I recently received feedback on a article I had written for a company magazine. I wrote it first in English and then translated it into French. The French version came back to me with corrections from the French-speaking client, which they wanted integrated into the original English version.
One of the corrections presented a real problem. It added a sentence that ended with “…permet de travailler à la façon d’un certain monsieur Jourdain qui faisait de la prose sans le savoir.” It you don’t know already it’s a reference to one of Moliere’s famous plays, “The Bourgeois Gentleman,” in which Sir Jourdain discovers that he has been speaking prose all his life, and didn’t even know it.
And that’s the problem. Not everyone knows who Mr. Jourdain or even Moliere is. Inserting a reference like this is showing off. It doesn’t help comprehension or clarity. It’s an inside joke, a wink between people in the know. To make matters worse, it is more accessible to French speakers (theoretically) than non-French speakers, which is out of place in a multinational corporation, even if it does have French roots.
So I decided to adapt the English to reflect the spirit of the correction, while getting rid of the reference. I also suggested fixing the French version. The client wasn’t too happy with the disappearance of Mister Jordain, and insisted that Monsieur stay in French, which means the sentence is clearer now in English than it is in French. Tant pis…