Every language perceives and describes reality in its own way. In one language you “lose your life,” and in another you “find death.” The “first floor” in France is the “second floor” in North America.

Each language has its own way of describing reality and each has its own unique words—which can be particularly hard to translate! This is the first of three posts about French words that confound English speakers and give translators a run for their money.

Acquis (les)

The noun acquis has something distinctly French about it—it denotes an abstract idea. You can go on at length about les acquis in French without ever saying what you’re talking about, because the word simply means that which has been acquired.

English is a much more concrete language, so keeping things vague doesn’t work as well. No single word corresponds exactly to acquis, but there are ways of getting around it.

Change the noun into a verb

Il est avantageux d’avoir des acquis
It’s good to have gained something

Use a past participle

La Journée mondiale de l’environnement nous rappelle que l’eau, la terre et l’air ne sont pas des acquis.
World Environment Day reminds us that water, land, and air should not be taken for granted.

Say what you’re talking about

Ces acquis profiteront pendant de longues années à la collectivité.
These new facilities will benefit the community for years to come.

Use an idiomatic expression if it suits the context

Cet homme a de l’acquis.
This man’s been through the mill.

Eliminate the word altogether

Ce qu’on ne peut remplacer, c’est l’acquis génétique découlant des croisements au fil des années.
The thing you can’t replace is the genetics and breeding over the years.

In a European Union context, people often talk about l’acquis communautaire, meaning all the laws applicable in the EU. This is translated in English as the “body of EU law.”

Aménager, aménagement

Here are two typically French words. They are so abstract, there is no way to know exactly what they mean. Someone’s designing something? Building something? Developing something? We have to know before we can translate it into English!

Take this example: Les autorités n’ont pas l’argent nécessaire pour aménager un quai. For anglophones, the only way to aménager a wharf is to build it. Hence the translation: The authorities do not have the money they need to build a wharf.

How about aménager une salle? The verb “to set up” does the trick: La salle a été aménagée de façon à favoriser la circulation des visiteurs/The room was set up to facilitate the flow of visitors. Or aménager un programme? Try this: Aménager un programme semblable coûterait cher/It would cost a lot to put a similar program in place.

You can also try removing the word, something English is particularly fond of. Take this example: Les fonds alloués ont servi à aménager des terrains de golf plutôt qu’à améliorer le système de traitement des eaux usées/The funds went to golf courses rather than sewage treatment.

So find out exactly what’s taking place, then describe the action using words like develop, design, implement, add, establish, arrange, provide, maintain, or create.


It’s not so much the word bilan itself but the expression faire le bilan that causes headaches in English. No single translation fits every situation, so you’ll have to choose from a range of options. Let’s have look at some:

Faire le bilan de la situation: Find out what the facts are; Take stock of the situation

Faire le bilan du chemin parcouru: See how far one has come

Faire le bilan de l’administration gouvernementale: Judge the government’s performance

Faire le bilan des événements: Give a summary of the events

Faire le bilan de ses réalisations: Reflect on one’s performance

Faire le bilan du programme: Indicate how successful the program has been; Say what response to the program has been

Faire un bilan rapide: Give a quick overview; Give a quick analysis

Quand on fait le bilan…: When we look at the situation; When we add it all up; When everything is taken into account; When we look back at the situation; When we contemplate the issue; When we put it all together; In the final analysis.

As for the word bilan, “record” often does the trick, although it is possible your context will call for a word like picture, history, state, or even stewardship or stocktaking. You can also paraphrase (Nous sommes fiers de notre bilan/We are proud of what we have done) or use the tried and true strategy of eliminating the word (En analysant le bilan des dix dernières années, on se rend compte…/An examination of the last decade shows that…).

Crise de foie

A crise de foie is both a medical and linguistic mystery—English speakers never suffer from such a fate. Of course anglophones are sometimes bothered by what they eat (hardly surprising, given their heritage of fine British cooking!), but they never blame it on their liver. They suffer from indigestion or stomachaches, they say they’re hung over, or they think they have a case of food poisoning. But their liver is always in perfect working order!

Déformation professionnelle

This abstract French term gets used a lot and can be particularly thorny to translate. Look for a way to express the same idea, but in a more concrete way: C’est de la déformation professionnelle, votre manie de reprendre les anglicismes des autres/You come off like a translator, always complaining about anglicisms. You could also say “like a school teacher” or “like a librarian” and so on depending on context. Or how about phrases like “It’s a holdover from my job,” “I can’t help it, I’m a teacher,” or “That’s how we lawyers think.” There are many great ways to translate the expression C’est de la déformation professionnelle.

Did you find this interesting? Then stay tuned for the next two blog posts, as we continue our series on words that are difficult to translate into English!