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21 March 2024

Editing in a bilingual environment: opportunities and challenges

Canada has been a bilingual country since 1969; English and French are used by all federal institutions. In 1982, Queen Elizabeth II signed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which dedicates a category to Official Language Rights. Yet, depending on where you live in Canada, your linguistic experience can vary greatly as both languages are not used equally throughout the country. In Quebec, for instance, French is predominant, and many laws have been passed to protect the language. As such, certain companies cannot deliver products to this province because of Bill 96, an Act respecting French as the official and common language of Quebec. Then again, if you send a request in French to a government department in British Columbia (e.g., you search for the death certificate of a long-lost family member), you might receive a reply in English – even from federal institutions. New Brunswick is the only officially bilingual province in the country.

As one might expect, communication can be very frustrating for a unilingual individual in a bilingual country. There has always been a cultural and linguistic divide between Francophones and Anglophones in Canada as realities and points of view differ. This is also perceptible in the editorial world: why write in proper French when most of the population of the province you live in speaks English? Those who can speak “some” English will get the message anyway. Why bother with a properly written English document when most of the population in the province you live in speaks French? Surely they have a bilingual family member or friend who can assist them?

The opportunities for professional editors

For professional editors, this environment offers many opportunities. Because both languages are used in every province, in one context or another, there is a need to make sure communications are properly structured and written. There are editors like me who are fully bilingual and who choose to help bridge the gaps. Though I don’t offer editing services in English (French is my native language), I joined Editors Canada, an organisation with a national scope, to help promote the editorial services of our members from sea to sea – and beyond. As a freelancer, I am one of many editors and translators tasked with ensuring the final communication (e.g., a press release) is adequately written for a French-speaking audience. Members of Editors Canada who opt in to the Online Directory of Editors widen their exposure to potential clients: a Francophone editor in Quebec can be hired to edit the thesis of a student in Alberta, and an Anglophone editor in Ontario can collaborate with a museum in Nova Scotia on the documents pertaining to an upcoming exhibition, for example.

The challenges of editing in a bilingual environment

But there are also drawbacks to editing in a bilingual environment. In some countries, the government has adopted two (or more) official languages and yet only one of them benefits from the talents and services of professional editors. Or it may be that two or more languages are officially used to communicate with the population without regard for one of them, from an editorial point of view. They may ask a bilingual employee (or even worse: someone who knows some of that language) to translate the document just so they can say they offer it in both languages. Sadly, the result might end up as comic relief in a newspaper or a linguistic journal rather than being used to inform the intended audience. There’s also the need for local knowledge: for example, what is true in one version of French in Africa (e.g., to translate the word “package” as bouquet) might sound erroneous in Canada (where we would use forfait). Both are correct, but unless you confirm with a professional linguist in that locale, you won’t know that.

As a Francophone editor, I have the privilege of assisting my clients in making sure they use the language as accurately as possible. Sometimes, there is a disconnect between the intention and the creation of a text; French may be impacted by English because of the geo-linguistic reality of the province of Quebec. My linguistic skills and my passion for French allow me to guide authors (and translators) to achieve the best communication.

I wish for professional editors in all languages to be valued for their contributions to better communications and thus contribute to more positive relationships between authors and audiences and help create better-informed communities.


Suzanne Aubin

Suzanne Aubin is a freelance editor and translator in Quebec, Canada, and has been a member of Editors Canada since 2002.

She is director of member recruitment and retention on Editors Canada’s national board and shares the task of Francophone advisor. Follow her on LinkedIn.