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Learning Article : Empty Words and Cans of Worms: Translating 'Do' and 'About' into French


Discuss the Article : Empty Words and Cans of Worms: Translating 'Do' and 'About' into French

Empty Words and Cans of Worms: Translating 'Do' and 'About' into French

One problem I often notice with beginning A1-A2 level students is this one: they want to translate every word, preferably in the same order. Sadly, it doesn't work like that. Soon you will discover “empty” words and "can-of-worms" words. Specifically we will look at ways to translate "do" and "about" into French.




When you try translating something and you need the dictionary for one word, don't necessarily jump on the first translation. What I'm suggesting is a lot more work, but it should help you understand what you are about to say (and avoid a blunder!).

If you look up a word (for example, the verb "to appear") you should have a bunch of translations like this: "Apparaître", "comparaître", "paraître", "sembler", "sortir", "être publié". If, in turns, you look up those words too, it will give you other English equivalents. This way you will find out that:

"apparaître" mean to be suddently visible (Ex: un lapin apparaît dans le chapeau du magicien).
"comparaître" is to appear before justice. (Ex: le criminel doit comparaître demain).
"paraître" and "sembler" both mean to seem (Ex: il paraît/il semble que Ben Affleck va divorcer.)
"sortir" here means to be released in any medium (Ex : Ce film va sortir demain dans les cinémas).
"être publié" is to be published. (Ex: Cette photo a été publiée sur la couverture du journal).

With all this in mind, you should be able to make a better choice and correctly translate what ever you wanted to translate. Mind, I don't suggest to do that all the time! When speaking, I strongly advice to not use the dictionary at all!! It's a crutch. Instead, try to simplify your thoughts until it sounds like something a 5 years old would say. Built up your vocabulary in your spare time, when you write stuff for fun, like a diary.

For the last one (it's about time!), here in France we would say "il est grand temps que..", "il est/était temps !" or even just "enfin !". 

Maybe just once of these small differences between Quebec and France?


Great article anyway, I hope it'll help English speakers to learn our language :-)



Oh yes! We also say "Il est grand temps que" and "Il était temps" in Québec, I just didn't think about it, thank Quentin!


Yep, there are a lot of nuances that absolutly can not be translated word for word.  Here are two that I have run into while learning.


"Have to" and "do not have to" since have is not always "avoir" and the negative usually requires a totally different structure in French.  "Have to" usually maps to devoir ou fallior because you are expressing an obligation, in lesser terms you can also use «avoir besion».  When speaking in the negative you can't just negate devoir, since «ne pas devoir» is more like "to must not" when you probabbly want to say «ne pas avoir besion» "you don't have the need to".


The other little one that I ran into is attendre ( to wait for ) has a much more immediate meaning than english does.  «je ne peux pas attrendre» would litterally mean "I don't have the ability to wait" which might be useful when waiting for the bathroom.  When talking of in the context of looking forward to doing somthing it would be «J'ai hâte d'y aller» "I can't wait to go".

It's really helpful for beginners


Merci beaucoup Caroline



I think having a good dictionary with a wide range of sample sentences can help a lot. Once I wanted to say 'there was quite a crowd out there' but couldn't make a good translation until I opened my dictionary (well, run my computer en-fr dictionary) and found almost the same sentence: 'there was quite a crowd at the match: il y avait beaucoup de monde au match'. I could never guess that 'beaucoup de monde' could be used in this case!


So many phrases that I use! Now I have their counterparts in french! 


For "Qu’est-ce qui ce passe?" I've seen it translated as "What's happening" or "What's going on", which is basically the same thing as "What's this all about". I've also used "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?" for "What's happening". I've also used "Qu'est-ce qui est arrivé?" for "What happened?".


Not too sure if there are any real difference between "Qu’est-ce qui ce passe?" and "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?", but I've been told they're pretty much interchangable.


Hello Tim ! If I think about "Qu’est-ce qui ce passe?" and "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?" I can see a small difference. If something "se passe", it means something is GOING ON right now. There could be some fight noise or something and I'm curious. But if I go in a room and I see someone crying, I would prefer "Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?" (what is it? what's up?) as nothing is going on right now (crying doesn't count, it's passive). "Qu'est-ce qui est arrivé?" is a good translation fro "What happened?". It coudl also be "Qu'est-ce qui s'est passé ?"

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