Why is it so hard to translate French swearing?

The French language has a rich variety of gros mots, from the mildly vulgar to the truly offensive - but translating them into English is fraught with pitfalls. We asked a language expert for their tips on how to translate correctly.

Why is it so hard to translate French swearing?
Swearwords have a cultural, historic and political context. Photo: François Lo Presti/AFP

It’s a perennial issue for people wanting to speak colloquial French, but two recent examples from the world of politics have highlighted the problem.

The first was how to translate Emmanuel Macron’s vow to emmerder the unvaccinated – a phrase that was variously rendered in English-language media as “to annoy”, “to hassle”, “to inconvenience”, “to piss off” or “to drop in the shit”.

Going the other way and Joe Biden’s description of a reporter as a “stupid son-of-a-bitch” was variously translated into French as espèce de connard or stupide fils-de-pute.

So why is translation of bad language so hard?

Swearing or bad language has a wide range – from phrases that are vulgar, colloquial and a bit rude to wildly-offensive full-on insults that are likely to start a punch up if you use them in a bar.

You need to know what level you’re going for, but if you’re translating someone else’s comments, you need to render both what they said and also exactly how offensive their comment was.

READ ALSO Your guide to French swearing

Héloïse Prieur is a French language and culture coach who runs the London-based French language school Belle Entente. She said: “Whenever you’re translating something from the less formal end of the lexicon, cultural and historical knowledge becomes very important.”

Joe Biden’s “son of a bitch” has its closest exact translation as fils de pute (son of a whore) and if you use an online translation tool this is what you will get. But fils de pute is a strong insult in French – you would probably be screaming it at the man who has just smashed into your car or had an affair with your wife.

In English “son of a bitch” is not exactly polite, but it’s not a nuclear insult either, which is why many French publications went for the milder insult connard – think a phrase that you mutter at someone who has just slammed the door in your face or landed you in trouble with your boss.

Héloïse said: “I think there are three things that you need to consider

“Firstly you need to consider the speaker’s intent, and here it’s useful to look at things like the tone of voice and the body language to see whether someone is relaxed or angry.

“Secondly there is the intensity of the word of the phrase, whether you’re looking at something mild, in the middle or extreme. This really only comes through having a good general knowledge of the culture so we know which words are most often used in which situations. You would use a different word for someone being mildly annoying or for someone you’re really very angry and aggressive towards.

“And thirdly there’s the social and geographical context that people are talking in. A group of young people on a night out will use very different language to a president talking in an interview.”

Macron’s emmerder caused problems for translators because there is no exact translation – it means to make someone’s life difficult or inconvenient, but it is also vulgar (although not truly offensive) so for the president to use it in an interview made its own statement.

It is also loaded with historical and political significance, harking back to a famous quote by former president Georges Pompidou.

READ ALSO Why Macron’s use of ’emmerder’ proved hard to translate

And Héloïse’s advice for people who want to try out French swearing? Save it until you have really progressed in your language learning.

She said: “For me the difference between someone who has a high level of language and someone who is totally fluent or bilingual is knowing when to use slang, expressions or swearing – because that requires not just language knowledge but cultural knowledge to know what is appropriate to use in a certain situation.

“It’s worth learning these phrases so that you can understand them, and I always advise people to listen to French radio and watch as much French TV and film as possible because these are great at educating you on context and when certain words or phrases are used.

“But keep it in your pocket until you’re really sure of the use.”

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The French TV series, radio shows and podcasts that will boost your language skills

Listening to French radio or podcasts or watching TV shows in French is a well known route to improving language skills. So we asked our readers to spell out a few of their favourites.

The French TV series, radio shows and podcasts that will boost your language skills

News programmes, quizzes and culinary reality show Top Chef were among the must-watch French TV shows for anyone keen to improve their language skills, while talk radio and local stations were also top tips from readers of The Local in response to a recent questionnaire.

Streaming video on demand services or DVDs were also among the recommendations, thanks to the ease with which programmes could be rewound and replayed. 

But the most common advice was to make liberal use of subtitles.

News channel France 24 was recommended by reader Seb Rocco, from Montpellier, who suggested that French learners could, “listen in French with English subtitles, or in English with French subtitles”.

Patricia Hobbs, from Lot-et-Garonne, suggested watching French news programmes with French subtitles, going so far as to say “in fact anything with subtitles in French”, to be able to match the sound to the spelling.

As well as M6’s Top Chef, the hugely popular comedy drama Dix Pour Cent, available on Netflix, was recommended for its help developing – ahem – more colloquial French, for which the Canal Plus series La Flamme also got a nod. 

Blood of the Vine on Amazon Prime, Arte TV’s 3x Manon and another Netflix series, Family Business, also got honourable mentions in our survey for helping French learners develop their language skills.

“DVDs with multilingual soundtracks are your friend,” Mike Gibb, who divides his time between Paris and London, wrote. “Play them in French, and if there are sections you don’t get, you can replay them a few times … and the English soundtrack is always there to give extra hints. 

“Most classic films, in black and white, or [from the] golden age of Hollywood will come with multiple soundtracks by default. For the rest, buy English-language originals from to find the versions with French dubbing.”

New Yorker John Hart added: “I like watching TV and movies that have been dubbed into french. Dubbed dialogue is often clearer, and sometimes simpler, than in the original language. Netflix is a great resource for this.”

Local radio stations were also highlighted as great resources for language learners. “[It’s] great to get a feeling of your region, the dialect, and of course news about events, recipes et cetera,” Dora Biloux, who lives in the southwest Occitanie region told us. “Learn the language and get information at the same time.”

She also recommended full immersion in French TV. “Ditch your dish and go for full on French TV – maybe with a package of some english language series, to ease the initial pain.”

And she – wisely – suggested listening to audiobooks. “Get an audiobook in a French translation of an English book that you know well.”

Other readers recommended France Inter radio, and news and talk radio in general.

As for podcasts, recommendations ranged from dedicated educational French language services to RFI’s “Journal Monde” and “Journal en Français Facile”, France Culture’s “Le Pourquoi du Comment: Économie et Social” and “La Question du Jour”, and Bababam’s “Maintenant Vous Savez”, France Inter’s ‘Popopop’ and ‘Autant en emporte l’histoire’, France Culture’s ‘Les Pieds sur Terre’, and Bababam’s ‘Home(icides)’ True Crime.

Keep an eye out for “Talking France,” The Local’s podcast that will be back up with new episodes starting at the end of May. We’ll help you learn some French!

Got any of your own recommendations? Tell us in the comments below, or send an email to [email protected]