French is one of the most beautiful of the romance languages. Spoken as the official language in 29 countries, French is the second most widely spoken mother tongue in the European Union.
Learning to speak and understand any language is a process of immersion.
To truly understand and be able to translate French to English means understanding French culture and the idiosyncrasies of the language. One highly effective method for truly understanding a language beyond simply speaking it is to translate French into your mother tongue.
When learning to translate French to English, there are three areas that can prove challenging.
Idiomatic expressions, false cognates, and slang are three areas that can prove challenging to translate for non-native speakers regardless of the language.
To help you get started translating French, let’s take a closer look a how to translate French idioms, false cognates, and slang into English.
Every language uses idioms on a daily basis.
They often hold either a cultural or historical place in the language so it’s best to memorize them if you want to develop a good conversational base in the language.
The French language is full of interesting, funny and often colorful idiomatic expressions. Many idioms, or argot have their roots in some unlikely places, while others are very close to expressions in the English language.
Learning idioms can be one of the most fun tasks to developing skill in any language. It’s an excellent way to impress and engage native speakers and it gives you the ability to learn the language beyond the common methods of grammar, gender, sentence structure, and vocabulary.
The Benefit of Learning French Idioms
Learning French is entertaining, and enriching. Becoming familiar with idioms and their use in conversation is a helpful tool towards fluency and can help you to attain a native speaker’s knowledge of the language.
Committing French idioms to memory can take time and you should use care when learning to translate French idioms into English. While some are remarkably similar in meaning, others can have completely different meanings and it’s important to understand them from a cultural standpoint.
Common French Idioms And Their English Translations
The French have an obsession with the culinary arts and a surprising number of French idioms have culinary origins! While many have drastically different meanings in English, often when you translate French idioms to English, you’ll find some that have remarkably similar meanings. Here are some common idioms and their English translations
“Ne pas être dans son assiette“
English: to not be on one’s plate
This is a well-known expression with its roots in the culinary world. The English translation is literal, but the actual meaning in French is loosely “to feel under the weather”
“Occupe-toi de tes oignons”
English: mind your onions
The “culinary” based idiom, the literal translation seems silly, but the cultural “translation” is basically “mind your business.” While it’s not a phrase that would be used in polite conversation, it often pops up in more informal social situations.
While some idioms (like those above) translate differently than their “cultural interpretations” some have remarkably similar meanings in both languages.
“Prendre le taureau par les cornes”
English: to take the bull by the horns
Others, while literal translations almost match, can have vastly different meanings from a cultural standpoint, like:
“Avoir les dents longues”
English: long in the tooth
This is a perfect example. In English, this is almost a derogatory statement that means the person is old. In French, this phrase is actually a compliment meaning “to have ambition.”
While most expressions differ slightly and don’t use similar words, some match up smoothly with their English equivalents because the idea behind them is almost the same, for example:
English phrase: “it’s raining cats and dogs”
French: “il pleut des cordes”
English literal translation: it’s raining ropes
And another example:
English phrase: “to have other fish to fry”
French: “avoir d’autres chats â fouetter”
English literal translation: to have other cats to whip
While some idiomatic speech will need to be memorized in order to understand, other colloquialisms can be figured out literally, or culturally. Often, the best course of action is to learn these in the native language, then translate French to English and see how they match up.
French False Cognates
Cognates are words in two different languages that look similar and mean basically the same thing in both languages.
While there are cognates between French and English, you’ll need to be careful. While French and English share a linguistic history, there are plenty of “faux amis”(false friends) between these two languages.
False cognates are words that look the same in each language, but have different meanings, sometimes, vastly different meanings. When speaking with a native French speaker, improperly using these words can easily trick you into saying something senseless or embarrassing that you didn’t mean to say at all!
Here are some common examples to watch out for:
1. Ancien / Ancient
While ancien can mean ancient, it’s primary meaning is “former.” For example, your ancienne voiture is the car you used to own. A good rule of thumb, if ancien comes before a noun, it usually means former, not ancient or old.
2. Bras / Bras
Votre bras means your arm, it doesn’t have anything to do with the female undergarment! The French word for bra is un-soutien-gorge.
3. Blessé’ /Blessed
Blesser means to wound, physically or emotionally. So for example un enfant blessé isn’t a child you are expected to worship, but more likely a child who needs a bandaid!
4. Monnaie / Money
Monnaie means loose change. So technically, you could have plenty of money, but no monnaie!
