March 2017


As a translator, my job is essentially to take a load of French words, and turn them into a load of English words. Although it’s unclear exactly how many words each language actually has (I did try to find out…) I think most people can agree that English has more. Possibly a lot more.


he main reason is that, while the French have been keen to preserve the purity of the language of Molière through the centuries (with the help of the terrifying Académie française), English is a laissez-faire mongrel of a language that has welcomed and absorbed its Germanic, French and Latin incursions with nonchalance. Insouciance, even. The result is that, for every French word I encounter, there should logically be two or more English equivalents for me to choose from. But it’s not quite as simple as that. Another important part of my job (and actually the part that Google Translate is far less likely to be able to take over in the near future) is making sure that the text as a whole is stylistically coherent. I have to watch out for mixed metaphors, awkward constructions, Americanisms and any unconscious Frenchification that might slip in through over-familiarity. Sometimes, however, I do find myself choosing a French word or expression, rather than a perfectly proper English one.

But why say haute horlogerie when ‘fine watchmaking’ is perfectly okay? Why talk about watch manufactures when we have the word ‘factory’ for big ones and ‘workshop’ for smaller ones? Why bother with savoir-faire when ‘skills’ or ‘craftsmanship’ will do the job?

To answer this question satisfactorily I think we probably need to go back to 1066, when William of Normandy claimed the English throne and established French as the language of the ruling classes. So, while the rustic English peasantry already had their cows, pigs and sheep, the new words boeuf, porc and mouton were the ones preferred by their exotic overlords. But rather than supplanting the old words, the new ones took on a life of their own, meaning almost the same thing, but not quite. When they talked about beef, pork or mutton, these Norman aristocrats were referring to the meat on their plates, not the noisy, smelly creatures sharing the living quarters of their serfs. And that, I’m more or less guessing, is why we English speakers often use French words to impart a veneer of refinement to otherwise ordinary things. A bouquet of flowers is far more impressive than a bunch. A connoisseur is the most impressive kind of expert (an amateur somewhat less so). Social climbers must avoid committing any gaffes or faux pas if they are not to appear gauche. And so on.

But where watchmaking is concerned, the attachment to French is not just snobbery (or not always, in any case). This is where I have to bring in the mother of all untranslatable terms: terroir. The Collins English Dictionary defines this as “the combination of factors, including soil, climate, and environment, that gives a wine its distinctive character.” For someone reading in English about Swiss watchmaking, all those petites sonneries and grandes complications, all that guillochage and perlage are part of the goût du terroir; they help to convey the distinctive flavour of an industry built on unique geographical factors, and the particular historical, political and religious upheavals that helped to shape it. So that’s why, sometimes, I leave some of the French words in French. And anyway, it saves me a job.