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The feminisation of occupations in the French language: a headache

I spent a few years growing-up in France, where most of my family resides. Meeting one of my older female cousins who was a pharmacist, I referred to her as “la pharmacienne”. She corrected me immediately with some degree of authority in her voice: she is “le pharmacien” and not “la pharmacienne” which, according to her and older usage, was the pharmacist’s wife.

In October 2015, a quarter of a French opposition member of parliament’s sessional allowance was retained as a sanction because he insisted during a parliamentary debate on calling the female chairing the session “Madame le président” instead of “Madame la présidente”.

Opposition caucus rallied to the defense of the member of parliament in question arguing that this “intolerable” sanction punished correct usage of the French language. Even the authoritative but conservative guardian of the purity of the French language, the Académie Française, came to the defense of the member, but to no avail. The sanction stood.
More about the stance of the Académie Française in a minute.

No doubt that any French-speaking person ran at least once into the tricky issue of feminisation of occupations, titles or functions or cringed at hearing a feminisation that sounded mocking or unusual.

Feminisation of occupations in French is an old, complex, delicate, sensitive and vexing issue.
There are two aspects to the problem: the evolution of feminisation of occupations and regional differences.

a) Evolution:

Whereas we have achieved today relative gender equality in occupations, at least in what we would call the “developed world”, we used to emphasize gender differences as recently as in the 19th century and certainly much further back. There were female occupations and male occupations. Such male occupations or titles were “général”, “colonel”, “pharmacien”, “docteur”, “président”. While it was inconceivable back then that a “général” could be female, the “général” could be married. Therefore, the wife of the “général” became “Madame la Générale”, the wife of a “colonel” became “Madame la Colonelle” and so forth all the way down the ranks.
The near equality that was achieved in modern times posed delicate language issues, especially in France. A large part of the younger female population, in part under the influence of the emerging feminist movement, insisted that their professions or titles should be gender specific , which meant that feminization thereof should be based of the occupation and not on their marital status. Therefore, “l’avocate” tended to refer to a female lawyer and no longer to the wife of a male lawyer, “la maîtresse” is a female teacher, “la députée” a female member of parliament.

This momentum towards feminisation of occupation names should however be qualified: the academic world is still lagging behind: the masculine form “professeur”, “écrivain” are still preferred in France. Also, some names cannot be feminised because of a sexual connotation (people may chafe at “le sauteur en hauteur” becoming “la sauteuse en hauteur”) or because the occupation’s name has the word “homme” built in it: “homme-grenouille” for “frogman” or “barman” for bartender.

A funny note about evolution: feminization of “directeur” into “directrice” is acceptable for some high ranking occupations but not for others. “Directrice” clearly suggests a school principal, but not a senior female civil-servant who is still addressed as “Madame le Directeur“. So, one may conceive a meeting between “Madame le Directeur” and “Madame la Directrice”.

b) Regional differences:

Quebec has been the most dynamic French-speaking jurisdiction in the feminization of names of occupations, titles and functions. As early as 1979, the “Office québécois de la langue française” recommended that a feminine equivalent be created for all names of occupations, titles and functions. Feminization first appeared in administrative texts, then in collective agreements, became the norm in publications and had now permeated in everyday language. Words such as “professeure”, “auteure” or “mairesse” have long existed along the banks of the St.Lawrence but the very conservative Académie Française repudiates them. In Belgium, feminization of names of occupations, titles and functions are governed by an executive order dating back to 1993. A guide produced for the general public, the “Guide de feminisation” was published in 1995 (

Now, the Académie Française…made of unelected and ageing officials who claim their right to dictate how francophones should write and speak. They remind me of the ultra-conservative Board of Trade that governs and amends (very slowly) laws governing soccer. The Académie Française stays put on its traditional position by being reluctant to approve almost any form of feminisation of titles or functions. In an opinion issued in 2002, it writes that “ the application or free interpretation of feminization “rules” declared often arbitrarily by certain French or francophone organizations has lead to a large number of barbarisms” and the systematic and impulsive selection of feminized forms creates […] inside the language a form of segregation that is inconsistent with the stated objective.” I wonder that that “stated objective” might have been.

The controversy is unlikely to end anytime soon, particularly in France.

