Translating arts pr into french – bon and bad for organizations

No matter how you hard you try, your translated-to-french press release will always offend someone.

I don’t speak french but I have been comfortable in positions where I was responsible for sending out press releases in both french and english. There are several tricks and pitfalls that must be kept in mind if you and your english organization would like to compose a public communication in french. I’ve attempted to talk about some of the ones I’ve experienced in a simple list format below. Much of these are simple observations from working in Montreal and Ottawa with translators on arts-based PR campaigns, and a faithful paraphrasing of many, many bilingual friends and family discussing the very same issues.

General Benefits:

  1. A website with french and english will generally attract 20 – 30% more traffic as you have just opened up your information to about 1/3 of the world.
  2. People who speak french – even those who are english who speak french – appreciate this effort greatly.
  3. There are many concepts and expressions about art and culture that only exists in french… I don’t know what they are, but I know they exist.
  4. As an organization, you will make yourself much more attractive to funding agencies across Canada that have designated resources specifically for the promotion of french in culture and arts programming.
  5. Internationally, countries and people being multilingual is quite common and not a big deal – bilingual communications it can raise the profile of your organization if managed correctly and earnestly.

General Pitfalls:

  1. If you need to send your text out to be translated, it’s expensive to have it done at a professional level and difficult to find a service that is willing and able to handle a specialized area such as an arts press release.
  2. Expect to pay between 30 cents to a dollar a word, and give two to three weeks for the job to get done.
  3. Only expect to find out if the translator is any good at arts releases after the job is done and you send it out – you’ll get plenty of feedback if it’s not very good, believe me.
  4. Any french in print in Canada becomes political and there is nothing you can do about becoming a pawn in a class struggle you have no idea of or perhaps even care about.

Some further musings on french translation issues for arts and culture in Canada:

When I would send out a french press release and an english press release there was two things that were certain to happen – 1) There would always (and I do mean for every french PR we sent out) be complaints about the french grammer in the translation and 2) there would never be complaints about the english grammer.

I know that, from what multi-lingual people have told me, english is supposed to be a fairly basic and straightforward language compared to the romantic languages and thus the grammer and style are more forgiving if more unrefined and blocky than french. So it makes sense that, especially because I am writing and proofing the english but not the french, that there would tend to be more potential for errors in the french writing than the english.

I really have no choice due to my linguistic shortcomings but to respect and work with feedback regarding the french translations. I still respect greatly this area that I will never really understand, but it does not intimidate me like it used to because there is nothing wrong with the actual act of translation for an organization – complaints tend to be rooted in the history of French culture of North America as it relates to position in society and political perspective of “who owns french here”.

Here are some examples of what I am talking about –

  • At first, we would use a local friend of a friend who seemed stressed about doing it but stated he needed the money. Afterwards, we would receive complaints that the french used in a press release about an upcoming exhibit was “too local” and thus was full of bad grammar and “expressions that made no sense” – many would use the term “offensive” to describe the translation.
  • Feeling stung and worried that I am offending people, and much to the relief of this nervous man, we decided to involve the school’s art history professor, who possessed a Doctorate in french contemporary art studies and taught in french when he was not busy conducting painting tours internationally. He gave a great deal of attention to refining a translation of the exhibit PR in question. Afterwards, we received complaints that his language was too “archaic” and used “expressions that made no sense”.
  • Ok. By this time we had located a professional independent translator who specialized in arts and culture. She was not cheap, but of course this was an area well worth investing more time and resources into. After each of the PR campaigns with her translations we would get complaints. This time there was the usual bad grammar protests and that the language was too stiff and formal. Apparently, the terms used were too literal for the subject matter. People were insulted with the perception of a bland and token translation.
  • She was still by far the best solution (when you find a good translator, it’s more valuable than a good barber or mechanic. Hold onto and foster that relationship) However, when a french artist would be exhibiting we decided to give the opportunity of the artist writing and/or translating their own press release. Genius right? No. Being an artist does not mean you are a very good writer and yes, we would receive complaints.

So who and how many were complaining? Our membership was primarily english and french-only media outlets were minimal, but this community was much more engaged and savy than our english media list so hearing from members and the general public was common. However, most of the negative feedback came from friends and family of colleagues at work as well as from the board of directors, instructors as well as from the artists themselves. It is interesting to note then that though the french community was smaller, the responses were from inside and outside of the organization and different areas provoked responses from different people. This french-critical dynamic was not a group of the usual suspects but a real response from the community as a whole.

So, this is something that was is and is bigger than I am equipped to handle properly! But I find it really interesting and can offer a few general insights:

1. I learned that there is french from France, and then there is french from Quebec

They are defiantly not the same as a “Québécoise” dialect seems to be generally frowned upon by many french speakers in Canada and internationally. “I speak parisian French” means the individual speaks, or thinks they speak, french that sounds like it is from France, and is an important distinction to many as being upper class and thus more refined – obviously a complementary and parallel element of contemporary arts in any society. So there seems to be more decided lines between classes, and these lines are drawn in the sands of grammar and accent on the political battlefield of culture. This can make an art press release translation tricky. You could be taking a stand through the ability of your translator and not even know it.

2. Is it better to have french and english on one press release / website or two?

For any primarily english list, use both on one press release with “English Follows” and the english press release below the french one. It is considered polite by those who look for such things. For french only lists, send only the french. For everything else, including websites, separate the two.

3. Can you adequately support a meaningful dialogue with your french speaking community?

Good french translation is expensive and time-consuming, so imagine if it was so good that you got flooded with questions and comments in french! Many places attempt to address this by hiring only fluently bilingual front-line staff or even every new person hired must “posess strong communication skills in french”. Fair enough, but of course what happens is you tend have a smaller pool to pick from. Another criticism is that arts and culture places will only hire french people who speak english, but will never hire english people who may speak french, but not as well. An attempted bridge becomes a greater divide, resulting in more political capital for the power struggle that counts on such difficulties. That debate I leave to others, but it is a very real debate in many parts of Canada.

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