La commission Charbonneau = Charbonneau Commission or Commission Inquiry. Why two English equivalents for one French generic term?

Résumé en français :

De façon générale, les phrases, expressions ou termes employés en français ont un seul équivalent dans une langue d’arrivée quelconque. Si on en juge par certains contextes journalistiques, l’énoncé susmentionné s’avère être vrai. Cependant, une phrase, une expression ou un terme dans la langue source peut avoir plusieurs équivalents dans la langue d’arrivée, comme c’est le cas avec la Commission d’enquête sur l’octroi et la gestion des contrats publics dans l’industrie de la construction du Québec, communément appelée la commission Charbonneau dans les médias francophones. Avec l’aide de quelques langagiers, un journaliste et des définitions concrètes, ce billet tentera d’expliquer pourquoi l’anglais se sert de deux équivalents pour décrire le terme générique français commission.

Resumen en español:

Generalmente, las expresiones, frases o términos franceses tienen solo un equivalente en cualquier lengua meta hacia la cual queremos traducirlos. No obstante, una frase, expresión o término en esa misma lengua de partida –el francés- también puede poseer varios equivalentes en la lengua meta, según el contexto en que se utilizan. Si, por ejemplo, averiguamos el tenor de esta afirmación en algunos contextos periodísticos, el enunciado mencionado anteriormente es efectivamente cierto. De hecho, ese es precisamente el caso con la cobertura por parte de la prensa de la comisión Charbonneau –investigación sobre casos de corrupción que está actualmente llevando a cabo el gobierno de Quebec- y la diferente terminología que usan los medios de comunicación quebequenses, según sean francófonos o anglófonos, para referirse a la misma. En resumen, y gracias a la ayuda de especialistas lingüísticos,  de un periodista y de definiciones concretas, este breve comentario intentará explicar los motivos por los cuales la lengua inglesa se sirve de dos equivalentes para referirse al singular genérico francés commission (comisión).


When I moved to Quebec seven years ago, I had one goal in mind: immerse myself in a province and a city where French was the dominant language. The good news is, my immersion in Montreal was successful, for I have been able to live and work in French without much difficulty. By necessity, however, I have had to make use of my English skills for various projects – professional or otherwise.

Because I first started to follow news stories in French, particularly those that focus on Quebec, I had been accustomed to expressions and terms journalists used on the radio, on television, and in newspapers. Out of personal interest, I am following news stories in English more often these days. Consequently, I have learned some of many English equivalents that Quebec’s French-language journalists have frequently used: gaz de schiste = shale gas; péréquation = equalization payments; écoles passerelles = bridging schools; mettre Ville X sous tutelle = put Ville (City) X under trusteeship; and so on.

What do these French expressions and terms have in common? They each have a unique English equivalent, no matter which journalists decide to use them in print, on television, on radio, or on the Internet. In some cases, however, the English language does not necessarily have a single equivalent to a French generic. I soon realized this when I started to pay some attention to the most talked-about news story in Quebec – and, as a story of interest outside Quebec, some journalists and media outlets talk about it, too: the inquiry into corruption and collusion in the province’s construction industry. After months of being pressured by the Parti Québécois, the former Opposition Party in the National Assembly, and the Coalition Avenir Québec, in October 2011, the Liberals, led by ex-leader Jean Charest, finally set up the Commission of Inquiry on the Awarding and Management of Public Contracts in the Construction Industry, spearheaded by Madam Justice France Charbonneau. While French-language media have been content with coining this inquiry as the commission Charbonneau, English-language media have been referring to this investigation as the Charbonneau Commission or Charbonneau Inquiry. Why does the English language use two equivalents for a unique French generic term?

To answer this question, I contacted a few translators, revisers, one translation agency, and a journalist. Through Twitter, I received replies to my query in a short period of time. A representative of Anglocom, a Quebec City-based agency specializing in French and English translation, sent me the following tweet: “It’s actually a “commission of inquiry.” The popular short form in EN is “inquiry” although we see “commission” a lot in QC.” Another Twitter follower sent me a similar reply, and added this: “the short form becomes the commissioner’s last name plus either “Commission” or “Inquiry.”

By these answers, I was prompted to research the definition of commission of inquiry. The Free Dictionary’s legal dictionary defines this term as follows: “Individuals employed, during conciliation, to investigate the facts of a particular dispute and to submit a report stating the facts and proposing terms for the resolution of the differences.” Wiki Answers’ definition follows a similar line of thought: “A Commission of Inquiry is a formally constituted body of people who are usually well thought of in their community. The purpose of the body is to formally enquire into some specific question and to return an opinion or report on the topic.”

Now that we have two global definitions of a commission of inquiry, why do some English-language journalists decide to use commission instead of inquiry? Don Macpherson, Quebec affairs columnist at Montreal’s Gazette, explains his use of the generic terms: “Generally speaking, I use ‘inquiry’ to refer to the process, and ‘commission’ to the body conducting the process.” Macpherson’s use of both terms falls into line with definitions provided by dictionaries. Collins’s online dictionary, for instance, defines inquiry as “an investigation, esp. a formal one conducted into a matter of public concern by a body constituted for that purpose by a government, local authority, or other organization.” On the other hand, commission is defined as “a group of people charged with certain duties → a commission of inquiry.”

From what I have gathered, English has two ways of seeing this inquiry and some other hot-button issues in Quebec. This is not necessarily a negative thing, especially if we want to see how French- and English-language media deal with news, daily city life, and culture differently. We can also see that the French language may have only one generic term, whereas English may have several depending on the news item in question. The opposite is true, too. How can we determine if either language has one or several equivalents? Like translation, context is essential in journalism. Whatever the terms used by the French- and English-language media, the important thing is that viewers, listeners, and readers receive the same information 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.


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