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LIVING IN FRANCE

Why even the French can’t explain when Bonjour becomes Bonsoir

Anyone learning French will have noticed that it has a lot of grammar rules, but what about those unwritten rules like when you stop greeting people with bonjour and start greeting them with bonsoir?

Why even the French can't explain when Bonjour becomes Bonsoir
What time is it? Bonsoir time, for some. Photo: AFP

Most of us can think of a time we’ve cheerfully greeted a French person with bonjour, only to have them reply bonsoir. Yet try saying bonsoir at the same time the following day and you may well get a bonjour in reply.

So is this just a game to wind up the dumb Anglophones?

No, it seems that the French are just as confused themselves, with some insisting that it specifically relates to the time of day, others that it varies with the seasons and other suggesting that the context is more important.

READ ALSO Why bonjour is by far the most important word in the French language

We’ve asked quite a few French people what the rule is, and got almost as many different answers as people we asked.

Angeline, a 27-year-old French electrical engineer said that in her opinion it all depends on the daylight.

“I think that it depends on the season, whether it’s summer or winter,” she said. “During summer, since the sun sets late, I would start saying bonsoir around 8pm, whereas during winter around 6pm, because that’s when it start getting darker.” 

But Rosine, a 21-year-old cinema agent, she said that for her it’s more about habit than sunlight.

“I personally start saying bonsoir around 6pm not minding what season we’re in. Whenever I receive customers after 6pm they all say bonsoir so I got into the habit of saying bonsoir after 6pm.” 

Micheline, 55,  who works in child care, agreed on the 6pm rule.

“For me it’s 6pm because that’s the time when the evening begins, when the sun starts to set generally, be it during summer or any other season.”

Similarly Ginn, 52, said: “To me it doesn’t matter if during summer the sun sets at 10pm – the time to say bonsoir is fixed at 6.”

According to Daniella, a 27-year-old commercial agent, it’s neither the time nor the season, you always start saying bonsoir around dinner time. “I stop saying bonjour around dinner time, so like around 7pm.” 

But her friend Sofie, a 29-year-old marketing traffic manager, disagreed with her, saying the cut-off time should be earlier.

She said: “It should always be around 5 or 5.30pm, that time is the end of the afternoon and beginning of the evening, beginning of soirée so we say bonsoir.”  

Presumably the two of them compromise with a salut to avoid arguments when they are having an evening out together.

But maybe there are also regional differences. Benjamin, 48, is a teacher from Quillan in the Aude département in south west France.

He said: “I come from Quillan where we stop saying bonjour at midday, we say bonjour in the morning, bonjour at midday, but after that it is always bonsoir.”

Unluckily for him, this habit sometimes leaves people in Paris – where he now lives – confused. “Sometimes when it’s 2pm I say bonsoir to people and they just stare blankly at me, like they don’t understand why I’m saying this, but it’s just the habit where I come from.” 

And in a tacit acceptance that it is pretty confusing, some French people told us they don’t bother with bonsoir at all.

Thirty one year-old bank employee Rayan said: “Frankly, I say bonjour the entire time, bonjour in the morning, bonjour in the afternoon, and bonjour in the evening. I don’t think I’ve ever used bonsoir with people.” 

Unlike the others,Thomas, a 28-year-old multimedia advisor, had a very different perspective on the topic. He said his use of French greetings depends on his mood. He argues that he, as well as other French people, mostly use bonsoir when he’s feeling sassy.

“I say bonsoir whenever it’s 4pm and I want to be sassy to someone who just said bonjour to me.” 

As for Marina, a 24-year-old account manager, the right time to say bonsoir is related to work.

“To me, it is related mostly to dinner and work. Working days usually end around 6 or 6:30pm, and around 7pm is when you start having your dinner, so that would an appropriate time to start saying bonsoir, and not before.” 

In an effort to bring some clarity, we also asked people who are studying the language what they had been taught, but sadly it appears there are as many answers here as there are French teachers.

Abigail, a 21-year-old American student in Paris, stops saying bonjour and switches to bonsoir around 4pm. She relates that to her study years in the US, where her teacher taught her marks on the clock to know when to transition the times of the day.

“I learned in school in the United Stated that morning is until noon, from 12 until 4pm is the afternoon, from 4 until 8pm is the evening, and everything after 8pm is the night. And since people don’t really say bonne après-midi all the time, I use bonjour until it’s officially evening.” 

