Learn just the French you need!

7-day Study Plan


Join Rocket French

Section 1

#7 Use online translators with caution, and don’t use printed dictionaries at all!

On the previous page, didn’t I just recommend using an online translator? Well, yes, I did. Online translators are great for a very specific purpose, such as, to look up isolated words or phrases you don’t understand, and for the newbie, they are easier to use than printed dictionaries. French sentence constructions are quite different from English ones, and you may not always find the individual word you seek in a dictionary.

For example, let’s look at the sentence “D’où avez-vous obtenu cette pomme ?” (Where did you get that apple?). If you look up “d’où” in the French dictionary, it won’t be there, because it’s actually a contraction meaning “from where.” You’d have a similar problem finding “avez-vous,” which looks like one word to an English-speaker, but actually means “have you.” So in French, the question “where did you get that apple” translates to “from where have you obtained that apple?” But you, as a rookie student of French, wouldn’t know that when you opened the dictionary looking for each individual word. When you encounter a phrase you can’t translate at all, just type the whole thing into an online translator, and you’ll get an approximate translation.

play D’où avez-vous obtenu cette pomme?
Where did you get that apple?
play d’où
from where
play avez-vous
have you

Where online translators become a big problem is in the translation of idioms. Take, for example, the phrase “Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là.” What the speaker is saying is that he wouldn’t lower himself to behave in such a way; it would be against his principles. But if you typed Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là into BabelFish, the translation would be: “I do not eat that bread,” because that’s literally what the words say. Right words, but wrong meaning – and most confusing! Trying to translate an English idiom word-for-word into French can be equally disastrous. English speakers know that “Robert is pushing up daisies” means he is dead. Translated into French, this would be “Robert soulève les marguerites,” which simply implies he’s lifting up flowers.

play Je ne mange pas de ce pain-là.

So when should you use an online translator? Use an online translator cautiously to translate the unknown phrases you encounter in your reading, recognizing that the result is only going to approximate the correct meaning of the words. French doesn’t equal English and English doesn’t equal French; sometimes the only good translator is a human being. Even so, an online translator, used properly, is more accurate than a printed French/English dictionary.

Have fun with the Vocre app!

This iOS app translates anything you say. Simply set the language you want to translate e.g. English, Chinese, French or Spanish followed by the language you’d like to translate into. Speak into your microphone, rotate the phone and the app will say and write the phrase you need. It’s not perfect but can help you a lot while traveling. Click here to get it on the iTunes store.

Previous Tip

Next Tip