Common translation problems from English to French - Use of prepositions - Speed Up Your French: Strategies to avoid common errors (2016)

Speed Up Your French: Strategies to avoid common errors (2016)

Chapter 8. Use of prepositions

Common translation problems from English to French

In each case, the examples illustrate how the translation will vary depending on the context.

1 about / concerning

un livre sur l’Afrique post-coloniale

(a book about post-colonial Africa)

It would also be possible to use one of the following:

au sujet de; à propos de; concernant

If you want to say ‘to speak about’, use parler de.

For about, meaning ‘approximately’, see around below.

2 according to

D’après / Selon lui, les prix vont augmenter.

(According to him, prices are going to go up.)

J’ai fait les calculs suivant ses instructions.

(I made the calculations according to his instructions.)

3 across / through

Elle l’a vu de l’autre côté de la salle.

(She saw him across = on the other side of the room.)

Il a parlé de ses voyages à travers l’Europe.

(He spoke about his travels across Europe.)

Il a couru à travers les champs.

(He ran across the fields.)

In the example above, distance is implied, but if the space crossed is limited, e.g. a road or river, verbs of movement cannot normally be used with à travers. See the final section of this chapter for the translation of ‘to swim across the river’.

Je sentais le froid à travers mes gants.

(I could feel the cold through my gloves.)

Le coupable est passé au travers des mailles du filet de la police.

(The culprit slipped right through the police net.)

L’arbre est tombé en travers du chemin.

(The tree fell right across the path).

4 among

Le chômage chez les jeunes suscite des inquiétudes.

(Unemployment among young people is giving cause for concern.)

The primary meaning of chez is ‘at the house’ or ‘at the business premises’ of someone, e.g.

Je vais chez le dentiste ce matin.

(I am going to the dentist’s this morning.)

However, it is also used to translate ‘among’, as in the first example above, as well as ‘about’, ‘with’ or ‘in the works of’, e.g.

Ce que j’aime chez lui, c’est l’humour.

(What I like about him is his sense of humour.)

C’est une habitude chez lui.

(It’s a habit with him / of his.)

C’est un thème récurrent chez Flaubert.

(It’s a recurrent theme in the works of Flaubert.)

Other ways to translate ‘among’ are as follows:

J’essaie de le trouver parmi la foule.

(I’m trying to find him among / amongst the crowd.)

On est entre amis.

(We are among friends.)

J’ai déjà parlé à plusieurs d’entre vous.

(I’ve already spoken to several among / of you.)

Deux d’entre eux / elles sont parti(e)s tout de suite.

(Two of them left straight away.)

In the two examples immediately above, d’entre is used before a personal pronoun to select some people from a group.

5 around / about (approximately)

Elle avait vers 18 ans.

Elle avait 18 ans environ.

Elle avait autour de 18 ans.

Elle avait dans les 18 ans. (informal)

(She was around / about / approximately 18 years old.)

Note that environ is the odd one out of these prepositions, because it follows the expression that it qualifies.

6 as

Il s’est déguisé en moine.

(He disguised himself as a monk.)

En tant que secrétaire de l’Association des parents d’élèves et des professeurs, je vous écris pour …

(As / In my capacity as the secretary of the PTA, I am writing to …)

Elle travaille comme interprète.

(She is working as an interpreter.)

Note that in French, there is no need for an indefinite or definite article after these prepositions. This is in contrast to English usage, ‘as a(n) / the …’.

7 because of

Nous sommes restés à la maison à cause de la pluie.

(We stayed at home because of the rain.)

Contrast the example above with the following:

Nous sommes restés à la maison parce qu’il pleuvait.

(We stayed at home because it was raining.)

If you want to say ‘because of’, use the preposition à cause de, not the conjunction parce que / qu’, which introduces a clause with subject and verb.


Mnemonic device

à cause DE (because OF)

8 before

Elle arrivera avant midi.

(She will arrive before midday.)

Le paysage s’étendait devant eux.

(The landscape stretched out before them.)

Il a comparu devant le tribunal.

(He appeared before the court.)

Ils se sont fait voler sous nos propres yeux.

(They were robbed before our very eyes.)

Note that avant is used for time, devant is used for position and sous is used idiomatically in the expression sous mes / ses propres yeux (before my / his / her very eyes).

9 by

Il a été attaqué par des voleurs.

(He was attacked by thieves.)

Il était respecté de tous ses collègues.

(He was respected by all his colleagues.)

In a passive construction, the agent is normally introduced by par, but de is preferred if the verb expresses an ongoing state.

10 from

The usual way of translating ‘from’ with place or time is de.

Ils voyagent de Londres à Paris.

(They are travelling from London to Paris.)

Nous travaillons de 9 heures à midi.

(We are working from 9 o’clock to midday.)

However, the prepositions dès and à partir de are also useful with expressions of place and time.

dès Édimbourg

from Edinburgh onwards

dès le depart / le début

right from the start

dès le moment où

from the moment when

dès maintenant

from now on

dès leur arrivée

from the time of their arrival, as soon as they arrive

à partir du carrefour

from the crossroads

à partir de 17 heures

from 5 o’clock

à partir de

from then on

À partir de also translates the idea of ‘from’, meaning ‘on the basis of’.

