Why is it so hard to translate French swearing?

The French language has a rich variety of gros mots, from the mildly vulgar to the truly offensive - but translating them into English is fraught with pitfalls. We asked a language expert for their tips on how to translate correctly.

Why is it so hard to translate French swearing?
Swearwords have a cultural, historic and political context. Photo: François Lo Presti/AFP

It’s a perennial issue for people wanting to speak colloquial French, but two recent examples from the world of politics have highlighted the problem.

The first was how to translate Emmanuel Macron’s vow to emmerder the unvaccinated – a phrase that was variously rendered in English-language media as “to annoy”, “to hassle”, “to inconvenience”, “to piss off” or “to drop in the shit”.

Going the other way and Joe Biden’s description of a reporter as a “stupid son-of-a-bitch” was variously translated into French as espèce de connard or stupide fils-de-pute.

So why is translation of bad language so hard?

Swearing or bad language has a wide range – from phrases that are vulgar, colloquial and a bit rude to wildly-offensive full-on insults that are likely to start a punch up if you use them in a bar.

You need to know what level you’re going for, but if you’re translating someone else’s comments, you need to render both what they said and also exactly how offensive their comment was.

READ ALSO Your guide to French swearing

Héloïse Prieur is a French language and culture coach who runs the London-based French language school Belle Entente. She said: “Whenever you’re translating something from the less formal end of the lexicon, cultural and historical knowledge becomes very important.”

Joe Biden’s “son of a bitch” has its closest exact translation as fils de pute (son of a whore) and if you use an online translation tool this is what you will get. But fils de pute is a strong insult in French – you would probably be screaming it at the man who has just smashed into your car or had an affair with your wife.

In English “son of a bitch” is not exactly polite, but it’s not a nuclear insult either, which is why many French publications went for the milder insult connard – think a phrase that you mutter at someone who has just slammed the door in your face or landed you in trouble with your boss.

Héloïse said: “I think there are three things that you need to consider

“Firstly you need to consider the speaker’s intent, and here it’s useful to look at things like the tone of voice and the body language to see whether someone is relaxed or angry.

“Secondly there is the intensity of the word of the phrase, whether you’re looking at something mild, in the middle or extreme. This really only comes through having a good general knowledge of the culture so we know which words are most often used in which situations. You would use a different word for someone being mildly annoying or for someone you’re really very angry and aggressive towards.

“And thirdly there’s the social and geographical context that people are talking in. A group of young people on a night out will use very different language to a president talking in an interview.”

Macron’s emmerder caused problems for translators because there is no exact translation – it means to make someone’s life difficult or inconvenient, but it is also vulgar (although not truly offensive) so for the president to use it in an interview made its own statement.

It is also loaded with historical and political significance, harking back to a famous quote by former president Georges Pompidou.

READ ALSO Why Macron’s use of ’emmerder’ proved hard to translate

And Héloïse’s advice for people who want to try out French swearing? Save it until you have really progressed in your language learning.

She said: “For me the difference between someone who has a high level of language and someone who is totally fluent or bilingual is knowing when to use slang, expressions or swearing – because that requires not just language knowledge but cultural knowledge to know what is appropriate to use in a certain situation.

“It’s worth learning these phrases so that you can understand them, and I always advise people to listen to French radio and watch as much French TV and film as possible because these are great at educating you on context and when certain words or phrases are used.

“But keep it in your pocket until you’re really sure of the use.”

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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 Ebglish it’s builder’s bum, in French ‘plumber’s smile’.