Excuse-moi? – The French words you just cannot translate

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What does “Ennui” mean? Or “Chinoiserie“? It could happen that, on any sort of situation, one happens to cross a word so difficult to translate that the only way to actually succeed is to use more than one single equivalent word. A while ago, the Bright Old Oak researched and presented those words in Finnish and German that are mostly to cause a head-scratch. Interestingly, even languages which seem less contracted like French present us with a few interesting cases which are worth being mentioned and discussed.

Surely literature generates peculiar and special terms that ultimately end up in the spoken language. One of the most interesting examples is “l’esprit de l’escalier“: the English term which most comes close to it is “Afterwit” and generally refers to the feeling one has when thinking over what should have been said when there was a chance. It was first introduced by philosopher Denis Diderot in the 18th Century. A word used in French (but not of French origins) is the literary term “Spleen“. The word of Greek origin has a specific and anatomical meaning in English, but in French it only stands for what Charles Baudelaire meant in “Les Fleurs du Mal“, a theory which directly comes from the Ancient Greeks and their belief that the spleen could spread a black fluid into the body and that it would ultimately cause a sense of melancholy.

But society can also contribute in creating special expressions in a language. What about an “Éminence grise“? Translated as “grey Eminence“, we can easily imagine some sort of wizard or anti-hero of some sort of fantasy novel. Truth is that it all started with François Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. He used to wear a sort of grey robe and acted as advisor to the Cardinal, becoming a powerful figure from behind the scenes. The 1873 painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme entitled “L’Éminence Grise” would then contribute cementing the words for future references and secured its use outside of the original context. Today, it can, for instance, be used to define someone who was once in power, has retired, but is still seen as influential in any decision-making process at his former place of power. Another expression used in the arts, this time visual arts (but then in other contexts aswell) is “mise en abyme” which translates as “placed into the abyss” and refers to images which contain a reference or a smaller copy of the images themselves within these images, in a sort of continuous self-reference. The visual arts also generated the French word “Chinoiserie“: another example of a difficult word to translate into English; it refers to a specific influence in decorations and in the arts and crafts in general during the 18th Century but continuing to be used in contemporary times, albeit only in specific and contextually appropriate situations.

Other words seem to be more common, but equally particular as the aforementioned examples. A false friend in translation could be found in the French noun “Ennui“, which could be easily translated as “annoyed“. Technically, it shares the same origins as “annoy” or “annoyance“. However, it does not mean boredom, nor melancholy per sé, but the feeling of boredom which derives from melancholy. A bit different, if you ask me, as it stands for the result of something and not just that particular something. We can see some resemblance with the portuguese word “Saudade“, but I guess “Ennui” stands for something different nonetheless. Other terms which we might not be able to instantly translate but that seem to be more common in the French language are the noun “Aplaventrisme” which would translate as being a “pushover“, someone who throws in the towel without a fight (“à plat ventre“; “with a flat belly“) or the verb “Yaourter“, which literally translates “To Yoghurt” and directly refers to someone’s attempt to speak a foreign language by inventing words; or the suffix “…du dimanche” as in “le professeur du dimanche” (“professor by Sunday“) which is an allusion to something being done on one day out of seven and therefore stands as “not good” at what that person does.

These are just a few of the many examples of French terms we cannot easily translate. This is what makes learning a language so special and unique. These words are often tied to a specific context and by the time we learn what these words really mean, we get in touch with that language’s history, its culture, its individual characteristics.

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8 thoughts on “Excuse-moi? – The French words you just cannot translate

  1. I think it is a bigger problem in English because most of us never really learn our own grammar, so we just learn in context, seldom thinking about what the words mean. t’s why I am utterly useless at crossword puzzles.

  2. Pingback: Excuse-moi? – The French words you just c...

  3. That’s what I’ve always enjoyed about French as a language: there are somethings utterly unique to it. Ennui, for example, is technically to annoy or be annoyed – but it’s more than that. It’s more along the lines of ‘to have an annoyance’, like a situation or a person that is causing it (so typically french I might add).
    German is even more unique in that sense (even if it does sound like you are ordering someone’s execution when you are just trying to say hello). They have words for very specific things, feelings or situations, so specific that you wonder how they learn them all….

    • This is so true. The other day I was talking to people who live in Berlin and they said that “Wie geht’s dir” is way more than a simple “How are you” – It implies that I want to know how you feel and want you to tell me more about it. It is more heartfelt than it sounds.

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