When Franglais doesn’t work

July 26, 2011

English is the dominant language in financial markets and economics — which means that speaking anything else can bring all kinds of trouble with it.

I recall an occasion in the mid-1990s when a newly appointed French finance  minister opined in a formal European Commission press conference that markets should “réévaluer” the French franc.

French journalists looked on in confusion as most of the English speakers rushed to the phones to report that the minister was calling for a revaluation of the franc.

What had happened was that the “réévaluer” — which means to reevaluate — had been translated by the official translator as revalue.  A comment that the franc was stronger than the market was giving it credit for, thus became — for a short time, until corrections flowed — a franc in need of formal strengthening.

This memory was jogged today by comments in the Financial Times Deutschland from Bank of France chief Christian Noyer, who said that the European Central Bank was exercising “grande vigilance” on inflation — which if translated as “strong vigilance” would mean the bank is preparing for an immediate rate rise.

Au contraire, the Bank of France said later.  “Grande vigilance” means “strong alertness” and that this what Noyer would have said had he been speaking in English, a phrase with a lot less immediacy that the vigilance one.

This may indeed be the case. But it does rather raise a question. If  “vigilance” in French means “alertness” in English, what is the French for vigilance?

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