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Translation methods

Do you want to create better translations than an automatic translator? ;) Below are a few directions about the strategies that a translator may use throughout the writing process. These are widely used tools in literary translations, which - together with the examples provided in the search engine - will help you find a natural and authentic translation.
In this guide, these processes are divided up into three main principles, depending on whether the chosen translation preserves the form of the source language, or differ from it totally or partially.

Table of contents
Preservation Equivalence Modulation
Literal translation Linguistic equivalence: Voice change
Lexical borrowing Transposition Syntax change
Calque Double transposition / "chassé-croisé" Negation of the contrary
Interjection Metaphor switch
Onomatopoeia Change of viewpoint
Proverb Compensation
Set phrase Change in the number of words:
Collocation Fleshing out
Shortening / Extension Stripping out
Cultural equivalence:
Measurement unit
Other cultural element


This part presents the translation processes which preserve the text of the source language, since an element is kept from the translated language, and re-used in the target language accordingly.

Literal translation

The same syntax is kept, when a word-for-word translation is possible.
What time is it?Quelle heure est-il ? Ref A
He had always dreamed of becoming an artist.Il avait toujours rêvé de devenir un artiste.

Lexical borrowing

The same word is kept.
email (sometimes translated to "courriel")
aquaplaning (sometimes also referred to as "aquaplanage")
week-end (even if the word is hyphenated in French)
British Museum (instead of translating this place to "Musée Britannique") Ref A


The same lexical composition is kept.
honeymoonlune de miel
skyscrapergratte-ciel Ref A


This part lists the translation processes implying that a form of the target language is totally substituted to a semantically equivalent form of the source language.

Linguistic equivalence:


The part of speech changes.
The American President thinks that...Selon le Président américain, ... (verbe ↔ préposition)
He strode into the house.Il entra à grands pas. (verbe ↔ locution adverbiale)
He nearly got arrested.Il faillit se faire arrêter. (adverbe ↔ verbe)
the people around himles gens qui l'entourent (préposition ↔ proposition subordonnée relative)
what students dola conduite des étudiants (verbe ↔ nom)
The assumption is that...On suppose que... (nom ↔ verbe) Ref A
when he came backà son retour (verbe ↔ nom)
before school startedavant la rentrée (groupe verbal ↔ nom)
Keep off the grass.Pelouse interdite. (verbe prépositionnel ↔ adjectif) Ref D
French prefers nominal constructions, while English favors verbal constructions.

The double transposition, or "chassé-croisé"

The translation order of an English verb followed by something is changed. It is translated in the opposite direction, by translating the following element first with a verb, and then the verb with another element.
This translation process is used in English, in the three cases below:
• phrasal verb, expressing a new meaning unit, and consequently translated sometimes not with a "chassé-croisé", but with a very specific verb.
hit backrendre les coups
They chopped the tree down.Ils abattirent l'arbre à coups de hache. Ref A
• prepositional verb (expressing movement or evolution)
He groped his way across the room.Il traversa la pièce à tâtons.
His mother nursed him back to health.Par ses soins, sa mère lui fit recouvrer la santé. Ref A
• verb in a resultative construction (expressing the result)
to work oneself to deathse tuer à la tâche
He kicked the door shut.Il ferma la porte d'un coup de pied. Ref A


Ouch!Aïe ! Ref A
Yummy!Miam !


Splash!Plouf !


Birds of a feather flock together.Qui se ressemble s’assemble. Ref A
The early bird catches the worm.Le monde appartient à celui qui se lève tôt le matin.

Set phrase

It's raining cats and dogs.Il pleut des cordes.
When pigs may fly.Quand les poules auront des dents.
Beat about/around the bush.Tourner autour du pot.


A particular combination of words is prefered, which makes other synonymous combinations artificial or even unacceptable.
A total lack of...un manque total de... (et non *a complete lack of... / *un manque complet de...)
fast food (et non *quick food)
fast traintrain à grande vitesse (et non *quick train / *train à vitesse élevée)
happy marriagemariage heureux (et non *successful marriage / *mariage réussi)
Please find attached...Veuillez trouver ci-joint... (et non *Please find annexed... / *Veuillez trouver ci-annexé...)

Shortening / Extension

Shortening: the meaning of a lexical unit is cut down to less text.
Extension: the meaning of a lexical unit is extended to more text.
A daily paperun quotidien
filthyd'une saleté repoussante
tossjeter négligemment


a childun enfant (casual register) / a kidun gamin (colloquial)
I don't know.Je (ne) sais pas. (casual register) / I dunno!Ché pas! (colloquial register)
What on earth are you doing here?Diable, que fabriquez-vous ? (formal)
What the heck are you doing here?Qu'est-ce que vous fichez ici ? (casual)
What the hell are you doing here?Qu'est-ce que tu fous ici ? (colloquial)
What the fuck are you doing here?Qu'est-ce que tu branles ici, putain! (vulgar) Ref D


old people ↔ les vieux (pejorative) / the elderly ↔ les personnes âgées (neutral)

Cultural equivalence:


high schoollycée
A-levels (United Kingdom) / high school diploma (United States) / School Leaving Certificate (Ireland) ↔ baccalauréat (France) Ref B
A translator does not always choose to use a culturally (more or less) equivalent form, since it is not a perfect equivalent, when the two communities do not share the same schools, universities or political institutions. For example, a French high school may possibly be translated to something else than high school, but rather with the use of the term lycée just as it is in French, or even with the phrase French lycée, thus expliciting the origin of the institution.
However, adapting the term to the speakers of the target language may turn out to be useful when the place of the institution doesn't really matter.