À partir de ces résultats, il a soutenu que …

(From / on the basis of these results, he argued that …)

11 in

Note the following idiomatic expressions.

La clef est sur la porte.

(The key is in the door.)

Il est sorti sous la pluie.

(He went out in the rain.)

Il a présenté les données sous forme de tableau.

(He presented the data in tabular form.)

12 on

Remember that no preposition is used for on + a particular day or date, e.g.

Je t’appellerai jeudi. Mon examen est le 7 juin.

(I will call you on Thursday. My exam is on 7th June.)

However, to translate an expression such as ‘on a fine autumn day’, use par.

Ils ont déménagé par une belle journée d’automne.

(They moved house on a fine autumn day.)

Note the following examples of figurative usage.

Je l’ai entendu à la radio. Je l’ai vu à la télévision.

(I heard it on the radio. I saw it on television.)

Je vous appelle de la part de M. Duval.

(I’m calling you on behalf of Mr Duval.)

13 out of

To express position and also movement away from, use hors de, e.g.

Hors de la maison, elle se sent libre.

(Out of the house she feels free.)

Hors d’ici!

(Get out of here!)

With some verbs, it is possible to use de alone for movement away from, e.g.

Sortez d’ici!

(Get out of here!)

Note the difference between French and English usage in expressions such as the following:

Qui a bu dans ce verre?

(Who has been drinking out of this glass?)

J’ai découpé cette annonce dans le journal.

(I’ve cut this advert out of the paper.)

Prenez une serviette dans le placard.

(Take a towel out of the cupboard.)

In the examples above, the preposition dans is used in French to indicate the original position of things, whereas in English, ‘out of’ expresses the direction of the movement that has taken or is about to take place.

When used figuratively, ‘out of’ is sometimes rendered by hors de, e.g.

C’est tout à fait hors de question.

(That’s absolutely out of the question.)

Je suis hors d’haleine.

(I am out of breath.)

However, par introduces a motive force, and sur is used with numbers, e.g.

Elle l’a dit par amour / compassion.

(She said it out of love / compassion.)

On lui a mis douze sur vingt.

(He was given the mark of twelve out of twenty.)


Mnemonic device

Think of how you might write ‘twelve out of twenty’ in figures. Twelve would be on the line and twenty beneath it, hence the use of sur in French.

14 towards

For movement towards, use vers, e.g.

Il s’est dirigé vers la sortie.

(He made his way towards the exit.)

For attitude towards, use envers, e.g.

Il a changé d’attitude envers elle.

(He has changed his attitude towards her.)

15 until

To translate ‘until’, use jusqu’à, e.g.

J’attendrai jusqu’à midi.

(I will wait until midday.)

However, if you want to say ‘not … until’, use one of the following instead:

Je ne le saurai que vendredi.

Je ne le saurai pas avant vendredi.

(I will not know until Friday.)

16 with

In some contexts, the literal translation avec is used, e.g.

Venez avec moi. Parlez avec elle.

(Come with me. Speak with her.)

However, de is used in cases such as the following:

Elle a rougi de honte.

(She blushed with shame.)

Je te remercie de tout mon cœur.

(I thank you with all my heart.)

La route est bordée d’arbres.

(The road is lined with trees.)

In descriptive phrases, note the use of à + definite article, contracted where appropriate to au, aux.

Un homme à la barbe rousse

(A man with a red beard)

La fille aux cheveux de lin

(The girl with flaxen hair)



EXERCISE 4. Complete the following sentences with the appropriate preposition, preposition + article, or leave blank where appropriate.

1 Je lui ai mis 15 _______ (out of) vingt.

2 Elle habite ___________ (across) la rue.

3 Ça ne sera pas prêt ________ (until) la semaine prochaine.

4 C’est une obsession ________ (with) elle! Elle tient à voyager _______ (across) le monde.

5 ________ (In) quelle forme vas-tu présenter les données?

6 Il a écrit un livre _______ (about) le cinéma français. (Note: use a single word)

7 Je ne le connais qu’ __________ (through) ses écrits.

8 (As the) secrétaire de la société littéraire je suis chargée de rédiger le compte rendu des réunions.

9 (Right from) le début je savais que cela ne marcherait pas.

10 Il a laissé la clé (in) la porte.

11 As-tu vu l’homme (with) cheveux roux?

12 Elle a pris une casserole (out of) le placard.

13 Ils sont arrivés _______ (around) minuit. Plusieurs ______ (among) eux étaient ivres morts.

14 On l’a amené _________ (before) le juge.

15 Nous l’avons entendu ___ (on) la radio ____(on) vendredi soir.

16 Il l’a aidée _______ (out of) compassion. En plus il avait des engagements _______ (towards) elle.

17 ________là (From then on), tout a basculé.

18 Ce n’est pas _________ (because of) toi qu’il s’en va.

19 _________ (From / On the basis of) cet exemple il nous a persuadés qu’il avait raison.

20 _____ (Get out of) ici ! Sinon, je me ferai houspiller (by) mes collègues.