Prosody in French Translation

Prosody refers to the patterns of rhythm, stress and intonation in a language. Every utterance, according to the rules of prosody, has its own meter. By definition, meter refers to the fact that some of the syllables in an utterance will be stressed while others will not. Whether a syllable is stressed or not is a matter of convention, that is, it has developed out of usage. English is a stress-based language, and a shift in stress can change the meaning of a word. For example, when the syllable con' in content' is stressed, then it stands for objects contained inside, say, a box, but if the tent in content' is stressed then it stands for a satisfied frame of mind.

In conversation, this conventional stress is generally reinforced by the voice of the speaker, and it is used to make the conversation more expressive. Expressiveness, in its turn, can be made vary by fluctuations in the vowel pitch and modulations of the voice. Absence of prosody, that is, absence of stress and rhythm, will make speech monotonous, uninteresting, stiff, artificial and almost incomprehensible to the reader.

When dealing with prosody in French translation, the French translator must keep the following factors in mind:

  • Every language is distinguished by its own prosody, and the reproduction of the prosody of one language in another language is linguistically impossible. The French translator can only aim at reproducing approximately the stress and intonation of the source language in the target language.
  • The English and French prosodic patterns are very different from each other. English, as been mentioned above, uses a stress-based prosody while French uses a syllable-based prosody. The speed at which the two languages are spoken, and the tones that are customarily adapted are also different from one another. Using French prosodic features in an English target text would only make the latter sound unnatural.
  • When handling prosody in French translation, the French translator should be able to pinpoint the function that is being fulfilled by the prosodic features in the source text. For example, rhythm may be used to imitate the galloping movement of horses or the rocking of a boat in the water. The French translator should be careful to replicate these effects in the target text, or else will be responsible for deliberately compromising the intended effect of the source text. Functions fulfilled by prosodic features are easy to identify in oral texts. In written texts, the grammatical structure usually provides a clue to the function being fulfilled by intonation and stress.
  • French translation, the French translator must be aware of inadvertently introducing prosodic features into the target text that do not exist in the source text. Such unwarranted prosodic features often take the form of connectors, and they do the disservice of marring the effect and distorting the message of the source text. Prosody in French translation, therefore, seems to be quite a tricky issue, and the translator's sincerest attempts should be restricted to transferring to the target language the actual movement of the source language.


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