French Translation: Three Things to Avoid

Everyone makes mistakes, but you can avoid many, if not most, of them by paying extra attention to typical problem areas. Following are three things you should avoid doing if you want to write French like a native.

Don't translate word for word

One of the worst things you can do is translate word for word. Some French words have more than one English equivalent, and vice versa, and some words have no true equivalent. And word order is different in the two languages, so you have to keep that in mind when translating as well.

For example, the French word en is both a pronoun and a preposition. As a pronoun, it usually means some, as in J'en veux (I want some), but as a preposition, it means in or to, as in Je vais en France (I'm going to France). You have to think about this difference when translating from French to English to make sure you translate correctly.

Idiomatic expressions, too, can cause trouble. For example, J'ai un petit creux, which literally translates as "I have a little hollow," actually means "I'm a little hungry."

Don't leave out accents

Accents are very important in French. They have several purposes, and leaving one off in your writing is a spelling mistake at best and a source of confusion at worst. Accents help distinguish between homographs — that is, words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. There are hundreds of these words pairs; here are just a few:

  • cure (cure) — curé (priest)
  • jeune (young) — jeûne (fasting)
  • mais (but) — maïs (corn)
  • ou (or) — où (where)
  • parle (present tense of parler [to talk]) — parlé (past participle of parler)
  • sale (dirty) — salé (salty)

Technically, you can leave accents off capital letters; however, if you leave them off anywhere else, it's often as bad as using the wrong letter altogether.

Don't overuse capitals

French uses a lot fewer capital letters than English — many words that have to be capitalized in English can't be capitalized in French. Here are the most important words to watch out for:

  • The personal pronoun I: Don't capitalize the pronoun je (I) except at the beginning of a sentence.
  • Date words: Don't capitalize days of the week and months of the year in French unless they're at the beginning of a sentence.
  • Geographical words: Although you have to capitalize names of streets, roads, lakes, oceans, and so on in both French and English, in English, you also capitalize the words street, road, and so on when you name a specific one. Not so in French: l'océan Atlantique (the Atlantic Ocean)
  • Languages: Don't capitalize names of languages in French.
  • Nationalities: Don't capitalize nationalities used as adjectives: Il est suisse. (He's Swiss.) However, you do capitalize nationalities used as nouns: Il habite avec un Espagnol. (He lives with a Spaniard.)
  • Religions: Don't capitalize words referring to religion.
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