Translation (thème) – what you really need to know!

Of the two sorts of translation, thème is by far the more common in the concours, so this blog is only about thème.

Have you ever wanted to understand why you get things wrong in your translations? After seven or eight years of learning English, it’s almost certainly not because your English isn’t good enough. Most likely, you aren’t approaching your translations in the right way. This blog will help you to change that.

Before we begin, though, ask yourself a question. Why do we translate? Now your personal answer to that might be: “Because I have to for the concours”. But think about what translation actually is. Translating allows people who don’t speak a language to access material written in that language. And the translation must be faithful or some or all of the original message will be distorted or even lost (imagine how little philosophy we would all know if none of the Greek texts had ever been translated properly!). Your job as a translator, even if it is only for the exam, is to allow the reader of your translation to feel the same effects, understand the same message and picture the same images as any reader of the original text would.

There are three basic strategies you can adopt to achieve this; they will all get you from the French to the English, but only two of them will help you in the concours:

  • you can make no effort at all and simply attempt a word-for-word translation (like French, we call this a “calque”);

  • you can say the same thing in another way; we call this a “dodge” (pirouette, esquive);

  • you can find, or you may already know, the exact equivalent in the other language (we call this a “match”).

Now, the first of these is to be avoided at all costs. Calque simply does not work. English and French are similar in many ways, but the differences are big enough to mean that a literal, word-for-word translation is almost never going to be correct. Of course, in an ideal world, you would always have the exact equivalent (the match) at your fingertips, but if that were the case, you wouldn’t be looking for help here with how to do a translation! In the real (not ideal) world, the chances are that you are going to need to find different ways of saying things when you don’t know the exact word or phrase. The dodge will therefore be your go-to strategy. But to use it successfully, you need to understand how it works.

Let’s start with a very short French text to see what this means in practice:

Ils étaient cinq. (I did say it was short!)

The calque would be “they were five”, but of course that’s wrong because “they were five” is the English way of saying ils avaient cinq ans. The match in this case is “there were five of them”, but let’s assume for a moment you didn’t know that, or couldn’t remember it: you’d have no option but to attempt a dodge. The art of the dodge lies in identifying all of the elements of meaning in a word or phrase. In this case, those elements are:

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