french flag with canadian maple leaf overlayOne of the first questions we ask when someone requests a translation into French is whether the audience is in Europe or Canada. Some clients want to know if there really is a difference. The answer? An emphatic “yes.” The differences are substantial. European French and Canadian French translators are not interchangeable.

This doesn’t mean that a person from France couldn’t understand a person from Canada, or vice versa, but the extent of understanding would depend upon the subject involved, the formality or informality of the speech, and the heaviness of the person’s accent. The difference is not just in pronunciation but also in vocabulary. (By Canadian French, we usually mean Quebec French. Most of the requests for translation into French for Canada are for Quebec, which has not only the largest French-speaking population in Canada, but also requires the use of French for many business and government purposes.)

Many of the differences can be explained by the unique history of French-speaking Canada. Unlike other French colonies, which remained under French rule until relatively recently, Canada was taken over by the British in 1760. After the takeover, the majority of new immigrants for a century or more were English-speaking. The French-speaking communities of Canada were cut off from the influence of France and were sometimes persecuted and forced to speak English. It wasn’t until the advent of modern communications methods that European French and French Canadians were in a position to regularly interact with and—especially—hear one another.

Because of this separation:

  • Quebec French retained some older usages and pronunciation from the French of the 18th centuries.
  • As with American English, Canadian French adopted terms from the languages of indigenous people to describe new and different phenomena.
  • As technology and circumstances came and a new vocabulary became necessary, Canadian French adopted its own new words, often borrowing them from English.
  • Of course, Canadians had to develop their own terminology for ice hockey.

The difference in spoken French and in national style is big enough that French television and films are not very popular in Canada.

Written French, particularly formal French, differs much less between the two countries. School children in Quebec learn Standard French in terms of grammar and spelling. But standard word choices often vary. Some people compare it to the difference between American and British English. The wrong word choice may be comprehensible, but it can mark a translation as “foreign.”

The bottom line: Make sure you specify that French is for Canada or your Canadian audience may label it a “bad translation.”

If you want some entertainment, Benny Lewis (AKA Benny the Irish Polyglot) has a video interview with a friend from Quebec on his blog Fluent in Three Months. It’s a little lengthy but certainly amusing, “Differences between French in Quebec and France: accent, attitude & curse words.” 

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