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The impossible translation

by Cam's Writing

How do we deal with the untranslatable?

Translating or localising content from French to English isn’t easy, even for bilingual copywriters. Sometimes, there’s just no equivalent. In this article, we’re listing the main difficulties, the challenges that got us scratching our heads, what we call “the untranslatable”.

Words and expressions

Let’s imagine that you’re localising content for a travel company and you come across the following sentence:

Prenez le temps de flâner dans les ruelles de la vieille ville. Dépaysement garanti !

Well… Where do we start ?

Flâner doesn’t have a proper equivalent. You could use stroll but you’d lose the idea of enjoying the surroundings and walking slowly without a goal. Dépaysement is one of the most famous untranslatable French words. Far from “homesickness”, it’s the positive feeling of being in a new country, an enjoyable change of scenery.

Now, let’s say that you moved from travel to food and lifestyle. How would you localise this?

Avis aux amateurs de bonne bouffe ! 36 recettes du terroir à mitonner avec amour.

Depending on the context, the word bouffe (food, grub, nosh) can be positive or negative. The concept of terroir is strongly linked with the French gastronomy, so there’s no proper English equivalent. Finally, mitonner is not just cooking something slowly, it’s taking the time to cook it and it basically guarantees that the food will be good – even better when it’s mitonné aux petits oignons.

The worst mistake when translating or localising texts like these would be to go for a literal translation. You should be free to change the words or even the structure of the sentence so you can convey the same message.

Idioms and puns

Some idioms and proverbs have equivalents in different languages, but it’s not always the case. So what should you do when you have to localise, for example, chercher midi à quatorze heure? The literal translation would be “to look for noon at 2pm” but the true meaning of this idiom is “to make things more complicated that they could be”.

Some idioms are even more vicious because they seem to have an equivalent… But it’s a trap! For example:

Mettre les points sur les i means to clarify something or to have words with someone with the objective of making a point.

On the other hand, if you dot the i’s and cross the t’s, you’re just putting the finishing touches to something – and it’s much more peaceful.

When the source material includes a pun based on an idiom, you have three options. You can ignore all of it and just focus on the message, you can keep the idiom (if it has an equivalent) and get rid of the pun or you can find a different idiom that will allow you to have a pun in your localised version, like in the following example:

L’Alaska, la destination idéale pour ceux qui n’ont pas froid aux yeux !
(Alaska is the perfect destination for those who aren’t faint-hearted)

Don’t be the one who got cold feet… Come and visit Alaska!

Cultural references

Cultural references are basically untranslatable. Most of the time, they have to be localised, adapted to your target audience. After all, your goal is to deliver content that will resonate with your reader.

Different people have different habits. In France, if you talk about le 20 heures, everyone will know you’re talking about the 8 o’clock news on TV. But British people don’t have an equivalent. It’s the same issue with things such as…

  • Le goûter: a snack enjoyed mainly by kids between 4 and 6pm
  • L’apéro: drinks and snacks enjoyed mainly by adults between 6 and 8pm
  • Le week-end du 15 août: the 15th of August being a French bank holiday, the closest weekend is generally the busiest on the roads, with many people planning a getaway.
  • La rentrée: the moment, in early September, when everyone goes back to school or to work.

Mentions of local celebrities or places that are only famous within a country should also be localised – not simply translated.

Too long to work

What can you do when you are able to translate the copy but your translation doesn’t work with the parameters you’ve been given? When you have to deal with a limited number of characters for example?

Shop now: Acheter dès maintenant

Book your seaside holiday: Réservez vos vacances en bord de mer

Find a physio: Trouvez un masseur-kinésithérapeute
(OK, we admit it, this example is very specific. But we’re here to make a point)

If you can’t find shorter synonyms, you just have to prioritise. What’s the most important part of the message? Book? A holiday? By the sea? Or is it the urgency? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Look at the whole picture and adapt your localised CTA to make it relevant and engaging.

We have to admit that, sometimes, translating or localising in French is hard. But it makes us feel better to think we can consider ourselves lucky… We’re not doing it in German (known for its incredibly long words).

There are many other difficulties when translating from English to French. For example, we haven’t even mentioned the gender of things!
If you’ve come across some untranslatable copy or if you need help localising your content, let us know.