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Our 6 favourite French phrases without an English translation

French is a wonderful language filled with words and phrases that simply do not have an English equivalent. Phrases like the ones below not only help emphasise the importance of a professional French translation service, they also perfectly articulate feelings and situations that the English language cannot.

Therefore translating into French involves not only a technical knowledge of the language itself, but also the knowledge of local cultural sayings which can be almost as important as grammatical accuracy. As the below proves, machine translation tools such as Google Translate often fail to capture the real essence of these sayings. That’s why we always use native tongue translators at London Translations.

1: L’esprit d’escalier

Google Translate: Spirit of the stairs

Much more complex than Google Translate would have you believe, L’esprit d’escalier is a French term that could also be translated to ‘escalator wit’. It is particularly common in people who become panicked and lose concentration during conflict, and only think of a good comeback later on. L’esprit d’escalier is the act of coming up with a witty riposte after the conversation is over.

L’esprit d’escalier can be traced back to 1775 and the French philosopher Denis Diderot who wrote that “the sensitive man such as myself, entirely absorbed by things that are being objected to him, loses his mind and recovers it only at the bottom of the stairs”

2: Dépaysement

Google Translate: Expatriation

It may literally translate to expatriation, but translate dépaysement more accurately describes the unsteady feeling you get when you are away from your home country. It’s not the same as homesickness, but rather an uneasiness experienced when in a place that you don’t know.

For example, a business trying to communicate in a foreign country without using a professional translation service may well experience dépaysement.

3: Déjà vu

Google Translate: Already seen

Déjà vu is a classic, it is something that we have all experienced, that feeling that you have experienced something before, or perhaps been somewhere before.

It dates back the early 20th century and if the translation is to be followed word for word it means already seen.

The feeling of déjà vu is so commonplace it is actually widely used in English speaking countries. In fact déjà vu is actually in the English dictionary. The words that undergo this phenomenon become loanwords. Example of French loanwords other than déjà vu include carpe diem and rendezvous.

4: Tu chantes du yaourt

Google Translate: You sing yoghurt

We’ve all been in a situation where we are singing along to a song but aren’t too sure of the lyrics. What do you do? You don’t stop signing, that’s for sure. You make the lyrics up, often speaking gibberish in the process. This is a phenomenon that can occur in every major language, so perhaps it is surprising that there don’t have an equivalent saying in English-speaking countries.

Perhaps the best example of tu chantes du yaourt is perhaps available in this standup routine from comedian Peter Kay.

5: L’appel du vide

Google Translate: The call of the void

Google Translate’s version simply doesn’t do the French phrase l’appel du vide, which actually describes the urge to do impulsive destructive behaviour for no reason, justice. For example, if you’re walking along a bridge over the Seine and have a sudden compulsion to fling yourself over the railings, that would be l’appel du vide.

Other ideas that would be classed as l’appel du vide include throwing yourself in front of underground train, swerving into oncoming traffic or launching a campaign in a new country without a localised translation and interpretation service.

6: Déjà vu

Google Translate: Already seen

Déjà vu is a classic, it is something that we have all experienced, that feeling that you have experienced something before, or perhaps been somewhere before.

How to translate untranslatable French words

A word-for-word translation service would mean all those phrases would simply be nonsensical. So how do you translate words that don’t have an equivalent in the target language? You do so by hiring translators with a cultural knowledge of the local community and language. At London Translations, we know that hiring local translators can be the difference between singing yoghurt or talking gibberish.

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