Why is bad translation such a problem in Quebec?

This province is full of literate, bilingual people, yet our government websites are often poorly translated (if they’re translated at all).


When I’m not out earning millions from freelance journalism jobs, I sometimes slip in a little translation work. It has always amazed me that I’m often paid much more to translate an article into English than the writer was probably paid to write it. That’s because there are fewer decent translators out there than there are writers, so you can charge more even though the work involved is comparatively easy. (By easy, I mean easier than doing the research, interviewing and writing that the original author had to do.)

I’m also paid to revise texts that have already been translated, occasionally quite poorly, from French to English. Sometimes it’s just a question of fixing a few faux amis — similar-sounding words that have very different meanings in French and English, such as sensible and sensible — and other times I realize it would take more time to correct all the mistakes than to simply start the job again from scratch.

Revision can often also involve taking “the stink” of translation off of a text. That’s when the translator, whose mother tongue is probably not the target language, has followed the syntax and structure of the original so closely that you can almost hear a pronounced accent as you read it.


Let me give you an example. This is from a city of Montreal website about the protected lake and woods on Nuns’ Island.

“In 2006, the borough of Verdun makes transfer, on a purely free basis, of a real constraint of perpetual conservation of the grounds in the wooded one of the Domaine Saint-Paul and the Lac des Battures. The borough is also committed not making any assignment change to the protected surfaces, that it is by the means of a sale, an exchange or a transaction without the Ministère du Développement durable, de l’Environnement et des Parcs not being consulted beforehand.”

Whoa. Or should I say ouache? This was so bad that I was convinced the borough had fired its translators and replaced them with Google Translate. But Google actually did a (moderately) better job.

“In 2006, the borough made an assignment, for free, a real servitude perpetual conservation land in the forested Domaine Saint-Paul and Lac des Battures. The district also agrees to make no change of use protected areas, either through a sale, exchange or transaction without the Ministry of Sustainable Development, the environment and Parks has been previously consulted.”

See what I mean? The Google translation is fixable, the borough’s translation is pure trash.

(I’m not pitching my services to the city here — they have their own translation staff. I’m just begging them to stop using their franco translators to write crappy English. And to have a literate anglo read it before posting it on a website.)

Out of curiosity, I poked around the city’s web pages and found there seems to be little rhyme or reason as to when translations are provided. There’s no effort made at all in some boroughs, even ones with significant anglo populations such as downtown (Ville-Marie), the Plateau or the Southwest. Verdun makes an effort but lots of its English pages contain information that’s years out of date and are poorly translated to boot. Boroughs like CDN-NDG, St-Laurent and Pierrefonds-Roxboro come closest to providing translation of most of the website content that is available in French, but even here the English often sounds like it’s wearing a beret.

Of course, the perpetual political debate over bilingualism plays a role in how much English web content the city and its boroughs offer citizens and tourists. But if a borough is going to offer info in English on how to pay your taxes, shouldn’t they also offer the service for civil safety bulletins or hazardous waste collection?

It’s a simple question of professionalism and respect. What’s the point in offering English documentation for some services but not others? And if they’re going to offer English info, the city should make an effort to ensure that it actually is English, not gibberish that makes even a machine translation sound like poetry. ■

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.