Ten ‘untranslatable’ French words translated

French is a difficult language for us expats to learn and if the grammar rules, false friends and tongue-twisting pronunciations weren't taxing enough, things are complicated further by a number of words and expressions that are 'untranslatable'. Here are ten to look out for, along with our interpretations.

Ten 'untranslatable' French words translated
Some words in French are just not translatable. Photo: Dylan Cantwell/AFP

Have you ever read a French word and struggled for what seemed like an eternity to come up with the English translation, before giving up in frustration? Well you're not alone and perhaps you were not to blame.

The simple fact is that French is home to many words and phrases that just don't translate easily into English, if at all.

This is naturally of no concern to the French themselves, who happily go on using them, so we thought it was important to highlight a few of the most common and offer up some translations.

This list (click below) is just to get the ball rolling. Help us build it up by sending in your own suggestions for 'untranslatable' French words and we will add them in. 

Ten 'untranslatable' French words in English

by Naomi Firsht

What words have we missed? Help us build up this list by sending in your own suggestions for 'untranslatable' French words and we will add them in.  Either use the comments section below or email us at [email protected]

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‘Sac iconique’: France unveils French shopping terms to replace English versions

A commission that seeks to act as a guardian of the French language has published a string of recommendations for translations of shopping and style terms, to replace widely-used English ones.

'Sac iconique': France unveils French shopping terms to replace English versions

Perhaps inspired by this month’s Paris Fashion Week, the non-binding recommendations from the Commission for Enrichment of the French Language were published in Wednesday’s Official Journal.

Instead of an “it-bag” — defined as “a handbag in the latest fashion or that stands for a brand” — ministries and businesses are encouraged to write “sac iconique“.

An “it-boy” or “it-girl” can now safely be described as an “icone de la mode” and a “must-have” transforms into an “incontournable“, while “try before you buy” becomes “essayer-acheter”.

There are also more baffling business terms that may be unfamiliar to many native English speakers, like “digital native vertical brand” (“marque integree nee en ligne“).

Set up in 2015, the Commission for Enrichment of the French Language aims to “provide French vocabulary appropriate to the need for communication that is clear and accessible to the greatest number of people”, it said in the introduction to its 2021 annual report.

Led by a member of the Academie Francaise — founded in 1635 under King Louis XIII to guard “pure” French — the Commission says it “recalls to a broad audience the importance of having and using French vocabulary so as to keep our language functional”.

Given the dominance of English in global business and technology, its terms are the most frequently targeted for translation into the language of Moliere.

“These days there’s no invention, innovation or discovery that doesn’t have its corresponding term, increasingly often in English,” the Commission said in its report.

“The flow of new concepts that must be defined and named in French is therefore continuous.”

The report cited fields including hydrogen power, the Covid-19 pandemic and malicious digital activities as recent areas to which  its 20-odd expert groups have turned their attention.