“Can someone on your team write this up in French?”


Ok. I’m going to just spit it out.

You don’t hear this word too often in business, but unless you have a Francophone on your team, please say ‘no’!

Similarly, if you don’t have an Anglophone on your team, please don’t ask your employees to write English documents that are destined for formal or public use.

Writing in your second language can be a positive and educational challenge – when you’re writing to colleagues with whom you enjoy a good working relationship. Many professionals in Montreal write emails in both French and English and wind up learning new expressions and idioms in their second language in the process.

What makes my hair stand on end, though, is when employees are asked to translate documents into their second language. 

Translators work from their second (or third or fourth) language into their mother tongue. * If you grew up speaking French, you translate into French. If you spoke English at home as a child, you work from French into English. While there may be some exceptions to that rule, this is pretty much the norm. Even the most fluently bilingual translators accept that their writing style and ability to catch grammatical errors will not be completely up to scratch in their second language.

“Okay, so professional translators are picky and exacting – what else would you expect? That doesn’t mean that we can’t go ahead and ask bilingual employees to fill in now and then when we don’t want to hire a translator. Shouldn’t our bilingual employees be able to write the odd document in their second language?”

Again, with all due respect: NO. Not if that document is destined for any kind of formal or public use.

The problem isn’t that English and French are so different. It’s that they are similar and different at the same time.

  •  If a friend says that his boss is formidable do you feel bad for him, or jealous? If you see a webpage that talks about “Our society,” do you assume the writer must have great cultural or economic plans or political aspirations, or do you assume the writer is referring to the company associated with the website? When you hear someone say that they assisted at a meeting, do you wonder what exactly they were doing there, or do you simply understand that they attended the meeting? Welcome to the wonderful world of evil twins (aka faux amis)!
  • The use of prepositions and articles in English and French do not line up in parallel tracks. English editors and proof readers comb through translations, plucking out excess definite articles. If they are working on a document that you translated into your second language, even if they charge by the hour, they probably wish you’d had a translator write that text for you. It’s just so much more efficient to do it right the first time, and professionals like to see things done efficiently.
  • Then there’s the issue of idiomatic expressions that signal degrees of formality or friendliness. Phrasal verbs are scattered through English. If you want to take on a natural, friendly tone, you need to draw on Anglo idioms.
  • Contrast this with the formality of French. Compare, for example,”Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées,” with the one-word English equivalent, “Sincerely“. Business writing in French is a species unto itself.

Translators do much more than shift texts from one language to another, word for word. They filter content into new phrases, adapting the original text to reflect the style and expectations of another culture.

As an Anglophone consultant, I won’t try to address the many issues that Francophones encounter in communications produced by Anglophone organizations. (Feel free to jump in below, though!)

Okay. I’ll step down off my soap box now. I’m sure we can all agree on this: When communicating with clients, customers, or stakeholders, you don’t want to leave them with the impression that you can’t be bothered to handle communications directed at them with the same level of professionalism you take for granted in your own language.

If your goal is to produce effective, professional documents in a language other than your mother tongue, it’s time to call a translator.


*I’ve heard that this isn’t necessarily the case in Europe. In Quebec in particular, people are sensitive to language issues, so poorly worded translations stick out like a sore thumb.