Style in Translation

Style is often the hardest thing to get right when you’re translating, and magazines have arguably one of the most rigid writing styles of any type of publication. 

When translating a magazine article, translators not only have to negotiate the differences in grammar, style and idiom between languages, but also have to take into account the kind of expressions readers would expect to see in a magazine. There are already numerous stylistic differences between French and English, but being constrained by the norms of UK magazine copy adds a new layer of difficulty for the translator.


Stylistic differences between French and English

The Penguin Writer’s Manual lists “clarity” and “economy” among the key elements you need to pay attention to in order to write well in English, and French journalistic style is no less interested in concision. French may be a wordier language than English, but as Hédi Kaddour explains in Inventer sa phrase, French journalists should use short words, simple sentence constructions and small paragraphs to make sure they’re not “late to the party” in terms of conveying information to their readers.

So far, so good. But the problem is that French-speaking and English-speaking journalists go about being concise in different ways. A perfect example of this is the introductory paragraph or lead. Typically short and catchy, leads have to grab the reader’s attention straightaway. French writers sometimes use ellipsis to achieve this, for example in these introductory lines from an article on what to eat when you get out of bed on cold winter mornings: “Pour une transition en douceur, rendez-vous autour de la table du petit-déjeuner. Des menus adaptés et tous les trucs et astuces pour affronter le froid !” 

Ellipsis, or missing out words in a sentence while leaving the meaning intact, can be a useful rhythmic device in English for keeping the copy brief and engaging, but rarely can it be translated directly from the French without the phrasing sounding disjointed and unnatural. 

This isn’t the only place where English translators have to deviate from the original either. When French journalists allow themselves more lyricism, new problems arise. If you’re not careful, lists of similar adjectives in more descriptive sentences will turn into mere synonyms in English, losing the emphasis of the original French. In a recent feature on hairstyles I translated, for example, phrases like “en version tressée et strassée” (“plaited”) and “portés en serre-tête, en bandeau ou en diadème” (“headbands”) had to be treated carefully. Using both “plaited” and “braided” felt unnecessarily repetitive as not enough distinction is made between the two, and  “serre-tête” and “bandeau” both refer to what we know as “headbands” in English.


A game of equivalence

In their study of French and English style, Vinay and Darbelnet describe the loosest forms of translation as “Modulation”, “Adaptation” and “Equivalence”. When translating a magazine article, adapting and rephrasing at least some parts of the text is unavoidable, but it’s the idea of equivalence that comes in particularly useful when dealing with the formulaic nature of magazine copy. 

Typical openers like “Top ten”, “What’s new”, “The best” and “The latest” instantly captivate interest but also signal to the readers the article will either inform or entertain them. In Confessions of an Advertising Man, David Ogilvy highlights “new” as one of the most powerful words you can use in a headline, and lists various other words and phrases like “quick”, “easy” and “the truth about” guaranteed to entice people to read on. All of these techniques can be seen in magazine copy, and to make sure the translation has the same effect as the original, translators have to either “transpose” these set phrases or substitute them with loose equivalents for the benefit of the new readership. French introductory phrases like “Zoom sur”, “Le point…” and “Eléments de réponses” can be replaced with loose English equivalents like “A closer look” “…lifts the lid on” or “…has the answers” for example.

In the same way as advertising, journalism is completely focused on a target audience. As Jean-Marie Charon points out in La presse magazine, “Le magazine est une presse qui est d’abord centrée sur son lecteur.” This is why it’s so important for translators to follow the conventions of magazine style in their native language.