A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting René Meertens, an experienced English to French translator who spent his entire career in prestigious institutions like the World Health Organisation and the United Nations. He is the author of the best-selling “Guide anglais-français de la traduction” and maintains an active blog.
When I first heard of René on Twitter, I visited his site and tried to learn more about him. But I did not find a lot of information about the man hidden behind the translator. This triggered my curiosity and, living not far from each other, we agreed to meet in person at a very nice café in the heart of Brussels. I was happy to make Rene’s acquaintance as we sat and conversed, surrounded by written dedications of iconic visitors, such as Raimu, Maurice Chevalier, Sacha Guitry on the walls of the coffee shop.
Today, I am very pleased to offer you a worldwide exclusive: Rene’s answers to some fundamental linguistic questions (you know, the kind which keep you awake at night)… and I proudly present one of his first pictures on the web!
Anne: René, you have been translating for more than 30 years from English to French. Of all the millions of words you encountered in English, what is your preferred one?
René: It is self-righteous. I like it because it is a difficult word to translate. A direct equivalent does not exist in French. It conveys the attitude of someone piously sure of his own righteousness or someone exhibiting pious self-assurance. Being self-righteous is a moral default, so I try not to fall into that trap myself. In my dictionary I mentioned « prompt à faire la morale » and “réprobateur” as alternative translations.
Anne: What is the English word you hate most?
René: Community! This word is used for all kind of purposes and often misused. In my guide, I list a whole page for this sole word!
Anne: What is the translation you’re the most proud of?
René: Well, translating 20 pages in 5 hours on a Slovene keyboard. What conclusion should we draw from that? Well, I’m not sure. I realized later on that my translation contained some inconsistencies.
Anne: What was your worst experience as a translator?
René: When I began to work for the European Commission, my translations used to be proofread by colleagues, usually translating German into French. Being outside of their comfort zone, they were afraid of making mistakes and wanted to stick to the text, claiming that I was straying too far from the source text.
Anne: Based on your experience what is the most common trap translators fall into?
René: Lots of translators stick to well-established translations which are in fact typical mistakes. For example, “guidelines » is translated as « directives » or « community » as « collectivité » (in order to avoid « communauté »). Those stereotyped translations are legion on translators’ forums and attempts to correct them often evoke sarcastic reactions. There is a certain group conformism I noticed at the UN, where the conventional wisdom is that « implications » is always translated by « incidences », whereas “implications” is sometimes the right translation. Generally, I can recognize a given translation as having been done by a UN translator, because most of them use the same style. This being said, UN translators are generally extremely skilled.
Anne: Who is your favorite English-speaking character?
René: Noam Chomsky. Beside the fact that he is a famous linguist, I admire his intelligence. He uses his reputation as a linguist to spread his political ideas which he has developed over many years. I am particularly impressed by the way he can answer the trickiest questions, on the spot without any hesitation, which is a great talent!
Anne: What is your favorite English dish?
René: It is mince pie. Those little cakes are served during Christmas time with mulled wine.
Anne: Which English accent do you prefer?
René: The accent of some people in New-York City is really my favorite one. It is similar to the Irish accent. It is very clear, all letters are pronounced, specially the “R”. I can understand it very well. New-York City is also my favorite place, I love this city which never sleeps: its noise, its rumor, its traffic, its air-conditioning, its atmosphere.
Anne: Can you tell us a little bit more about a habit you dislike in Anglo society?
René: I prefer to avoid generalizations. In each country or community, there are nice people on the one hand and unpleasant people on the other hand. I remember once playing darts with some colleagues. We were two French guys against a bunch of Englishmen. At the end, we were so bad, they made us out to be armless penguins.
Anne: On the other hand, what do you like in Anglo culture?
René: I am really fond of American action movies, especially those directed by Martin Scorcese.
Anne: That figures, given that he directed the iconic film “New York, New York”.