11 Unique French Words That Lose Their Beauty in Translation
Are your ideas getting lost in translation?
Some things are simply better said in French.
When words are translated from one language to another, the true essence of the word can be lost.
We can convey the signified meaning and present a rather accurate translation, but when certain French words and phrases leave us stumped to find a definitive translation, it’s almost as if the very concept or idea simply isn’t thought of in English.
Maybe you’ve come across this already while conversing with a friend or language exchange partner who’s fluent in both English and French? You may have found that sometimes you’ll switch languages to express ideas that you may not be able to express quite as succinctly in one language. In situations like that, it’s a perfect opportunity to use unique French words and phrases that express different nuances of the same idea.
So, momentarily put down your french books, add those websites to your reading list for later and get ready for total immersion!
These unique words will help you express yourself like a native—or, at the very least, one very savvy learner.
11 Unique French Words That Get Lost in Translation
1. Nostalgie de la boue
Nostalgie de la boue literally translates to “longing for the mud” and was coined by Émile Augier, a French dramatist and poet. In English, we don’t have an expression that conveys the exact meaning of this, so naturally we adopted the French phrase.
This expression can be used to refer to various situations, but generally it’s used to refer to people who desire something base or something lower than what they’re accustomed to.
For all you literature fans out there, an example of this can be found in “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” When Constance (Lady Chatterley) confesses that she’s pregnant with Mellors’ child (Mellors is a working-class man), her husband, an upper-class man, responds to this by saying she’s insane and has nostalgie de la boue.
2. Bon vivant
Of course the French would have a way to describe someone who enjoys the finer things in life, and who can blame them when they have unlimited access to good food and good wine?
Bon vivant literally translates to “good liver” in English, which doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, although we would refer to a bon vivant as someone who “lives it up.”
An example would be:
“Tu sais que Depardieu boit 14 bouteilles d’alcool par jour ?” (Did you know Depardieu drinks 14 bottles of alcohol per day?)
“N’importe quoi ! Mais c’est vrai que c’est un bon vivant !” (No way! Although it’s true that he’s living it up!)
Astre translates to “celestial body” and is often used as another word for étoile (star) but the difference is that astre doesn’t mean star. It’s an unspecific term that can signify anything from “star” to “planet” to “angel.”
“La nuit j’adore regarder les astres.” (At night I love watching the stars.)
Astre is basically used to describe something luminary and otherworldly, and can even be used in reference to people. For example:
“T’es belle comme un astre!” (You’re as beautiful as an angel!)
So this magical verb has various meanings, therefore it can be translated into different things in English including “to crash,” “to bind” and “to attack.” With the surge of French slang making its way into everyday vocabulary, it’s now more often used to express the success or greatness of something.
You may come across the word cartonner in the discussion of successful films, music and books. Did you just watch a really great movie at the cinema? You could say “çe film a cartonné!” “This film smashed it!”
Cartonner can also be used in regards to people. If you think someone is awesome you can simply say “tu cartonnes!” or “you’re the bomb!”
The term ras-le-bol literally translates to “bowl full of it” in English, although this isn’t a foodie term!
Ras-le-bol is generally used to emphasize frustration and agitation, kind of like when you’ve had enough of something and you’re now reaching the point where you can’t take any more, hence why these Frenchies’ bowls are full.
It can be used in the following way: “J’en ai ras-le-bol!” which basically translates to something along the lines of “I’m fed up!” or “I’m sick and tired of it!” in English.
Contresens is the French word for “misinterpretation” so if you’ve ever made an error in your French translation, you may remember your teacher saying: “Ce n’est pas correcte, c’est un contresens” (This isn’t right, it’s a mistranslation.)
Yet contresens isn’t just reserved for those things lost in translation, it’s kind of lost in translation itself as the word is literally made up of two other French words: contre which means “against” and sens which means “direction.” So it can also be used to mean “reverse,” “opposed,” “opposite” and “the wrong way.”
“Nous sommes monté la rue á contresens!” (We went down the road the wrong way!)
7. L’appel du vide
This literally translates into English as “the call of the void.” Even though we can translate this word for word, we don’t have an exact expression for what l’appel du vide conveys.
L’appel du vide refers to that inexplicable and uncontrollable urge to jump that even perfectly level-headed people with no desire to really jump may experience when standing on the edge of a cliff:
“J’ai gravi la montagne et lorsque j’ai regardé la vue autour du moi, j’ai senti l’appel du vide!” (I climbed the mountain and when I looked at the view around me, for a moment I had an instinctive urge to jump!)
It isn’t just limited to having a momentary urge to jump though, l’appel du vide refers to all of those indescribable instinctive urges to do something unimaginable that appear almost out of nowhere. It’s a phrase perfectly coined to express those existential crises in life. So, next time you feel like doing something crazy, remember, the French totally get you.
8. Jolie Laide
What could be more French than seeing beauty in everything? Being attracted to unconventional beauty of course! Thanks to the likes of Serge Gainsbourg (and his song titled: “Laide Jolie Laide”) there’s a term for those unconventional beauties, and that term is jolie laide.
Jolie laidedirectly translates to “pretty ugly” in English. The term conveys the uniqueness of someone’s beauty, something atypical that challenges or isn’t aligned with conventional beauty standards.
While jolie laide isn’t a popular expression that pops up in day-to-day conversation, it’s something you may come across in fashion publications and blogs thanks to the online world; and of course it’s a term the English speaking world has adopted.
“Charlotte Gainsbourg est vraiment une jolie laide” would translate to something like “Charlotte Gainsbourg is strangely attractive.”
This word literally translates to “the mouth of an animal.” However, the French more commonly use it to refer to someone’s face or head.
The word gueule generally has a negative connotation:
“Avec une gueule comme ça il va surement avoir le rôle du criminel.” (With a face like that he’s surely going to get the role of a criminal.)
The French also use it to tell someone to “ferme ta gueule!” “Shut your mouth!” (You can drop the ferme for the more colloquial “ta gueule!“)
Empêchement is a really ideal word to have under your belt. In English this would translate to unforeseen difficulties, hold-ups or last minute changes.
It basically insinuates that something unexpected has popped up that can ultimately ruin an arrangement or a rendez-vous, so there’s no need for any further explanation as this one word really says it all:
“Je suis vraiment désolé mais j’ai un empêchement” (I’m really sorry but I’m going to have to cancel what we planned as something has come up!)
It’s the most common and convenient way a French person will get out of a plan or a commitment, and all this is without having to explain anything!
“J’ai un empêchement pour ce rendez-vous.” (I can’t make it to the meeting because of unforeseen difficulties.)
Aside from being a verb form that comes from the infinitive regarder, regard can also be used as a noun in French.
It alludes to the expression of someone’s eyes, so in that sense regard is comparable to the English word “gaze.” For example, someone might say:
“Quel regard!” (What expressive eyes!)
But it signifies so much more than that. It also refers to a look and a presence that’s expressed solely through the eyes.
For example, when you hear something like, “avec son très beau regard il va avoir du succès dans sa carrière de comédien,” in English we could translate it to something along the lines of “with such a piercing gaze he will be successful in his acting career.”
Now that you’ve got some unique French words to use, it’s high time you start learning how to truly express yourself in the language.
Practice these words and get them ingrained in your French vocabulary.
Your ideas are worth expressing correctly!