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Dwain Richardson

English Editing in Quebec: False Cognates, Syntax and Interferences — Oh My!

Japanese garden in Montreal

Here are two French excerpts and their translations (emphases and bold prints are mine):

Donner la vedette à la nature luxuriante jusqu’à ce point impose le respect. Plus encore, ce lieu intemporel inspire le recueillement propre au dénuement référant à l’art de l’aménagement extérieur japonais.… Récipiendaire du Prix X, le jury a particulièrement remarqué le design d’avant-garde s’incrustant avec harmonie à l’environnement sauvage entourant cette demeure….

Pierre Untel fait partie du paysage musical québécois depuis longtemps comme hautboïste. Mais depuis quelques années, le chef d’orchestre en lui prend de plus en plus d’importance.… Il est aussi membre du X, qui fêtera ses trente ans cette année…

Giving the lush natural environment such a showcase warrants respect. Moreover, this place where time stands still inspires the type of quiet contemplation that makes reference to the art of Japanese landscaping.… In selecting this project for the X award, the jury particularly remarked on its avant-garde design, which harmoniously integrates into the home’s natural surroundings….

Pierre Untel has been an oboist on Quebec’s music scene for a long time. But for the past few years, he has placed more importance on becoming a conductor.… He is also a member of X, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year…











Japanese garden in MontrealWhat do these two translated texts have in common?1 They are influenced by French structures. Some will argue they are acceptable for English readers. However, much could have been done to improve overall readability.

French interferences in English text are not a new phenomenon. English has been cluttered with French since the 1960s Quiet Revolution and the adoption of the Charter of the French Language — commonly known as Bill 101 — in 1977.2 When the provincial government enacted Bill 101, members of English-language communities began to have regular contact with French and French-language groups. Despite this history, Margery Fee has noticed that little research has been done on French influences in English; instead, most of the emphasis has been placed on preserving French culture and language.3

What are the most common challenges for English copy editors and translators? One of them, as Jacqueline Dinsmore points out, lies in false cognates (also known as faux amis).4 English borrows many words from foreign languages, including French. Fee refers to Tom McArthur’s 1981 survey on lexical borrowings. These borrowings are divided into four distinct categories: “universally accepted” English terms, “locally accepted expressions,” “locally dubious expressions” and “locally ambiguous expressions.”5 Examples include words such as garage, elegant, anglophone, dépanneur (corner or convenience store), animator (facilitator, chair, group leader), subvention (grant, subsidy), formation (training), primordial (essential) and delay (deadline).6 Following the survey, McArthur concluded that French has had much influence on English usage in Quebec.

English borrowing comes with semantic shifts. Dinsmore provides an example in this sentence: “Give me your coordinates and I’ll call you for dinner sometime.”7 In universal English, coordinates are defined as “a set of numbers or letters used to fix the position of a point on a map or a graph.”8 In Quebec English, however, this plural noun refers to someone’s phone number, email or mailing address (calque of coordonnées). The sentence should read, “Give me your contact information and I’ll call you for dinner sometime.” Terrace is also affected by a semantic shift. In Quebec English, this word refers to the outdoor zone of a restaurant or house (from French terrasse). Outside Quebec, terrace is usually replaced with patio. 9

Copy editors and translators must constantly grapple with French syntax. A common challenge is dealing with transitional connectors, especially at the beginning or in the middle of sentences. Here are some common ones: d’abord, ensuite, enfin, or, toutefois, d’ailleurs, par ailleurs, pour commencer (terminer), plus encore, d’une part … d’autre part. These may be translated respectively as first, next, finally (sometimes in addition), yet, however, moreover (or besides), furthermore, to begin (or first), in closing, what’s more, on one hand … on the other hand. Often these connectors detract from what precedes or follows, and are therefore omitted in English copy.

A note on subordinate words and clauses: French often uses qui and que. A common knee-jerk reaction is to convey these words as which, who or that. If you carefully analyze context and meaning, you might consider other options, such as inserting a comma after the main clause and casting the following verb in the present progressive tense. Unlike French, English does not separate subjects and verbs with strings of subordinate clauses. Here’s an example to illustrate these differences (emphases, bold prints and highlights are mine):

Ni lui [Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach] ni son frère aîné, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784), qui avait présenté pour la même occasion une cantate de l’Aventn’obtinrent le poste qui fut attribué à un musicien de moindre talent.

In the translation of this text below, you can see how English prefers to keep subjects and verbs together. Note that the French subordinate has become a new sentence in English:

Neither he nor his older brother Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784) got the job that was given to a less talented musician. Friedemann composed an Advent cantata for the occasion.

Then comes the conundrum of articulating ideas. Remember the opening excerpts? English doesn’t state ideas the same way French does. One case in point: Did you notice the Gallic structure particularly remarked on in the first English translation? Although sentences may look like English, they “need to be examined on a deeper level to parse the correct syntax and, therefore, meaning.”10

In closing, let me propose edits to the opening translations. Feel free to make additional suggestions at the end of this post.

Giving the lush natural environment such a showcase warrants respect. This timeless space has inspired contemplation in Japanese art landscaping.… ABC won the X Award for incorporating its avant-garde design into the residence’s wilderness environment….

Pierre Untel has been an oboist on Quebec’s music scene for a long time. For the past few years, he has placed more importance on becoming a conductor.… He is also a member of X, celebrating its 30th anniversary this year…


Next topic: What’s translatable? What’s not?

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1 To protect the innocent, the texts and translations have been altered. Sources are anonymous.

2 Margery Fee, “French Borrowing in Quebec English” from Anglistik: International Journal of English Studies, 19.2, September 2008: 173, accessed Mar. 9, 2015.

3 Ibid, 173.

4 Jacqueline Dinsmore, “Editing in a bilingual country” from Language Portal of Canada, Aug. 29, 2011, accessed Mar. 31, 2015.

5 Fee, 175.

6 Ibid, 175.

7 Dinsmore, 2011.

8 Canadian Oxford Dictionary, 2nd ed.

9 Fee, 179.

10 Dinsmore, 2011.

4 Comments on “English Editing in Quebec: False Cognates, Syntax and Interferences — Oh My!”

  • Thank you for this post, Dwain. I’m editing a book for McGill-Queen’s on circus arts in Quebec, and I have noticed the kinds of constructions you describe. I now feel more confident about proposing revisions where needed.


    • Thanks for your comments, Ellie! I’m glad you found the information in this post useful. Cheers!

  • Karen M.


    Hi Dwain,

    Speaking of “borrowing” from French, I have always read that the “st,” “nd” “rd” and “th” used in ordinals should appear on the line rather than be raised as they are in French. Would you not agree?

    I would revise the above translation about the Friedemann brothers as follows:

    Neither he nor his older brother Wilhelm Friedemann (1710–1784)—who composed an Advent cantanta for the occasion—got the job, which was given to a less talented musician.

    • In most Microsoft Office programs, the “st,” “nd,” “rd,” and “th” are usually put in superscript mode after pressing the space bar.

      I have always written ordinal suffixes as superscripts, even when writing a message by hand. Most documents I’ve come across use superscripts, too. I thought that was the English norm (unless rules have recently changed).

      Thanks for your revision! I like how you put parenthetical information between the subject and verb (Wilhelm Friedemann & got the job), while ensuring the non-restrictive clause has a verb (composed), making reference to the second subject: Friedemann.

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