A French Phrasebook for the Footballing Philosopher

The pithy phrasebook for a foreign sporting event is a staple of the translation blog genre, and before setting out, I had to ask myself some difficult questions: who am I? How many valid life-hours have I poured into the black-hole of televised football? And given the already extensive literature on linguistic self-help for the Average Brit Abroad (henceforth ABA), what addition could a Today Translations French Phrasebook possibly hope to make to the experience of punters at Euro 2016? Answer: None whatsoever, I sincerely imagine. This generic horse appeared to shuffle off its mortal coil in the depths of ancient history, as the majority of such internet content is a déjà vu whirlpool of copy-paste reproduction. Not to mention that learning a language requires a bit more forward planning than a hastily-read online guide.

That said, throughout the tournament the ABA is a species likely to be seen gaping sadly in the bars of Paris, Marseille and Lyon as they come to the tragic realisation that their French GCSE isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on – for shame. Memorise these simple, fun phrases, and you will find it that much easier to arrive at some inner philosophical peace when you are confronted with inevitable & crushing disappointment of your team’s early doors debacle.

1) « Oui » vs « Si »:

‘Yes’ vs ‘Yes’
Not strictly a phrase, but let’s start out with a much-neglected basic. What’s the French for yes? ‘Oui’, as any fule kno. What’s the opposite of ‘oui’?’ ‘Non’, ditto. So what’s the opposite of ‘non’? Courage, friend, for nothing is ever as it seems. The French have two words for ‘yes’, ‘oui’ for replying positively to positive statements and ‘si’ for replying positively to negatives. This kind of system exists in many languages, but for English speakers, it is just weird. Small steps indeed, but slow and steady wins the race.

2) « On se fait la bise?»:

“Shall we kiss?”
A question mostly posed through the eyes, but will likely hear it asked aloud if you spend half a day in France. ‘La bise’ is the ritual cheek-kissing between men, women, best friends and total strangers alike, and it is obligatory, unless you want to be ‘that guy’. In your own time making local friends on the terraces, time may stand still during this operation, as you either pull back too soon, land a sloppy lip on a stranger’s nose or miscalculate the number of kisses appropriate to the present situation. It’s an internal algorithm natural to all Frenchmen and -women, and a baffling custom with untold potential for humiliation for everybody else. Enjoy!

3) « (Oh,) la vache! »:

The meaning of this gem neatly encapsulates the range of English expressions blimey, crikey, bloody hell, good heavens, wow, Oy Vey, and any of the countless takes on the theme of Jesus Christ!. A useful exclamation for any moment of high drama. Point Of Interest: “la vache!” just means “the cow!”, which is an enjoyably absurd thing to shout in any tense situation. There are few forthcoming explanations for this national bovine obsession, so ask a Frenchman why if you get a chance.

4) « Le football est un jeu avant un produit, un spectacle avant un business, et un sport avant un marché. » :

“Football is a game before a product, it is entertainment before it is a business, and it is a sport before it is a market.”
Noble sentiments that will earn you respect from similarly exasperated modern football fans, hankering after the halcyon days of real mud, real leather, and the stiff upper lips of resplendently moustachioed Victorians.

This is a direct quotation from an unusual fountain of moral wisdom. With a penchant for silky skills on the field and silkier kick-backs off it, Michel Platini captained France to its first home-turf tournament victory with Euro 1982, before getting involved with the seedy business of upper-echelon UEFA administration, where he embarrassed himself spectacularly.

During his ignoble reign, he at least had the dignity to spew out an archive of soundbites that can be ironically used against him.

5) « Le problème avec les arbitres, c’est qu’il connaissent les règles, mais pas le jeu. »:

A quote plucked from the bank of Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager of yesteryear. It translates neatly as “The problem with the referees is that they understand the rules, but not the game.”

This is an ideal stock phrase to memorise and throw out there in a crowded French bar at every perceived injustice – you will receive universal murmurings of assent.

7) « Les anglais ont inventé le foot, les français l’ont organisé, les italiens le mettent en scène. »
This pearl of a pan-European footballing aphorism comes from everyone’s favourite sporting philosopher, Eric Cantona (with Joey Barton a close second). It translates into a pleasant summary of the history of European football:

“The English invented football, the French gave it organisation, and the Italians put on a performance.”
You’d do well to wheel this out with a Gallic shrug when taunted by rival fans about why English people are absolute bobbins at all of the sports they invented.


a) Ça m’est égal:

b) Je m’en fiche:

c) Je m’en fous:

“Since we’re all going to die it’s obvious that when and how don’t matter.” – Albert Camus. France is a fantastic place for many reasons, but above all it is the perfect place to take your first steps into the desolate world of the Existential Crisis as your team’s much hyped campaign sputters into knock-out round obscurity. After you’ve spend a month or so pondering age-old questions such as “what is life?”, “what is my purpose?”and “who told Harry Kane he could take corners?”, you will eventually resign yourself to the gentle indifference of the world. 8 a) b) and c) are now at your disposal for expressing the meagre number of sods you give about anything at all – especially something as futile as the perpetual Football machine. They are arranged into ascending order of strength, so that a) means “It’s all the same to me”, b) roughly means “I don’t care” and c) means “I don’t give a t-” Well, you get the idea.
And with that, Dear Reader, you have become an officially Today Translations-approved Above-Average Brit Abroad. Rejoice!