Fairly often, you can say a French word with an English accent, or vice versa, and make yourself understood. When this method of translation falls down, however, it can create some pretty confusing results, and sometimes even official groups or governments are not immune.
In French, global means worldwide, as you’d expect, but also comprehensive/overall. Using global or globalement, then, doesn’t necessarily mean that all countries are involved.
It’s a common translation pitfall to say that, for example, ‘Globally, Marseille has the highest Covid rates’ – to an English speaker that means that Marseille’s rates are the highest in the world, but if it is translated from globalement it could just mean that, overall, Marseille’s rates are the highest [in France].
The correct translation would be: La situation est globalement satisfaisante – Overall, the situation is satisfactory.
Normalement does mean ‘normally’, but it also has an extra meaning of ‘if all goes to plan’ or ‘all being well’.
In the context of Covid-19, this is how you can end up with a French-influenced English nonsense sentence like: ‘Normally, the case numbers will go down.’ What the French-speaker means to say is that ‘if all goes to plan/if present trends continue, the numbers will go down’.
Normalement, il viendra demain – If all goes well, he will come tomorrow.
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In everyday life, you might find yourself running late because the Metro is perturbé.
In this case, it’s likely that the underground rail system is disrupted. The English word perturbed, on the other hand, means worried or psychologically troubled. If you want to express this in French you would probably say je suis troublée or je suis bouleversé.
Le trafic est perturbé en raison d’un incident de signalisation – Traffic is disrupted due to a signaling incident.
The context of Covid-19 has thrown up some particularly interesting French-ified English words and phrases.
Intensive care is called réanimation in French, sometimes shortened to réa. However, if this gets translated directly as ‘reanimation’, it sounds more like you’re raising the dead than fighting to keep people alive.
Nous comptons 4000 personnes en réanimation actuellement – There are currently 4,000 people in intensive care.
Then, of course, we have the classic gestes barrières – barrier gestures. The direct English translation of the phrase likely doesn’t make Anglophones in France bat an eyelid at this point, though it’s basically unheard of in English-speaking countries, where we’d be more likely to discuss ‘safety measures’ as an umbrella term for things like wearing masks, using hand gel and social distancing to reduce your chances of getting Covid.
Pour se protéger et protéger les autres, respectons tous ensemble les gestes barrières ! – To protect ourselves and others, let’s all follow the safety measures.
Confinement – lockdown – also causes some translation issues.
In English we might talk about solitary confinement – which in French is isolement – in prison, but the idea of ‘going into confinement’ still evokes the traditional practices of postpartum confinement, which saw women shut off from their communities and on bed rest for multiple weeks after childbirth.
Un confinement plus strict entrera en vigueur vendredi soir – A stricter lockdown will be implemented from on Friday evening.
For us French wins in this regard though for having the simple and elegant déconfinement and reconfinement to describe the lifting of lockdown and the reimposing of lockdown respectively.
Moving on from childbirth, there’s also various sexual minefields that you can encounter if you try to translate too literally.
Beyond the classic pitfall of being excité – aroused – rather than excited, there’s a whole host of false friends out there.
In French, for example, préservatifs – condoms – are an important form of contraception. In English, preservatives – translated into French as conservateurs – are what keep your food from spoiling.
Le préservatif est reconnu pour être la seule protection efficace contre les infections sexuellement transmissibles – The condom is recognised as the only effective protection against sexually transmitted infections.
Similarly, hand-drawn art or animation may be described as graphique – related to the graphic arts. In English however, a ‘graphic video’ suggests explicit violent and/or sexual content.
Il regardait une vidéo graphique – He was watching a hand-animated video
The workplace, too, offers a host of literal translation pitfalls.
French formalities – which can be rather wordy – tend to sound a little odd when rendered literally in English. In fairness, email etiquette is hard enough in your native language, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the entertainment value.
My personal favourite, found in a friend’s professional correspondence, remains: ‘You will find in joint piece’ – a direct translation of Veuillez trouver en pièce jointe, the equivalent of ‘Please find attached’.
Talking of French formalities, the traditional sign-off to a letter or a formal email should not be attempted to be translated literally, otherwise you will end up sound like a refugee from the 18th century as you offer your ‘distinguished salutations’ to your correspondent.
Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées, Emmanuel – Yours faithfully, Emmanuel.
Speaking of formalities, cher or chère, although usually translated as ‘dear’ also has a more formal use in French. It’s common for high-ranking French politicians such as the president or prime minister to begin speeches to the nation with Mes chers compatriotes or Mes chers concitoyens, while it would be very unusual for anglophone politicians to start with ‘my dear compatriots’ or ‘my dear fellow citizens’.
In the below tweet, Emmanuel Macron is simply using a formality to tell people that he will be making a speech at 8pm.
Mes chers compatriotes,
Je m’adresserai à vous ce soir à 20h.
— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) March 31, 2021
You will also hear politicians on state visits refer to each other as cher or chère, which to English ears sounds very over-familiar.
In the below tweet it doesn’t mean that France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune is hitting on his Irish counterpart Thomas Byrne when he calls him cher, it’s simply an expression of respect.
— Clement Beaune (@CBeaune) August 26, 2021
Of course, you know that you’ve truly gone native when you start making these errors yourself and telling people that you were late because the Metro was globally perturbed.