The Challenges of Simultaneous Interpretation

Simultaneous interpretation, which is also referred to as Conference interpretation, should be distinguished from Consecutive interpretation. In the latter, the interpreter facilitates a conversation between two persons who otherwise would not understand each other and intervenes during pauses. Conference interpretation is meant for larger groups and there are no pauses. The interpreter just has to follow the flow.

For this reason, Simultaneous interpretation faces specific challenges. They must be addressed properly. Failing this, the conference, which organizers have taken great care in preparing, might derail and strip them of the return they were expecting.

The challenges and requirements may be ranked in order of increasing difficulty: the equipment – the interpreters and degree of preparation – the degree of alertness of the interpreters – the word flow and last but not least, fatigue.

In order to provide simultaneous interpretation, proper equipment is required. The equipment comes in two types: the standard and the portable systems

  1. The standard system, which is also the most common, is well suited for large conferences. It includes one or more booths of about 9’x4’ in size housing the interpreters, two headsets, two microphones fitted on a central console, infrared transmitters, headsets for the audience and a technician who installs the system before the conference, controls volume and sound balance during the conference and dismantles the system after the conference. The system can accommodate just two languages (for example, English into French and vice-versa) or an infinite number of languages if set on a more expensive relay mode.
  2. The portable system is the low cost option. Better suited to smaller groups, it fits into a backpack and does not require any setup. There is no booth, no infrared transmitters or technician. This low cost system allows for easy mobility from room to room (for example visiting a plant), but is taxing to the interpreters who are working without the benefit of a soundproof booth and therefore struggle sometimes to hear the speaker because of the effects of their own whispering in their hand-held microphones.

Conference interpretation often tests one’s improvisation abilities in that clients rarely furnish adequate and timely preparation material. I would almost be at a loss to tell you how often I have been called upon to serve at conferences without having the slightest idea of what it was about apart from a vague hint provided by the conference title. Not only should conference interpreters feel comfortable in a wide variety of subjects (engineering, medical, administration, sustainable development), but improvise in the heart of the action. Unlike the translator who may pause to check a word in a dictionary, this option is unavailable to the conference interpreter. If the right word does not immediately come to mind, use a synonym. Unlike the consecutive interpreter, conference interpreters cannot ask the speaker to repeat. He or she is expected to go along now matter how fast the speaker speaks or else will fall behind and risk allowing an ever greater slice of the discourse to go untranslated.

Fatigue: it should not come as a surprise to our distinguished reader that fatigue quickly becomes a factor after hours of alertness in a small and often hot enclosed space without proper air ventilation. True, interpreters work in teams of two or three, but this hardly mitigates the effects of fatigue. I would ready to bet that my personal performance erodes at the microphone after a few hours in a booth, especially after lunch, but surprisingly, no client has ever come to me to point this out. They are perhaps feeling the same as me…

Philippe Vitu interpreting in a booth at a recent conference in Montreal.

Philippe Vitu interpreting in a booth at a recent conference in Montreal.

Conference interpreting has its challenges, but it is very gratifying indeed. Not all language providers are wired for it.  The best compliment a client can address to me comes in the form of a question that I have often heard: “I wonder how you guys can do that”. Well, we just do it….




You are a non-for-profit organization and cannot afford French language services?

You are heading a Canadian non-profit organization and need to run your activities in both official languages to increase your visibility. Since however your funds are limited because you are non profit, you renounce, thereby killing your organization’s prospects of gaining national stature.

Is this fatality? Is there a glass ceiling preventing non-for-profit organizations from emerging nationally?

Thankfully, no.

Canadian Heritage provides financial assistance up to $ 5,000.00 in the form of a grant to Canadian registered and incorporated non-for-profit organizations requiring language services in the official languages in Canada. These include:

  1. projects involving simultaneous interpretation (from one official language to the other) as well as sign language
  2. translations from one official language to the other.

The documents for which the translation is being prepared and financial assistance requested must be provided free of charge.

Funding may not cover more than 50% of eligible expenses.

With respect to the applications themselves, you must use a specific form available by calling 819-934-9554. Applications take several weeks to be processed. You may apply only once a year during the government’s fiscal year (April 1st – March 31) but projects overlapping two fiscal years are ineligible.

For more information, please consult Canadian Heritage’s relevant website.

