Comment dit-on “awkward”?

Lately my favorite question to ask French people is Comment dit-on ‘awkward‘ en Francais?* It all started a couple weeks ago at a dinner party between two Americans and three French people. I’m not sure how it came up, but Zoe, the other American and myself kept coming back to the subject, because as far as we’re concerned “awkward” is an extremely important word in the English language and we were determined to figure out a proper translation. C’est ‘bizarre’, we got in response, but were far from satisfied. If one is to go on a “bizarre” date, still it is far from a truly “awkward” date. And take characters like Napoleon Dynamite – he’s far more awkward than bizarre. A distinction must be made.
So I continued the discussion later last week when having lunch with two dear old French friends. Étranger was the first word to come to their mind. But in my mind, that translates to “strange.” To be awkward may entail being strange, but still I am an étrangère
in Paris, and thus the essence of foreigner doesn’t cut it either.
As my quest to define “awkward” in French continues, I’m starting to wonder if the word really even exists here at all. Nearly every French person is impeccably dressed (or at least classically dressed). I hardly see any awkward teenagers here the way I do in the US, with bad skin, hair that needs a little TLC, and uncomfortable body language that screams “awkward”!!! So perhaps beyond translation, I’m off to discover if the French even know what it is to be awkward…

[Note: The images above from awkwardfamilyphotos.com represent exactly the issue I seek to define.]

*Comment dit-on [en Francais] translates to “how do you say…?”

12 comments

  • So true! I don’t recall seeing a single awkward Parisian! Perhaps out in the country there is a slang word that translates better? Although it will probably have to do with newborn farm animals taking their first steps :P

  • I would say “étrange” and my husband agrees. But it still isn’t fitting enough for the extremely uncomfortable cabbage patch doll images that have now traumatized me for life. Thanks Anne :)

  • awkward is : mal a l’aise
    as in Je me sens mal a l’aise avec lui.

    hope that this helps.
    It will drive you nuts trying to find French equivalents to English words or terms. Reste cool, cherie.

    So happy that you’re in my hometown!

    Felicia, This Time in Seoul

  • This is a nice piece of travel writing and insight into two different cultures. I found similar differences in Asian cultures, there are words we don’t have in English because it has never been considered, and vice versa. Love this part of living abroad.

  • November 14, 2009 at 8:06 pm // Reply

    yeah, I would say “mal à l’aise”… but it’s not used in the same way, awkward is kind of like our american “whatever”… there are different connotations depending on voice inflection etc… “well that was awkward!” with sarcasm vs. “I just felt a little awkward” meaning uncomfortable… I think “mal à l’aise” means more awkward-uncomfortable as opposed to awkward-weird… it’s true that there are just some words that don’t have any equivalent in the other language- different ways of thinking :)

  • Funny, I’ve been searching for the same word and I don’t think there’s an exact equivalent for such a useful word. I don’t agree about the French never being awkward though. Having raised 3 half-French children here and seeing their friends come through the house, I can assure you that they are every bit as awkward as American teenagers.

  • Another French friend suggested “geant.”. . I love how there doesn’t have to be one specific answer, but more how it creates this really interesting dialogue and conversation of things we take for granted.

    caseytoussaint – thanks for setting me straight on the whole awkward teenager thing ;)

    anne

  • Isn’t it great? It makes your brain work and bend in different ways, no? Most likely, there are 3-4 words in French for the word awkward… French might be more specific – like if one meant uncomfortable-awkward, you might just say uncomfortable, and if one meant weird-awkward, then you’d say weird..? Or if you meant awkward-creepy, you’d say creepy. (And I’m not specifically referring to the Cabbage Patch doll pictures here.) Anyway – I do find all of this to be very interesting.

    -maria

  • I never found a good French word for awkward. There isn’t really a good solution. A lot of my French friends suggested “maladroit” as another suggestion. Clumsy? That’s kind of it…. but not really.

  • I’m currently studying in France and have this conversation all the time. Most of the time the Americans in the group end up having to chose between “mal à l’aise” et “maladroit” to express their opinion. However, I don’t think the cultural sense of awkward really exists at all.
    We’ve also had a tricky time explaining “creeper” and “facebook stalking”.

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