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French Translation: A Tale of Two Cities

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Introduction

French translation varies depending on where it is done. Two cities in the world translate the majority of content in French, and each does it their own way. These two cities are Montreal (the largest city in Quebec) and Paris (the capital of France).

These two cities translate films and television (a process called dubbing), amongst other content. Although Paris takes the largest share of the dubbing market, Montreal has a good sizable portion too.

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Montreal, Quebec

Quebec is the French-speaking province in Canada. It is the largest of the Canadian provinces by area and the second-largest administrative division after Nunavut. It is also the second most populated province, after Ontario.

There are some English-speaking communities in Quebec, particularly in Montreal, but French is the official language. Quebecois independence has played a prominent role in the province’s politics, with independence referendums held in 1980 and 1995. The government currently makes great efforts to protect and promote the French language throughout the province and its people.

Quebecois

Quebecois French is spoken in Quebec. Quebec’s population stands at just over 8 million people. Of these, 77% are Francophone, a total of about 6 million. Anglophones comprise a mere 8% of the population. The second-largest city, called Quebec City (or Ville de Québec, in French), is almost exclusively Francophone and more so than Montreal itself.

Quebec French is used informally, in everyday conversation and also in the media and more formal interactions. ‘Joual’ is the Quebec French associated with a strand of the working class.

Interestingly, Quebec French, although very much a French variation, has no objective norm. The governmental institution tasked with standardization of Quebec French has refused to do a formal delimitation of what Quebecois is and isn’t, out of an understandable fear of it becoming less a part of the Francophone mainstream in the world. What they have done though, is to create a number of dictionaries and glossaries, recording such ‘Quebecisms’ for further study and appreciation.

Some linguists have pointed out that Quebec French uses more archaic structures. The French began settling Canada in the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the British took over, French speakers in ‘la belle province’ were left rather isolated and retaining some structure from the past. This has created a particular situation that has influenced the language and French translation in the province.

Structure

Vowels in words like ‘droit’ and ‘froid’ retain the 16th and 17th century French pronunciation. Other expressions such as ‘mais que’ to mean ‘as soon as’ or ‘à cause que’ meaning ‘because’, are also very characteristically Quebecois.

Anglicisms  

Quebec French uses a good amount of anglicisms. These may be English words adopted directly into the language, English words given a French spelling or English phrases translated completely into French.

Grammar

There are some notable grammatical characteristics of Quebec French. People in Quebec often address each other informally using the ‘tu’ form. They will also shorten prepositions, saying ‘s’a’ instead of ‘sur la’ or ‘dins’ instead of ‘dans les’.

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Paris, France

The center of French language and of French translation is France and Paris in particular. France has a population of over 67 million and a total area of around 640,000 thousand kms. Its capital, Paris, boats a large population of over 12 million.

France, and Paris specifically, are cultural powerhouses. Metropolitan French (spoken in mainland France), is considered by many to be the lingua franca, so to speak, of the French-speaking world. Consequently, a tremendous amount of French translation is done in such a version of French.

Metropolitan French

Metropolitan French, also called Standard French, International French or even Parisian French, is the most prominent version of French. It is used prolifically in French translation of all kinds of content.

Such metropolitan or standard French is standardized in various works such as the Bescherelle, which is a summary of verb conjugations and Le Bon Usage. Institutions such as the Académie Française in France are the overseers of the proper use of the language. People who learn French as a second language will generally learn Metropolitan French, with its standard pronunciations. The Alliance Française, for example, teaches such standard version of French around the world.

Dubbing and French Translation

Dubbing requires translating scripts and then using voice actors to completely replace the source dialogue with dialogue in a new language, in this case with French.

A curious detail regarding French translation of movies is how the titles are translated. In France, English titles are usually left untouched. In Quebec they are generally translated completely. The American comedy ‘Dumb and Dumber’ (1994), for instance, had its title translated as ‘La Cloche et l’Idiot’ in Quebec. In France, however, the title was left untouched and in the original English.

In Montreal and Quebec

Quebec, and Montreal in particular, dubs a great amount of films and television. The industry provides about $30 million dollars per year and some 700 jobs, mostly in the Montreal area.

A lot of the content is dubbed by Quebecois voice actors into standard French. Quebecois voice actors are perfectly capable of providing such a voice type. In some cases, though, the Quebec accent is used. This is the case of The Simpsons, were part of the comedy in the Quebec-dubbed version comes precisely from the ‘joual’ accents of some characters.

