Who doesn’t love a hilarious translation fail?
Never seen one? Take a scroll through this hysterical slideshow of English-French translation attempts.
If you look closely, you’ll see that there’s something many of them have in common.
The translators tried to translate word-for-word, matching each French word up with an English equivalent, or vice versa.
Obviously, that method of translation never works.
Translation isn’t at all a one-to-one transfer or words. You need to be aware of the context of your text to choose words that are accurate, natural and logical.
So if you’re trying to translate English to French, either for a translation project or just to learn some new words, be sure to use the online tools we’ll recommend in this article.
These tools don’t just trade English words for French words. They take overall context into account and show you a variety of possible meanings.
What to Look for When Translating for Context
The art and science of translation is much more than substituting individual words. It’s essential to understand the context and ideas of a passage.
But what exactly makes up context? What specific, tangible factors should you focus your attention on when translating?
- Formality: Especially when translating to French, it’s important to employ the appropriate register. In other words, keep in mind how formal your source material is. Recall that, in French, tu is the informal form for “you” and vous is the formal form.
Formal vs. informal French is more than a mere choice of pronouns, however. Even in English, where we have one form, “you,” there’s quite a difference (hopefully, at least) in a text you sent your sister and an email you sent a colleague.
- Jargon: Does your translation require specialized jargon? Clearly, a document such as a legal contract or a medical chart would necessitate highly specific words (and would be best left to professional translators).
Nevertheless, even something more quotidian such as a recipe might call for words that don’t come up in most conversations: Fouettez ensemble les oeufs et le sucre. (Whisk together the eggs and the sugar.)
- Collocations: Another reality that screws up word-for-word translation is collocations, which are words that native speakers tend to naturally join together. Such word combinations may or may not translate directly to French.
This is true with many verb phrases. One example is chosir de (to choose to). Although English uses “to,” French employs de (of) to communicate the same idea: J’ai choisi de faire les courses après le travail. (I chose to go shopping after work.)
- Multiple meanings: One more thing to remember is that most words have a range of meanings.
Think of the English word “head.” The most obvious meaning is probably an anatomical term denoting the top part of a person’s or animal’s body. But we might also refer to the “head” of a department or the “head” of the house. “Head” might also be used to talk about the top part of a river or even to describe what kind of screwdriver we need.
Thus, if you type “head” into an English-French translator, your first result will probably be tête. Don’t assume, however, that this French word covers all of the possible meanings of the English word.
In this case, tête does have a similarly large range of meaning, but do your research (using the tools below) to be sure.
Don’t Be so Literal! 6 Online Tools That Translate English-to-French with Context in Mind
Now that you better understand some of the contextual issues surrounding translation, we’ll introduce some resources that’ll help you translate English to French more accurately and precisely.
Larousse is a treasure trove of French learning, including dictionaries, an encyclopedia, recipes and more.
For translation purposes, although Larousse doesn’t have a translator per se, it does have a French dictionary and an English-French dictionary. The French dictionary (meaning both the words and the definitions are in French) contains particularly detailed entries.
The amount of information depends on the word itself, but common words such as faire (to do) have several tabs including dozens of possible definitions, as well as synonyms, idiomatic expressions and even quotes containing the word.
Reading a thorough definition of a French word in this way allows you to more accurately gauge the word’s range of meaning for any context.
Furthermore, the examples that accompany each meaning help you better understand how the word is actually used by native speakers in different situations.
The “expressions” tab is also indispensable for translators, as some of the biggest misunderstandings that occur between languages are due to idioms—sayings that aren’t meant to be taken literally—such as “saved by the bell.”
Larousse identifies French idioms that contain the word you searched. For instance, under faire, one expression is ça ne fait rien (it doesn’t matter).
Yes, I included a resource that actually contains the word “context” in the title. But don’t worry, it deserves the label.
If you a type a sentence or passage into the search box, Reverso Context breaks it up into individual thoughts and provides possible translations for each part. It also shows you examples of those phrases in real-world French passages.
While this may seem overwhelming, the multiple options allow you to make your own judgement call on the most appropriate phrasing for your needs.
What exactly do these choices look like? You’ll want to keep in mind the kinds of things we discussed earlier—register, specialized jargon, collocations and range of meaning.