Translation and Globalization

It is generally assumed that the English language has gained prominence in the world as the result of globalization and that since English is presumably the business language, most people in the world – both clients and suppliers – speak and understand English.

Furthermore, it is being believed by an increasing number of people and corporations in North America that since most people in the world speak and understand English, there is less need for translations.

This geocentric view is an oversimplification of realities.

While it is correct that the internet affords corporations access to a global audience, globalization and the multiplication of free-trade agreements have dramatically increased competition.

Far from threatening the translation industry, globalization and the increased competition it entails is enhancing the need for translations.

In our increasingly competitive environment, clients around the world have become more demanding in terms of quality and personalized services. Nobody would dispute the fact the clients – be it in Asia or Latin America – would naturally be more inclined to buy a product on line if the website is written in their language. One surprising effect of globalization and the accompanying universality of Internet is that according to Aberdeen Group (a tech-tech research company in the US), while 77% on Internet users were native English speakers in 1997, that proportion has dwindled to just 32 % today. In other words, 2/3 of Internet users are native in another language than English!

Those starting figures enhance the increasing role and importance of translations.

Figures as to the number of people native in a particular language vary widely, but there it is undisputed that there are more Mandarin and Spanish native speakers in the world than native English speakers. Furthermore, Spanish is the official language in 21 countries where as only 6 have English as the official language. This speaks not only to the pre-eminence of Spanish over English in absolute terms, but also to regional disparities in both languages.

If a corporation wants to go international, not only should it feature more than English on its website, but also avoid selecting a language according to the size of its native speakers. Instead it would be wiser to target a specific country or a range of countries instead….countries where the products are likely to be most successful.

What is exactly a “Word”?

Call any translation agency. Chances are you will be told that they charge X cents a word.

We all have a pretty good any of what a word is. We use the sound “word” everyday and speak words from the moment we get up in the morning to the extent that few people have ever wondered what a word exactly is.

Since, like any other translation bureau, Express International Translation Inc. charges by the word, it would not be superfluous to ask oneself what a word exactly is.

Simple? No. Open the Tenth Edition of the Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, which is my English dictionary of reference, to “word”. You get an embarrassingly long list of definitions from of varying complexity ranging from “something that is said” to “any segment of written or printed discourse ordinarily appearing between spaces or between a space and a punctuation mark” (got that?)

More simply put, a word is a standalone that designates an action (verb), a condition (adjective), an acronym or something concrete or abstract. Furthermore, to each action or thing, be it concrete or abstract, corresponds one or more words (synonyms).

Does this necessarily mean that every word has a meaning? No. Articles (“the” “a”) are standalones but have no meaning.

Other words that lose their meaning lose that meaning when adjoined to another word. We all know what “ice” is; it is frozen water. We know what cream is. However, ice-cream is neither ice, nor cream.

Ice cream is a case in point for another reason? It has one meaning – that delicious summer treat – but is written is two words. So, it counts as two words. But I can also write it as one word: ice-cream.

To complicate matters a little more, a word in the translation industry is slightly at variance with what linguist call a word because the industry counts numerals as words. Take for example a birth date such 18/08/1957 (a date of birth). We count it as a word because the translator would have to type it in the target document or even “translate” it if the document is meant for a country where the month usually precedes the day like it is often the case in North America (in which case we would have 08/18/1957. Also, “1” standing alone would be considered a word as well as a googol (a googol is a very large number consisting of 100 digits or more).

2014 Soccer World Cup and Interpretation at the Pre-Games Press Conference

In these warm July days of soccer World Cup fever, it is fitting to wonder what about the purpose of those pre-games press conferences and how they are being translated for international audiences.

These pre-games press conferences are imposed by the all-mighty FIFA to coaches and captains of teams whose games are planned for the next day. Surely, coaches could do without those mandatory press conferences and those exercises of answering questions posed by international media.

This is not a place where coaches would sprinkle confidences about team line-ups and strategy. Instead, these imposed press conferences follow a marketing purpose: to display and promote FIFA sponsors. It all starts with the colorful three stripe football itself, property of mighty ADIDAS. Placed right in front of the coach himself , the useless ball pursues a pure marketing ploy…unless the coach and reporters present in the conference room decide to engage in an impromptu soccer game. Then, the blue background of questionable aesthetic value: logos off all other sponsors are there…a Japanese multinational company specialised in electronic music, a credit card company, a fast food company, a car manufacturer. Just as useless as the football are the energizing and high-sugar content beverages placed on the table with labels carefully turned toward the camera…I have yet to see a coach or player quenching his thirst with these healthy beverages…or see any glasses that organizers would care to provide.


