The mistakes that translators make with verbs, a webinar with Grant Hamilton

Hosted by the ITI French Network

by Hannah Lawrence

On 9 July, 130 eager translators logged on to the first ever ITI French Network webinar. We were keen to learn more about the mistakes that translators make with verbs – and how to avoid them. Our host for the afternoon was Grant Hamilton, the well-known founder and translator at Quebec-based translation firm Anglocom, industry opinion leader, and manager of the @anglais Twitter account.

It proved to be a jam-packed session full of examples, anecdotes, and tips drawn from Grant’s decades of translation experience. It’s impossible to touch on everything that was covered, but I’ve just picked up on just a few of the elements he focused on below.

Grant began the webinar by discussing verb tenses. Specifically, he looked at examples where the French tense should be translated with a different tense in English.

We started with what Grant described as the most underused tense by English translators, the present perfect. We learned that it’s particularly useful for describing an action that began in the past but is still ongoing in the present, or still has an impact on the present. Grant explained that as French has no present perfect, often déjà is used to portray an action’s significance in the present. Consequently, when translating such a sentence into English using the present perfect, the déjà can be omitted. An example of this can be seen below.

Avec ses voûtes de neige majestueuses, ses sculptures de glace cristalline et ses 44 chambres et suites qui font rêver, l’unique hôtel de glace en Amérique a déjà séduit plus d’un million de visiteurs depuis 2001.

With majestic arches made of snow, glimmering ice sculptures, and 44 fantastical rooms and suites, the only ice hotel in North America has wowed over a million visitors since 2001.

If however, we’d translated déjà with ‘has already wowed’, this would indicate that the wowing happened faster than expected. The French doesn’t indicate this, so a meaning would have been added in the English.

Moving onto other tenses, we heard how French uses the conditional to hedge its bets, or for matters that have not yet been proven beyond doubt. In contrast, in English, we live much more easily with the use of the present tense even where matters haven’t been proven beyond doubt. It’s not uncommon to encounter French texts with a series of sentences with the conditional, one after another. To get around this in English, Grant’s tip was to hedge or qualify at the very beginning, for instance ‘according to xyz’, or ‘xyz said’, then simply proceed with the present.

Grant also discussed other underused English tenses such as the emphatic present tense (i.e. ‘it did go ahead’). And he mentioned the English historical present, which though not especially common, can be used for listing a series of events, in news items, in verbs of communication (‘I go like this’ – although this may be more common in a North American context), and in works of fiction.

Beyond tenses, Grant touched on the challenges of translating noun-heavy French into verb-centric English. We learned that in his opinion, while split infinitives aren’t the end of the world, if there is an elegant way to avoid infinitive splitting, there’s a good chance the sentence will sound better. He also discussed how useful the passive voice can be: to de-emphasise the doer of the action, to give the reader a rest from the action-packed active voice, or to lend your text objectivity. And he touched on the English love of combining a verb with ‘please’ and how the ‘please’ is often omitted in French.

Throughout Grant’s webinar, the zoom chat box was a hive of activity. Translators shared their thoughts and opinions on the examples raised, how usage might differ between North American and European contexts, and their appreciation of the content discussed. Though Grant’s examples focused on French to English translation, French native speakers that took part also found the webinar useful.

Based on the feedback, 97% of attendees found it ‘very useful’ or ‘extremely useful’. So I think it’s safe to say we learned a lot from this whistle-stop tour of verb issues and came away with some practical tips. In fact, that very afternoon, I came across a sentence with déjà which was a prime candidate for the present perfect. I applied what I’d learned mere minutes after the fact! If that’s not a sign of CPD success, I don’t know what is.