Sometimes, we just can’t find the exact words to say what we mean, no matter how hard we look in the English dictionary. So then we have to ‘borrow’ from other languages.
There’s something undeniably attractive about untranslatable French words. They have a sort of mystery to them- their own emotions even. In French, there are a few untranslatable words. This means these words have no exact English equivalent.
Now, this doesn’t mean you should run from them, rather – it is a good idea to get to know some and what they mean. (Especially because some of these words are used frequently by native speakers!) Plus, they really show us how unique a foreign language can be.
Today, I’ve put together a list of six untranslatable (but wonderful) French words you should definitely familiarize yourself with.
Let’s take a look:
Closest translation in English: ‘at’ or ‘in the home of’.
What a wonderfully little versatile and strange word this is. It can be a tricky word for foreign learners to fully grasp its meaning. ‘Chez’ is a highly used word in French. It refers to a place, like a home. It’s like ‘at the place that belongs to…’ (so now you can see why it is a little tricky to translate this word).
Maybe you have seen some French restaurants with the word ‘Chez’ in their name?
Example: “Chez Marianne” –
All this means is ‘At Marianne’s place’. In that case, “place” can mean restaurant.
However, depending on the context, it could mean Marianne’s home.
Here’s an example of ‘chez’ used in a phrase:
- Je vais chez Martin
(I’m going to Martin’s house).
Little words that connect ideas or sentences together are usually called prepositions and they are very useful: here’s a list of 19 French prepositions with examples and audio pronunciation. Yes, “chez” is among them. In my opinion, the very best way to memorize these words is to see them used within the context of a story. I suggest you check-out French Today bilingual audio novels.
Closest translation in English: ‘lounger’ or ‘stroller’
To be a flâneur is to wander aimlessly through a city, observing people and sights, without any purpose at all. It’s almost a leisurely artform. If you are familiar with Baudelaire, a famous 19th century French poet, he used this term in his essay The Painter of Modern Life.
Take a look at what Baudelaire wrote about the flâneur. It might help you to get a better grasp of its essence:
“To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the center of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world—impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in his incognito.”
The idea of the ‘flâneur’ then attracted many poets, painters and novelists. Nowadays, it has even made its way into the English language!
Besides, I think it is a lovely sounding word!
Closest translation in English: ‘there it is’ or ‘there you are’.
One of the most common words the French use! You’ve undoubtedly heard it before. ‘Voilà’ is difficult to translate literally but I see it as a ‘there you go!’ For example, it can be used when you want to show somebody you have made something and are really pleased with it (a bit of showing off is harmless come on!!)
This word has now been borrowed into other languages – I know the English use it a lot (in its original French form).
Look at these examples:
- ‘Voilà le sel’
‘here you go, here’s the salt.’
You’d say this as you’re passing the salt to someone.
- ‘Voilà la maison que je veux acheter.’
‘Here/ there is the house I want to buy.’
In this case, you may be pointing to the house, or showing a picture…
Closest translation in English: ‘to find something/someone again’ or ‘to meet again, after a long time apart’.
I absolutely love this word.
I can’t remember where or when I first came across it but it is one of my favorite French words.
Again this is an untranslatable French word.
‘Les retrouvailles’ is usually used to describe when you see someone again after a very very long time. It is the joy you feel of reuniting with someone from your past. There is almost an element of nostalgia in it.
If you are familiar with the verb ‘retrouver’ in French, it means to find/ to meet up with. So you can probably guess where the root of ‘retrouvailles’ is from. Note that this word is feminine plural.
Closest translation in English: ‘to have practical competence for something’
‘Savoir faire’ is a tricky word to translate into English. You would think it means ‘to know how to do something’ but it’s a little deeper than that.
‘Savoir faire’ is usually used to express someone’s adaptability to knowing what to do in any situation. They can do it with ease, confidence and grace…
Savoir faire is used in the English language. (Though now I hear the term ‘savvy’ a bit more).
Here’s an example:
“I don’t like her, but I have to admit I admire her savoir faire”
Closest translation in English: ‘to have enough of something’ or ‘to be fed up with something/ be sick of something’
Here’s another term that fits into the ‘untranslatable’ category. Ras-le-bol is used when you are completely done with something; frustrated, annoyed, fed up.
A similar expression in English would be “I’ve had it up to here with…”
Look at this example :
‘Ça me suffit, j’en ai ras-le-bol’ = ‘Enough, I’m fed up’
Note the pronunciation in modern French: [ral bol] – I love it!!!
So there you have our 6 untranslatable French words.
Can you suggest any others?