Business has its raison d’être that has nothing to do with logic.

What about the interpreters? If you need English, switch to 1; Spanish, switch to 2; Portuguese, switch to 3 or French, then switch to 4. In this Babel tower that pre-games press conference have become, the interpreters are the indispensable tool for understanding personal football philosophies as explained by Joachim Löw, the German coach.

We would have plenty of questions to ask to these interpreters if we were fortunate enough to meet them. These press conferences are graced with stereotype language. The French have an expression for this: “la langue de bois”.  How do you render “langue de bois” into Korean or Farsi?  Do you need to know soccer terminology before serving as a FIFA interpreter? Apparently not. At a press conference given by the Korean coach, Hong Myungbo, some technical word in Korean was translated in French as ” passe basse” or, litterally, “low pass” in English. I still wonder what it means.

Remains that some incomprehensible translations have made these otherwise boring and self-serving pre-game press-conferences quite amusing.

(This blog was inspired in part by an article published in the online of French daily “Le Monde” on July 4, 2014. The picture being reproduced here was part of that article)

Trust The Translation Specialist, Not Yourself (Part II)

In Part 1, I was explaining why one should not attempt to save money at all costs for the purposes of saving money. The consequences of doing so could be too adverse and certainly highly embarrassing, especially if the document you are trying to produce on a low cost option is meant to go public.

Sometimes, people do not want to spend money at all on translations and attempt to do it themselves, either because they feel confident enough in the target language or because they trust the many free translation softwares available on the net.

If your target language is your mother tongue, you have excellent writing skills in your native language and if you master the subject matter well, chances are that you will produce an excellent translation. In this case, please read this section no further, this section is not for you.

If on the other hand – and I suspect this is the case for most people – you lack any of these three elements (native language, writing skills, subject matter), then, .

In my career of over twenty years as a translator, I have seen texts in French that were obviously written by English native speakers. I can say so because the French sounds jarring, unnatural and very often literal. Here is an example : “Le Centre des opérations de sécurité de T. est proactive en revue les dispositifs de sécurité gérés pour les vulnérabilités du logiciel“. This sentence was the French translation of a brochure whose English read: “The T. Security Operations Centre is proactively reviewing managed security devices for the software’s  vulnerabilities” .  If you are a native francophone reading this, you will be no doubt scratching your head: Was this translated by a software? If not, was this done by an anglophone? And if it was translated by a francophone, did the person only understand what he or she was translating?

Good questions. You decide.

To conclude the matter on a funny note, here are some extreme products of “do it yourself translations” that I remember.

1)      A hotel in Zurich posted a note next to its check-out counter reading “To expedite the check-out process, clients will be executed in strict order”.

2)      In a commending effort to cater to the English-speaking community, a dry-cleaning business in Beijing displayed a poster on its front window which read: “Drop your trousers here”.

Examples such as these abound. For a good laugh, check out the following site:

Trust The Translation Specialist, Not Yourself (Part I)

Welcome to the first blog of Express International Translations Inc. Polyglot since being conversant in four languages and owning Express International Translations for nearly 20 years, I can share with you through experience the pitfalls to avoid in translations. Most of the mistakes clients make can basically be lumped into three broad categories:

a) Saving money
b) Thinking that you know when in reality you don’t.
c) Insisting on rush jobs

I shall in this first blog address the first point and reserve the other two categories for later blogs.

Save save save…. It is hardly surprising that, in the culture of mass consumerism in which we live, that the word SAVE is pasted over advertisements that bombard us every day and that the notion of saving while shopping has become ingrained in the deepest fibers of the consumer.  When picking up the phone, the first question I am often asked is how much it costs.

Starting a negotiation with the dollar figure puts me at most unease, for it puts me under pressure to lower my cost well below what I think is safe to produce a translation which meets our high standards of quality. Plus, forget about making a profit… and if one does not make a profit, what is the point of being in business? If, on the other hand, if I insist on a fee that nearly guarantees a high standard of quality,  somebody may undercut me, which means that I stand to lose the client and incur the wrath of my wife for having been too inflexible.