Measurement unit

He is 6 feet tall.Il mesure 1 mètre 80.
What size are you? Size 9 (United Kingdom) / 9,5. (United States) ↔ Quelle est votre pointure ? Du 43. Ref D
By contrast with the search of equivalent institutions, providing an equivalent form in an different measurement unit always proves essential, so that the interlocutor of the target language may picture the measurement more easily.
1 inch2,54 centimètres
1 foot0,3 mètre
1 yard0,9 mètre
1 mile1,6 kilomètre

Other cultural element

chocolate pastryun pain au chocolat
Care BearsLes Bisounours Ref D


Here is a list of translation strategies implying that a form of the target language is totally substituted to a form of the source language, as they modify something when switching from one language to another, thereby bringing about something new, and yet preserving something that is already there in the source language.

Voice change (passive/active)

Ce livre m’a enchanté.I was delighted by the book.
Cette idée l’obsédait.He was obsessed by this idea.
Switching the active voice into the passive voice may be useful to avoid animism in English (attributing human qualities to something non-human). Ref D

Syntax change

Midland is likely to oppose the bid.Il est probable que Midland s'opposera à l'OPA.
By 2003, according to the latest EITO report, 17% of all sales will be transacted over the Internet.Selon le dernier rapport en date de l'EITO, l'Internet verra passer 17% des ventes mondiales d'ici 2003. Ref A
English tends to keep the canonical order of elements in a clause, whereas French is more free syntaxically speaking, thus accepting the following manipulations:
• Anteposition (from English to French) / postposition (from French to English):
Trump, who was recently elected president, declared that...Récemment élu président, Trump a déclaré que...
• Adverbial phrase outside the main clause (in English) / in an incidental clause (in French):
He would often read her love letters, sitting by the window.Il lisait souvent, assis près de la fenêtre, ses lettres d'amour.
• Subject followed by verb (in English) / subject-verb inversion (in French):
'Sorry', he said.Désolé, répondit-il. Ref D

Negation of the contrary

Don't be mean.Sois gentil.
rather boringpas très intéressant
It's cheap.C'est pas cher. Ref D
shallowpeu profond (as there is no antonym in French for "profond" meaning "deep")

Metaphor switch

It's raining cats and dogs.Il pleut des cordes.

Change of viewpoint

Let's meet outside the town hall.On se retrouve devant la mairie.
every other weekune semaine sur deux
6 in 10 women6 femmes sur 10
3 points out of 53 points sur 5 Ref D


(level of language, humor, connotation, understatement)
'They don't want me in any capacity. Army, Navy, Air Force, Foreign Office, one and all say the same thing - I'm too old. I may be required later.' (Agatha Christie, N or M ?, 1941, Fontane books, 1962, pp.5-6) ↔ Ils ne veulent de moi nulle part. L'armée de terre, l'air, la marine, les Affaires étrangères, partout c'est la même réponse : j'ai dépassé la limite d'âge : on fera – peut-être ? – appel à moi plus tard. Ref D
This translation provides two compensations:
in any capacity (more formal) ↔ nulle part (less formal)
I'm too old. (less formal) ↔ J'ai dépassé la limite d'âge. (more formal)

Change in the number of words:

Fleshing out

More text is added to a literal translation made up of several words, generally from English to French.

Stripping out

Some text is removed from a literal translation made up of several words, generally from French to English.
• Just one English preposition appears with more text in French:
according to a report in European Policy Analystselon un rapport publié dans le European Policy Analyst
to exits (sur un panneau)accès aux sorties
a campaign by Microsoftune campagne orchestrée par Microsoft
the charge against himl'accusation portée contre lui
trips from Doverexcursions au départ de Douvres Ref A
Stephen King writing as Richard BachmanStephen King écrivant sous le pseudonyme de Richard Bachman Ref E
• Occasionally, the same occurs with question adverbs in English:
He arrived at 8 o'clock, when traffic is at its peak.Il arriva à 8 heures, heure à laquelle la circulation est la plus dense. Ref C
• More words are employed in French in other contexts too:
To my surprise, he didn't say a word.À ma grande surprise, il ne dit pas un mot. Ref E

The change in the number of words may be optional. When fleshing out is optional, it is a clarification. When stripping out is optional, it is a stylistic deletion.

A : JackPotte, Christian Lassure, Binabik et al., "Procédés de traduction de l'anglais en français" (Wikibooks, 2016) [online] https://fr.wikibooks.org/..., accessed on 18/11/2016.
B : Pilard, George ; Stevenson, Anna (eds.), s.v. "baccalauréat", Harrap's Shorter: French-English, English-French Dictionary (7th édition, 2004).
C : "SAVOIR TRADUIRE, EXERCICE : L'ETOFFEMENT" (Intellego, 14 septembre 2010) [online] http://www.intellego.fr/..., accessed on 18/11/2016.
D : "Techniques de traduction" (9H05 INTERNATIONAL SAS, 2009-2016) [online] https://www.9h05.com/..., accessed on 19/11/2016.
E : "Traduction : Étoffement" [online] http://anglosite.free.fr/..., accessed on 18/11/2016.

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