Sometimes a word is so connected to a national concept or tradition it cannot be properly translated into another language. After all, no language can be separated from its culture. Such mots intraduisibles (untranslatable words) are also some of the most imaginative turns of phrases or most beautiful words in any language. French is no exception and contains many words that need to be explained in context to be fully understood. To get you started, we have collected nine untranslatable French words that you need to know in order to sound like a proper local.
One of the most common French words, voilà can be used in a large variety of situations, to draw attention to something that has just happened or that is now close by. It translates roughly to “there you go” or “there it is”. And you can use it on its own or with the object or person you’re referring to.
- Voilà le sel.
There you go, here’s the salt.
- Voilà Paul qui arrive enfin.
There is Paul finally arriving.
The translation is something like “complaining” but not quite the same. Again we have another word, râler, with no real English equivalent. It corresponds to the act of expressing your dissatisfaction with just about anything, no matter how small. In France, it’s often said to be a national pastime, as proven by this saying you may sometime hear:
- Je ne râle pas, je m’exprime.
I’m not complaining, I’m expressing myself.
Could this explain why French people have a reputation for being rude?
If like the French, you feel the need to râler, chances are you’re suffering from le ras-le-bol. The phrase literally translates to “full to the brim of the bowl”. But put simply, it expresses the idea of being fed up or done with something; when you can’t take something anymore:
- J’en ai ras-le-bol du mauvais temps.
I’m fed up with the bad weather.
If you have a more advanced level of French, you may already know that un bouquin is an informal word that is synonymous with un livre (a book). From there, you might assume that bouquiner is a casual way to say lire (to read). And you’ll be nearly right, except that bouquiner brings the idea of being curled up with a good book or a nice French comic strip.
- J’ai passé la soirée à bouquiner.
I spent the evening curled up in a book.
5. Bon courage
If you’re about to take a French exam, then your friends will probably wish you bon courage, as an alternative to bonne chance (good luck). The phrase, which translates directly to “good courage” but means something like “hang in there”. French speakers will use it to encourage others who are about to face difficult tasks. You may also hear it used in a more ironic tone, in relation to near-impossible enterprises:
- Bon courage pour ton examen !
Good luck for your exam!
If you dream of having the perfect Valentine’s Day in France, then you want to stay away from anything resembling this expression. Translated literally, un tue-l’amour is a “love-killer”: A good image to describe any physical feature, personality trait or behavior that turns you off romantically from a significant other or a new date:
- Ce parfum est un vrai tue-l’amour.
This perfume is a real love killer.
The term comes from one of the most popular card games in France, called la belote. If you happen to have both the queen and king in the trump suit, one of the rules of the game requires you to say belote when you play one, then rebelote when you play the other. This gets you extra points. By extension, rebelote has come to express the idea of “all over again”. You can use it when an action or event repeats itself over time:
- Rebelote ! Il a une nouvelle fois oublié ses clés.
There you go again! He forgot his keys one more time.
If you’re someone who enjoys spending hours at the mall without intending to make a purchase, then le lèche-vitrine is for you. And even if you’re not fond of the activity, you may still appreciate the phrase, which literally means “window-licking”: a rather more imaginative expression than “shopping”, one of the many English words that have invaded the French language.
- J’ai fait du lèche-vitrine avec mes amies tout l’après-midi.
I went window shopping with my female friends for the whole afternoon.
We finish our list of untranslatable words in French with what is technically not a word with proper meaning, but rather an interjection. In a similar way as meh in English, bof is used to express indifference, indecisiveness or a lack of excitement toward something. It is often accompanied by a Gallic shrug and can be doubled as bof bof:
- Bof, ce film n’était pas très drôle.
Meh, this film wasn’t very funny.
Get familiar with these unique French words
Our list of nine untranslatable French words gives you an inkling of the specific aspects of French culture, with its unique customs, hobbies and objects of focus. They also help to show just how imaginative such expressions may be, which may be an extra reason why they’re so difficult to translate. Learning them will enrich your vocabulary and help you sound like a true French!