French Phrases That Get Lost in Translation

Utter confusion | © Robin Higgins / Pixabay
Utter confusion | © Robin Higgins / Pixabay
Photo of Jade Cuttle
12 February 2018

French is without doubt one of the most beautiful languages in the world, and also one of the most romantic. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t get tangled in confusion when you try translating some of its most bizarre, nonsensical expressions.

It’s a baby Jesus in velvet underpants!

If you attempt to translate word for word the French phrase of ‘C’est le petit Jésus en culotte de velours’ (It’s a baby Jesus in velvet underpants), without any context, then you’ll end up in a bit of a tangle.

The image of a Baby Jesus in velvet underpants is a little strange to say the least.

Baby jesus in velvet underpants | © currystrumpet / Flickr

There is absolutely no sensible way to explain it, but supposedly, the phrase means that a glass of wine is delicious, though it can sometimes extend to describing a superbly delicious meal.

Some phrases are perhaps best left spoken in their source language.

It curdles grindstones

What even is a grindstone? And can a grindstone curdle?

One French phrase that people really struggle to translate into English is ‘Se caille les meules’ (It curdles grindstones), and while the notion of curdling might seem like a bizarre mistranslation, there is arguably some logic.

Blood-curdling cold | © 12019/ Pixabay

The expression is used on the coldest of days and conveys the idea that it’s so cold that the blood in your veins is curdling. It’s unclear where the grindstone reference comes from though.

It’s a duck of coldness

It’s quite clear that the main aim of this phrase, ‘Il fait un froid de canard’ (It’s a duck of coldness), is to emphasise how unbearably cold it is. But what’s not clear, just like the grindstone phrase, is where the duck comes from and why.

Duck-cold | © Pixabay / Pexels

Some people say that it originates from the drop in temperatures that come with the duck-hunting-season, but this hunting season starts in autumn not winter.

In any case, when French people say it’s ‘duck-cold’ it’s probably best to just drop this image from the English translation to avoid confusion.

Breaking sugar on someone’s back

The phrase ‘casser du sucre sur le dos de quelqu’un’ (Breaking sugar on someone’s back) gives the strange image of breaking sugar on someone from behind.

While this seems to have been lost in translation, the phrase makes sense when you think about the insincerity of sprinkling someone with sickly sweet compliments while gossiping and spreading rumours at the same time.

Sugar | © Fritzs / Wikicommons