Writing Rights: Writing, Translation, and Copyright

I’ve signed on to give a talk at the February 2013 EAC-BC meeting about editing books in translation. Figuring I should get a translator’s perspective on the topic, I’ve slowly been making my way through Andrew Wilson’s anthology Translators on Translating, and I attended a free full-day workshop yesterday at the Vancouver Public Library called Writing Rights: Writing, Translation, and Copyright. The workshop was part of the Word on the Street festival and was sponsored by the Literary Translators’ Association of Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, and the Department of Canadian Heritage. It featured a session by Governor General’s Award finalist translator David Scott Hamilton, who took us through the process of how he came to translate Paradis, clef en main into Exit and explained the structure of and eligibility requirements for Canada Council of the Arts grants, which are the main funding source for literary translators in Canada.

Hamilton was followed by copyright lawyer Martha Rans of Artists’ Legal Outreach, who gave a session about copyright issues relevant to translators, including the recent changes to the Copyright Act as a result of Bill C-11.

Literary agent Carolyn Swayze finished off the day with a short session about negotiating publishing contracts.

All three speakers (and many of the workshop’s participants) offered some important insights on translation and copyright, and I’ll summarize their talks here over the next few days. More than one person has told me that my blog posts are generally on the long, indigestible side, so rather than shove the whole day into a single post, I’ll break the workshop up into bite-size pieces by session. Stay tuned!

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.

EAC Conference 2012, Day 1—Making the Language Portal of Canada work for you

The Translation Bureau launched the Language Portal of Canada in 2009 as a gateway to allow everyone free access to the translation tool Termium, a terminology and linguistic data bank in English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese. Despite its translation roots, however, the Language Portal is packed with news, tools, and references that appeal to a much wider audience of editors, writers, educators, and anyone interested in language.

The Language Portal exists in both French and English, but the sites aren’t merely translations of one another. There are different types of language problems in French and English, so although there is parallelism in the tools available to users on the two sites, the content is different.

Robin Kilroy creates and curates much of what’s on the Language Portal, and she took EAC conference attendees on a tour of the site.


These link to language-related stories gleaned from external sources. Two headlines are posted each week and then are archived for a year.

My Portal

This is broken down for readers “At school,” “At work,” and “At home,” which link to specific resources for students and educators, professionals who have to write or edit (as Kilroy says, so many people now are “functional writers” who have to write for their jobs, though they may not consider themselves professional writers), and the general reader, respectively.

Resources include “Linguistic Recommendations and Reminders,” which offers tidbits of advice about grammar and style.

From Our Contributors

The Language Portal’s partner organizations (including the Editors’ Association of Canada) contribute language-related articles for this section, which are then edited and translated in house. They are all archived by organization name.


“Discover,” on the left-hand sidebar, and “Discover Coast to Coast,” at the bottom centre, link to the same resources but are organized differently. These are a collection of links, external to the Translation Bureau, to such resources as dictionaries and information about language training and language professions.

Well Written, Well Said

On the left-hand sidebar, this section links to Termium, Writing Tools, Gateway to English, and Quizzes (on everything from spelling and punctuation to Canadian authors and proverbs). Editors may find Writing Tools particularly useful, because it provides access to such resources as The Canadian Style (much more up to date than the print edition) and Peck’s English Pointers, among many others.

Writing for translation

“I once translated an instruction manual where the French actually ended up being shorter than the English, exactly because there was a lot of redundancy and unnecessary material. I didn’t, for example, translate the first step, which said, ‘Take the product out of the box.’ My client asked, ‘Where’s number one?’ and I said, ‘French people know to take it out of the box!’ ” —Anthony Michael, when asked whether he stylistically edits poorly written English before translating into French.

Last night I attended the Society for Technical Communication Canada West Coast Chapter’s November meeting, where Anthony Michael of Le Mot Juste Translations gave a talk about writing for translation. Here are some highlights:

  • The translation process is often considered an afterthought, but if you know a document will have to be translated, it’s best to take it into consideration from the outset, both so that enough time can be allowed in the schedule and so that the text in the source language can be written to facilitate translation, especially in the case of technical documentation.
  • Be aware that plays on words such as puns are virtually impossible to translate, and metaphors can be culturally specific (he gave an example of having to eliminate or rethink the baseball metaphors—step up to the plate, cover all bases, out in left field—in a business report destined for France). Keeping the sentences in the source language short and unambiguous (not to mention grammatically correct) will facilitate translation and may even make machine translation possible.
  • Despite the prevalence of poor machine translators, good ones do exist. For example, Xerox in the 1980s had a machine translator that did a decent job on its technical documentation. The final product must still be edited by translators, of course.
  • Source and target texts will often differ in length (e.g., French is usually 10 to 15 per cent longer than English); this is a consideration when planning document design. How will the text be presented? How will it flow around visual elements? Other considerations include the effects of target languages that use a different character set or a different direction of text. Michael gave an example of an ad for a brand of laundry detergent that showed, from left to right, dirty clothes, the detergent, a washing machine, and clean clothes. Because the ad consisted only of images and no text, the company thought it had escaped translation issues but didn’t take into account that in Semitic languages, text is read right to left, and in the Middle East, the ad had exactly the opposite meaning to what was intended.
  • In addition to unilingual and bilingual dictionaries, many of which are now online, translators also use specialized dictionaries for particular subjects and grammar references. Other tools of the trade include terminological databases, such as the one on Termium Plus, as well as translation memories, which are essentially concordance databases. An example is Linguee. Translation memories allow you to search existing translations to see how a particular term or phrase was translated in the past. The search results include snippets of text around the term to give the proper context. Software programs often used to create translation memories are MultiTrans and Trados.
  • Don’t forget about confidentiality issues or other legal matters, including copyright ownership and potential for libel, when sending text out for translation. It’s best to have these spelled out in your contract with your translator.
  • Context is everything. Provide as much context as possible to your translator, either in your source text or in an accompanying document. Spell out or explain all acronyms, provide reference material, if possible (e.g., if you have a set of previously translate documents on similar subject matter). Indicate the gender of people where necessary, because that person’s professional title, for example, will have to take on the masculine or feminine in some other languages like French.