Bria, who is a 22-year-old American accounting technician, believes bonsoir should be used around 5pm as she was taught during her French courses in Paris.  

She said: “I still mess up sometimes. Although Parisians are quick to correct, they are shockingly quick to forgive because I know that even native speakers mess this up all the time as well. But still sometimes around 4pm I hear people still use bonjour, so I usually respond with whatever they say.”

Farah, who is 23-year-old Dutch student in Paris said she just copied what other people use. “I start saying bonsoir whenever they start saying bonsoir to me.”  

READ ALSO The most common and embarrassing French language mistakes laid bare by Twitter 

So can the dictionary help us? Larousse defines bonsoir as “a term of greeting used in the evening” which would at least appear to rule out starting at 2pm, but offers no help on a more specific time.

And even the mighty Académie francaise – guardian of the French language – becomes a trifle vague on bonsoir, defining it as “a polite formula used to greet someone at the end of the day.”

So is there a way you can get round using it all?

Well there are several other greeting options, but they all tend to be informal, salut, coucou or ça va are often used among friends, but in general it’s probably better mix up your jour and your soir than it is to greet your boss or mother-in-law in an overly familiar manner.

Do you have a French language dilemma you would like us to try and solve? Email [email protected]

Member comments

  1. When I first moved to France, I never understood why we say bonsoir as a greeting, but bonne soirée when leaving. As for bonsoir, I follow the 6pm rule!

  2. I use bonsoir after work – and that seems to be the role in the office too. The only time I’ve been corrected is when collecting parcels from a courier at 6 pm (in the summer – so still sunny), where my cheerful bonsoir was greeted with a surely bonJOUR. I guess he was still working though!

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FILM

Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

If you've ever browsed French cinema listings or Netflix, you will instantly notice that the titles of English-language movies often have quite unexpected translations.

Puns, sex and urban legends: How English movie titles are translated into French

It is of course completely normal for the titles of books, films, TV series and other artworks to be translated in a non-literal way – usually the translator will try and get something that conveys the sense and message of the artwork, rather than going for a word-for-word translation.

But from concepts that get lost in translation to untranslatable puns and – of course – the French fondness for English phrases, some titles may surprise you. 

The untranslatable ones

Some concepts just don’t cross international borders.

Groundhog DayUn jour sans fin (an endless day) – Groundhog day in the US and Canada is a festival celebrated on February 2nd that is said to predict spring weather.

The festival doesn’t exist in France, or in the UK come to that, but while British audiences just had to accept a film with a weird title, in France it was translated as ‘an endless day’, which more accurately describes what the film is all about.  

Lock, Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsArnaques, Crimes et Botanique (scams, crimes and botanicals) – the film’s English title is a pun on the phrase ‘lock, stock and barrel’ which means complete, with ‘smoking barrels’ as a nod to the gun storyline.

Puns are pretty hard to translate in general, but a mixture of two puns obviously had the French translators reaching for the white flag. Instead they’re gone for a three-word list that offers a pretty fair overall summary of what the film is all about. 

The Shawshank RedemptionLes Évadés (The Escaped) – Frank Darabont’s slow-burn classic prison drama based on Stephen King’s short story couldn’t really translate into French, so you can’t blame them for not trying. Instead, they kept it simple.

Home AloneMaman, j’ai raté l’avion (Mummy I missed the plane) – another example of deciding not to bother trying to translate a phrase and just giving a straightforward description of what the film is about comes from Home Alone.

Con airLes ailes de l’enfer (the wings of hell) – the 1997 US film centres on a prison break aboard the Justice Prisoner and Alien Transportation System aircraft, nicknamed ‘con air’, with ‘con’ the English abbreviation for convict (prisoner). Not having an exact French-language equivalent, the translators went for the frankly much more poetic ‘the wings of hell’.

Die HardPiège de cristal (The Crystal Trap) – Bruce Willis’s famously festive film gets a completely different name in French – and Spanish and Italian, come to that.

