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7 Tips for Seamless English to French Website Translation

Managing an English-to-French website translation process is a difficult undertaking. Although this is a common language pairing, there are still many challenges to consider when translating from English to French on your website.

Veronica Pastuch's avatar
Veronica Pastuch

December 12, 2022

10 MIN READ

Did you know? Roughly 45% of all English words have a French origin. Yet despite the similarities in vocabulary, an English to French translation isn’t as simple as it sounds. Like all languages, French has a distinct grammatical structure, multiple dialects, and cultural norms—all of which must be taken into consideration.  

The Challenges of English to French Translation

Before starting a project, there are four major challenges that a French translator must take into consideration. These include:

  • Multiple dialects
  • The length of written French
  • Different grammar and formality
  • Untranslatable words

Let’s take a deeper dive into each.  

There are multiple versions of French

Although French speakers learn a standard spoken and written form of the language in school, there are actually nine major regional dialects. These include:

European:

  • Paris (also known as Standard French)
  • South of France
  • Belgium

North American:

  • Quebec, Canada (Quebecois)
  • New Brunswick, Canada
  • Louisiana, United States

African:

  • Haiti
  • Algeria
  • Democratic Republic of Congo

Each one has variations in vocabulary, grammar, and cultural norms. For example, Haitian French includes borrowed words from West African languages as well as Spanish and Portuguese. And translators must decide whether to use Standard French to reach the largest audience or use local dialects for each region.

French is a longer language than English

French translations are about 15 to 20% longer than English texts. This is because French often requires more words to convey the same information. For example:

  • “Please” translates to “s’il vous plaît.”
  • “English to French translation services” translates to “Services de traduction de l’anglais vers le français.”

The longer French text translation can make it difficult for translators to convey the same message within the same space constraints. Buttons and drop-down menus, which may only contain a set number of characters, can be particularly difficult to adapt. That means translators may need to get creative with word choices to preserve the original formatting.

French and English have different grammar and formality

The primary grammatical difference between French and English include:

  • Syntax. Both languages use the same subject-verb-object structure, but French sometimes use variations in word order that don’t make sense in English. For example, a French speaker may say, “I play sometimes basketball.”
  • Gendered nouns. Like other romance languages, French nouns have either a masculine or feminine article. This isn’t limited to people or other living beings, either. For example, “the house” translates into “la maison”, which is a feminine noun.   
  • Adjectives. French adjectives change to match the gender and number of the noun.
  • Verb tenses. The spelling of a French verb changes depending on the subject (I, you, he/she/it, we, they). That means French verbs have five to six different spellings for each tense, unlike English verbs, which are altered by suffixes.
  • Formal and informal pronouns. Unlike English, French has two different forms of the pronoun “you”. The formal “vous” is typically used with strangers and to show respect to superiors (employers, public officials, etc.).  The informal “tu” is used with friends, family, and children.

 
While there are standard rules for many of these grammatical differences, some words are irregular and must be memorized. And when it comes to translation, whether to use vous or tu is subjective. The pronoun you choose will depend on the tone of your brand and the audience you want to reach. That’s why it’s important to hire a professional French translator to ensure accuracy.

Some French words don’t translate to English – and vice versa

Although the two languages share many similarities, English has a much larger vocabulary with 600,000 words compared to 100,000 words. This results in French words with no direct translation due to its sparser vocabulary and untranslatable English words with more nuanced definitions.

In French, words that have no direct English equivalent include:

  • Élan. The word literally means “to dart”, but roughly translates to enthusiasm or momentum.  
  • Voilà. The common French phrase roughly translates to “there you have it.”

In English, several words with distinct definitions have only one word in French. These include:

  • Bored and annoyed, which both translate to ennuyé.
  • Calm and quiet, which both translate to calme.  

In instances like these, the translator must choose the word or phrase that best conveys the same message, instead of relying on a 1:1 translation.

7 Tips for English to French Website Translation

Now that you know more about the challenges of French translation, let’s take a look at seven ways to address them.

1. Utilize native French linguists

Working with native French linguists is key. This helps ensure the accuracy of translations and allows you to be confident that you are getting the right message across to the right audience. Native linguists can replace words that don't exist with accurate substitutes and ensure that the right version of French is being used depending on the target demographic.

2. Have different sites for different versions of French

To properly address French audiences, you'll need to localize different websites for each target market. While this may sound unnecessary given the use of standard French, it can impact how your brand is perceived.

Canadian French, for example, has several differences, including:

  • Vocabulary. Canadians use different words for everyday items such as a cellphone. In this case, French Canadian speakers use cellulaire instead of portable, which would be confused for laptop in Quebec. 
  • Pronouns. Canadians prefer to use tu, the informal you, instead of the formal vous. Content that strikes the right tone in France may sound too formal in Canada. In addition, they almost always use the word “on” for “we” instead of “nous”. If you write about the company using “nous”, it may sound odd to Canadian visitors.

By localizing content for each French speaking market, you’ll be in a better position to connect with new audiences.

