Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Retailers Fear Getting Lost in Translation ; U.S. Chains Fight Quebec over Crackdown on Signs That Lack French Phrases

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Retailers Fear Getting Lost in Translation ; U.S. Chains Fight Quebec over Crackdown on Signs That Lack French Phrases

Article excerpt

American retailers, including Costco, Best Buy and Walmart, are taking the province to court over a change in policy that will require them to adjust their store signs to reflect French influence.

The southern gentleman with the distinctive tie who looms above the entrance to a fast-food restaurant here is immediately recognizable to any American. The outlet's name, PFK, however, might be a bit of a puzzle. And not far away on Boulevard Maloney, a busy street lined with shopping malls, sits another familiar sight: a red and white big-box store filled with binders, photocopier paper and desks. But the name, Bureau en Gros, might not ring a bell.

When it comes to American companies, KFC and Staples are exceptions in Quebec, a predominantly French-speaking province, in that they have translated their names into French: PFK, representing Poulet Frit Kentucky, and Bureau en Gros, meaning Office Wholesale.

A large majority of signs along Boulevard Maloney could be at home in Kentucky: They include Costco Wholesale, Walmart, Toys "R" Us, Best Buy, Pizza Hut and Linen Chest. A Comfort Inn sits nearby to receive overwhelmed shoppers.

Quebec's stringent language laws, first passed in 1977, have long meant that regardless of the name out front, all large retailers must serve customers in French and post signs that are predominantly, or entirely, in French along their aisles. Now, after decades of permitting English-language trade names on signs, the government agency responsible for enforcing language laws has changed its mind. Its efforts, accompanied by threats of legal action and fines, to add French phrases and slogans to those trade names prompted six major American retailers to take the province to court last month.

"How can you organize your business when you've had a law that's been applied a certain way for 35 years change without any discussion?" said Nathalie St.-Pierre, the vice president for Quebec at the Retail Council of Canada, who spoke Thursday on behalf of all the plaintiffs. "It's a bit like you take the tax laws and then suddenly change the way they are applied. People would feel it was very unfair."

The plaintiffs' suit asked the Quebec Superior Court to assess the legality of the policy change by Quebec's office of the French language. The companies are all American-owned and include the Canadian subsidiaries of Walmart, Guess, Costco Wholesale, Best Buy - - which operates under its own name in Canada and which owns a separate electronics chain here called Future Shop, even in Quebec - - and the Gap, which listed its Old Navy operation as a separate plaintiff.

But while American companies may be leading the resistance, many Canadian retailers are also affected by the change. Boulevard Maloney has an enormous Canadian Tire store, and while it stocks pneus -- tires -- on its shelves in Quebec, the chain still uses its English name on signs along the road. …

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