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No. 358: Lost in Translation

I am a bit stressed tonight, and could use a laugh. Maybe you could too with Monday looming large? This short, and by no means exhaustive, sampling of ridiculous and cringe-worthy things we have said in French over the past few years should make you smile.

Au restaurant:

  • Out with an international French-speaking crowd one evening, and after finishing both my starter and main, and desperate to make polite conversation, I turned to the Swiss woman next to me and whispered, “Je n’ai plus femme.” (I no longer have a wife), rather than, “Je n’ai plus faim” (I’m not hungry any more). It would have been better to say, “J’ai bien mangé.”
  • Coming down the stairs from the loo at another resto, a young French gal asked me where the bathroom was. I told her to “Montez l’escalier et roulez à doite,” (go up the stairs and roll to the right), instead of “tournez à droite”. At least it made her smile.
  • Constantly struggling with pronunciation and distinguishing between words that sound alike (to me) in French, I have asked for “connard” (the mother of all swear words) instead of “canard” (duck) when ordering my plat principal more times than I care to remember.


À l’hôtel:

  • Staying at our first French bed and breakfast in the Loire Valley, the adorable elderly owner came by to ask if we enjoyed our breakfast and if we wanted more to eat, Superman confidently told him, “Je suis pleine”. The proprietor was stunned to learn that Superman was pregnant.
  • Hastily leaving our hotel room to catch a train, I grabbed a bag of rubbish to throw in a bigger bin in the lobby. The cleaning staff was in the hallway, so I handed it to them and said, “C’est pour la pourboire.” (It’s for the tip), instead of saying “poubelle” (trash can). I’m guessing it is the worst tip they have ever received.


Faire des courses

  • When buying cheese for a dinner party one afternoon, Superman asked the formager if it was possible to sleep (coucher) with the cheese, instead of cut/slice (couper) the cheese. He must have wondered just what us Americans get up to at home.
  • Getting ready for Superman’s 50th birthday party I ran to the corner wine shop and asked the vendeur if I could have “three chilled bottles of champignons” (mushrooms) instead of champagne. Thankfully they were out of fungus that night.
  • Button and friends were out looking for a gag gift for an 18th birthday party and decided on a flask. Not knowing the word for flask, they checked Google translate and came up with “ballon”. They went from Tabac to Tabac asking cranky old Frenchmen, “Vous-avez des ballons?” (Do you have balls?)
  • Picking up a few items for dinner at the local Franprix one day, the cashier asked me if I needed a bag, I politely told her, “Non merci, je suis un sac.” (No thank you, I am a bag.) It was a bad hair day.
  • Trying to exchange an expensive item at the hardware store that was the wrong size, Superman was asked why he wanted to exchange it. The French words just weren’t coming, so rather than telling the salesman, “J’ai changé d’avis.” (I changed my mind), he told the salesman, “J’ai changé mon cerveau.” (I changed my brain.) Don’t you wish you could do that sometimes?


Avec le chien:

  • When walking Taz we are always asked, “Is he a boy or a girl.” When we first arrived in Paris, Superman often responded gaily, “Je suis un garcon!” (I am a boy!) As if it wasn’t obvious.
  • And last but not least, the first time we went on vacation without Taz, I diligently wrote the French family detailed instructions on how to care for the little guy. This of course included a recommendation that every morning when they take him out to carry with them “deux sacs de merde” (two bags of shit), instead of two “poop” bags. Curse you Google Translate!!!


If you aren’t making mistakes, you aren’t trying, n’est pas? I hope you had a good chuckle.


34 Comments Post a comment
  1. Oh dear ! I did chuckle, but I am also terrified to think of the things I will undoubtedly say on my fast-approaching trip to France ! Yikes 🙂

    August 25, 2014
    • As with anything in life, if you’re not willing to make mistakes, you won’t get the most out of your experience. I wish I had taken more risks with the language and befriending more French girlfriends…there is still time for you. Seize the day.

      August 25, 2014
      • I think I’ll just keep a little notebook of the silly things I say for the amusement of my French class when I get back, pourquoi pas 🙂

        August 25, 2014
  2. Merci!!
    I once had a conversation with a lady in a café in a tiny French village. She parked her bike against my table and started talking. I chatted about cycling and it being OK to leave her bike there. I replayed the conversation in my head later that night and realised she was talking about the weather! Never mind!
    et BONNE CHANCE! J’attends avec impatience pour ta poste de Colorado!

    August 25, 2014
    • omg…if I had a euro for every time I’ve had the wrong conversation with someone in France, we could probably afford to stay on here. It is so humbling to learn a foreign language as an adult.

      Thanks for your kind words and stay in tuned for the next chapter in our French/American adventure.

      August 25, 2014
  3. This post had me in stitches! Thank you 🙂

    August 25, 2014
  4. Sarah Larson #

    I was laughing out loud at these…sleeping with the cheese, changing brains, the tip/garbage mix-up…love this post!

    August 25, 2014
    • Thanks Sarah. Oh, linguistically it has been a painful couple of years. It will seem so easy to navigate in English in September..but a lot fewer things to laugh at. x

      August 25, 2014
  5. MDR! Many of these lost-in-translation moments are painfully familiar. One of my favorites was when I decoded a French expression through my husband’s translation: ‘Don’t fall asleep on your bay leaves’, he advised me. Huh? ‘Don’t rest on your laurels?’ I finally guessed. In French it’s ‘Ne pas s’endormir sur ses lauriers.’

    August 25, 2014
    • LOL…as Steve Martin’s Inspector Clouseau would say, “Good one!” Sometimes I wish I had written down every idiotic thing I’ve ever said in French, and sometimes it is just too painful to recount!

