. But in English it really means being a person responsible for the organisation of something. So you could write that a program or a sub-system “manages” something, but only if it really does the job a manager would do or some of the functions the manager would otherwise have to perform, as in a data base management system.
Do not use “manage” for a data recording sub-system, and do not call a menu item, leading to a data entry screen where you just record supplier details, “supplier management”; it would seem to mean that this screen is actually used to organise the business relationship with a supplier. Call it “supplier details” for example.
Guideline 2: Do not overstate what you are saying
English English-speakers generally do mean what they write or say. When they do not, what they mean is usually stronger than what they say. They might even deliberately use a weaker word than the one the context would lead you to expect. This is called understatement. It is the basis of English humour, and it is practised – by the English at least – in all contexts.
Be aware that your own trend is exactly the opposite and that many English-speakers will not understand why you make such exaggerated statements and seem so excited about so little. The reason is that in French, unlike in English, if you really mean what you say, you have to show it strongly. But when writing in English any form of stressing what you say is unnecessary if you have expressed it properly. So try to avoid these: “very”, “much”, “a lot”, “completely”, “totally”, etc. which you might use in French.
Guideline 3: Sentence construction is short and simple
Most of the time, translating the grammatical construction of a French sentence into its English “equivalent” gives very poor results. At best, it is inelegant, and makes reading difficult for an English speaker. At worst, it is just not English and is understandable only to someone who can translate it back into French.
For this reason we recommend that you try to write only sentences of the type subject – verb – complement or attribute. Avoid especially the use of the relative pronouns (and relative clauses): which, who, whose, that. This is because English uses them much less than French and mainly in literary style. On occasion you might use one relative clause but make sure never to use more than one in a sentence.
Here is an example taken from the same manual. Notice that the French relative proposition is translated with a verb in progressive form, as should be the case most often.Ce manuel est divisé en chapitres qui correspondent aux phases successives de gestion d’un projet This manual is divided into chapters corresponding to the phases of a project in Project-plan
In this case “which correspond” would have been all right, but “corresponding” is still better.
In most cases English uses several simpler sentences when French uses a more complex one. Never hesitate to break down your long sentences into short ones; it will always be better style in English.
Guideline 4: Make sure of verb construction in English
When using a verb make sure how this verb is constructed in English (transitive or intransitive, used with which propositions, etc.). For example:
- Fournir quelque chose --> to provide something
- Fournir quelque chose à quelqu’un --> to provide someone with something
- Rattraper son retard sur quelqu’un --> to catch up with someone
Even verbs very similar to the French can have a completely different construction. Many verbs have several constructions and do not mean the same thing when one or the other is used.
Guideline 5: Use the article “the” and the genitive “of” in English
Usage of “the”: in English, unlike French, the article is not always required before a noun. The best guide-line is to use the article when it adds something to the meaning. This is especially true for the article “the” which means “this specific one”. For example:
- The British companies --> les sociétés britanniques (dont on parle)
- British companies --> les sociétés britanniques (en général)
- Some British companies --> les sociétés britanniques
- all British companies --> toutes les sociétés britanniques (sans exception)
- all the British companies --> toutes les sociétés britanniques (dont on parle)
Another example: “a supplier’s invoice” means “la facture d’un fournisseur” and not “une facture du fournisseur”, which would be “an invoice from the supplier”; “une facture de fournisseur” would be “a supplier invoice”, “une facture d’un fournisseur” would be “an invoice from a supplier” and “la facture du fournisseur” would be “the supplier’s invoice”.
Usage of “of”: French has only one way of representing the genitive case, by using the preposition “de”: le planning de réalisation ; le rôle de l’analyste ; la fin du projet. English has three different ones: the production plan; the analyst’s role (to be used only for a person); the end of the project.
Rather than learning subtle and complex rules to know when to use each one, you need to develop a feeling for it. The only way to get there is, each time you are about to use “of”, to see if you could use one of the two other forms instead. If you think you can, then you should.
Guideline 6: English and French words never mean exactly the same things
Even quite a good vocabulary in English is not sufficient if you don’t remember a few principles to avoid the traps of misused words. For example, you could use “normally” to mean “normalement” in most contexts, but the meaning is not exactly the same in English. Where we might use it to mean “as should happen if everything goes according to plan, but does it ever”, the English take it to mean “as has happened in the past, and as seems likely to happen again”. Better use “theoretically”, or “in theory” if this is what you mean.
An English word which correctly translates a French one in one context might not in another.
This is why using a dictionary will not help you much if you don’t have one with every meaning of a word carefully explained and exemplified, and if you do not take the time to check that the English word you choose means exactly what you want in the relevant context.
For example, if you had to translate a commercial proposal for an IT project and found “maquette” in the test: the term everybody uses in IT is “prototyping”. That is of course, if you mean a prototype of an application. If you are talking of “maquette d’écrans ou d’états”, it is called a “screen or report lay-out”.
Many English words of French or Latin origin do mean the same thing in English but are actually unusual or pedantic, the normal word being the one derived from Old English it is better to use these as they usually have a more general meaning (when Winston Churchill wanted to rally the nation in 1940, it was to Old English that he turned: "We shall fight on the beaches; we shall fight on the landing grounds; we shall fight in the fields and the streets; we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." All these words, with the exception of the last one, came from Old English).
For example to verb to “retard” exists and actually means the same in English as in French at least in the transitive form, “retarder un processus”. But it is a highly unusual word, the normal one being “to delay”. And, by the way, “a delay” means “un retard” and not “un délai” which has no direct translation.
Some French words don’t have a translation at all in English: it is not just the word which is missing, it is the idea. For example, “maître d’œuvre” and “maître d’ouvrage”. You might explain what they mean in a French context, though it will not be very easy, but there are no immediate equivalents in an English context. This happens especially with matters related, directly or indirectly, to political institutions, the law and contracts, as they follow totally different principles in the two cultures.
The business cultures and practices are also quite different. For example there is no accurate way to translate “comptabilité générale” as it simply does not exist in England, or anywhere in the Anglo-Saxon world, for that matter. In many contexts you might call it General Ledger but this corresponds actually to both “comptabilité générale” & “comptabilité analytique”. The reason for this is that there is no “plan comptable national”; each company has its own “chart of accounts”.
Guideline 7: beware of ‘false friends’ and “faux amis”
Many words which are the same in French and in English mean the same thing only in a restricted and unusual context... so beware of false friends. This is one of the biggest pitfalls for French-speakers writing in English.
For example “engagement” means the same in the context of a battle, but not would be used commonly to mean a contractual or moral “commitment”, except to marry (it is the word for “fiançailles”).
Many words which look similar have an entirely different meaning. For example “To edit” means “faire des coupures”, “réécrire”, corriger (un article)”, “faire le montage” (d’un film) but never “éditer” which is either “to publish” or, in an IT context, “to print”; “une édition” in the IT sense is a “print-out”.
List common false or semi false friends
The following is a list of common false or semi-false friends from French into English, for management & IT
Guideline 8: Orwell’s remedy of six rules
In “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell suggested six rules which, he claimed, would prevent many faults although, "one could keep all of them and still write bad English".
- 1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- 6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Special thanks to the unknown IT translator in the 1990s, whose work was a basis for these guidelines