Unfortunately, places like Hollywood still believe that Quebec is not necessarily apt for providing French translation and dubbing in a standard style. This is changing, though, due to the caliber of work continually produced by the Quebecois, both in Metropolitan French and Quebec French.

In Paris and France

France provides a tremendous amount of French translation of scripts and dubbing. This is partly the case because the French people love to see dubbed foreign content (particularly American movies). Also, the sheer size of the country justifies massive dubbing of content.

To ‘Metropolitanize’ or not to ‘Metropolitanize’

That is the question that Quebec French speakers have often been confronted; of whether to ‘improve’ their French in conformity with Metropolitan French or to leave it be, as a unique and wonderful version in its own right.

Quebecois French gained more exposure since the ‘Quiet Revolution’ (‘Révolution tranquille’) (1960-70) in the province. This movement led to a renewed and fortified interest in homegrown art, content and ultimately in the Quebec French language and all its dimensions.

Quebec French and Metropolitan French are mutually intelligible. Metropolitan French, in particular, is intelligible to Quebecois audiences. The opposite is not necessarily the case. Many French nationals will state they don’t understand Quebecois French peculiarities, particularly ‘joual’ words or very lively and local dialogue in plays and sitcoms, for example.

Often there will be the possibility, particularly for Metropolitan French speakers, to add subtitles to television content from Quebec, in an effort to catch all slang and particularities.

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Quebec French and Metropolitan French Translation Examples

Let’s check out some examples of Quebec French and Metropolitan French and how they have met each other, even collided.

Les Belles-Soeurs

Michel Tremblay’s 1968 play ‘Les Belles-soeurs’ proved to be a turning point. This play radically changed not only theater in Quebec, but the perception of Quebec French in Quebecois society.

The play features working-class women, doing essentially working-class things and speaking in the heavily accented ‘joual’ form of Quebec French. Germaine, a Montreal housewife has won a million Gold Star stamps (these stamps were given out by grocery stores, which customers could then exchange for things like lawn chairs and barbecues). She has invited all the women she knows, to help her stick them into booklets which she can later exchange for goods. The women discuss their lives, talking about church and bingo. At the end of the play, Germaine realizes the women are also stealing her Gold Star stamps.

Although the play may seem tame today, at the time it caused a great stir in Quebec and propelled the province’s version of French language to the forefront. Naturally, the play can only work in Quebec ‘joual’. Any French translation into Metropolitan French would have to completely reinvent the content.

The Simpsons

The Simpsons and its French translation and dubbings are an interesting case study. This, as we know, is an animated television show produced in the United States, in English. For Francophone audiences, there are two versions. One is in Metropolitan French and the other is in Quebecois French.

The Metropolitan French version features mostly Parisian accents whilst the Quebec version features Quebecois accents, many of them heavy ‘joual’ accents as well. The Quebecois version also rewrites some jokes in the scripts, so as to make them more regionally appropriate. Says fan and critic Matt English: “Quebec’s Homer focuses on that sort of beer-swilling, blue-collar nature of the character, and gives him this gruff working-class Montreal accent (…) The French Homer focuses more on Homer’s dopey simpleton side, performing the character with more of a higher-pitched whine.”

A great example, and indeed a certain collision in these French translation methods, comes in the eleventh episode of the first season, ‘The Crepes of Wrath’. Bart is sent to France on a student exchange trip and learns French.

In the original English version, Bart goes to a police officer and talks to him in English but is not understood and thus can’t ask for help, until he speaks to him in French. In the Quebec version, Bart talks to the police officer in Quebecois slang but can’t be understood. Only when he talks in Parisian standard French is he able to communicate with the police officer and save the day. In the Metropolitan French version, Bart talks to the policeman, who understands him but only partially because of Bart’s lack of detail. Only when Bart gives a full account does the officer really comprehend Bart’s situation and is able to help.

Conclusion

Montreal (the largest city in Quebec) and Paris (the capital of France) are the main centers of French translation. Both versions of French are essentially the same language, but with some important differences.

Dubbing in particular is a big industry in both France and Quebec. It requires translating a script and then employing voice actors to completely replace the source language.

The main issue in Quebec is whether to speak in a Metropolitan French accent or a Quebecois accent. The former is the standard in French dubbing worldwide, but the latter is successful in some content, television in particular.

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