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Dwain Richardson

English Editing in Quebec: Linguistic Interference During COVID-19

Illustration of books, one labelled “French” and one “English.” A Canadian flag and an oversized A, B, C, and Z surround the books.
Illustration of books, one with "French" written on the cover, the other with "English" written on the cover. Books are next to small Canadian flag and a big letter A. Small letters (c, b, z) scattered next to books.
monkographic © 123RF.com
panyamail © 123RF.com

This post is part of a series on some of the challenges English editors and translators encounter when working with French texts.

When the COVID-19 pandemic oozed into Canadian territory in March, government officials and media outlets across the country were working hard to keep society apprised of the latest developments. These included physical-distancing rules, the use of masks, lockdowns, then the gradual ease of restrictions, and so on.

COVID-19 struck Quebec the hardest. In a rather surprising move, the government decided to temporarily forgo its historic quarrels with language and deliver the latest COVID-19 developments to Quebec’s French- and English-language communities.

All COVID-19-related documents were written in French before they were translated into English. This is where linguistic interference crept in.

Confinement (lockdown)

When the Quebec government ordered all businesses to temporarily shut down in mid-March, the French noun confinement spread like wildfire. Some politicians fell into the trap of using this word when addressing the province’s English-language communities, as did many English-speaking journalists in their reporting of the latest developments. At a time when a partial lockdown is currently in effect in some regions across Quebec, journalists sadly continue to use confinement when this word is not appropriate in an epidemiological context.

Though “confinement” and its related adjective “confined” are used in English, according to many leading dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster, “confined” is defined as “limited to a particular location,” “held captive,” “very small” or “undergoing childbirth.”

The noun “confinement” is often collocated with adjectives such as solitary, pre-trial or forcible.

Politicians and journalists have gotten into the habit of using the verb “confine,” given that French uses confiner in the current COVID-19 context.

In the above cases, the noun and verb are calques on the French.

When referring to the emergency period that limited travel or gatherings and shut down businesses for health and safety reasons, the correct English term is “lockdown.” If you want to use “lockdown” as a verb, write the word in two: “lock down.” As an adjective, use “locked down.”

Deconfinement (lockdown-lifting)

In the months that followed, politicians and many journalists were using the noun “deconfinement” to describe the period that businesses were authorized to reopen, and travel was once again permitted across the province. “Deconfine” was a common verb, too. Again, both are calques on the French and are incorrect in English.

This is where translators and editors should use some creativity, as English provides many options.

It is possible to go with the noun phrase “lockdown lifting,” as suggested by the COVID-19 pandemic glossary prepared by the federal government, or create compound adjectives such as “lockdown-lifting” before a noun (for example, “lockdown-lifting plan” or “lockdown-easing rules”). If verbs best suit the context, consider “ease/lift restrictions,” “lift the lockdown,” “ease the lockdown,” or even “end the lockdown.”

Reconfinement (lockdown reinstatement)

Lastly, should there be another general shutdown, steer clear of reconfinement and reconfine. The correct noun phrase is “lockdown reinstatement,” per the federal government’s COVID-19 pandemic glossary. If verbs better fit your context, English provides many options at translators’ and editors’ disposal. Consider “reinstate/reimpose the lockdown” or “return to lockdown.” Want to give your text a more Anglo-Saxon feel? Think about using a phrasal verb: “head back to lockdown.”

The point bears repeating: Just because a word or phrase is perfectly acceptable in one language does not mean it is acceptable in another.

Can you think of words or phrases that sometimes feel out of place in English copy?

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Previous “English Editing in Quebec” post: Proofreading Bilingual Documents

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6 Comments on “English Editing in Quebec: Linguistic Interference During COVID-19”

  • Anita Jenkins

    says:

    So interesting. Thank you, Dwain.

  • Constance Durocher

    says:

    Thank you, Dwain, for this very useful post!

  • Stephanie Johnston

    says:

    When in French, one can another is a term of endearment as Chou. Chou translates as cabbage but not all people find cabbage a nice thing to be called. I’d expect there are other terms of endearment in other languages that make zero sense when translated.

    • Absolutely, Stephanie. This is where context and intent come into play.
      In the example you gave, chou would be used affectively. Thus, it would be conveyed as “dear/darling” or some other variant thereof.
      You sometimes have to fear the word-for-word translation and fear not the adaptation!

  • Naomi Pauls

    says:

    Appreciate this post, Dwain, and the link to the federal pandemic glossary. Stay well!

    • Glad to hear you’ll find the pandemic glossary useful.
      Take care of yourself during these strange and difficult times.

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