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10 French Words & Phrases That Don't Translate into English

Unique terms and idiomatic expressions that make French translation difficult

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 idiomatic expressions and vocabulary unique to each language is vital.

Translating between French and English can be especially challenging. Although both languages have roots in the same Indo-European language family tree, there are key differences distinguishing them. Whether you are translating the script for a movie or an email exchange amongst colleagues, certain cultural words and phrases are easily mistranslated.

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

 

#1 Élan


Momentum, impetus, that sense of preparation leading up to a movement—the French have a single word to encompass that idea: élan. French-speakers will emphasize the elegance surrounding the term élan. Beyond just momentum, it conveys a sense of confidence and grace. When approaching translation, there is no direct English equivalent. Understanding the nuances surrounding this term, and how to communicate them in English, demands a sophisticated knowledge of the French language and highly refined translation skills.

 

 

#2 Je ne sais quoi


“I don’t know what it is, but he has a certain je ne sais quoi.” It’s a French expression that has entered the English vernacular more and more, but what does it actually mean? Type this phrase into an online translator, and you will find je ne sais quoi literally translates to “I don’t know what.” But the expression itself holds an entirely different meaning. To say something has an element of je ne sais quoi, means they have a certain indescribable—even untranslatable—quality.

 

 

#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 Flâner


The meaning of flâner can meander and drift from situation to situation. Literally. Flâner is a verb that can refer to a slow stroll or meandering walk, but also communicates a sense of dawdling or aimless wandering. For example, if one enjoys flâner in clothing stores, one might wander up and down the aisles, looking at merchandise for an extended period of time.

 

 

#5 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.”

 

 

#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 Coup de grâce


To give someone the final, mortal blow. Or in French, the ”hit of grace.” While coup de grâce can be loosely translated as “mercy blow,” in doing so, one loses some nuances to the meaning of the expression. Namely, the juxtaposition between the violent nature of a fatal blow, and the positive element that the blow came from an act of grace.

 

 

#8 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.

 

 

#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.

 

 

#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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Sophia Eakins
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Sophia Eakins