Some Notes on (French) Economic Translation

I think the basis of a good economic textbook often resembles the bones of a human skeleton, where the main features are duplicated in strong oppositions or contrasts, and there are clear divisions and subdivisions. (Compare the 'Text' of Roget's great Thesaurus.) This is particularly so in a 'science' like economics, whose only purpose is to promote the welfare of humanity, but whose content is fundamentally mathematical, a constant balance or up and down of assets and liabilities, profit and loss, credit and debit, income and expenditure, exports and imports, input and output, etc.

It is these oppositions, and often the hierarchies which they head, that translators have to search for and preserve, say in Denise Flouzat's challenging and nicely written Economie contemporaine: Cette analyse a permis de préciser l'équilibre de parfaite concurrence de longue periode: celui-cisera atteint auplan de chaque producteur quandil aura déterminé une capacité productive telle qu'il y aura disparition du profit moyen (profit considéré comme anormal). Autrement dit, l'entrepreneur cessera d'investir quand l'investissement additionnel entrainera l'égalisation entre le prix (recette moyenne) et le coût moyen. Tant que le profit moyen subsistera, d'autres entreprises investiront et, suscitant une concurrence accrue, feront baisser les prix jusqu' au niveau où le coût moyen est minimal. (t. I,p.484). This is clear, but the cartesianism is dizzy-making. In the following version I make 'changes' only to bring out the contrasts: 'In this analysis, the equilibrium of perfect competition over a long period is demonstrated. A producer achieves this equilibrium when s/he establishes a productive capacity at the point where average profit disappears, and the profit is therefore considered 'abnormal'. In other words, an entrepreneur gives up investing when additional investment causes prices (average receipts) and average costs to become equal. As long as there continues to be average profit, other companies continue to invest, and as they invite increased competition, they bring down prices to the point where average costs are minimal.'

Grammatically, there are few problems in economic texts; one misses the syntactically contorted and lexically overblown sentences of the French medical press. What is sometimes perplexing is the abrupt use of an adjective or a past or present participle (e.g. Etendu à une large population, il réflète mal . . .) in the first position of a sentence, which can represent any kind of adverbial clause (when, if, because, although, whilst etc), where the context may not indicate what is intended. However, it is effectively used here: Difficile déja au plan national, l'utilisation des indices de prix de détail pour établir des comparaisons internationales est très discutable, car les structures de consommation different d'un pays à l'autre. ('The use of retail price indices is difficult enough (=déjà) on a national level, but when international comparisons are being made, it becomes extremely questionable, as consumer structures differ from one country to another.')

Lexically, an economic text consists of ordinary language, descriptive economic language, and standard (consacré) economic and institutional terms. As I see it, a translator is free to simplify or improve the ordinary or economic language, but the standard terms have where possible to be preserved in aspic (!), thus: L'indice des prix de gros qui comporte des décompositions (why not ventilations, one of my favourite words?) par catégories de produits . . . 'The wholesale price index, which is broken down in product categories' . . . Des révisions de cet indice doivent intervenir périodiquement . . . 'The index has to be revised periodically.' (I blow the syntax, the stresses and the order (i.e. the FSP), but the lexis is sacred.)

EC standard terms are immediately intertranslated, and the Commission produces invaluable French glossaries, but I have not seen any for German or other languages. Terms restricted to one country, such as 'junk bonds' (fortunately), 'en pension', 'market maker' (teneur du marché), 'at the money', 'back up lines' (see La Banque et les nouveaux instruments financiers, Revue Banque, 18 rue Lafayette, 75009 Paris), 'greenback' (when used technically; otherwise billet vert), are often transferred and defined, depending on the knowledge or the interest of the putative readership.

Some terms begin as descriptive before they become standard terms, e.g. les besoins de financement du secteur public, 'public sector borrowing requirement', with the help of an acronym (PSBR). In other cases, a metaphor such as circuit monétaire is continuously used, so that it may be best to translate it literally, enclosed in inverted commas, to denote its strangeness in an English text.

Loose 'stylish' use of synonyms in economic language has to be avoided: un abaissement uniforme du taux de l'impôt sur le revenu des personnes physiques has to be 'a uniform', not an 'equal', a 'unified', nor a 'homogeneous' 'reduction in the rate of personal income tax'. (Sur les personnes morales would presumably be 'corporation tax' in a wider sense than sur les sociétés.) However politiques inflationnistes is ambiguous: if it means 'policies that will cause inflation', it is 'inflationary'; if it means 'policies that favour inflation', it is 'inflationist'.

Peter Newmark (1993) Paragraphs on Translation, Clevedon: Multilingual Matters, pp. 27-29.

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