When learning French, it’s natural to try to translate phrases word-for-word from English.
Sometimes it works.
But sometimes the words that form an innocent phrase in English may become something awkward, naughty or incomprehensible in French.
Since we don’t want you wandering around France asking about condoms or saying that you’re horny when you intend to say something completely different, here’s a list of 7 common mistakes English speakers make when directly translating to French – and what you should say instead.
1. Je suis plein(e) ≠ I’m full
In English, it’s common to say “I’m full” to indicate that you’ve enough to eat. But if you announce this in French – je suis plein(e) –, it’ll leave the French speakers at the table mystified. Full of what? They’d wonder.
In French, “Je suis plein(e)” is only appropriate when you also add a noun to indicate what you’re full of. For example, when full of fears, you might say: “Je suis plein(e) d’angoisse.” When you’re happy, you might say: “Je suis plein(e) de bonheur!”
But never would you say: “Je suis plein(e) de nourriture” to indicate that you’ve eaten too much food. That just sounds odd.
What to say instead: “J’ai trop mangé.” (I ate too much). Or, if someone is offering more food but you’ve already eaten plenty, it’s fine to say: “Non, merci!”
2. Je manque toi ≠ I miss you.
Being able to express that you miss someone or something in French isn’t intuitive for English speakers. In French, you do not miss someone or something… they are being missed by you.
What to say instead: To express that you miss someone, think of it this way: The personal pronoun (je, tu, elle, etc.) of the person being missed comes first. Then comes indirect of object of the missing (me, te, lui, leur, etc.). Finally, there’s the conjugation of “manquer” as agrees with the personal pronoun. So:
I miss you = Tu me manques.
You miss me = Je te manque.
They miss us = Nous leur manquons.
3. Préservatifs ≠ Preservatives.
Health-conscious, are you? Concerned about preservatives in your food? That’s fine… but if you want to ask whether a food contains preservatives, remember that the French word préservatif is a faux amis. Préservatif means “condom.”
What to say instead: The correct translation for preservative is “conservateur.” So:
Did you make this jam with preservatives? = Avez-vous préparé cette confiture avec conservateurs?”
Does this dish have preservatives? = Est-ce que ce plat contient des conservateurs?
Can one buy condoms at a supermarket? = Peut-on acheter les préservatifs au supermarché?
4. Je suis chaud(e) ≠ I’m warm
This mistake can cause throat-clearing and awkward glances all around. In French, Je suis chaud(e) means “I’m horny.” Consider yourself warned if you’re at a club dancing the night away and shout to your French friend: “Je suis si chaud(e)!”
What to say instead: In French, you use “avoir” to express how your body feels. So, “I’m warm” = “J’ai chaud.”
5. J’ai visité ma cousine hier ≠ I visited my cousin yesterday
Visiter is a verb that often trips up Anglophones. In English, “to visit” is used whether you’re going to a museum or your grandmother. But in French, “visiter” is only used for visiting places, not people. For example: I visited the Musée d’Orsay yesterday = J’ai visité le Musée d’Orsay hier.
What to say instead: When visiting a person, use the verb “rendre” paired with “visite.”
I visited my cousin yesterday = J’ai rendu visite ma cousine hier.
I’m visiting my dad today = Je rends visite à mon père aujourd’hui.
You can also use aller + voir to indicate that you’re going to visit someone.
I’m going to see (visit) my grandmother tomorrow = Je vais voir ma grandmère demain.
6. Je suis confus(e) ≠ I am confused.
Trying to express your confusion in French can be pretty, well, confusing for an English-speaker. Depending on context, there are a few different French phrases you can use to express your confusion, but “je suis confus(e)” is not one of them. That means, I’m embarrassed.
What to say instead:
To express confusion during a conversation or discussion, say: Je suis perdu(e) = I am lost.
To express internal confusion, say: “Je suis troublée.” (I am troubled)
To express that you have confused (mixed up) different people, places or things or issues, you’d use the verb “confondre.”
For example: I’m always confusing Jacques and Jean…they look so much alike” = “Je confonds toujours Jacques et Jean…ils se ressemblent beaucoup.”
7. Elle est bonne ≠ She is good.
It’s not unusual for an Anglophone to see someone perform well or show some talent and exclaim: “Wow! She’s really good!” But unless you intend to imply that someone is good in bed, it’s best not to say someone “est bonne/bon” without further clarifying what they’re good at!
What to say instead:
Peter is so good (on the guitar) = Peter joue très bien de la guitare.
Your daughter is a very good girl = Ta fille est très sage.
What embarrassing English-French translations have you made? Share with us below!