Introduction to Translation (French to English)


This is an HE+ introduction to translation from French to English for advanced A-level students and first-year undergraduates (or equivalents) and will introduce you to some of the basic questions, techniques, and theory needed to begin translating French texts into good English prose. The lesson is divided into three parts:

1. The first part simply asks: ‘what does a translator do?’ This will help you under the expectations placed on a translator.
2. The first activity sheet looks at the different ways to translate and introduces some technical terminology to allow you to begin thinking about your translation in more theoretical terms.
3. The second activity sheet offers a step-by-step method for translating and takes you through each step in a short sample translation before setting a longer translation exercise for you to do, with sample responses at the very end.
4. The fourth activity sheet offers response to the exercises to help you assess your own efforts.

The Task of the Translator

What is translation? It is taking words from one language and putting them into
another, what more can be said? As long as the words are in the right order,
then the translation is fine. But this is not the whole story, as you will
discover by the end of this short introduction. While ‘putting the words in the
right order’ matters to some extent, there is more to the task of translation. There
are at least two basic aspects of translation: (a) the translation of syntax
and semantic content – that is, the structure and meaning of the text – and (b)
the rendering in English of the tone, register, and feel of the text
that is, its flavour. This is the proper task of translation. The words may
well be in the right order but if a translation lacks the tone, feel, and
flavour of the original, then it is not a wholly successful one. It is important for you to be take into consideration, not just the order of words, but also vocabulary (word-choice), syntactical constructions, and register. When you translate a passage, the aim is accurate and natural-sounding translations into English.
This is where questions of tone, register, and the feel of the text come into

“Translators tell good stories”

The first aspect of the translator’s task, namely, issues concerning syntax and
semantic content, will improve naturally as you develop your understanding of
French through reading and listening to the language as well as through grammar
classes, if you are taking them at the moment. It is the second aspect that is,
however, trickiest to grasp and the focus of this introductory lesson. On this
last point, it is, perhaps, best to think of translation as an art, that is,
not only creative of something new, but also as producing an artifice.

            What is the translator’s artifice? An artifice is a device used either to conceal or deceive others, whether for dramatic or artistic effect. It creates a fiction in order to draw in the audience. Like any fiction, a translator requires the reader to suspend their
belief in some way. In the case of translation, the reader is asked to accept
what was written in French, as if it were always written in English.
Think about texts you have read in translation, were you ever really aware that
it was a translation? A good translator seduces the reader into forgetting that
it was ever written in any other language. How such an affect is accomplished,
however, remains subtle and complex.

            This aspect of translation can be helpfully compared to storytelling. When you tell a good story, you invite your listeners to believe that this faithfully reflects events as they occurred, and this is often, indeed, more or less the case, unless, of course, you are wildly
exaggerating or just showing off. But even in truthful stories, there is always
an element of selection, even correction, whether for comic effect or striking
the right tone or pathos. Something is lost, namely strict fidelity to the
unadorned facts, but something is also gained – a good or appropriate
story. This trade-off is necessary: it would not make sense to recount the
minutiae of events — people would stop listening! Your audience will likely be
more or less conscious of this fictional aspect but nevertheless ‘buy into’ the
artifice. There is a desire on both sides – storyteller and audience – for
selection, correction, and emphasis in order for there to be a good story at

            Translation is similar in this regard in two respects. First of all, just like a good storyteller, there is always an element of selection in translation. Now, of course, the most
basic task of translation is the conveyance of meaning from one language into
another – that is, putting the words in the right order. But that is not the
sum of the translator’s task. When you translate, you select, edit, and
emphasise certain aspects, based upon your own interpretation of what the
French text is trying to say. This is needed in order to convey its original
meaning in English. What you lose in strict fidelity to syntax and literal
meaning, you gain in good, translated prose. If you were to produce a ‘word for
word’ translation, then this would be like recounting the minutiae, thus losing
the rhythm and feel of the original text. Second, just like a storyteller, a
translator is engaged in communication. It is easy to overlook the status of
translation as precisely a communication of the text into another
language. There is always a reader or listener to think about and for whom you
translate. This is raison d’être of translation.

The activity sheets will build on points raised thus far and introduce you to the
following translation skills:

·  An understanding of the different ways to translate

·  A brief introduction to technical terminology

·  An introduction to a method of translation

·  Complete your first short translation exercise

The last activity sheet contains sample responses to the exercises in order to help
you assess your own efforts.

Resource activities

Different ways to translate


A translator is always a beginner


Answers & Responses


Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading