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Get ready for beginners’ French
Get ready for beginners’ French

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4.2 Translating culture

The previous section showed how languages cannot be translated word-for-word, and that cultural knowledge is integral to a meaningful translation. This section’s activities will explore this further.

Activity 6 Retaining meaning in translation (2)

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

As you did in Activity 5, read each sentence below: the French sentence, the word-for-word translation into English, and the more meaningful translation. Make some notes about your observations below, then reveal the discussion.

French sentence: Ma fille a 11 ans. Elle est en 6ème.

Word-for-word English translation: ‘My daughter is 11. She is in 6th.’

Accurate English sentence: ‘My daughter is 11. She is in Year 7.’

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This example shows the differences in how classes, forms or year groups are defined between cultures. In the French secondary school system, years are counted backwards, from classe de 6ème for 11-year-olds, 5ème for 12-year-olds, and so on, until 1ère for the penultimate year of secondary school for 16 year-olds, and terminale for the final year.

By contrast, in England the counting starts in primary school, with Year 1 being for 5-year-olds, counting up to Year 13 for the final year. A Year 7 student in England will start the school year aged 11. Note that the terminology varies between different Nations within the UK, which shows how culturally specific some translations need to be. In Scotland, for example, the equivalent would be P7 (this illuminates further cultural differences, as pupils in Scotland leave primary school a year later than their English counterparts).

If you are not British, how would you need to translate this example to produce a meaningful equivalent to classe de 6ème in your culture?

Now, it’s time to have a go at producing a short translation. In the next activity, you will be given a sentence in French, and a word-for-word translation. Think about how you would translate it into English (or into your own language), thinking carefully about any underlying cultural references that might be relevant to the translation.

Activity 7 Retaining meaning in translation (3)

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

Look at this French sentence and its word-for-word translation, then try and produce your own culturally informed translation into English (or your own language). Are there multiple options? If so, briefly explain them.

French sentence: J’ai mis l’enveloppe dans la boîte aux lettres jaune.

Word-for-word translation: ‘I have put the envelope in the letterbox yellow.’

Described image
Figure 6 A postbox in France (left), A postbox in Great Britain (right)
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There are several aspects you might have considered here.

You may have noted the need for language/grammar amends in the word-for-word translation. For example, the placement of the adjective ‘yellow’ (it should be used before the noun ‘letterbox’), or use of the preposition ‘into’ rather than ‘in’.

Looking at Figure 5, you might’ve noted a cultural consideration: the sentence mentions a yellow letterbox because that is the main colour of the post office brand in France, and hence the colour of postboxes in France. The second photo shows you that postboxes in Great Britain are red. There are contexts where it would therefore be appropriate to change the translation and to use the colour ‘red’ instead of ‘yellow’. This would depend on whether you were aiming to make the translation culturally relevant to the source language and culture (French and France) or to the target language and culture (e.g. English and Great Britain).

As a learner of beginners’ French, you will not be far along the track to becoming a highly skilled translator – not yet, anyway! But you will gradually become more attuned to differences in language structures and cultural references, and better equipped to reflect on those differences. This aptitude for openness and reflection is common among language learners.