11 of the most common French translation fails

French contains a lot of words that are either the same or very similar to English, but have subtly different (or completely opposite) meanings. Here are some of the most common translation fails.

Fairly often, you can say a French word with an English accent, or vice versa, and make yourself understood. When this method of translation falls down, however, it can create some pretty confusing results, and sometimes even official groups or governments are not immune.


In French, global means worldwide, as you’d expect, but also comprehensive/overall. Using global or globalement, then, doesn’t necessarily mean that all countries are involved.

It’s a common translation pitfall to say that, for example, ‘Globally, Marseille has the highest Covid rates’ – to an English speaker that means that Marseille’s rates are the highest in the world, but if it is translated from globalement it could just mean that, overall, Marseille’s rates are the highest [in France].

The correct translation would be: La situation est globalement satisfaisante – Overall, the situation is satisfactory. 


Normalement does mean ‘normally’, but it also has an extra meaning of ‘if all goes to plan’ or ‘all being well’.

In the context of Covid-19, this is how you can end up with a French-influenced English nonsense sentence like: ‘Normally, the case numbers will go down.’ What the French-speaker means to say is that ‘if all goes to plan/if present trends continue, the numbers will go down’.

Normalement, il viendra demainIf all goes well, he will come tomorrow. 

READ ALSO 9 ‘English’ phrases that will only make sense if you live in France


In everyday life, you might find yourself running late because the Metro is perturbé.

In this case, it’s likely that the underground rail system is disrupted. The English word perturbed, on the other hand, means worried or psychologically troubled. If you want to express this in French you would probably say je suis troublée or je suis bouleversé.

Le trafic est perturbé en raison d’un incident de signalisationTraffic is disrupted due to a signaling incident.

The context of Covid-19 has thrown up some particularly interesting French-ified English words and phrases.


Intensive care is called réanimation in French, sometimes shortened to réa. However, if this gets translated directly as ‘reanimation’, it  sounds more like you’re raising the dead than fighting to keep people alive.

Nous comptons 4000 personnes en réanimation actuellementThere are currently 4,000 people in intensive care.

Gestes barriers

Then, of course, we have the classic gestes barrières – barrier gestures. The direct English translation of the phrase likely doesn’t make Anglophones in France bat an eyelid at this point, though it’s basically unheard of in English-speaking countries, where we’d be more likely to discuss ‘safety measures’ as an umbrella term for things like wearing masks, using hand gel and social distancing to reduce your chances of getting Covid.

Pour se protéger et protéger les autres, respectons tous ensemble les gestes barrières !To protect ourselves and others, let’s all follow the safety measures. 

READ ALSO Faux ami: The 18 most annoying French ‘false friends’


Confinement lockdown – also causes some translation issues.

In English we might talk about solitary confinement – which in French is isolement in prison, but the idea of ‘going into confinement’ still evokes the traditional practices of postpartum confinement, which saw women shut off from their communities and on bed rest for multiple weeks after childbirth. 

Un confinement plus strict entrera en vigueur vendredi soirA stricter lockdown will be implemented from on Friday evening.

For us French wins in this regard though for having the simple and elegant déconfinement and reconfinement to describe the lifting of lockdown and the reimposing of lockdown respectively.


Moving on from childbirth, there’s also various sexual minefields that you can encounter if you try to translate too literally.

Beyond the classic pitfall of being excité – aroused – rather than excited, there’s a whole host of false friends out there.

In French, for example, préservatifs condoms – are an important form of contraception. In English, preservatives – translated into French as conservateurs – are what keep your food from spoiling.

Le préservatif est reconnu pour être la seule protection efficace contre les infections sexuellement transmissiblesThe condom is recognised as the only effective protection against sexually transmitted infections. 


Similarly, hand-drawn art or animation may be described as graphique related to the graphic arts. In English however, a ‘graphic video’ suggests explicit violent and/or sexual content.

Il regardait une vidéo graphique – He was watching a hand-animated video

READ ALSO Beautiful butts and condom-free baguettes: Readers reveal their most embarrassing French mistakes


The workplace, too, offers a host of literal translation pitfalls.

French formalities – which can be rather wordy – tend to sound a little odd when rendered literally in English. In fairness, email etiquette is hard enough in your native language, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the entertainment value.

My personal favourite, found in a friend’s professional correspondence, remains: ‘You will find in joint piece’ – a direct translation of Veuillez trouver en pièce jointe, the equivalent of ‘Please find attached’. 

Salutations distinguées

Talking of French formalities, the traditional sign-off to a letter or a formal email should not be attempted to be translated literally, otherwise you will end up sound like a refugee from the 18th century as you offer your ‘distinguished salutations’ to your correspondent.

Veuillez agréer, Madame, Monsieur, mes salutations distinguées, Emmanuel – Yours faithfully, Emmanuel.

Mes chers

Speaking of formalities, cher or chère, although usually translated as ‘dear’ also has a more formal use in French. It’s common for high-ranking French politicians such as the president or prime minister to begin speeches to the nation with Mes chers compatriotes or Mes chers concitoyens, while it would be very unusual for anglophone politicians to start with ‘my dear compatriots’ or ‘my dear fellow citizens’.

In the below tweet, Emmanuel Macron is simply using a formality to tell people that he will be making a speech at 8pm.

You will also hear politicians on state visits refer to each other as cher or chère, which to English ears sounds very over-familiar.    

