Common Mistakes on English-Language Websites of French Companies

In my work, I often end up viewing the websites of French companies. Sometimes, it’s to translate the website into English for the first time or to update a previous translation. Other times, I’m simply researching the company or its products to help translate some other text.

Regardless, I’ve found that many of these websites make the same telltale mistakes stemming from their original French versions.

Quality translation is often not a mere word-for-word translation of the source text, but rather a faithful adaptation tailored to the target market. Professional translators first convert the meaning of a piece of text into the target language and then consider how that meaning would be expressed by a native speaker of the target language.

This “What would a native speaker say?” step is precisely what seems to be missing in these common mistakes found on English-language websites of French companies. Let’s look at some examples…

“Discover”

In French, the verb “découvrir” is used to describe the action of gaining more information about a product or service. The English cognate “discover“, however, is not meant be used in this way, but I see this a LOT on the websites of French companies. It’s weird. Or rather, it’s a huge indicator that the website was not translated by a professional. On a subconscious level, this may signal to your potential customers that a) you’re an outsider and/or b) customer service might not be your highest priority as there may be other (more serious) translation missteps down the road.

Depending on the context (mid-sentence, button text, etc.), a better word choice might be “Learn more about…“, “Tell me more about…“, “Learn about…“, or “More info“.

“Who Are We?”

This is another example of a word-for-word translation that simply doesn’t work in a web context. Although French websites feature a “Qui sommes nous?” page with background information about the company, English-language websites routinely use the terms “About“, “About Us“, or “About [Company Name]“.

“Interesting”

Another cognate that leads to confusing English text! The French word “intéressant” is often used to describe prices or a company’s goods or services. Since English has a cognate in “interesting“, it often ends up translated that way, but be careful! The word “interesting” in English can sometimes have a not-so-good connotation. We say something is “interesting” when we can’t really come up with something good to say about it. A much better translation in this context is “attractive” or “appealing“. Trust me, you’re much more likely to get a positive response to “attractive prices” than to “interesting prices“!

“Offers”/”Offering”

I confess… I feel guilty about this one because I admittedly use “offering” a lot when I translate the French word “offre“. Sure, we use this term in English, but we’re much more likely to talk about a “deal“, “plan“, “special“, or “package“. We also tend to simply say “products” or “services“, too, where the French would use “offre“.

Step-by-Step Procedures Involving “I”

I placed this toward the bottom of the list because it is so distinctively French and really doesn’t show up often on English-language websites. That said, I’ve definitely seen it. And seriously, it’s craaaaaazy when read from the perspective of a native US English speaker.

I’m talking about step-by-step instructions written in the first person, using the word “I”. For example, “I receive the file by email“, “I tighten the screws, without overtightening.

Always, always, always, English-language procedures use second-person commands in active voice. For example, “Click the button to continue” or “Remove the protective panel“. Stick with that formula. Always.

We certainly do use the first person in some contexts on websites. In fact, it’s very common to see this in FAQs or Troubleshooting areas, as if the user were describing a problem or asking a question. The first person is also common on buttons (ex. “Sign me up!“, “Subscribe me“, “I want to know more“, etc.).

Points of Ellipses in Lists

Not just on websites, these are commonly carried over from French texts into English. Where lists in French end with ““, lists in English end with “etc.

Don’t get me wrong… We love ellipses, just not for lists.

Italicized Quotes

Take a second to glance back up through this article. You’ll notice that I’ve italicized all the quoted phrases. This is normal in French. Not so much in English.

I actually like the practice, which is why I’ve done it here. I also wanted to illustrate my point. Still, it’s totally weird in English, so please avoid it. Text within quotation marks should be formatted just like the surrounding text… nothing special.

SEO

Finally, please remember that there is more to multilingual SEO than simply translating your French keywords into English. I offer an SEO service to my clients that involves a few hours of SEO research and keyword compiling based on their English-language website. It’s worth the investment to take this extra step when doing business in international markets. (Email me for more information if you’re interested in this service for the English-language version of your website.)

Final Thoughts

I get it… Developing a multilingual website is an expensive investment. Your goal, of course, is to attract and retain customers in foreign markets by speaking to them in their language. So get it right!

Don’t cut corners when it comes to professional translation. If you need to keep costs down, maybe you can start by having only a summary page professionally translated. But please, skip the bad translation altogether because it reflects poorly on your company and its products and services. (Or should I say “offering“?) 😉

Preparing Your Texts and Team for Translation Success

Whether you’re launching a brand new product or simply reaching out to an existing customer base, it is important to get your communications right the first time in all the languages of your markets.

