EAC Conference 2012, Day 1—Whose words are these anyway? Translating, editing, and avoiding the Gallicism trap

Barb Collishaw and Traci Williams jointly presented a session about translation, with Collishaw focusing on the similarities and differences between editing, translation, and revision and Williams offering some insight into Gallicisms, particularly in Quebec English.

Collishaw works at the Parliament of Canada, helping to produce the Hansard, which, of course, must be translated so that it is complete in both official languages. Translators translate text (as opposed to interpreters, who translate speech) from a source language transcript into the target language in a way that accurately reflects the content, meaning, and style of the original. Revisers—who work exclusively in house—then edit the translated text.

Drawing upon the EAC’s Professional Editorial Standards, Collishaw compared the roles of translators and revisers to the role of an editor, noting that translators use virtually all of the stylistic editing, copy editing, and proofreading skills listed in the PES. Translation requires an eye for detail, a good command of both source and target language, and an understanding of where and how to check facts.

Collishaw emphasized the importance of keeping the audience in mind and to make room in the production schedule for translation and revision. Editors and managers sometimes forget that translation takes time, and because it comes in near the end of the process, translators often end up being under severe deadline pressure.

Translators get to choose the words they use, within the range of meaning of the source language words, so awkward or offensive terms can be smoothed over. However, this may not be what the author intended. Collishaw gave the example of “unparliamentary language”: sometimes translators soften such words or phrases, but this may not be wise, since an MP may object on a point of order later on, and revisers then have to go and restore the “mistake” to preserve logic.

Fact checking can be tricky, since translators don’t often get to query the author and ask people what they meant or how to spell someone’s name. Translators use tools such as Termium Plus, a terminology data bank, and TransSearch, a bilingual concordancer of past translations, to help them in their work, and are expected to compile glossaries. After they finish translating, translators are expected to proof their own work, checking against the source language.

Revisers check again, making sure that nothing has been left out and that meaning hasn’t been inadvertently changed, paying particular attention to details like numbers and dates. They also edit for style, imposing consistency on text from different translators. (To complicate matters, the House and Senate have different style guides, and revisers have to keep it all straight!)

I asked Collishaw if translators or revisers get to see transcripts of the interpreters as a reference, and she laughed, saying, “No, but I wish we would!” It seems that what the interpreters say isn’t transcribed, and the translators and revisers don’t have access to it.


Traci Williams is originally from Ontario but now works as a translator and editor in Quebec. She became fascinated by the influence of French on the English language and began to document Gallicisms—words or terms borrowed from French.

Originally, English was a rather limited language, composed primarily of one- or two-syllable words, Williams explained. The first Gallicisms appeared after the Norman Invasion in 1066, initially in law, warfare, and church language; afterwards, they began to pervade clothing- and food-related vocabulary (as seen is animals versus their meats—”pig” vs. “pork,” “cow” vs. “beef,” “deer” vs. “venison”). Between 1100 and 1500, English absorbed about 10,000 French words. Before the seventeenth century, French words appearing in English were anglicized (e.g., chimney, change, charge); afterwards, hints of the French were retained (e.g., chevron, champagne, chaperone).

In Quebec, the first major wave of English speakers were British loyalists; by 1841, English speakers of British descent were the largest population in Montreal. When rural French Quebeckers began moving to Montreal in the 1860s, they were expected to learn English, which, until 1975, was considered the language of prestige by both the French and English. During that period, a steady stream of Anglicisms seeped into French. Yet, after the PQ was voted in, in 1976, French began to influence English. At first, Gallicisms appeared in colloquial speech, but today educated professionals will use them without even realizing it. Between 1990 and 1999, the number of Gallicims tripled, and Oxford University has now officially recognized Quebec English as a distinct dialect.

Some Gallicisms are perfectly acceptable—”encore,” “fiancé,” and “en route” are examples. Cooking, dancing, and law feature many Gallicisms. And English has often retained words of both Germanic and French origin, with slightly different connotations (e.g., “ask” vs. “question,” “holy” vs. “sacred”) or has kept nouns of Germanic origin but has used the French adjectives (e.g., “finger” but “digital,” “book” but “literary”). What editors need to be aware of are the unacceptable Gallicisms that arise as a result of false cognates—words that are formally similar to words in the native language but have different meanings (e.g., “animator” rather than “instructor,” “conference” rather than “lecture,” “manifestation” rather than “demonstration”). The delicate aspect of editing Quebec English for an audience outside of Quebec is that an author—perfectly fluent in English—may be unaware that he or she is inappropriately using Gallicisms.

Williams emphasizes the importance of continuing to read, read, read. She suggests reading sources of English outside of where you live to make sure that you have a solid perspective of language quirks that might be a local peculiarity and may not translate to a wider audience. Williams has started a newsletter about Gallicisms and related topics. Contact her at via Semantech Communications to sign up.

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