Language register

To accurately translate a document, it’s not enough to convey the meaning. It is absolutely crucial to pay attention to its language register to make sure the tone is also kept. This aspect is part and parcel of a text and what it communicates.
Yesterday, I translated a personal letter from an American man in his sixties to French friends. The letter was well-written, affectionate and formal and was updating the friends on what the various family members had been up to. I came across the following sentence:
Mary and I are well and we are having a good time.
It looks like it couldn’t be simpler to translate, but it did pose me a problem. The first translation that came to my mind was rather literal: "Mary et moi allons bien et nous nous amusons bien." The first part of the sentence was too flat compared to the rest of the letter, so I changed it to "Mary et moi nous portons bien" (slighty higher level of language). "Nous nous amusons bien" was also a problem in the sense that it didn’t seem to fit with the formal tone and the hight level of language of the rest of the letter or the context. This is a retired couple, so he didn’t mean "We’re out every night and generally partying away" but rather "Life is good". So not only did "Nous nous amusons bien" belong to a register that was below the rest of the translation, but it didn’t accurately reflect the meaning of the source document.
After much musing, I came up with the more elaborate and accurate: "Mary et moi nous portons bien et coulons des jours heureux", which seemed to me to be the right tone and more appropriate to what a retired couple might say in French.

By | 2016-10-18T15:52:01+00:00 April 28th, 2004|Technical corner|2 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. finelyspungirl April 28, 2004 at 8:42 pm

    Wow. I did french immersion for 12 years, and I don’t think I ever learned more formal french like that. I love the language, and love learning new expressions: “coulons des jours heureux”. What’s the literal translation of ‘couler’ (i’m assuming that’s the infinitive)?

  2. céline April 29, 2004 at 9:03 am

    couler = run, flow, sink depending on the context. This is a set expression, so one shouldn’t be surprised if its individual words don’t have the meaning you’d expect. What matters is the whole of the expression (by the way, it’s not THAT formal) and my Robert & Collins translates it as “to enjoy happy days”.

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