Foreign Languages in English-Language Contexts: Part I

If you often work with French or live in a French-speaking community, city, or province like Quebec, you are likely faced with this never-ending problem: how to deal with titles or organizations in English-language contexts. You might ask yourself how to grapple with unilingual French names. For instance, should you provide an officious equivalent in parentheses, following the official French name? Should you apply French or English capitalization rules? Or in some cases, such as in the use of French acronyms, should you offset the acronym with a comma and add extra information? What do you do with written accents? All of these are good questions. My short answer is this: consider context, readership, and in-house writing standards, among other aspects. When in doubt, be sure to consult the author or client for clarification.

Earlier this summer, I received the Editors’ Association of Canada’s Editing Canadian English in the mail. As soon as I opened the book, I began reading some chapters. Because the Editors’ Association of Canada is considered a bilingual entity, it came as no surprise that one chapter was dedicated to the use of French in English-language contexts. I will outline some of the major guidelines laid out in the sixth chapter.

Point 1: Maintain written accents on capitalized vowels (A, E, I, O, and U). Thus: À, Â, Ç, É, Ê, Ë, È, Î, Ï, Ô, Û, Ü, and Ù. However, one exception applies to this rule: when writing acronyms, written accents are not to be used. Use them, though, when spelling out acronyms:

CEE (Commission économique européenne)

OCDE (Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques)

ALENA (Accord de libre-échange nord-américain)

In abbreviations, however, you must retain written accents:

N.-É. (Nouvelle-Écosse)

É.-U. (États-Unis)

Point 2: Take note of diacritic preferences of authors, singers, politicians, journalists, to name but these. If you’re used to writing Céline Dion, René Lévesque, or Jean-François Bélanger in French, you may have to consider omitting diacritics in English, depending on personal preferences.

Point 3: Apply French rules of possessives and plurals in English. Instead of writing “the Parti Québécois’s leader,” consider “the leader of the Parti Québécois.” If using a known French term, such as caisse populaire (credit union), pluralize as such: one caisse populaire, two caisses populaires.

Point 4: To use or not to use officious translations? Ha! That’s the million dollar question. Organizations, editing houses, and other entities have various ways of dealing with this sticking point. As mentioned above, when in doubt, be sure to consult authors, clients, or in-house writing or style guides. However, Editing Canadian English proposes a few suggestions:

a)      If official English names exist, use the English translation with the French. Otherwise, use one name or the other. For instance, you may easily write Association des universités et collèges du Canada/Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, or one of the two.

b)      If no official English translation is to be found, stick with the original French name. This applies to a number of ministries, departments, police forces, and unions in Quebec. Thus: Sûreté du Québec, Union des producteurs agricoles, Office québécois de la langue française, and so on.

As an avid reader of Canada’s Globe and Mail, I am always impressed with the way journalists amplify—or add information to—French-language acronyms. Consider this passage:

On Monday, when Mr. Applebaum and two others were taken into custody by UPAC, Quebec’s special anti-corruption squad, the arrest warrants alleged the mayor had been part of a conspiracy between 2009 and 2011, with three men who were Dessau executives at the time, Mr. Asselin, Rosaire Sauriol and Patrice Laporte.

Tu Thanh Ha and Bertrand Marotte, “Quebec enveloped in swirl of corruption allegations.” The Globe and Mail, June 19, 2013

UPAC, or the Unité permanente anticorruption, has no official English equivalent. Instead of writing the official French name in full, which may confuse readers outside Quebec, the two journalists opted to offset UPAC with a comma and amplify the acronym with “Quebec’s special anti-corruption squad.” This is one way to get around the problem of avoiding French in an English-language text. Another way to solve the problem is to use the official French name and set off the non-official English translation in parentheses, e.g. Sûreté du Québec (Quebec provincial police). A word of caution: because officious translations are not official, generic terms, such as provincial police or special anti-corruption squad, must not be capitalized.

Point 5: To capitalize or not to capitalize? Here, again, is another sticking point. In one of my previous blog entries, I pointed out that French does not capitalize every main word of a title, department or ministry, or tourist attraction. But is it possible to apply this rule in an English-language context? Once again, as mentioned at the opening, consider context, readership, writing and style guidelines, as well as official organization standards.

Editing Canadian English sets out four options.

The first option, by far the easiest, is to follow official organization rules. Thus, French-language organizations or French translations are to be written as follows:

Centre national des Arts

Conseil des arts de Montréal

Festival d’été de Québec

Cirque du Soleil

Cinémathèque québécoise

Grands Ballets Canadiens

The second option is to capitalize the first word that follows the article and proper nouns. Capitalize French articles as well, e.g. La Francophonie.

The third option, highlighted in the Public Works and Government Service Canada’s Guide du rédacteur, is to capitalize the first word, preceding adjectives, and proper nouns, e.g. Grands Ballets canadiens, Bloc québécois.

The last option is to use English style for French-language organizations, i.e. capitalize all main words. Thus: Grands Ballets Canadiens, Cinémathèque Québécoise, Bloc Québécois, and so on.

These are just some of many pointers that, I hope, will serve you well whenever you are translating or writing for an English-speaking audience, whether in or outside Quebec. My next entry will focus on Spanish in an English-language context.


Editing Canadian English, second edition, prepared for the Editors’ Association of Canada/Association canadienne des rédacteurs-réviseurs, pp. 70-87 McClelland & Stewart Ltd., Toronto, 2000



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