How to translate “to return” in French is difficult because you cannot just translate literally from English: we have several verbs to express to return, to go back, to give back…
The choice of verb to translate to return in French depends on the context: where you are now, where you are going, for how long – and where home (or the place you are staying) is.
1 – ⚠️ To Return Is Not Always Retourner
I often hear English speakers use “retourner” a lot, because it sounds so much like “to return.” But most of the time, unfortunately, it is wrong.
- “To return” somewhere in French is more likely to be “revenir” or “rentrer.”
- “To return” something in French is going to be “rendre” or “rapporter”.
“Retourner” means to go back for a limited time (often because you forgot something there).
So now let’s study carefully these verbs of motions.
I strongly recommend you try memorizing the examples and associate the French word with a situation rather than trying to translate, since translating is likely to lead you into a mistake.
2 – Venir (to come HERE) and Revenir (to come back, to return HERE)
Venir expresses a movement towards you, and where you are now.
- Maintenant, je suis chez Paul. Pierre va venir (ici) dans une heure.
Now, I’m at Paul’s. Pierre is coming (here, towards me) in an hour.
- Je pars faire des courses, mais je reviens dans 20 minutes:
I’m leaving to run errands, but I’m coming back (here, where I am now) in 20 minutes.
3 – Aller – to Go
Aller expresses a movement towards a place you are NOT now.
- Je vais chez Pierre.
I am going to Pierre’s.
“Aller” is very much used in French. We use it where English would often use “to visit” (use the link to see my blog post about this), or “to attend” and in many expressions.
“Aller” a very irregular verb – use my audio verb drills to memorize it.
4 – Retourner (to go Back, to Return for a Limited Time, to Run by a Place)
Retourner means to return, or to go back, but only for a limited time, either because you have forgotten something there, or you are returning for a certain time, but leaving again.
- Ce matin, je suis allée chez Pierre. J’ai oublié mon parapluie chez lui. Je vais y retourner ce soir pour prendre mon parapluie (et puis rentrer chez moi).
This morning I went to Pierre’s. I forgot my umbrella there. I am going to go back tonight to get my umbrella – I’m going to pop by tonight to get my umbrella (and then I’ll go home).
- Maintenant je suis à Paris. Demain, je pars en Angleterre. Je vais y rester une semaine (et puis je reviendrai en France). Mais je retournerai à Londres dans 2 mois.
Now, I’m in Paris. Tomorrow, I’m leaving for England. I’ll stay a week there (then I’ll return to France). But I’ll go back to London in 2 months.
5 – Rentrer (to Return, Go/Come Back HOME)
Rentrer is used in French to say to return, to go/come back HOME or to the place where you are staying, like the family returning home in the main picture of this article.
“Rentrer” usually implies that you are not going out again.
- Tu rentres à quelle heure ce soir ?
At what time are you coming home tonight?
- Je pars au bureau à 9 h et je rentre à 18h.
I leave for the office at 9 AM and go back (home) at 6 PM.
- Normalement, j’habite à Paris. Maintenant je suis à Londres. Je vais aller en Italie, et puis je rentrerai le 3 novembre.
Usually I live in Paris. Now I am in London. I’m going to Italy, and I’ll go back home (to Paris) on November 3rd.
We often also use “rentrer” instead of “entrer” to say to enter a place. It’s probably a mistake, but it’s a very common one :-)
How do you say “I’m home” in French?
To add to the problem, there is a French expression we use when we come back home: “je suis de retour”, like ‘I’m home”… I personnally say: “je suis rentrée”, or “je suis là” to announce I’m home, but “je suis de retour” is also common.
Contrast “Aller” and “Venir”
- J’aime ce restaurant et je pense que je vais venir très souvent: You are talking to the owner and saying you’ll come HERE often.
- J’aime ce restaurant et je pense que je vais y aller souvent: You are talking to your friend about going to this restaurant often.
Contrast “Revenir”, “Rentrer”, “Retourner”
- Maintenant je suis chez Paul. Pierre va venir dans 1 heure (chez Paul). Moi, je vais faire des courses mais je vais revenir dans une heure (chez Paul).
Now, I’m at Paul’s. Pierre is coming in one hour (to Paul’s). I’m going to run errands, but I’ll come back in one hour (to Paul’s).
- Maintenant je suis chez Paul. Je vais rentrer dans une heure. Avant, je dois retourner à mon travail parce que j’ai oublié mes clés.
Now I’m at Paul’s. I’ll go back home in one hour. Before that, I have to go back to my work because I forgot my keys there.
6 – Rendre = to Give Back Vs Rapporter = to Return Something
In English you’d say to return something to a store, or to give it back to a friend. In French we use two different verbs.
- Je vais rendre son livre à mon ami.
I’m going to give her book back to my friend
- Je vais rapporter cette robe au magasin.
I’m going to return this dress to the shop
7 – How To Translate To Turn Back in French?
To translate to turn back in French, we often use an expression which would confuse many students : “rebrousser chemin”. It’s kind of an older, more formal expression to say to turn around.
”Rebrousser chemin” literally means ‘to reverse your path’. So it’s useful to say you didn’t take another way back but walked exactly the same way back.
Nous avons marché le long de la côte jusqu’au port, et puis nous avons rebroussé chemin.
We walked along the coast until the harbor, then we walked back.
If you wanted to be even more precise, you could say “revenir sur ses pas”: literally, ‘to retrace your steps’. This can be useful if you lost something along the way.
You could also say “revenir en arrière” which means sort of ‘to retrace your steps back’…. Really insisting on the back notion here!
Zut ! J’ai perdu un gant : je vais revenir sur mes pas / revenir en arrière.
Darn! I lost a glove: I’m going to retrace my steps.
Another way to say to turn around would be “faire demi-tour”. Literally to do a U turn. We use this one a lot nowadays, especially when driving.
J’ai raté la rue où je devais tourner mais je vais pouvoir faire demi-tour au rond-point.
I missed the street where I needed to take a turn but I’ll be able to turn around at the round-about.
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