Translating phrasal verbs

A phrasal verb is a verb with a preposition or an adverb fused to it. There are lots of phrasal verbs in English. But how should we translate them into French?

How would you describe this scene in French?

Les cowboys se balladent à cheval sous le soleil couchant.

And in English?

The cowboys are riding into the sunset.

Some phrasal verbs contain a verb which indicates the manner of movement plus a preposition which indicates direction (e.g., fly out, saunter in).

Sometimes the verb and the preposition or adverb cannot be separated; their meaning comes from the phrasal verb as a whole unit (e.g., mess up, get around to, go in for).

Some phrasal verbs can be both types, e.g., "go ahead" can mean both "move forwards" in a literal sense and "continue" in a more abstract sense.

The first step in translating phrasal verbs is to determine which type you are dealing with.

Look at these sentences:

She danced out of the room.

He ran in shouting, "We won!"

The birds flew past the cathedral as the sun went down behind the clock tower.

In all of these sentences, the verb is indicating the manner of movement and the preposition is indicating the direction.

For many common cases, French encodes the manner and direction the other way round to English. Direction is encoded in the verb and manner in another expression. So to translate these phrasal verbs into French, we need to:

Find an appropriate verb to translate direction.

Find an appropriate expression to translate manner (and decide if this is necessary).

Translating the direction

Here are some common French direction verbs that you can use to translate these English prepositions:

across  = traverser

after = poursuivre

ahead = continuer, avancer

along = avancer, continer, traverser

away = (faire) partir, chasser

back(wards)  = reculer

by = passer (devant)

down = descendre, faire tomber

forwards = avancer

from = quitter

in(to) = entrer

on  = continuer, repartir

open = ouvrir

out (of) = sortir

over = renverser

past  = passer (devant)

through = percer, traverser

toward(s) = venir

up  = monter (in sense of towards), arriver, venir

Translating the manner

Alongside the "direction" verbs used above, manner can be expressed in French using different types of expression:

an adverb, e.g., rapidement, lentement

a verbal phrase involving "en" plus the present participle, e.g., en courant, en rampant

a phrase, sometimes equivalent to an adverb, e.g., à toute vitesse, à quatre pattes

These common verbs generally use the "en...ant" construction:

to dance = en dansant

to run = en courant

to skip = en sautillant

to walk = en marchant

Forms of transport

Some verbs in English relate to vehicles or modes of transport, translated by "en/par/à" plus the vehicle name in French (note that "walk" fits into both this and the previous category). So we can often translate verbs such as "drive down, cycle over, walk across" with one of the above verbs plus one of the following expressions:

to drive = en voiture, etc.

to fly = en avion

to ride = à cheval, à bicyclette, etc

to ski = à skis

to walk = à pied

More figurative expressions

Beyond the most common verbs, there are a large number of verbs, often derived directly from nouns, with more figurative uses. These are often translated with an appropriate adverb or other expression in French. Notice how with verbs based on nouns such as "thunder, hammer, speed" we can try to find an expression that involves the corresponding noun in French.

to crash, thunder = dans un bruit de tonnerre

to crawl = en rampant, à quatre pattes

to creep = lentement, sans un bruit, à pas de loup

to dash, dart, rush = en flèche, précipitamment

to force, push  = en forcant, de/avec force

to hammer = au marteau, à coups de marteau

to saunter = d'un pas nonchalant

to shudder = par secousses

to slink = à pas de loup

to speed = à toute vitesse

to stride = à grands pas

to tiptoe = à petits pas, sur la pointe des pieds

When the manner is obvious

When the manner is either obvious or uninteresting, the corresponding phrase may not be expressed in French, leaving simply the verb denoting direction:

He got in the car and drove down the street.

The bird flew up into the tree.

The wind blew the tree over.

How would you translate these sentences in French?


Practice translating a story with phrasal verbs

Ils ont traversé le pont en courant. Le chien les a suivi. Ils ont essayé de le faire partir mais il continuait de les suivre. Ils ont ralenti et lorsqu'ils passaient devant le parc, ils ont décidé d'y entrer. Ils ont monté la colline d'un pas nonchalant, le chien les suivait lentement maintenant. Après avoir traversé un petit bois, ils se sont arrêtés. Tout doucement, l'un d'eux s'est avancé à quatre pattes vers le chien. Soudain, le chien a pris peur et il est passé devant eux en flèche. Il a dévalé la pente, traversé en toute vitesse le bois, et a pris la direction de la sortie du parc. Alors, tranquillement, ils ont repris leur route en direction du centre ville.

They ran across the bridge. The dog followed them (over) / The dog ran after them / The dog went after them. They tried to make it go away / they tried to chase it away but it kept on / insisted on / carried on following them. They slowed down and when / as they walked / went past the park they decided to go in. They sauntered up the hill; now the dog followed / crept after them (slowly). After going through a small wood, they stopped. Carefully / Slowly, one of them crawled towards the dog. Suddenly the dog took fright and darted away. / Suddenly the dog got scared and ran away. It ran / rushed / darted / dashed down the hill, through the wood, and towards the exit / the park gates.... / ...and headed out of the park. Then slowly / calmly they carried on / continued on their way towards the city centre. / they headed for the city centre again / they headed back towards the city centre