Devices in French Translation

A French translator often faces problems while transcoding the message of the source text. The problems can arise from semantic differences, structural differences and metalinguistical differences between the source and target languages. These differences prevent the French translator from coming up with a word for word translation. He or she can solve the problem by employing certain ready-to-use strategies. These strategies were initially formulated by P. Vilnay and J. Darbelnet; today they are the stock-in-trade of linguists and translators.

There are seven such devices in French translation:

  1. borrowing
  2. calque
  3. literal translation
  4. transposition
  5. modulation
  6. equivalence, and
  7. adaptation

The first three devices enable a literal French translation, while the last four enable a freer and more creative non-literal French translation. As we advance through the list of devices, from borrowing to adaptation, we move further and further away from the original in the source language. The French translator should stick to literal translation as long as meaning and structure permit it; he or she should resort to non-literal translation when literal translation sounds unidiomatic, and goes against the natural flow of the target language.

Borrowing occurs when an equivalent word does not exist in the target language. This is most likely to happen in the case of cultural and technological concepts. A borrowed word in the target language often keeps its original source language form; over the years, though, it may modify and align itself to its target language roots. The English and French languages have constantly borrowed from each other.

Borrowing also occurs when one linguistic group attains superiority in a certain cultural or scientific field. For example, France was a universally recognized military power in the seventeenth century; as a result, the English language accepted French military words like cavalry, artillery, battalion, canteen, etc. In the eighteenth century, France became a leader in fields of art and philosophy, and French words like arcade, dome, crayon, pastel, etc. became a part of the English language.

Today, the French language borrows words related to the fields of sports, entertainment, finance and technology from the English language. Examples are, surf, match, score, goal, bulldozer, by-pass, cash flow, etc. Creative borrowing occurs when the source language word undergoes modification in spelling and meaning in the target language, for example le camping’ (campsite), le shampooing’ (shampoo), clinic’ (dispensaire), amateur’ (non-professional).

The French have created verbs out of certain nouns, for example, boycotter’; they have created new nouns from English verbs, for example, gagdetisation; they have used English suffixes to create new nouns, like footing’ (for jogging), parking’ (for parking lot). Borrowing is unnecessary when an equivalent for the source language word already exists in the target language. But it often occurs out of political and social compulsions. The French translator must remember that borrowed words are tied to their cultural origins. They should be used in French translation to overcome semantic difficulties and sometimes to add some local color to the target text.

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