10 French Words & Phrases that Don’t Translate to English

False cognates and idiomatic expressions that make French translation difficult

Last Updated: December 4, 2019 7:38PM

By: Jean-Patrick Le Bihan with Sophia Eakins

When translating, the importance of using the correct words and phrase can’t be overstated. But finding the right language can be tricky. Knowledge of false cognates—pairs of words that appear deceptively similar but have different meanings—and idiomatic expressions is vital.

Translating between French and English can be especially challenging. Although both languages have roots in the same Indo-European language family tree, family members don’t always make the best friends. Faux amis or “false friends,” are false cognates that don’t easily translate into English. With an abundance of false friends and unique expressions, finding a partner with experience and expertise in French language translation is essential.

Here’s our translations team’s top 10 French words and phrases to watch out for:

 

#1 Un Agenda

False friend #1:  In English, an “agenda” refers to a list of items to be covered in a meeting. But in French, un agenda is a journal or diary. If you are translating material in a business context, an agenda in French would be un ordre du jour.  

woman sitting on grass writing in journal; only hand and legs are in the picture

 

#2 En faire tout un fromage

En faire tout un fromage literally translates to “to make a cheese of it all.” Used in conversation, it conveys the meaning “don’t make a big deal out it.”

#3 Dépayser

Originally, it referred to the action of forcing one to leave their country. Dépayser = [dé] “ceasing of an action” + [payser] “to be of a country.” In legal matters, it describes the dismissal of a case to be tried in another court. In everyday conversation, however, French-speakers use it to describe the sensation of being out of place in a foreign country, or unfamiliar situation.

#4 Avoir la pêche

Avoir la pêche is a sweet expression meaning “to have the peach.” Like many cultural expressions, it’s hard to convey the right meaning of this phrase in English. If a French person tells you, you a la pêche, they perceive you to be in great form that day. Translating expressions like this require native, or near-native, knowledge of both French and English to successfully communicate their meaning.

Two hole peaches and two peach halves

 

#5 Demander (v.) /une demande (n.)

False friend #2: Don’t be shocked if a French-speaker “demands” you respond to their email or sign an agreement. While a “demand” in English is a brusque or insistent request, in French it has no such negative connotation. An accurate translation of une demande would simply be “a question or request.”

#6 Ne pas avoir à s’en faire (formal)/ ne pas s’en faire (colloquial)

This expression showcases another challenge when translating the French language: its grammar. Translated literally, the phrase reads: “Of which to not have done unto oneself.” Despite its complex grammatical structure, ne vous en faites pas is a common way to tell someone “don’t worry about it.”

#7 Actuellement

False Friend #3: Actuellement seems like a perfect match to “actually” in English. But don’t be fooled by its appearance. In reality, Actuellement the equivalent to “now” or “currently” in English. The correct translation of “I am actually a talented translator” would be simply, je suis un traducteur talentueux.

#8 Passer du coq à l’âne

“Sorry, did I just move from the rooster to the donkey?” Translated word-for-word this common idiomatic expression is largely non-sensical to an English-speaking audience. But interpreted correctly, and it is simply a colorful way of saying “to change the subject.”

#9 Être avocat vs. Être un avocat

Companies needing legal translation take note. Double-check and then triple-check that you have not made this common mistake: Translate “I am a lawyer” word-for-word from English to French and you get je suis un avocat—literally meaning, “I am an avocado.” Avocat can mean “avocado” or “lawyer” depending on the structure of the sentence. To talk about the legal professional, you must remove the article, un, making the correct translation je suis avocat.

woman in suit holding folder, presumably a female lawyer with case breif

 

#10 Voilà

And voilà! Number 10 on our list is perhaps one of the most famous French expressions. But what does it actually mean? You might struggle to find a suitable translation for voilà as it has no direct equivalent in English. In the U.S., one might replace it with, “there you have it!” Or in British English, “and Bob’s your uncle!” Another choice? Leave it as it is. Sometimes the most accurate translations require no translating at all.

 

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Lions head in black and white
AUTHOR
Sophia Eakins