3. Employ internationalization (i18n)

Internationalization is the process of designing software, websites, and mobile apps to ensure it can support different languages and regional requirements. This includes:

  • Building a UI that accounts for word growth.
  • Including the ability to change currency signs, units of measurement, and other metrics.
  • Supporting regional requirements such as data security policies.  

By taking this step beforehand, translating your website into French will be much easier.

4. Account for increased length of French language

Internationalization can assist with this by building padding and adaptable sections into your theme. This gives translators more flexibility and can even increase accuracy because space constraints will be less of an issue. Once the translations have been added to the website, it should be QA'd to ensure the length is being accounted for properly.

5. Alter your messaging to appeal to French culture

The best way to adapt your message is through a process known as localization. Translation is part of it, but localization goes one step further to account for cultural norms and local standards. This may include altering the tone, word choice, and/or cultural references to better connect with the target audience.

When it comes to localizing French, it's important to understand that it's a high context language. This means that much of the information is conveyed through tone, body language, and cultural understanding. English, on the other hand, is a low context language, which means the message is more direct. What may sound like "plain English" may come off as too direct in French, and would need to be modified to match the French style of communication.

6. Leverage translation technology such as translation memory

A translation memory is a database that stores a website’s translated content. It saves word-, phrase-, or sentence length chunks called segments to help human translators and speed up the publishing process. For example, let’s say you want to add a new section to the French version of your website. Your translation team will use the translation memory to find phrases within the new content that were previously translated.

7. Ensure the entire user experience is localized

Localizing your website is a great first step. However, you also need to consider the entire user journey from searching online to navigating the website itself. If you want to reach the widest audience, you'll also need to localize paid ads, social media, videos, and other outreach.

Methods of Translating Websites from English to French

There are multiple ways to translate a website. Here's a look at four popular methods and the pros and cons of each.

NMT – such as Google Translate

Neural machine translation (NMT) is a method of machine translation that uses an artificial neural network to predict the likelihood of a sequence of words. All you need to do is feed the system English text and it can instantly generate translated text in the language you choose.

Advantages:

  • Cost. The process is more affordable than human translation.
  • Speed. NMT can quickly translate hundreds of web pages.

Disadvantages:

  • Lower rate of accuracy. It can’t account for linguistic nuances the way human translators can. This is especially true for complex projects such as marketing or medical translation.
  • Lack of context. Similarly, NMT is unable to identify cultural references, word play, or other aspects of your branding.
  • Simple vocabulary. It relies on common words and phrases, which may result in a translation that doesn’t fully convey your message.

API

A Translation API is a programmatic interface that dynamically translates content using NMT. It allows you to incorporate MT into your website to help publish content in multiple languages.

Advantages:

  • Speed. An API can automatically check your website for new content and submit it for translation in every additional language.
  • Flexibility. It can connect your translation vendor with all your content, not just what’s in your CMS.
  • Cost savings. It enables you to access previously translated website content, which allows for unlimited translation re-use at no additional cost.

Disadvantages:

  • Infrastructure requirements. It requires organized content storage to import content and an established file structure for the API to access it. This may involve additional IT support to set up.

Proxy

A translation proxy is a set of technologies that work together to instantly serve localized websites. It works independently of you CMS and typically includes a:

  • Web crawler
  • Web server
  • Translation management system
  • Translation memories
  • Machine translation

Advantages:

  • Great flexibility. Unlike APIs, proxies don’t need to be configured for your system.
  • Ease of integration. You can change hardware, software, or re-platform without impacting website functionality.
  • Cost savings. Proxies eliminate the need to build multiple websites.

Disadvantages:

  • Bleed-throughs. Proxies are prone to “bleed-throughs” or intermittent instances of unlocalized content. 
  • Increased load-times. Proxies slow down your website’s load time, which impacts SEO.

CMS Connectors

A CMS connector is a preconfigured interface provided by a translation agency. It lets you integrate the provider’s translation connectors, plugins, or APIs to your content management system (CMS).

Advantages:

  • Full creative control. It gives you granular control over translated content.
  • Easy translation management. It offers an intuitive interface that enables you to add new web pages or sections to your translation workflow.
  • Transparency. It makes the translation process as transparent as possible.

Disadvantages:

  • Cost. A CMS connector can be costly due to the high degree of customization.

Use A Hybrid Approach for English to French Translation

Despite advances in technology, we recommend using a hybrid approach to translation. It combines the speed and efficiency of MT with the knowledge and skills of human translators.

Here’s how it works:

  • Applies MT for lower traffic web pages.
  • Uses human translation for brand-sensitive or high traffic web pages such as homepages and landing pages.

This method allows you to quickly and affordably translate your website-without sacrificing your brand message. However, the method you choose will ultimately depend on the type of content, your on-going translation needs, and budget.

Want to learn more about your website translation options? Contact MotionPoint today.

Last updated on December 12, 2022
Veronica Pastuch's avatar

About Veronica Pastuch

Throughout her 15-year career leading successful multicultural teams in the website localisation industry, Veronica Pastuch has directly contributed to the translation, deployment and on-going support of more than 1,500 multilingual websites, with an absolute commitment to superior quality and customer satisfaction.

Veronica Pastuch's avatar
Veronica Pastuch

EVP of Translation Operations

10 MIN READ

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