Commentary  Hyde Park: Putting an end to token translation

Following my last article on the poor translation of the Arts Undergraduate Society’s (AUS) listserv, here are some questions I wish had been asked, particularly by Maia Frieser and Louis-Michel Gauthier, the candidates running for VP Communications of AUS.

What’s your problem?

Aside from asthma, a weak stomach, and a negative attitude, my problem is that I have principles. I’m no saint, but as a student translator, I believe in and want to defend ethical translation. Not everyone, it seems, understands translation the way apprentice-translators and translatologists do, so I’ve taken it upon myself to popularize the fundamentals of the domain.

What is translation? What are its so-called ethics?

Translation is an art and a service. The art, “literary translation,” has fluid procedures. Its objective varies from translator to translator; the service, “pragmatic translation,” has strict rules and clear goals. Restrictions apply.

Pragmatic translators perform a service for people who do not speak the original language of a text. The language these translators use must conform to standards of accuracy, clarity, and usage – that is, the translated text ought to say all that the original text says, in completely normative language, following contemporary usage patterns to the letter: no surprises, nothing inventive. Pragmatic translation should not feel translated; it should read as though it had been composed in the target language.

McGill is an English-speaking school, and AUS’s translations aren’t mandatory. Can’t you be happy with what you’ve got?

No. Translation is a service, and a service poorly executed is nothing more than unethical tokenism.

Some tokens are good. Learning a little French so you can chat with cashiers in the Plateau is a wonderful, symbolic gesture of respect towards the local culture. Translation, however, is not symbolic. It’s a practical action with specific utility. It helps those who would not normally understand a text to access its meaning. A mangled translation, in addition to disgusting and/or confusing the target audience, doesn’t even have token value; if anything, it is a token of disrespect.

What’s the goal of the French listserv? If it’s to help integrate francophone students, there’s little hope that it’ll work as long as it remains gibberish. If it’s to show respect, then there are better ways than massacring the French language to do it.

You’re not even a francophone. Why do you even care about this?

See the first question.

How can I find a qualified translator at McGill, if you insist that I use one?

The best way to get in touch with aspiring translators would be to write to the French Literature Students’ Association (AGELF) at Ask them to send a message to all undergrads in the Lettres et traduction françaises program. (Be sure to mention if it’s paid or pro bono; I suspect this will affect the number of responses received.)

What makes a qualified translator? Who should I pick?

The first criterion: What is the translator’s strongest language? If you’re looking for a translation into French, and the mother tongue of your candidate is English, pick somebody else.

Next, look at the their grades and work experience. Though bilingualism is essential, not just any bilingual can translate well. Ask for a translation sample. Have it evaluated by a francophone. If you can’t find someone qualified, keep looking: no translation is better than a bad translation.

Do you hate Adil Katrak and AUS’s translator?

Absolutely. Psych. Julia Wilk, AUS’s translator, is someone I know and like, and is very qualified to translate French into English. As for Katrak, I don’t know him, but have nothing against him; this is purely a professional and ethical matter. His motion on bilingualism at AUS Council is a step in the right direction; I hope the next VP Communication will follow his lead (and my advice) and put an end to token translation.

William Burton is a U3 Lettres et traduction françaises student, and Vice-President (External) of AGELF (Association générale des étudiantes et étudiants de langue et littérature françaises). He also sits on the Commission des affaires francophones, but the views expressed here are his own. You can reach him at