Tips for translating material from English into French
This is a list of practical tips to translate English to French, mainly for my own reference.
WordReference.com: Word and phrase translations, and interactive translation forum
My top online translation tool is WordReference.com. This is an online dictionary with various supplementary tools. I use it for three important situations:
First, the base English-French dictionary is Pocket Oxford-Hachette French Dictionary. Beyond that, users of the site have contributed entries to the point that they have built up their own dictionary, which they call the WordReference English-French Dictionary. (As far as I can tell, user contributions become the property of WordReference.com LLC, owned by Michael Kellog; however, I could be mistaken.)
WordReference’s translation engine also handles phrases, if available. If the phrase is in the dictionary, it will offer a translation. In addition, regardless of if the phrase is in the dictionary or not, near the bottom of the results page, the results lists various online forum titles that have the search words in the title. Very often, these will capture most phrases, assuming that someone has asked the question in the past on the forums. I explain the forums next.
Interactive forum queries
As a last resort for any translation issue, WordReference has very active forum communities. There are three forums that are pertinent to English-French translation.
- French-English Vocabulary / Vocabulaire Français-Anglais: Help with difficulties in translating specific words and phrases from French to English or vice versa.
- French and English Grammar / Grammaire française et anglaise: Help with difficulties in translating grammatical expressions and structures from French to English or vice versa
- Français Seulement: Discussion of various French-language issues; discussion is in French only.
The forums are very responsive and friendly. I always get a response within 24 hours, often much faster. Responses range from very helpful to marginally so; particular spiritual and religious terminology is usually the hardest.
Overall, WordReference is my top source; it is my first stop (for words and phrases) and my last stop (forum inquiries, when all other sources fail).
Google: To verify if a translated phrase is actually used in the real world
I use Google, the leading search engine, but this trick should work on any search engine. If I come up with a translation, but I’m not sure whether my rendering sounds natural in French, I place the exact expression within double quotes and search for it in Google. For example, I recently needed to translate the phrase « [Organization] can be contacted via email at [email@example.com] ». I rendered it « On peut joindre [Organization] par courriel à [firstname.lastname@example.org] ». I wasn’t sure, though, about the phrase « par courriel à ». Thus, I searched for this phrase in Google, surrounded by double quotes, like this:
"par courriel à"
In this case, most cases of « par courriel à » were followed by « l’adresse », that is, « par courriel à l’adresse »; thus, I changed my translation to « On peut joindre [Organization] par courriel à l’adresse [email@example.com] ».
Sometimes when you do this quoted search, Google might not take every character literally, such as when I searched on
In that case, Google ignored the hyphen. To make sure that all characters are taken exactly in the search, you need to prepend a plus sign:
Even then, Google sometimes ignores hyphens and other special characters. Anyways, the prepended plus sign does get closer to your literal quotation.
The idea of these searches is to see if real French as used on the Web actually uses my constructed phrase. I expect at least several thousand occurrences. If there are no occurrences, then it is likely that the expression is not French. If there are only a few occurrences, then it might indicate that such an expression only occurs in the occasional typo; I would need to be wary of it.
Recovery Version online: To verify how Witness Lee’s terminology has already been translated
Details to come. Briefly, when I translate Witness Lee‘s works and come across some of his very particular terminology, I use the keyword search (footnotes option) on the online Recovery Version to see if the term has appeared in the New Testament Recovery Version footnotes, and to verify how the Courant de vie translators handled it.
Wikipedia: To check the translation of particular topics, themes and titles
Details to come. Briefly, you can look up the term in the English Wikipedia, then click the language link on the left for Français to see the French translation in the French Wikipedia.
Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique: To check the translation of technical terminology
Details to come. Briefly, the Grand dictionnaire terminologique is a dictionary of terms that occur in the context of work in all fields of labour. Note that this dictionnary uses Québec French, and is rather anal about using truly French terminology, as opposed to anglicismes.
French.About.com: Anglophone-friendly explanations of French grammar
Details to come. Briefly, Laura K. Lawless, French editor for About.com, provides the best French grammar articles I’ve found on the Web specifically for anglophones, for all levels of expertise from beginner to advanced. She also has articles concerning French pronunciation.
Antidote: French grammar corrector
Antidote ( « le remède à tous vos mots » ) is the premier grammar corrector for the French language. If all you know for grammar correction is Microsoft Word’s built in corrector, then you have no idea of how powerful such a tool is. To get a taste of what a grammar corrector can do, you could try the free online BonPatron, only Antidote is much, much more powerful and thorough. While not perfect (only an expert human proofreader could be near perfect), Antidote is so good that, as its creators say, you sometimes feel that it actually understands what you are trying to say (of course, it doesn’t).
I pass almost all my completed French work through Antidote. One native francophone has said that my Antidote-passed worked is better than the writing of many francophones. That alone should say a lot for the software. It is the only one of the resources on this page that is not free (and it’s not cheap), but it is an absolutely indispensable tool for anyone who regularly does any kind of work. One native francophone professional translator told me that she wouldn’t even think of submitting any work that she hadn’t passed through Antidote. At the very least, it’s going to catch some stupid little typos, which could be embarrassing for a professional. However, unlike all the other resources here, Antidote is not for beginners—their documentation is 99% in French (the 1% in English pretty much explains to anglophones that the documentation is 100% in French). However, if you can read an intermediary-level French textbook, then Antidote is helpful for you. (For beginners and for quick, simple items such as e-mail in French, the free BonPatron is an excellent starting point.)