I don’t know one French person who doesn’t smile when one of our Canadian cousins speaks. Not because this cousin is relating a joke or saying something particularly funny, but we (French people) just love the Canadian accent, as well as some of the French-Canadian idioms.
I’ll always remember a meeting we had last year with a prospective client. It was the third round of an RFP, and we sat around the table with 10+ people who were deciding whether or not to work with Lionbridge. Despite the serious nature of the discussion, I was pleased to see smiles on everyone’s faces when a Canadian-born Lionbridge executive presented. Not only did she provide excellent answers, but her Canadian accent made the answers very appealing to the audience. While French and Canadian people do not have difficulty understanding one another, I am not sure whether Canadian people look as fondly upon our use of the French language as we look upon theirs.
What does this mean? For an international company, does it mean that if content-be it a user interface, technical documentation, or some marketing or training material-exists in European French it can also be used in Canada, and vice versa?
The answer is not straightforward. It depends on the type of content and also on the place where you want to sell your products.
European French is well understood in Canada, and for technical content (user interfaces, documentation, etc.), some companies may successfully sell their products in Canada using the European French content.
On the contrary, it is highly unlikely the same would happen in France with products translated into Canadian French. Why?
Even though French people would understand the content’s meaning, they would probably be surprised to read in their Internet Configuration Guide:
“Barrière pare-feu” instead of “Firewall” or “Pare-feu”
“Serveur mandataire” instead of “Serveur proxy”
“Etrangleur” instead of “Starter”
Or, in their car user guide:
“Coussin gonflable” instead of “Airbag”
Conversely, French Canadians will understand the meaning of technical words such as airbag, but they will know those terms were not translated for their market, and they may be offended.
As counter-intuitive or surprising as it may seem, French Canadian speakers generally use language with less English or American influence than French people do.
As far as marketing content is concerned, it’s best to have two language variants because of the many historical and cultural differences between the target audiences. With technical information, people will have no problem understanding material written in the other variant, but they will notice that the text was not addressed to them, which could result in lost business for the company marketing the product. As an example, though we drink Coca-Cola Light in France, they drink Coke-Diet in Canada. Marketing content, since it contains regionally- and culturally-based idioms, metaphors, puns, etc., must be translated for a specific locale rather than just into the target language.
But then, when do we know whether we can simply adapt one variant to another, or if we need to translate into both variants?
An adaptation will typically be enough for IT, technical, and scientific material. The main differences between the two variants will be related to terminology, spelling, and punctuation. For instance, French Canadian will write “Félicitations!, where French European will use “Félicitations !” with a space. Translation technology can automate and optimize this effort for translators.
A parallel translation of the two variants will be needed for marketing, advertising (websites, brochures, leaflets, packaging, etc.), and legal content because it takes longer to adapt the material for the other variant than it does to simply translate it from scratch.
And what about an international French variant that’s good for all speakers of French? As with “international” English and Spanish, this language doesn’t really exist: it’s a language meant to be understandable to all, offensive to none.
If you want to truly reach your target market with your materials, whether they be user manuals, packaging, marketing material, or online help content, your language strategy needs to be translating for the target locale, not just the target language.