Words in French and English That Can’t Be Translated

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Words in French and English That Can’t Be Translated
Some very common words or expressions in English or French can’t be translated by a single word in the other language. They require several words or another expression to express precisely their meaning. For cultural reasons, some words, expressions or even neologisms have no real equivalent in the other language. They reveal a part of the culture, the linguistic patrimony, and reflect the specific identity of a country. I have selected a few of them, specific to the French or English language, which are untranslatable, difficult to translate in the other language, or need more words to explain their meaning. French words that can’t be translated by one word in English Le dépaysement This word express the feeling of complete change of scene when one travels in another country. It describes the feeling of disorientation and strangeness one might feel upon being in a totally foreign environment. It doesn’t only apply to physical movement; it could also be to used to describe a change of mental state or feelings as a result of any major life event. This word often crops up in lists of the world’s best untranslatable words «  J’ai adoré le Japon. C’est le première fois que le dépaysement était si fort » “I loved Japan. It’s the first time that the feeling of disorientation and bewilderment was so strong.” Bon vivant A bon vivant is someone who has cultivated, refined, and sociable tastes especially with respect to food and drink. If you are a bon vivant, you probably have an active social life. Bon vivants are known for their love of socializing. The phrase in French originally meant “one fond of good living or one who lives well”– derived from bon, good, and vivre, to live. The expression has been adopted in English, and is frequently used since a similar expression doesn’t exist. «  Paul adore s’amuser, sortir, diner des les bons restaurants. C’est un bon vivant » “Paul loves having fun, going out, having diner in the good restaurants. He is a bon vivant. “ Un gourmet A gourmet is a connoisseur of good food; a person with a discerning palate. In the early 19th century, this word originally meant “wine taster.” It might not be a coincidence that in a country where food has always held great importance that the French have invented such a specific word devoted to its appreciation. This word should not be confused with gourmand which an adjective used for a person who enjoys eating food in large quantities and often eats too much. «  Stéphane est un gourmet, il ne mange que les produits les plus raffinés » “Stéphane is a food connoisseur, he only eats the most refined products.” Une grasse matinée The French expression “une grasse matinée” means to sleep in, to stay very late in bed in the morning and not to get up before 11 am or 12 noon. This compound noun, conveyed by a nominal phrase in French une grasse and matinée, is conveyed by a verbal phrase in English, “to sleep in.” « Ce matin Alice est fatiguée et fait la grasse matinée » “This morning Alice is tired and sleeps in.” L’ubérisation It’s interesting to note that this neologism invented in 2014 appeared in France, a country for which globalization represents a certain threat to social security. This word has no equivalence in English. “Uberisation” takes its name from Uber, the global company behind the chauffeur-driven car service. The characteristics of this service are first the significant financial gains related to avoiding the regulatory and legislative constraints of traditional competition (the acquisition of a taxi license is quite expensive in France). This new word is often used in the media in a pejorative way, as a critique of global companies in the transportation/car industry (Uber) or in tourism (Airbnb) that provide affordable services but pay very low income and provide no social protection to their employees. « L’utilisation de salariés free lance est devenu très courante dans les sociétés, c’est une forme d’ubérisation » “Working with freelancers has become very common for companies; it is a sign of social and job insecurity.” English words that can’t be translated by one word in French Helicopter parenting This word– used to speak about parents who pay extremely close attention to their children’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions– doesn’t have an equivalent in French. This expression translated into French as “Parents helicoptères” has never been commonly used in French. One of the reason could be that the concept of parenting is different between French and English parents. For Pamela Druckerman, the author of the popular book Bringing Up Bébé, American mothers are more child-centric than French mothers. “They assume that even good parents aren’t at the constant service of their children, and that there is no need to feel guilty about this.” This cultural difference may explain why this concept doesn’t exist in French. “I know many helicopter mothers at my son’s school.” «  Je connais de mères étouffantes et possessives avec leur enfants à l’école de mon fils » A hug This expression of warmth and friendliness with arms outstretched around the other doesn’t exist in French– not even with family members. You do not greet French people with a hug (unless it’s a child). You do cheek kisses, faire une bise. Sometimes it’s one on each cheek and depending on your social circle and region of France, you may go for three or four bises. But whatever you do, don’t go in for the hug. The closest translation in French would be simply “to take someone in your arms,” prendre dans les bras or faire un câlin (to cuddle)– but these terms describe…

Lead photo credit : Photo: Léo Mabmacien/ Flickr

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Based in Paris, Florence is the founder of French a la Carte, an agency that offers private and tailor-made French lessons to expats and also immersion in Paris with private tours in easy French for French learners. Florence is a "Parisienne" with her eyes turned toward abroad, and she has as an endless curiosity for Paris. She feels both like a native and an expat who likes to play the tourist in her own city. She was first a press attachée for ARTE, a Franco-German cultural TV channel, before turning to French language teaching. She founded French à La Carte in 2012. For lovers of Paris who would like to improve their conversational French in a efficient and enjoyable manner, French à La Carte also offers private tours which immerse the students in the vibrancy of Paris, with fulfilling outdoor activities adjusted to the level in French of each student. A pastry and chocolate tour in Saint-Germain-des-Près, the discovery of Paris vibrant neighborhoods, a private visit to the Rodin museum or a tour on the influential & feminist women in Paris, these are examples of what French à La Carte can offer. You can contact her at http://www.private-frenchlessons-paris.com/contact for more information on French lessons or private tours.


  • william rowland
    2018-12-13 18:55:30
    william rowland
    Je parle français et l'anglais est ma langue d'origine, mais je n'ai jamais entendu parler de la plupart de ces mots ou expressions tels que et al. Perhaps Helicopter parenting is what we in South Carolina call Hovering over someone not necessarily children. Strange I understand all the French expressions without trying to translate them into English. Perhaps that is due that I grew up with French immigrants as Neighbors.


  • Florence Harang
    2018-12-08 09:47:28
    Florence Harang
    Hello, yes on the sense that a complete change of scene can comes the landscape but not only, the culture ( language, customs...) is also part of the concept.


  • Martin Porter
    2018-12-07 06:50:26
    Martin Porter
    could le depaysement be "culture shock?"