5. Déception / Deception
This is a sneaky one! The verb decevoir, the noun déception and the adjective décu all mean being disappointed or disillusioned and not actually deceived. This could be a problem in conversation if you think that someone is accusing somebody of deceiving the, rather than disappointing them.
6. Envie / Envy
This is another tricky one, be careful! The verb envier can be used as “to envy” but the noun envie actually means “to desire.”
For example, you could say “J’ai envie d’une glace” which means “I want ice cream,” but if you mean to say, “I envy you” be careful not to say “J’ai envie de toi” because you’re actually saying “I want you!” This could prove to be a bit “sticky!”
In any case, listen to lots of French pop music as part of your learning and you’ll not make this mistake. The phrase comes up a lot!
7. Grand / Grand
In French as in English, grand can mean great, as in un grande ècrivan – “a great writer,” but it can also mean “big. “ Or, when used to describe physical appearance, “tall.”
8. Joli / Jolly
Joli(e) means pretty, unlike jolly in English, which means happy or joyous.
9. Journée / Journey
This is a common faux ami! Une journée translates to “one day.” So if you’re every whished a “bonne journée” they are saying “have a nice day” not wishing you “bon voyage!”
10. Coin / Coin
Coin in French means corner, not the change jingling in your pocket! Those would be either pieces or monnaaie. Dans le coin means in the nearby or immediate neighborhood.
These are just ten examples of common French false cognates. As you are learning vocabulary, make it a point to recognize, make note of, and memorize the faux ami. It will help you as you translate French to English to make a note of them!
Every language has expressions and colloquialisms that add color, spice, and “native status (or ”street cred”) when spoken.
French is no different, and in fact the French slang well is particularly deep, colorful, and rich! Slang is constantly evolving and often the vanguard of the young since expressions can go out of favor quickly.
You may be familiar with the slang form known as “le Verlan” which is created by inverting syllables in a word. Verlan is actually an inversion of the word l’envers, which means reverse.
Many common French slang terms have survived over time like un bouquin for book, and un mec for “a guy,” but with the younger generation a newer form of slang has emerged known as le parler d’jeunes.
The French youth of generation “Y” have created a complex style of slang. It incorporates traditional slang, verlan, English and Arabic word and even shorthand SMS messages into their speech, even going so far as to create compound forms like inverting syllables in Arabic words!
Remember, as with slang in any language, different interpretations are possible and variations can occur regionally, and even among different age groups.
Here are some common French slang expressions for you:
• Faire gaffe
This is common across generations and in the south. It’s an alternative to faire attention or watch our, be careful. Remember to conjugate faire properly.
• Bosser / Taffer
Colloquial version of travailler – meaning to work. When using the noun, le travail can be replaced with le boulot.
French slang for “perfect.” When something is ok you can confirm it with this word.
• Bouffer / la bouffe
informal slang for “to eat” (manger) or “food (la nourriture)
• Bof / Bah / Euh
These are great words to use to give your speech a true “native” flair. The French equivalent of uh, or um, used to fill space. These three are all small interjections you should incorporate in your French speaking.
Bof – signifies mild boredom in English this roughly translates as “meh.”
Euf – is the French equivalent of uh, or um used to stall while “finding your words.”
Bah – is another filler word. Usually used at the beginning of a sentence, it indicates when a person makes an obvious statement.
• Mec / Nana
Used pretty much throughout the country and understood as the French equivalent of “dude” and “chick”
In English we say “cheers” when celebrating with friends: In France they use santé! It’s a way to toast to each others health. Culturally, make sure to look your guest in the eyes otherwise you may be called out for being rude!
• Oh bonne mère
This phrase is used primarily in Marseille and is the equivalent of “oh mon dieu.”
The French language is beautiful and rich. Filled with colorful words and phrases you’ll need to be aware of these idioms, false cognates and slang phrases when you translate French to English.
These are just a few of the choices you’ll have when learning to speak like a native. Like any study, immersing yourself in the local culture will yield a treasure of regional speech that can have you sounding like a native in no time!
When studying the language, make sure to include current popular music and film in your studies. These are both great areas to hear idioms, false cognates and slang in everyday use.
Remember, slang is constantly evolving, so when you’re progressing with your studies, make sure to stay current! It will make your speech sound even more authentic!
What obstacles have you encountered in translating French to English? Share what you’ve learned in the comments below!
Photo by Óscar Velázquez