French Phrases: Understanding and translating French contracts (compromis de vente etc)

This section looks at some of the vocabulary and features important when translating French contracts. As well as other commercial contracts, this information will be relevant to property contracts and the so-called compromis de vente that is signed in the initial stages of buying a French property, or in French property lease contracts. Some of it may also be relevant to other types of French contracts such as IT contracts.

If you don't find all of the help you require on this page, then it is definitely worth considering a professional translation of your contract or compromis de vente: it isn't as expensive as you might think, and could save you a lot of time and risk! If you would like a free quote with no obligation to go ahead, please see this site's professional translation service.

General difficulties in understanding French contracts

Understanding French contracts and legal documents can pose some of the same difficulties as with such documents in English and other languages:

  • contracts can pose vocabulary difficulties because they deal with concepts that don't crop up in everyday situations and are not necessarily covered in mainstream dictionaries;
  • sometimes phraseology that was established a long time ago is still used in presentday legal documents, and hence sounds archaic or is not covered in mainstream grammars and dictionaries;
  • legal procedures and concepts can be tied to the particular legal system of the country in question: thus a French document may refer to laws, standards, legal terms etc that have no direct equivalent in English, or whose nearest equivalent may vary from English-speaking country to English-speaking country.

In the following sections, I give an overview of some common terms and formulae found in French contracts, including property contracts. The list has been compiled on the basis of "real life" French legal translations that I have performed. The translations here are therefore the result in many cases of discussions and collaboration with lawyers/paralegal professionals who have worked with me on such translations.

Common verbs and phrases in French contracts

In almost every contract, the following will crop up at some stage or other:

X s'engage à ...-X undertakes to..., X agrees to...
X s'interdit de...-X undertakes not to..., X shall refrain from
le cas échéant-should the case arise, if need be, where applicable
d'une part ... d'autre part...-often used to introduce the two parties in a contract— no direct equivalent in English
devra ...-shall...(in the legal sense of "will have a duty to...")
relatif à...-relating to..., governing...
tout/toute ...-any ...
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Some grammatical features and difficulties of French legal language

In French legalese, present participles are more common than in everyday use and may be readily used to form a relative clause. Taking into account the use of more formal vocabulary in some cases, consider the following examples of differences between relative clauses in everyday use and in legal writing:

Everyday expressionLegal language
une/la personne qui veut...toute personne souhaitant...
une/la personne qui vit/habite...toute personne demeurant...
une la personne qui a...toute personne ayant...

Some formal or archaic expressions sometimes found in French contracts

As occurs in English, many instances of French legal language involve words or phrases that were once more common in everyday usage. Gradually over time, the ordinary usage of these words or phrases has evolved but the legal phrase in question has remained fixed. This can cause problems in legal translation since looking a given word up in a mainstream dictionary will give its current translation rather than one that reflects the more archaic meaning. Thus, if you look up the word appartenir in a mainstream dictionary, you will usually find it listed as meaning to belong to.... But in legal parlance, it can take on the once common but now archaic meaning listed below.

appartenir-to be suitable, fitting; to be necessary
ci-annexé-attached hereto
ci-après désigné-henceforth designated..., henceforth referred to as...
les présentes-the present contract/terms and conditions
par les présentes-hereby
entendre faire qch-to intend to do sth
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Note that ci, which was once a common word for here in French, has led to the coining of various compounds used in legal French— it would be practically impossible to list them all! A similar observation is true for the (now obsolete) adverb sus, which has led to many compounds equivalent to English above- or afore- (aforementioned etc).

Some unusual French vocabulary found in contracts

Finally, we find many instances of words which, while not archaic as such, are by their technical nature unusual in everyday usage and not always accurately defined in mainstream dictionaries. A small sample of examples would include:

acquitter-to pay, settle
authentique-"officially executed" by a public notary
baux-leases (this unusual form is sometimes used as the plural)
décennal-ten-year (lease, certificate etc)
échéance-due date; due instalment; coming into effect; taking possession (of a property)
faire parvenir-to send
mettre en jeu-to invoke (a warranty, insurance policy)
quittancer-to acknowledge payment/receipt of
résiliable-cancellable, which may be terminated
résilier-to terminate, cancel
trentenaire-thirty-year (certificate etc)
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Page written by Neil Coffey. Copyright (c) Javamex UK 2014. All rights reserved.