To Feel in French – Sentir and so Much More

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

To translate “to feel” in French, students often go to the verb “(se) sentir”. And most of the time, it doesn’t work. Why? Because English uses “to feel” in expressions where French would use a totally different verb…

In this lesson, I’m going to come up with situations when you’d use “to feel” in English, and translate them into French.

If you can think of a different context when you’d use to feel in English, please add it to the comment, and I’ll do my best to translate it and add it to this list.

(Se) Sentir = Feel, Taste or Smell

In French, the verb “sentir” translates as “to smell” and “to feel”, sometimes to “taste”.

The feeling can be emotional or physical. Let me take examples.

Note that the verb “sentir” is often used in the pronominal form in French (se sentir).

  1. Je sens bien qu’il y a un problème
    I can feel there is a problem.
  2. Elle se sent mal.
    She is not feeling good.
  3. Tu sens bon : c’est quoi ton parfum ?
    You smell nice: what’s your perfume?
  4. On sent bien le goût du vin rouge dans cette sauce.
    You can really taste the red wine in this gravy.

Feeling Lost in Translation

However, this is where it gets tricky, it’s not because you can sometimes use “sentir” for to feel, taste or smell that it works all the time!

For example, if you wanted to taste your friend’s dish, you couldn’t use sentir… You’d have to use “goûter”.

  • Je voudrais bien goûter ton boeuf bourguignon!
    I’d like to taste/ try/ sample your boeuf bourguignon!

However, if you said:

  • Je voudrais bien sentir ton boeuf bourguignon!

it would translate as:

  • I’d like to smell your boeuf bourguignon!

A bit weird.

And this is exactly the problem with to feel in French… You have… to feel it! Pun intended :-)

So, now let’s take some examples of instances when you’d use to feel in English, and see how we’d translate this in French. Of course, many other translations may be possible, so the goal here is to see if you could use sentir…

Before I start, I’d like to think Clare B. For her suggestion and help to write this article.

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To Feel in French – Feeling Bodily Sensation

To say to have a feeling on your body, we’d use “avoir l’impression que”, not “sentir”. In a more formal setting, we’d use “sembler”.

  1. My leg feels swollen.
    J’ai l’impression que ma jambe est enflée.
    Ma jambe semble enflée.
  2. It feels like my skin is burning.
    J’ai l’impression que ma peau est brûlante.
    Ma peau semble brûlante.
  3. I feel there is something in my eye.
    J’ai l’impression que j’ai quelque chose dans l’oeil.

but, we’d use “sentir” for something you can actually touch:

  • Je sens une bosse sur mon cou.
    I can feel a lump on my neck.

Translating to Feel in French – For Texture

Here, we won’t use “sentir” but usually just the verb “être” (to be).

  • This bedspread feels so soft.
    Ce couvre-lit est si doux.

You could also use “toucher” – to touch:

  • Come and touch how soft this is!
    Viens toucher comme c’est doux !
to feel in french
Cet couvre-lit est si doux !

To Feel Emotions in French – Se Sentir & Ressentir

We’d use “se sentir” to say to feel good/bad/great…

  1. I feel great
    Je me sens super bien

Otherwise, to express “how you are feeling”, you may be able to use “se sentir”, and then sometimes it just won’t “sound” right!!

  1. She’s feeling sad
    Elle se sent triste.
  2. I’m feeling happy
    Je suis heureuse (I don’t know why but “je me sens heureuse” doesn’t sound right to me!! “Je me sens bien” does…)

However, you’re going to run into many expressions.

For example, in English you say: “I feel disgusted”… in French we’d say “I am disgusted” (je suis dégôuté) or we’d use another verb for “to feel” which is “éprouver” (followed by a noun) ;

  • J’éprouve du dégoût (quite fancy French…)

This is also when you’d use the French verb “ressentir”. It’s followed by a noun, and usually refers to an intense émotion. It’s quite upscale French: we’d use it in writing but not much in everyday speaking.

  • Ils ressentaient une profonde tristesse
    They were feeling a deep sorrow

Oh and watch out. Ressentir is not the verb we use to say “to resent” someone (“en vouloir à quelqu’un”).

How Are You Feeling in French

To say “how are you feeling” in French, you’ll run into another expression.

When we greet people, to ask how they are doing, how they are feeling, we’d just say “comment ça va”! or “comment vas-tu”?

You would say “comment te sens-tu” if someone for example just fainted, and then you wanted to check how they are feeling now versus five minutes ago…

So here again, you could easily get your meaning lost in translation…

To Feel Like Doing Something

“To feel like doing something” translates into “avoir envie de faire quelque chose”.

  1. I feel like going for a walk.
    J’ai envie d’aller me promener.
  2. We feel like (eating) pizza.
    On a envie d’une pizza.

To Feel, So Many Expressions

Today, I feel like a million bucks! Today feels like the best day of my life!

All these would be quite difficult to translate into French…

We may have an idiom:

Or we may just not say that at all… honestly, I’m having a hard time translating “today feels like the best day of my life”… I could go for “aujourd’hui semble être le meilleur jour de ma vie” but we just don’t say that at all in French. We just don’t have the equivalent of this expression!

To Feel in French – Don’t Trust an Online Translator

This is typically the kind of word an artificial translator doesn’t handle well. So, if you are not sure of your translation, go around it: find another way of expressing what you want to say, without using “to feel”, find another combination of words that is easier to translate!

So, in my opinion, the best way to translate “to feel” in French is to learn sentences in context.

You won’t be able to rely on translation, you need to know the expression we’d use in French in that context, to express that notion. In order to do this, learn French in the context of a story with French Today’s French audiobooks!

Author: Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Camille Chevalier-Karfis

Born and raised in Paris, I have been teaching today's French to adults for 25+ years in the US and France. Based on my students' goals and needs, I've created unique downloadable French audiobooks focussing on French like it's spoken today, for all levels. Come to Paimpol and enjoy an exclusive French immersion homestay with me in Brittany.

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