For instance, when I type in the sentence “we are looking for theological principles,” the phrase is divided as follows: “we are looking for” + “theological” + “principles.”
A couple options appear for “we are looking for,” including on cherche des and nous cherchons des. Both on and nous are often used to designate “we” in French, but looking at the examples below, we can see that on is more informal. Since I took this phrase from a textbook, the most appropriate translation of this phrase would be nous cherchons des.
FluentU brings you as close as possible to the real, context-driven meaning of any French word. That’s because FluentU teaches French vocabulary through authentic French videos—like movie trailers, music videos, inspiring speeches and more.
Here’s how it works from a translation standpoint.
Every FluentU video has tons of learning tools built-in, including full French transcripts with professionally translated English versions. Search any English word that you’re looking to translate, and FluentU will show you videos that have its French equivalents.
Now you can see how that word would be used in French in a wide variety of settings.
Click through the transcripts and vocabulary lists, or watch the full video to hear it used. Better yet, every video has interactive captions—you can click any unfamiliar French word for an in-context definition and translation. You’ll also see example sentences and other videos that have the word, so you understand how it’s used in any situation.
This is an incredibly useful way to choose the correct translation for any word, but it’s also a great tool for general vocabulary building. You’ll be absorbing French words the way native speakers really use them.
Google Translate may not always have the best reputation, but at the same time, one should be cautious when using any online instant translator. While helpful, a translation box is never infallible.
Although Google Translate should never be put on a pedestal, it’s a helpful tool with features that can aid in producing a context-based translation.
After typing in a given word or phrase, you can click the generated translation to see alternate translations, giving you the chance to consider which one is most appropriate for your purposes.
Underneath the translation box, you’ll see synonyms in the target language, as well as other forms of the word such as verbs and adjectives. For instance, if I want to translate the word “cost,” coût would appear in the main translation box, but underneath, you would also see the verb form coûter (to cost).
There are also synonyms such as le prix (the price).
As an added bonus, you’ll find a sound icon under the translation box, which allows you to hear what the phrase sounds like in the target language.
On this site, before you translate a whole sentence or passage, you can use the examples tab to find possible contexts for a given word.
For instance, when I type in “entertaining,” I see two main French words along with sentence examples for each: the verb form divertir (to entertain) as well as the adjective amusant (entertaining, fun).
This is also a helpful way to zoom in on a particular word in order to see different translation options and understand a word’s nuances.
Perhaps PROMT Online’s most notable feature is a drop-down menu that allows you to choose a topic that most fits your passage. Options include business correspondence, music, travel and several more.
While this certainly doesn’t make PROMT Online infallible, it means that the system already takes into account certain aspects of context, such as register (business correspondence vs. personal correspondence) and specialized jargon (such as musical terminology).
There’s also a built-in dictionary tab to search for a specific word.
The grammar tab similarly allows you to focus on a single word. This tool will show you additional forms of a word so you know how to use it properly in a passage.
For a verb, this means you can find a full conjugation. For an adjective, you can view the feminine and plural forms.
imTranslator is unique in that it allows you to compare translations from multiple sites, offering yet another opportunity to view different possibilities.
You might find that the word choice or sentence structure varies somewhat. All the translations may be technically correct, but one will usually be better given an understanding of the context.
A couple other handy features this one offers are a built-in dictionary and spell checker. You can access these using the icons over the text box.
imTranslator can also read a text aloud in English, French and several other languages. Although it uses an artificial robotic voice, which can only simulate an actual conversation or monologue so much, it can help clarify the pronunciation of unfamiliar words.
If you need a break from the hard work of translation, feel free to have some fun with this robotic assistant. Not only does an audio track play, but for some reason they also have the image of an animated person (complete with moving lips).
It can be corny (and perhaps childish), but you can always play around by having this animated person say something silly or downright creepy, such as vos yeux sont comme les étoiles (your eyes are like the stars) or vous allez mourir (you are going to die).
Welcome to the world of translation! It’s a world of nuance and detail.
As simple as a basic matching game may be, translation is much more complex. And more exciting.
Although translation is an art and a science that even professionals sometimes mess up, these resources will help you translate English to French, with context, more intentionally and confidently.
Rachel Larsen is a lifelong francophile and freelance writer who dreams of living in France one day. She’s currently a student at the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago.
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