Untranslatable Words from French

There are thousands of words and expressions that, for linguistic or cultural reasons, don’t have an exact equivalent in other languages. When translating, we must use our imagination and our linguistic abilities to incorporate them into the target text in the most natural way possible. In an earlier post in our collection of linguistic curiosities, we spoke of untranslatable words from Spanish; this time, it’s from French.

Retrouvailles: This term describes the feeling of happiness that overwhelms us when we see someone we have been apart from for a long time. It literally translates as “reunion,” but this simple word isn’t enough to convey the joy expressed by the French word.

L’appel du vide: This term refers to the sudden impulse to jump when one is in a high place. It can also refer to the desire to engage in destructive behaviors in our daily life. It’s literal translation is “the call of the void.”

Dépaysement: This word describes the feeling of disorientation and confusion that you feel when you’re in a totally foreign environment, for example, in another country. Not only is it used for situations in which change is physical, it can also be used to refer to a change in mental or emotional state as a result of a life event.

A l’ouest: This French expression which literally means “in the west”, is actually used to describe a person who is considered strange or different or who thinks differently from others.

Ras-le-bol: Yet another French expression which is impossible to translate literally. It is used to express anger or frustration; it means “to be fed up.” “J’en ai ras-le-bol de …” could be translated as “I’m sick of …” or “I’m up to here…”.

Chanter en yaourt /yaourte: Its literal translation is “to sing in yogurt”, and it is used when a person tries to sing a song in a foreign language that they aren’t familiar with and sings the wrong words or hums meaninglessly; something that, surely, all of us have done at some point.

As translators, we must deploy all our skills to translate these expressions without making them sound strange, and making sure that the translated text can be read fluently. That’s why it’s important to always work with professional translators and interpreters who have the tools and knowledge to solve these linguistic challenges.