Newton's Bilingual Dictionary
of Land Surveying, Geography and Geomatics
Article published in "Surveying World"
November/December 1997, volume 6, issue n°1
On good terms
- but vive la différence

Now in my sixth year of teaching technical English to future French land surveyors, in Toulouse, Southern France, I can finally say I feel I have got somewhere : the Modern Land Surveyor's Bilingual Dictionary is about to be born.

First term at school

Before arriving at the E.P.T.E.G.E. (Ecole Privée des Techniques de la Géographie et de ll'Environnement), I had a faint idea of what a land surveyor was. One came once to measure the land around my parents' house in the Lot-et-Garonne a few years back. So when I was asked whether I could teach English to students in land surveying, I said 'Yes, why not?'. The next thing I did was open the dictionary to find out what géomètre (land surveyor) meant.The first ordeal was to find suitable working material. Books and magazines on land surveying in English are not the first thing you come across in a bookshop in Southern France. My search being unsuccessful within the following week, the first lesson was based on a French advertisement for a theodolite which explained how to use it. This seemed fairly basic. Apart from the fact that theodolite is written théodolite and pronounced tayodoleet nothing very complicated turned up.The crunch came during the next lesson. The second half of the same advertisement explained how to carry out an implantation. Somehow 'implantation' did not seem right, more to do with horticulture or surgery than land surveying. Judging by the diagram, which showed a series of pegs laid out around an excavation site, I guessed implantation meant 'layout'. For four months I left them with this "wobbly" translation, until I came across a magazine called G.I.M, lent to me by a local land surveyor who could not remember how he obtained it. This contained an article which showed a picture of pegs laid out on a building-site and the words 'setting-out'. G.I.M., how can I ever thank you?

Translating doubt

Finding translations for words has not always taken that long. One can often find at least an allusion to a technical term in a good general bilingual dictionary. The trouble with teaching is that all you say is written down and memorized by students who take your word as gospel, even if you tell them of your doubts. It takes a lot of reading magazines in both languages and comparing articles on similar subjects to find the right terms.However, one can often get by thanks to a few linguistic notions, the main one being that English is a very pragmatic language, whereas French is more notional. Hence, a line which gives us an indication on altitude and the shape of a landscape is called 'contour line' in English and courbe de niveau (level curve) in French. The term 'line of sight', meaning intervisibility between two stations, conjures up a very clear image of a straight, unbroken line between two points. Its only translation is intervisibilité, which is, one must admit, more a notion than anything else. The French will always see the more theoretical side of things and the English the more concrete. This may explain a few historical events between the English and the French !

Coming to terms with English

Once one has found the correct translations after hours of tedious reading, consulting and comparing definitions in unilingual dictionaries, the hardest part is to convince the students that it is worthwhile to learn them.L'anglais est important, all French students from as early as primary school have had this repeated to them over and over. The contradiction lies in the fact that although coefficients applied to English exams are heavier and heavier, it is those who take on scientific and mathematical studies who are given more credit than those who go for the literary fields. So, in spite of the awareness of English being the international lingua franca, most French students in land surveying consider learning English more as a chore than a useful investment for their future career.One can always insist on the fact that software packages and new devices often come with instructions in English, but they quickly learn that supplying such merchandise without a French translation of the user's manual and spec sheets is illegal in France. Since Jacques Toubon was Minister of Culture, even advertisements with English slogans require a translation. Secondly, the French , although less so nowadays, are very reluctant to work abroad. Mind you, once you have become used to the lifestyle there is here, you cannot really blame them. The other advantage to learning a foreign language : open-mindedness, is something I have often tried to put forward. The reaction I receive to such a statement is something between cold and lukewarm.It is after they have left school and are looking for work that I hear urgent cries for help. This concerns less those who go on to the Ecole Supérieure de Geomètres-Topographes (the higher school for land surveyors in Le Mans), than those who go on to specialize in G.I.S. The E.P.T.E.G.E. provides such training in a special third-year course. Much of the work on offer from companies such as Spot Image (based in Toulouse) requires solid notions in English. From what I have heard, even the job interviews are carried out partly in English.

The global position

On an international level, the spread of English and its increasing importance as the lingua franca, thanks mainly to American hegemony and computerization, has many obvious advantages but also a fair counterweight of drawbacks.When translating technical documents, one is often confronted with English from non-native English speakers who use a somewhat stilted form of the language. This poses a serious problem in understanding the content in its details and will lead to misinterpretations, especially if the reader is not totally aware of the subject the writer is dealing with. In other words, either the reader has to guess the exact meaning of the text, or he is supposed to know about the subject already, in which case reading the document is a waste of time anyway.This arises obviously from difficulties in translating the original language which is full of concepts and idioms English was not originally designed to master. As I have mentioned above, English is a very concrete language, with a vast choice of precise vocabulary. Yet it is also a victim of its own flexibility. Something around one hundred and fifty foreign languages have been incorporated into our own. Another factor is the spread of an international English which is derived more from American English than its standard British form. Each country adapts this international English to its own purposes, so we end up with English dialects which vary from country to country. One only has to go through the different English dictionaries of the spell checker in one's computer to realize the scope of the matter (in mine there are ten).The effects of this evolution towards heteroclite forms of English not only pose a threat to our own beloved mother tongue but to others also. The worst effects of this are seen especially in the field of computerization and high technology. One only has to go through a French document on a survey project using G.P.S. to find that the French use the méthode du stop-and-go. Even G.P.S. is said gépé-ess whereas it should be S.P.G. (Système de Positionnement Global). However, this last translation is also incorrect as global in French does not mean 'worldwide' but 'general'. The real translation of G.P.S. should therefore be système de positionnement mondial. As for 'stop-and-go', it should be positionnement par arrêts successifs. Is it a surprise that hardly anyone uses this translation? The use of anglicisms for concepts and inventions resulting from the technology race, which languages cannot keep pace with, is becoming alarmingly frequent over here. It has reached the point at which, even in cases where French has its own perfectly well suited words, English has taken over. The effects on general spelling and expression in French are devastating. The French government has undertaken measures to try and contain such a development with laws like the one mentioned above, but I fear these are rather vain. I personally am an anti-angliscism militant in cases where French has its own words, though when one comes across expressions like surfer le web, one can only admit that a proper translation would be somewhat difficult : 'to surf ' has no real translation and 'web' in this case is considered as a proper noun.

From "anti-spoofing" to "zoning"

To come to terms with terms as far as communication between French and English-speaking land surveyors is concerned, I have compiled a bilingual dictionary of over five thousand terms which is now in its final phases of publication. It is the result of six years of teaching and struggling with the translation of technical documents, and covers the fields of land surveying, geodesy, civil engineering, construction, soil mechanics, G.P.S., G.I.S. and Law. It does not only provide a translation for each term, but guides the reader through a choice of translations according to the context. If only they had had it before trying to build a tunnel under the Channel !