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The Conditional Tense
Posted on Tuesday, October 02 @ 03:56:38 EDT
Topic: English Grammar

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The conditional tense in French is often translated by the use of "would" in English. For example:
En ce cas il le trouverait facilement
In that case he would easily find it.

Similarly, the conditional perfect tense is "would have":
If you had looked properly you would have found it.

However, this is not always the case. Here are two examples of incorrect translations of the French conditional tense which I have come across

In a contract for the supply of computer products and services:

"...ne s'applique pas aux produits qui seraient intégrés au présent contrat au titre de l'article 9.3 ci-après."
Shall not apply to any product which would be added to this agreement in accordance with article 9.3 below.

In a court decision on a case involving the poaching of employees (débauchage):

...la société offrait aux salariés qui la rejoindraient des postes plus élevés.
...the company offered employees who would join it higher level positions.

In these two examples the conditional is appropriate in the French, as the sentences refer to hypothetical situations: the possible addition of new products in the first example, and the possibility of employees agreeing to work for the company, in the second.

However, in English the use of "would" is not appropriate.

In the first example, the French conditional should be translated by "may be":

...shall not apply to any product that may be added to this agreement in accordance with article 9.3 below.

While in the second example I suggest adding the verb "agree":

...the company offered employees who agreed to join it higher level positions.

In French legal documents (statements of claim, conclusions, judgments) that refer to disputed facts the conditional tense is often used when a fact has not been established.

This technique is also used by journalists when reporting unascertained facts. Its use can also suggest that a statement or claim is in fact untrue.

Let us consider the following example:

"le jeune homme aurait volé le sac à main de la vieille dame."

Once again, the construction "would" is inappropriate here (the young man would have stolen the old lady's handbag).

In English, the best solution would be to add an adverb such as 'apparently' or 'allegedly'.

For instance, apparently could be used in normal speech or when reporting unproven facts:
"apparently the young man stole the old lady's handbag".

'Allegedly' would be appropriate in a legal document, such as a defence document written by the young man's lawyer:

"the young man allegedly stole the old lady's handbag".

The use of 'allegedly' also suggests that this may not in fact be true.

So, in the case of the poaching of employees, "la société défenderesse aurait débauché 9 employés" could be translated as "the defendant allegedly poached (or hired away) 9 employees".

Language article reprinted with permission of

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