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…
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]“.
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“!
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.
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.
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.)
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“?) 😉