The Case of French English Why some French translations into English are just not English.

French English

A few nights ago, I sat down to enjoy a French novel. Two sentences in, I was stunned by how different written French and written English are from each other. The novel was the third volume of Virginie Despentes’s Vernon Subutex series, and the sentence was this:

“Sur le quai, un gamin fait les cent pas en fumant clope sur clope, il porte des baskets sans chaussettes, dont il écrase le talon, comme si c’étaient des espadrilles.”

A direct translation would be:

“On the platform, a young boy stands smoking one cigarette after another, he wears running shoes without socks, of which he crushes the heals, as if they were slippers.”

To a French person, this translation might appear perfectly fine because it uses proper English words and has a structure that seems correct according to the way their French mind works.

To most native English-speakers, this sentence is a mass of comma-splices and phrases compounded into a run-on sentence. It is bad form. And it is hardly English.

To me, this sentence is a good example of what I call “French written in English,” or “French English,” which is a notion that I often have trouble explaining to my French customers.

Though French and English share the same punctuation marks, they are not used in the same ways. Misunderstanding this can be the cause of many bad translations.


1) Connecting Independent Clauses

In French, it is common to connect independent clauses. Just like in Despentes’s sentence, such clauses add information to the one it precedes and creates a rhythm. You also generally never see a conjunction before an independent clause. This is considered grammatically incorrect.

In English, it is quite the opposite. Independent clauses cannot be separated with only a comma. This causes a run-on sentence and is known as a comma-splice. Instead, a conjunction following a comma must separate the two clauses.

[independent clause], and/but/or/because [independent clause].

Example: “He enjoys their Friday lunches, and they rarely miss a week.”

Two independent clauses may be connected without a comma and the conjunction only if they share the same subject.

Example: I went to the market and bought everything we need for tonight’s dinner.


2) Full Stops

In French composition classes, we are often told to keep our sentences short. This is to avoid creating long sentences in which ideas don’t follow suit.

In English, the full stop is used even more readily to remain grammatically correct. As noted above, two independent clauses can be separated by a comma and a conjunction. It can also be rephrased into two separate sentences.

Example: “He enjoys their Friday lunches. They rarely miss a week.”


3) Commas Come in Twos

In English, commas are often used instead of parenthesizes around nonrestrictive clauses. By nonrestrictive, I mean a clause that adds information but does not define or limit it. In other words, the sentence would remain perfectly understandable without it.

As you would never open a parenthesis and not close it, in English, you cannot use a comma to open a parenthetic expression without a second comma to close it.

Good example: “My friend, who lives down the street, brought me some home-made cookies.”

Bad example: “My friend who lives down the street, brought me some home-made cookies.”


English English

I’ll finish with my attempt at properly translating Despentes’s sentence into English. The rhythm changes and the sentence is cut into two, but it maintains, I believe, the rawness that qualifies her writing style.

“On the platform stands a young boy who smokes one cigarette after another. He wears running shoes without socks and crushes the heals as if they were slippers.”


Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

2 comments on “The Case of French English

  1. Michael Hebda on

    This article captures the struggle very well. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve argued with well-intentioned co-workers who told me a sentence or paragraph is correct (because they checked the dictionary.)


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