While I can understand the saving instinct of a caller wishing to have his daughter’s birth certificate translated, the cost factor as sole discriminating criteria used by large corporations in picking a translation service is more incomprehensible to me.  Sure, corporations are controlled by shareholders expecting a good return on their investment, hence putting pressure on management to control costs. But those same shareholders expect their corporations to strive on the revenue side, which more often than not means conquering foreign markets and translating their external and internal documents correspondingly. A client buying a washing machine from company X is as much deserving of respect as a local client. Attempting to save beyond reason in your communication with that foreign client, seeing the cost of translation as a necessary evil shows a total lack of respect not just for that foreign client, but also for the exporting corporation itself and for it is attempting to achieve.

Attaining the lowest costs for translations, if you are a large company, potentially leads to embarrassing translation mistakes that are most costly to fix than the saving that were originally achieved.

A bad idea.

How Do I Know That I am Getting a Good Translation From You?

I was interpreting simultaneously into French two weeks ago with a colleague in Rouyn-Noranda using our portable equipment system. Rouyn-Noranda is a quaint mining town located in the North-West area of Quebec, not far from the Ontario border.

This conference, organized by RUIS McGill (Réseau Universitaire Intégré de Santé) was devoted to Tele-Health. A very promising concept indeed, especially for health care in remote areas. Medical specialists are far and few in between in distant rural areas. You would in a typical town of 5000 find one or two family doctors, a few nurses, but hardly a cardiologist or an oncologist. The patient would have to travel to a large city to see a specialist. This requires time, money, organization and a considerable effort for the patient if his or her mobility is restricted.

Tele-Health puts the patient in direct contact with the specialist and in real time through Internet technology and special software. It is a consultation done remotely. It makes the specialist more accessible to the patient, allows for faster care while reducing costs.

However, the point I am getting at is this:

During lunch, I was seated next to a friendly lady whose name was Deborah. Professor at McGill, she was explaining to me that her department had tasked a translation bureau with the translation into French of a large manual. The translation was deemed so poor that the department undertook to edit it to such an extent that the edited document was more a retranslation than a simple editing.  Deborah even suspected the translation bureau used one of these translation softwares that one easily finds on the net when it provided the service.

And of course, the department paid.

So, she asked me how she could be sure that her next translation would be a good one.

After having apologised for a substandard product delivered by an industry member (not the first time!) I told her how we sometimes do things for large job: I would select a few resumes from translators whom I deem are suitable to the task and who have successfully worked for us in the past. For privacy reasons, I cover their names, addresses and only identify them on their resumes as Translator A, Translator B etc…I e-mail those to the client for discussion and then discuss with the client the qualifications of the translators.

Two pairs of eyes are better than one. It is especially true here because if the client and I agree on a set of translators, we can almost certainly be sure that the production will be very satisfactory. .. and in the very unlikely event that something goes wrong, the client will be hesitant to put the blame on since it is he or she who chose the translators…

Deborah thought it was a cool idea…and took my business card.


Express International Translations Inc. attended Naturallia that took place in Sault Ste. Marie from October 28 to October 30, 2013.  Represented by both Philippe Vitu (President) and Dora D’Uva (Director of Marketing and Business Development) for its first participation at this event which gathers international stakeholders in mining, forestry and smart energy, Express International Translations Inc. made valuable international contacts through a business to business match-making process which will result in valuable translation contracts with entities as far away as Chile.

PPhilippe Vitu, President of Express International Translations Inc. and Dora D’Uva, Director of marketing and Business Development at our booth during Naturallia 2013 at Sault Ste. Marie.hilippe Vitu, President of Express International Translations Inc. and Dora D’Uva, Director of marketing and Business Development at our booth during Naturallia 2013 at Sault Ste. Marie.

Philippe Vitu, President of Express International Translations Inc. and Mark Massicotte of L’Anse Manufacturing  Inc. at our booth during Naturallia 2013 at Sault Ste. Marie.

Philippe Vitu, President of Express International Translations Inc. and Dora D’Uva, Director of marketing and Business Development at our booth during Naturallia 2013 at Sault Ste. Marie.

Philippe Vitu, President of Express International Translations Inc. and Dora D’Uva, Director of marketing and Business Development at our booth during Naturallia 2013 at Sault Ste. Marie.