French Translation: 10 Untranslatable French Words

What do we think of when we ponder the French language which sounds so different from English? French sounds romantic, even sexy (think of Edith Piaf’s singing). It’s a language that’s full of sensual sounds and flowery adjectives. Unfortunately for French translation (from English to French or vice versa), the two languages don’t share too many similarities. And, French comes replete with many words and phrases that don’t have obvious English equivalents. The following is a list of ten untranslatable French words.

This is not an exhaustive list with respect to French translation – for even more untranslatable French words and phrases, click here.

  1. L’ésprit d’escalier – Have you ever had a disagreement with someone and only come up with the perfect witty response while lying in bed just before falling asleep? L’esprit d’escalier describes this feeling. The literal English translation is staircase wit. The phrase was coined by the 18th century philosopher Diderot who came up with it after he found that he was only able to think of a suitable riposte to an argument by walking away down the stairs.
  2. La douleur exquise – This is an eloquent French expression that describes the sadness and heartache of an unrequited love. The phrase was even used as the title for an episode of Sex and the City – doesn’t La Douleur Exquise sound much better than the literal translation – The Exquisite Pain?
  3. Flâner – This is a very Parisian word. It was invented in the 19th century by the literary crowd of Paris. Flâner describes the art of leisurely strolling along the streets of the City of Light without any particular goal or destination in mind. The strollers are simply there to soak up the beauty of the city. Aimless Paris walkers are also known as flâneurs.
  4. Cartonner – This is a wonderful French slang verb that the French use for talking about anything that has been a big hit – books, films, bands, etc. E.g., le film cartonne aux États-Unis. Cartonner literally means to wrap something up in cardboard.
  5. Ras-le-bol – This is an old but odd French phrase that’s impossible to translate literally into English. Ras-le-bol is used to express frustration or annoyance. The best English equivalents of j’en ai ras le bol de… are I’ve had it up to here with… or I’m sick of… Also, the French use the expression to describe a feeling of despair. It’s been cropping up a lot recently in the French press in relation to increased taxes – ras-le-bol fiscal.
  6. Matraquage fiscal – Another term that has been seen a lot in the French press recently. The literal English translation is fiscal bludgeoning or tax bludgeoning. One example is the headline: Non, il n’y a pas de ‘matraquage fiscal’ des classes moyennes. Des classes moyennes means the middle classes. Matraquage is also used in Matraquage publicitaire, literally a publicity bludgeoning – a better translation is hype.
  7. Dépaysement – This one often appears in lists of the world’s most untranslatable words. Dépaysement describes the feeling of bewilderment and disorientation a person might feel in a totally foreign environment. For example, how a French person might feel upon first arriving in the middle of China. Dépaysement doesn’t only apply to physically moving to a strange place; it can also be used to describe a change in a person’s mental state or feelings following a major life event.
  8. Retrouvailles – This is a lovely French word that perfectly expresses the feeling of happiness on meeting someone again that you haven’t seen for a very long time.
  9. Chanter en yaourt/yaourter – The literal English translation of this phrase is to yogurt. It’s used to describe singing in a foreign language and getting the words wrong or filling in the words with sounds like tra-la-la. If you ever sung soggy semolina for sonnez les matines when singing Frères Jacques at school, you are engaging in chanter en yaourt.
  10. A l’ouest – If translated literally, a l’ouest means in the west. However, in France this term is generally used to describe someone who is somewhat different or strange, or someone who is thinking outside the box. It can also be used to describe a person engaged in daydreaming. Perhaps the closest English expression might be on another planet.

What Do Untranslatable Words Mean for French Translation/Localization in France?

Providing they fit the context, inserting any untranslatable words or phrases into your content will make a French person feel that you really understand their language and their culture. Of course, you need to make sure that you use them correctly so that a French person doesn’t laugh at you. Localize can help you achieve this by seamlessly integrating your expert French translator into our platform. Alternatively, you can order professional French translations from native French speakers though our built-in integrations with our LSP partners Textmasters and Gengo. Talk to us to find out more about our service.

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