There are certain steps you can follow to help your translation project go more smoothly:

Proofread your source text.

Take time to carefully proofread your original text. Correct any spelling and punctuation errors you find, and clear up anything that might be confusing or misleading to your readers or to your translators. These ambiguities can easily become amplified when translated into other languages, so it is best to clear them up now, rather than deal with misunderstandings down the road.

Plan ahead in your scheduling.

Quality translation takes time, so plan for it! As a rule of thumb, translators can translate about 2,500 words per day. However, we’re very busy and not always available to start working on your project right away. Also, plan a little extra time for any questions and context-based corrections that may arise after the initial translation is complete.

Provide editable file formats.

Translators can work with many different file formats. Generally speaking, it is best to provide texts in an editable file format, such as Word, PowerPoint, InDesign, HTML, etc. Non-editable formats, such as PDF, are troublesome and require considerably more effort, which means a slower and more costly translation for you.

Provide reference documents.

Professional translators are extremely resourceful, and we’re experts in our native language. That said, your company may have an established standard for how you communicate to your customers. This standard may take the form of a style guide, a glossary, or even simply a collection of similar texts you’ve produced in the past. The more you share with us, the easier it is for us to maintain consistency with your company voice.

Don’t be a stranger.

Be available to answer questions that arise during the translation process. Common questions involve clarifying an oddly worded sentence or explaining how a product or service works. This way, we can be sure to choose the best word or phrase for your text.

Read the finished translation.

This can be a tricky one. If possible, have someone review the translated texts. Of course, you yourself might not speak the target language, but if your company has an office in the target market, a monolingual employee at that office can read the text and confirm whether it is an accurate representation of your company’s message.

With these simple — yet important — steps, your translators will love working with you, and you can keep focusing on what you do best: innovation!

Voice! What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Everything)

The way you communicate to your customers is a direct extension of your brand. Think of it as your brand’s personality. Or rather, its voice.

Ideally, your company’s style guide should define how to express voice, in all your company’s languages, so that your message is consistent. This encompasses product marketing webpages, error messages, email correspondence, terms and conditions, and more. EVERY piece of written text produced by your company.

Brand = Voice x Words

Let’s start with your branding. Some companies have a highly formalized definition of their brand strategy, while others have more of a list of adjectives associated with their brand. What can customers expect from your products or services? What makes your company different from your competitors? Your brand identifies who you are, and it is reflected in your logo, your graphics, and how you conduct your business in general. Likewise, your voice reflects the characteristics of your brand.

To use my own business as an example, I have a clear, yet informal definition of my brand strategy. I describe my brand as “expressing confidence, innovation, energy, professionalism, a technical-focus, clear and effective work, reliability, expertise, and approachability, without being stuffy or overly formal”. This brand strategy affects the words and phrases I use on my website and in my interactions with clients. My voice reflects my brand.

The Audience Is Listening

Voice should also be tailored to the audience. People naturally develop trust toward others who are similar to them. Gain the trust of your audience by speaking to them in a voice they can relate to. What do they value? What shows them that your product or service is right for them? If you play your cards right, the voice you use to communicate with your customers can become a competitive advantage. When your voice is a good fit for your audience, they are more likely to continue coming back to you.

Are you using the right tone in the voice of your content? For example, software error messages and online help content often use an upbeat tone to lighten the mood. This is great, but be careful about using terms like “Simply…” and “…. is easy!”, which may inadvertently make your user feel stupid for not understanding something that is supposedly “simple” or “easy”.

Make It Official

Once you have a clear concept of your voice, document it in your company’s style guide. Here are some suggestions:

  • Will you use the 1st (we, our) and 2nd person (you, your) or stick with the more formal 3rd person (ABC Company)?
  • List certain words and phrases to be your go-to descriptors for your products and services.
  • Are there any words or phrases to avoid? Think about cultural taboos or even any words that may be closely associated with a competitor’s brand?
  • What kind of attitude do you want to convey?
  • How does your voice vary across different types of texts (ex. tone, formality, reading level, etc.)?

Defining your business’s voice is an important factor in maintaining the consistency of your brand message. By documenting your voice in your style guide, it’s easy to maintain that consistency as you bring on new writers and translators to grow your business.

Common Pitfalls in Technical Documentation

The purpose of technical communication is to instruct and explain. Understandably then, accuracy is paramount.

