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False friends: pôle/pole

18-Oct-2016

 

 

I've noticed pôles cropping up all over the place in the past few years: every city now seems to boast a pôle d'excellence or two. And no, this expression does not refer to highly accomplished practitioners of the pole-based fitness trend!

 

France's most famous pôle is probably the national system of employment centres, which was rebranded Pôle emploi in 2009. But a Google autocomplete search turns up countless other examples, including pôle de compétitivité, pôle de santé, pôle de commerce and pôle de recherche.

 

The metaphor at work here is that of a magnet, which draws metallic objects to its poles. These places similarly attract people, jobs ideas or business.

 

It's a versatile way of describing any concentration of activities, with an added dash of prestige. Imagine how much happier you would be about doing housework if your laundry room was renamed pôle propreté!

 

In English, however, a pole is also a long thin, cylindrical object,* like the smooth stainless steel ones used for pole-dancing. The magnetic metaphor therefore runs the risk of being hijacked in translation, to somewhat comic effect.

 

Most pôles can be rendered, more prosaically, in English as centrecentre of excellence, health centre, research centre. Another option is hub, which seems common in business and technology, for instance innovation hub for pôle d'innovation. I like this option because it retains the metaphorical aspect (a hub is the pivot around which a wheel rotates).

 

When the centripetal force is more diffuse, less a physical place than a set of favourable conditions, as in pôle d'attraction (pour la recherche / l'industrie /les talents), I might translate as cluster, as in industry cluster, research cluster, or magnet, as in "Zurich is a magnet for talent".

 

Rephrasing with attract or attractive can also get the point across. "La région lémanique reste un pôle d'attraction pour les multinationales" could be translated as "The Lake Geneva region continues to attract multinational companies."

 

Finally, you may have come across the idiom pole position in both languages. Before writing this post, I vaguely knew it had something to do with racing, but not that it literally meant the position next to the pole or post on the inner edge of a racetrack, reserved for the fastest qualifying horse – hence, a favorable or leading position. "Paris est en pole position pour détrôner Londres" could also be translated as "Paris is poised /positioned to unseat London". Note that this is an English loan-word, so the correct spelling in French is pole, not pôle.

 

 

* Pole (stick) and pole (magnetic) derive from two different Latin roots: palus (stake), which gave us pal in French, and polus (pivot).

 

 

 

 

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Viviane Lowe

traduction + communication