I had a problem recently with the term "mule". Within the context of drug trafficking, a mule is a person who carries drugs in her or his body across frontiers. In French, the term "passeur" or "passeuse" can be used with the same meaning. However, it seemed to me that this was a term more likely to be used by the police, whereas in my example it was a drug dealer speaking. The tone wasn’t right. Besides, I like "mule". The same word exists in French to describe the same animal and, like mules are made to carry enormous loads under a lot of physical stress, the drug carriers are made to carry loads that are certainly lighter physically, but incredibly heavy mentally and emotionally.
So I chose to borrow "mule" because it allowed me to stay faithful to the language register and to the characters. Besides, it wasn’t a huge risk in terms of the reader understanding what was going on, as it is used in French, although not as widely as "passeur". The situation was also extremely clear, so even if the reader hadn’t heard the word before, she would have no problem inferring its meaning.
Borrowing is a translation technique: the translator makes a conscious choice to use the same word in the target text as it is found in the source text. This is particularly the case when there is no equivalent term in the target language. It also allows the translator to put a text clearly within a particular cultural context through the register of the vocabulary she uses. Certain terms allow people belonging to communities of similar interests to transcend linguistic boundaries. Despite using different linguistic systems, they share the same reality and the same code to decipher it. Depending on where this code was created, some words will have a lot more prestige than others in a certain context.
For example, no self-respecting French techno music enthusiast will use anything but "rave" to describe, well, a rave. In the same way, English cookery programs are peppered with French words. This leads to interesting linguistic developments, like for example the coining of "after" in French: an "after" is a rave after the rave, for the die-hards who still haven’t had enough. This false Anglicism was certainly created because, so many terms related to the techno world being borrowings from the English language, a French word might have been out of place, almost "foreign" to this particular code.
So in this kind of situation, the linguistic and cultural context becomes central and heavily influences the decisions made by the translator.
February 23
Since writing this entry, I’ve come across several examples of borrowing; I might add here the most interesting ones.
Le turnover (taux de départ des salariés). This is an odd one: a borrowing followed by its translation between brackets. Why not just use the French equivalent? In this case, I think that the reason is that "management speak" is developed by the big gurus of that sector, most of them American, and their jargon is adopted by speakers of other languages. So in this article, the journalist was only using the terminology that is widely used in the context she was analysing (I found it in an article on the delocalisation of services). As she knew her readers might not be familiar with that world, she put the translation between brackets.

By |2016-10-18T15:52:14+00:00February 11th, 2004|Technical corner|7 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Philippe February 11, 2004 at 7:24 pm

    I am writing to you regarding the ethymology of “Mule” and its translation in French. French is my native language and I have been speaking english for the last five years. Your comments about the traduction are fairely right but some additional information has to be made on the meaning of Mule in french. In fact, my comment will be more on the french speaking countries than the accuracy of the ethymology. A word is always alive and needs to be re-appraised a nomberous of time during its evolution and especially when some similarities occure been two languages. The term “Une mule” is also used in Suisse-French and Belgium-French to define “un passeur” maybe it’s due to the slow but quite important integration of English words into our languages. We can always argue that French has been based on latin but look at the deferences between the French speaking and writing. There is a huge gap between this two elements and it keep increasing years after years. Anyway, this Email was just meant to give you more information on the traduction of “Mule” from English to French and I think that “Mule” in French could be used in the same meaning as its English sinonymous. I hope that I did not wasted your time…
    Forgive me for the spelling mistake, I am very tired and lazy to night;-)

  2. Robert Castelo February 12, 2004 at 11:09 am

    Sometimes borrowing sounds strange to speakers of the language being borrowed from. Spanish has some funny examples, such as “Footing” for jogging.

  3. céline February 12, 2004 at 11:14 am

    Ah but you see Robert, “footing” isn’t a borrowing, it’s a false anglicism (see my baby-foot entry).
    Borrowings are words that already exist in one language and are integrated into another language while keeping their original meaning. “Footing” does exist in English, but it doesn’t mean “jogging”, like in French and Spanish.

  4. Marieke February 14, 2004 at 12:39 pm

    Thoroughly interesting. After reading this entry, I spent an hour trying to come up with examples that would show the difference between a false anglicism and borrowing.
    However, I have not yet come to a verdict of the word e-mail. As you will be aware, French have decided that it should be corrière (spelling?) from now on. Was/is e-mail borrowing?

  5. dda February 14, 2004 at 6:24 pm

    I reckon it’s that awful “courriel”, coined in Québec, originally (for some reason I never could fathom, words invented by the Cousins are considered “cute”). Still, beats “mél” which is truly ugly…
    “Opportunité(s)” (especially the plural form) is a false Anglicism for instance — the word exists but means the fact of being opportune, adequate, not opportunity. Email is defo a borrowed word (it exists in English *and* means exactly the same thing).

  6. pwyf February 18, 2004 at 7:14 pm

    hello there. reading monday’s newspaper (i’ve been lazy lately) liberation, i noticed that the term mule was used by a judge in a quote in the infamous column “carnets de justice”. it seems it is more commonly used than we all thought.

  7. My Italian teacher always called false anglicisms “false friends”. In other words, you see one, think you know what it means, and proceed to make a horrible mistake!

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