In the below tweet it doesn’t mean that France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune is hitting on his Irish counterpart Thomas Byrne when he calls him cher, it’s simply an expression of respect.

Of course, you know that you’ve truly gone native when you start making these errors yourself and telling people that you were late because the Metro was globally perturbed.

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Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

Plumbing ermergencies are common in France, so here's our guide to what to do, who to call and the phrases you will need if water starts gushing in unexpected areas.

Plumbing Emergencies in France: Who to call and what to say

How do I find a reliable plumber and avoid getting scammed?

First, try to stick with word-of-mouth if you can. Contact trusted individuals or resources, like your neighbours and friends, or foreigner-oriented Facebook groups for your area (ex. “American Expats in Paris”). This will help you find a more reliable plumber. If this is not an option for you, try “Pages Jaunes” (France’s ‘Yellow Pages’) to see reviews and plumbers (plomberie) in your area. 

Next, educate yourself on standard rates. If the situation is not an emergency, try to compare multiple plumbers to make sure the prices are in the correct range. 

Finally, always Google the name of the plumber you’ll be working with – this will help inform you as to whether anyone else has had a particularly positive (or negative) experience with them – and check that the company has a SIRET number.

This number should be on the work estimate (devis). You can also check them out online at If you want to be extra careful you can also ask to see their carte artisan BTP (craftsman card). 

READ MORE: What is a SIRET number and why is it crucial when hiring French tradesmen?

Who is responsible for paying for work?

If you own the property, you are typically the one who is responsible for financing the plumbing expenses.

However if you’re in a shared building, you must determine the cause and location of the leak. If you cannot find the origin of the leak, you may need a plumber to come and locate it and provide you with an estimate. You can use this estimate when communicating with insurance, should the necessity arise. 

If you are a renter, the situation is a bit more complicated. Most of the time, water damage should be the landlord’s responsibility, but there are exceptions.

The landlord is obliged to carry out major repairs (ex. Natural disaster, serious plumbing issues) that are necessary for the maintenance and normal upkeep of the rented premises (as per, Article 6C of the law of July 6, 1989). The tenant, however, is expected to carry out routine maintenance, and minor repairs are also to be paid by the tenant. If the problem is the result of the tenant failing to maintain the property, then it will be the tenant’s responsibility to cover the cost of the repair.

Legally speaking, it is also the tenant’s responsibility to get the boiler serviced once a year, as well as to maintain the faucets and joints, and to avoid clogging the pipes.

READ MORE: Assurance habitation: How to get home insurance in France

If you end up in dispute with your landlord over costs, you can always reach out to ADIL, the national Housing Association which offers free legal advice for housing issues in France. 

What happens if the leak is coming from my neighbour’s property?

Both you and your neighbour should contact your respective housing insurance companies and file the ‘sinistre’ (damage) with them.

If you both agree on the facts you can file an amiable (in a friendly fashion), then matters are much more simple and you will not have to go through the back-and-forth of determining fault.

If having a friendly process is not possible, be sure to get an expert to assert where the leak is coming from and file this with your insurance company.

As always, keep evidence (lists and photographs) of the damage. Keep in mind that many insurance providers have a limited number of days after the start of the damage that you can file. Better to do it sooner than later, partially because, as with most administrative processes in France, it might take a bit of time.


Plumbing has its own technical vocabulary so here are some words and phrases that you’re likely to need;

Hello, I have a leak in my home. I would like to request that a plumber come to give me an estimate of the damage and cost for repairs – Bonjour, j’ai une fuite chez moi. Je voudrais demander qu’un plombier vienne me donner une estimation des dégâts et du coût de la réparation. 

It is an emergency: C’est une urgence

I have no hot water: Je n’ai pas d’eau chaude

The boiler has stopped working: La chaudière ne fonctionne plus.

I cannot turn my tap off: Je ne peux pas arrêter le robinet.

The toilet is leaking: Mes toilettes fuient.

The toilet won’t flush/ is clogged: Mes toilettes sont bouchées

There is a bad smell coming from my septic tank: Il y a un mauvaise odeur provenant de ma fosse septique

I would like to get my electricity / boiler safety checked: Je souhaiterais une vérification de la sécurité de mon installation électrique / de ma chaudière

I can smell gas: Ca sent le gaz

My washing machine has broken: Ma machine a laver est cassée

Can you come immediately? Est-ce que vous pouvez venir tout de suite?

When can you come? Quand est-ce que vous pouvez venir?

How long will it take? Combien de temps cela prendra-t-il ?

How much do you charge? Quels sont vos prix? / Comment cela va-t-il coûter?

How can I pay you? Comment je peux vous payer ? 

Here are the key French vocabulary words for all things plumbing-related:

Dishwasher – Lave vaisselle

Bath – Baignoire

Shower – Douche

Kitchen Sink – Évier

Cupboard – Placard

Water meter – Compteur d’eau

The Septic Tank – La fosse septique

A leak – Une fuite

Bathroom sink – Le lavabo

The toilet – La toilette

Clogged – Bouché

To overflow – Déborder

A bad smell – Une mauvaise odeur

The flexible rotating tool used to unclog a pipe (and also the word for ferret in French) – Furet 

Water damage – Dégât des eaux

The damage – Le sinistre

And finally, do you know the French phrase Sourire du plombier? No, it’s not a cheerful plumber, it’s the phrase used in French for when a man bends down and his trouser waistband falls down, revealing either his underwear or the top of his buttocks. In English it’s builder’s bum, in French ‘plumber’s smile’.