It gave French distributors a bit of a problem when the sequels came out, but they solved it by ignoring any links between the first film and those that followed completely. Die Hard 2: Die Harder translated to 58 Minutes Pour Vivre (58 Minutes to Live), while Die Hard with a Vengeance – which, in English, also pretty much glossed over Die Hard 2 for aesthetic reasons –  became Une journée en enfer (A Day in Hell)

The totally different 

TwilightLe saga du désir interdit (the story of forbidden desire) – Stephanie Meyer’s series of teen vampire romance novels, later turned into a film franchise, appeared in the English-speaking world with the series name ‘twilight’.

A French translation of this time of day of course exists (crépuscule) but instead French translators decided to spell out the theme of the series – forbidden desire. The books appeared in France under the titles of Fascination (fascination) Tentation (temptation) Hésitation (hesitation) Révélation (revelation) L’Appel du sang (the call of blood) and Midnight Sun.

The A TeamL’agence tous risques (the risk-all agency) – similarly with The A Team, French film distributors apparently decided that audiences needed to be clearly informed of the premise – a group of agents who would take on any mission, even the most risky.

Airplane!Y a-t-il un pilote dans l’avion? (Is there a pilot on the plane?) – they kept the name of the 1980 disaster movie spoof, surely? No, the French decided to rename that, too  … and don’t call me Shirley.

The improvements

No time to dieMourir peut attendre (death can wait) – if you didn’t know better you might assume that the cool, classy ‘death can wait’ was the original title of the latest James Bond film and ‘no time to die’ the awkward translation. In fact, it was the other way round.  

JawsLes dents de la mer (the sea’s teeth) – the title of the Spielberg movie in English just refers to the shark, but the title in French refers to both the shark itself and the greater sense of the unknown dangers of the deep. 

The weird and/or sexist  

Mean GirlsLolita malgré moi (Lolita despite myself) – French schoolgirls are mean, bitchy and cliquey too, so there are plenty of options in French for a near-literal translation of the title of high-school drama Mean Girls.

Instead the translator went for the fairly problematic option of ‘Lolita despite myself’ – by which we can assume he never read Nabakov’s classic novel (first published in France, incidentally) telling the story of the paedophile Humbert Humbert and his victim Lolita.

Little WomenLes 4 filles du docteur March (the four daughters of Dr March) – it’s a film (based on a book) entirely about the lives of women, the four March sisters and their mother. Dr March barely features (because he’s away fighting in the American Civil War) but that doesn’t stop the French version from deciding that it’s all about him.  

The inexplicably sexy ones 

Sometimes English language movie titles remain in English but with different titles – for example The Hangover in France is Very Bad Trip. But there is also a distinct trend to just add the word ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ to an English language title to, well, sex it up a bit . . .

Not Another Scary Movie – Sex Academy 

Out Cold – Snow, Sex and Sun

Wild Things – Sex Crimes

Euro Trip – Sex Trip

The English titles for French films

With all the effort that goes into translating English titles into French, you might get a surprise when you start viewing something with an English title, only to find that it’s as French as a snail-filled baguette.

Family Business – the Netflix series about a Paris family who get drawn into international drug smuggling is smart, funny and completely French – it just has an English title.

LOL – although there is an American remake of the teen film LOL, the French version (starring Sophie Marceau) came first.

In France people use the acronym MDR (mort de rire or died laughing) in text speak, but the filmmakers obviously reckoned that the English acronym was well enough known for the title.

The film is entirely in French, with only a very brief foray into English when the characters go on a school trip to London (and experience rain and horrible food, naturally).

MILF – the American acronym MILF (Mom I’d like to F**k) really hit the mainstream thanks to the 2003 film American Pie and by 2018 French film-makers were confident that it was well enough known even in France to use as the title of a French movie.

The film depicts three older women who take a road trip to try and rediscover their youth and friendship – no prizes for guessing what they end up doing.

We asked our French friends if there is a French equivalent of MILF and no-one could suggest one. 

Canada

For all that French cinema distributors are happy to have the odd partially or wholly English title, strict language rules in French-speaking Canada mean that movies there often have completely different titles.

For example American Pie – released under its English name in France – became Folies de graduation (graduation madness) in Quebec, while Ghost also kept its original title in France but was released as Mon Fantôme d’amour (My ghost love) in Quebec.

. . . and the myth

There’s an urban legend that The Matrix appeared in France as Les jeunes qui traversent des dimensions en portant des lunettes de soleil (young people who travel in dimensions while wearing sunglasses) but in fact the film appeared in France as Matrix, although it was La Matrice in Quebec. 

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