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.
I see French media are going with 'espèce de connard' to translate Joe Biden's 'stupid son of a bitch' comment https://t.co/FDxXM6iNJZ
— Emma Pearson (@LocalFR_Emma) January 25, 2022
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.
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.”