10 French Sayings That Don’t Work in English
When exploring a new country its somewhat inevitable that you’ll find yourself lost in translation from time to time. This is particularly true if you happen to be attempting to speak the local language of said destination.
Being able to correctly implement grammatical rules and syntax structures for any language is a skill that takes years to master — even in ones own mother tongue.
For the most part, French to English is a simple crossover. Every so often, however, one comes across a usual French saying that can cause hysterics when attempting to directly translate into English.
Some things just shouldn’t be shared across languages… here’s why:
Phrase: Avoir les dents du fond qui baignent
Direct translation: To have back teeth that are swimming
As you can see, the direct translation is not only hilarious but also completely nonsensical. One can only imagine that perhaps the intent was to describe ones belly being so full up that their back teeth were submerged in said foods? Who knows.
Phrase: Chacun voit midi à sa porte
Direct translation: Each person sees noon at his/her door
Intention: This is one of the more harmless phrases that is easy to get to the bottom of if you put some thought into it. The French use this saying when trying to encourage one another to stop comparing themselves to others, or others to themselves.
The saying targets perception and how we all have a very different experience & view of things depending on where we are in life. It is also occasionally used to refer to individuals who behave in a selfish manner
Phrase: Raconter des salades
Direct translation: To tell salads
Intention: This phrase is used to describe anyone who is prone to telling lies. It is also used when attempting to explain to someone that everything they know or have been lead to believe is false.
The saying is widely used through France on a daily basis and comes up regularly in general conversation.
Phrase: Avoir la gueule de bois
Direct translation: To have the wooden face
Intention: If you’re ever enjoying a Saturday morning brunch in Montmartre (Maybe after a walking tour in this area?) after a heavy night of drinking its not unlikely you’ll hear this phrase mentioned at some point in the meal.
The expression is used to refer to someone who is severely hungover… hungover to the point where their throat and body is so dry that it may as well be made of wood.
Phrase: Il ne s’est pas cassé la tête
Direct translation: He didn’t overtax himself
Intention: The intention with this phrase is to simply say that someone is lazy. More than this, however, it is also usually used to refer to an individual who is not only lazy but who also puts absolutely no effort into the tasks presented to them.
The epitome of lazy, if you will. The laziest of the lazy.
Phrase: Acheter quelquechose à prix d’or
Direct translation: To pay through the nose
Intention: The inspiration for this phrase comes from something costing “an arm and a leg”. The French say they pay through the nose, but what they mean is that the item in question was more expensive than they expected.
When the price of something has deceived them they also like to say acheter chat en poche; which directly translates to “to buy a pig in a poke”. Good luck with that one.
Phrase: C’est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours
Direct translation: It’s like Baby Jesus in velvet underpants
Intention: This is probably my absolute favorite expression in the French language — especially when it needs to be translated to someone in English.
The first time I heard it I was sat at a dinner with friends in Le Marais after a day of wonderful free guided walking tours around the area. Someone said it and I nearly choked on my food — why on Earth would baby Jesus be wearing velvet undies?
Turns out this is how the French pay homage to their best wines. It exclaims that the wine is delicious and being thoroughly enjoyed; enough of it and even the best of us find ourselves in velvet underpants.
Phrase: Rien ne sert de courir ; il faut partir à point
Direct translation: There’s no point in running; you have to set out in due time
Intention: This one isn’t so much funny as it is wordy. What the French are intending to say is “slow and steady wins the race” — I suppose “theres no point in running; you have to set out in due time” is a suitable alternate way of saying this — but it defiantly doesn’t sound as convincing.
Phrase: Avoir quarante ans bien sonnés
Direct translation: To be on the wrong side of 40
Intention: I imagine this saying found its way into the French language as a means of making the young feel bad and the old feel older. The saying is open to interpretation — it is not ever specified which side of 40 is the right one.
Phrase: S’occuper de ses oignons
Direct translation: To take care of your onions
Intention: Another phrase that caused me to half choke on whatever I was eating at the time. The French equivalent to saying “mind your own business”; take care of your onions… brilliant.
Being able to properly express yourself is important. The French are a naturally expressive people who bask in the descriptive and romantic nature of their language. These ten expressions are examples of phrases that should be left to the natives rather than being forced over into English — oui?