      August 25, 2014
  6. Thanks for this morning laugh. I did chuckle quite a bit. I most admit that I have some similar examples from when I was trying to learn English and some are hilarious like when I “raped” carrots instead of grating them…and I have been faulting of trying to literally translate a French expression into English which doesn’t always work and can create awkward moments.

    Do enjoy fully your last week though I don’t think the weather is going to be cooperating! (Suzanne)

    August 25, 2014
    • Thank you for the well wishes Suzanne. It is shaping up to be a crazy week, but I’m determined to enjoy every last minute. As sad as I am to leave France, one nice perk of returning to the USA is being able to easily and successfully navigate the world in my native English.

      August 25, 2014
      • Yup, I understand how you feel. It was the opposite for us. Moving to France meant that we could live in French for the first time in 25 years having lived & worked in the English-speaking world of Toronto for that length of time.

        Are you going to close this blog or morph it into something else?

        August 25, 2014
      • Still figuring that all out…please stay tuned!

        August 25, 2014
  7. Oh that was funny!
    I think, however, there are two unassailable facts emerging here

    1) It is fatal to rely on Google Translate (my (Tunisian) French teacher thinks it is the devil’s work and French workmen simply regard it as a comedy device.
    You can translate individual words but you cannot translate a culture, a particular way of phrasing a live language, much of which has come from different roots to English, or the French mindset itself !
    2) Your French is actually really good (please tell me the difference between faim and femme in pronunciation!)

    I am sure that this week is mega-stressful for you, but try and take some time to enjoy some of it. I hope Superman is pulling his weight

    August 25, 2014
    • Hello,
      Well Superman is in Ethiopia for the duration, but he did wash the windows before he left. I was thinking last night that as much as I am dreading return to the States, it will be so easy to negotiate everything in my native tongue. I will miss collecting funny stories of things that I say on a daily basis though. Thanks for the well-wishes, things will get done this week simply because they have too, so I am trying to keep my stress level down. 🙂

      The difference btw femme and faim — don’t pronounce the ‘m’ in faim,and there is a more open vowel sound–at least that’s what I think, but Lord knows, I’m no expert.

      August 25, 2014
  8. Tess Liu #

    haha c’est trop drôle! this reminds me of one of my friends who had a pronunciation mishap. she was in line to go into a club and a cute french boy strikes up conversation with her. at one point he tells her she’s pretty. she responds with what she thinks is merci beaucoup but she put a little too much uuuu in coup and she ended up telling this boy merci beau cul (thank you nice ass) lol

    August 25, 2014
  9. Thank you. These were so funny! I have really enjoyed your blog and hate to see the “life in France” portion come to a close – I’ll miss it. But I wish you all the best in whatever life offers up next. I’m sure it will be equally as wonderful. Warm wishes ~Margo

    August 25, 2014
    • Thank you Margo. It has been a privilege to have you as a reader. I know I will continue to enjoy your detailed and informative post and they will provide more items for the old bucket list. I feel like I’m losing a third child to college as I contemplate ending this blog, but I know the future holds lots of adventure. Stay tuned to see what’s next!

      August 25, 2014
  10. Oh how I laughed, but we’ve all been there. A pox on Google translate is my view, I find it much better to just bumble on as best I can.

    When I worked for a French company my British colleagues wondered why I had such a good relationship with my French ones. It was simple, I always refused the use of a translator; we spoke in French and if either of us didn’t understand we said so and talked round it until we did. The French are proud of their language to a fault and if you try to speak it, however badly, it shows respect and flatters them and they will more than meet you halfway.

    I shall be trying this out once again in about ten days time so hope the theory still works!

    August 25, 2014
    • C’est vrai. I wish I had another year here to solidify some friendships and continue to improve my French. There are some days it is so hard to make the effort to speak and be understood in French, but in the end it is usually worth it; although reliving these cringe-worthy moments, while funny, is difficult.

      August 26, 2014
  11. On and when trekking in the Alpes Maritimes I had a conversation with a French woman who told me that on a clear day you could see her mother, I looked around for an older woman. Only cottoned on later mere/mer!

    My aunt, staying in a French village, wanted a light for her cigarette and asked the village priest for ‘some passion’.

    August 25, 2014
  12. Melissa #

    I laughed out loud!

    August 26, 2014
  13. Oh well I’ve been there as well. And no matter how many times I pronounced a word correctly in school or during my private lessons, in a social context it always came out the wrong way. Plus sometimes I use English grammatical structures in French…But as they say: Un vaincre sans peril, un triomphe sans gloire.

    August 29, 2014
  14. suespix #

    *hehehehehe!! 🙂 … i must remember “J’ai changé mon cerveau” , could be very useful for me!!

    *and by the way, i reckon you will find funny things when you get back home – seeing it from the objectivity of absence – and obviously being a person with a sense of humour and great observation skills 🙂 … but maybe, if it’s a small town as it seems to be, it would not be WISE to write them on the internet!!!

    August 29, 2014
    • Ha! Great idea, really great idea. I think I will start immediately keeping track of weird and funny things that Americans say in the first few weeks I am back. It could make a terrific post. That is of course unless I changé mon cerveau. 🙂

      August 30, 2014
  15. Amusing! We have all had our share of these, I’m afraid, but always good for a laugh or two.

    September 15, 2014
    • I need to come up with a source for different amusing stories now that I’m operating in my native tongue again. 🙂

      September 15, 2014
  16. I love this post!! Made me rire so much. Beaucoup de joie!!

    September 23, 2014

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