Yet subtle mistakes in writing quality can undermine the strength of your message. Readers naturally develop trust in companies whose technical documentation is rock solid. Likewise, they question the value of a company’s product when its technical documentation is poorly written or poorly translated.

Obviously, technical documentation should be free of spelling and punctuation errors. But let’s look at a couple of other common mistakes found in technical documentation:

Unnecessary Quotation Marks

I once worked for a woman who pronounced the word intranet with a elaborate stress on the middle syllable. In-TRAH-net. Every. Single. Time.

While it’s respectable that she wanted to say the right word, the overemphasis in her pronunciation reeked of uncertainty. Perhaps she misused the term once, was corrected, and vowed to never make that mistake again. To us, it sounded like she didn’t really know what our intranet was, only what someone told her to say about it.

In writing, the use of unnecessary quotation marks adds emphasis where it shouldn’t exist.

Nothing expresses a total lack of confidence like slapping a set of quotation marks around a technical term!

Bad: With XYZ Software, your data is kept secure in the “cloud”, where you can conveniently access it from anywhere.

Why the quotes?? Is cloud computing an unfamiliar concept? Did someone tell you to use the term, but you’re not comfortable with the meaning? Maybe XYZ Software is jumping on the bandwagon, without a firm grasp of their own technology?

Good: With XYZ Software, your data is kept secure in the cloud, where you can conveniently access it from anywhere.

This is much better. It exudes sureness, and readers can trust that XYZ Software knows what they’re talking about. So, skip the quotes for technical terms, product names, and trade show names. Quotes should only be used to denote exact words that were said or written.

Inconsistencies

Another common mistake I find in source language and translated technical documentation is inconsistent word use and capitalization. Like unnecessary quotation marks, these inconsistencies reflect poorly on the brand and product being described.

For example, in instructions on using a mobile app, don’t use tap and press interchangeably. Pick one and stick with it!

Another example is capitalization, particularly in proper names containing one or more uppercase letters in the middle of the name. Think PayPal, which is so often incorrectly written as Paypal, even by otherwise respectable companies. It’s simply wrong, and people notice. You wouldn’t write AirBus or MicroSoft. Proper capitalization matters! It reflects your company and its knowledge of the industry.

These inconsistencies and others can be avoided by implementing a style guide to define standards for spelling, punctuation, formatting, and word use.

Companies with documentation in multiple languages should have a style guide for each language. TechWhirl offers some great tips on building a style guide.

Last Word

Remember, your technical documentation is a direct reflection of your company in all the languages of your customers. Aim for excellence!

Top 5 Tips for Effective Technical Communication

Top 5 Tips for Effective Technical Communication

Technical communication has an important purpose: to instruct.

Readers of user guides and other instructions are busy people and, most often, would rather not have to read your text. So, do them a favor by making your writing clear and effective. Here are five tips for optimizing your techcomm:

Imperative Sentence Structure

Imagine you are in the room with your reader, walking them through a process. How would you phrase each step?

The most effective solution is to use the second person verb tense. For example:

Avoid: To view the order history, users can click the My Orders button at the top of the screen.

Instead, write: To view your order history, click the My Orders button at the top of the screen.

By addressing the reader directly, you lock in their attention.

Parallel Structure

Effective technical writing should be written so as not to draw the reader’s attention to grammatical elements.

Parallel structure is the use of consistent parts of speech in equivalent structures. For example, list elements should be of the same part of speech.

Example: Put on a smock, shoe covers, and safety glasses before entering the lab room.

By minimizing changes in parts of speech, we keep the reader’s focus on what is being said, not how it is stated.

Short Sentences

Keep your sentences short and simple. Tell the reader what to do and (if necessary) where and how. Your reader should never have to re-read a sentence to understand what it means.

Example: Heat the solution to 55°­C. Remove from heat.

This way, each sentence provides a single piece of instruction.

Consistent Word Choice

Be consistent in the words you use in your technical writing. Word choices are usually dictated by industry standard terminology and corporate style guides. Learn which words are used in your industry and company and stick with them!

Examples: home page vs. homepage, wire vs. cable

This rule also applies to dialectal variances, such as US English versus UK English. Inconsistent word choices muddle your instructions and confuse your readers.

Zero Ambiguity

In technical communication, it is important that each sentence has a single, distinct meaning. When reviewing your writing, ask yourself if any part of the instructions can be interpreted differently than intended. Never assume what your readers know.

Your readers will thank you!