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In English, we have a phrase 'The elephant in the room'. It refers to a subject matter that is causing tension such as something awkward.

(Example situation: Two people have been known to do something together while drunk. The next day, the two people are in a group with their friends and everybody knows about it but nobody wants to be the one to mention it. In this case, whatever the two drunk people did together is "The elephant in the room")

Now, google translate tells me that I could say

L'éléphant dans la pièce

However, I believe the phrase is too idiomatic to translate literally and I presume that the literal translation would sound très bizarre to a native French speaker.

Any help that you can provide in helping me find a French phrase with similar meaning is greatly appreciated.

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    The expression Le Roi est nu"/"L'Empereur est nu comes from HC Anderson’s fable “The Emperor’s New Cloths,”(Les Habits neufs de l'empereur), in which the “elephant” that everyone knew about but was afraid to discuss (except the little boy) was the fact that the Emperor was actually naked. Apparently, however, this expression means more like “misleading appearances”(des apparences trompeuses) or “a hidden lack of power”(un manque de pouvoir inavoué), which don’t give at all the notion of “the elephant in the room.” Oh well, sorry.
    – Papa Poule
    Feb 4, 2015 at 0:24
  • Je n'ai pas d'expression pour traduire Elephant in the room, mais j'en ai une à propos de celui qui est le premier à le mentionner: Mettre les pieds dans le plat.
    – mouviciel
    Jun 8 at 9:22

12 Answers 12

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Unfortunately, I don't believe French has any expression coming close enough to this one.

L'éléphant dans la pièce is certainly not used or it is only used as a literal translation from English and thus only understandable by English speaking people.

The elephant in the room refers to something obvious that is not said. Something not being explicitly said is called a 'non-dit'.

So I guess the closest you could get is an evident 'non-dit' or in French: "Un non-dit évident"

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    Sounds like this is what I am looking for. Merci beaucoup!
    – Harvey
    Feb 3, 2015 at 19:56
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    Un non-dit réfère surtout à la notion de quelque chose qui n'est pas dit, et on utilise aussi souvent un sous-entendu, dans le cadre d'un discours, d'un échange, d'une lettre, d'une position, ... Cela ne s'emploie pas vraiment dans le contexte pratique de la réunion évoquée. Jan 19, 2016 at 17:59
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Le « secret de Polichinelle » (1808):

Le secret de Polichinelle (fam.). Faux secret, parce qu'il est connu de tous. Synon. secret de la comédie (Ac.).Sa liaison est publique (...). C'est le secret de Polichinelle (Augier, Effrontés, 1861, p. 279).

[ Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé ]

This is really the secret that everybody knows about; discomfort is not a part of this.

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    "An elephant in the room" does not imply either that the existence of the elephant is supposed to be a secret, unlike the "secret the Polichinelle", so I think the two expressions are quite different.
    – a3nm
    Jun 17, 2017 at 11:33
  • @a3nm Thanks, fair enough! It sticks better with the "elephant" in the Q. scenario but it wouldn't work in all instances granted. Like I've seen a context where a teacher starts his lecture with something like "let's start with" + the expression. In The Martian I thought Damon said that in the last scene of the movie but I checked and he says "let me get a few things out of the way right off the bat". I guess one of those things can be construed as an elephant. That would be "l'affaire que tout le monde redoute/veut savoir" or "ce qui est sur toutes les lèvres"? Other A touch on that indeed.
    – user3177
    Jun 17, 2017 at 16:58
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« Le sujet qui fâche » is a French idiom which (quite literally) refers to a subject matter that is causing tension. For example, “let’s talk about the elephant in the room” could be translated « parlons du sujet qui fâche ».

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I guess you could use "un tabou" or "un sujet tabou" very well, as it is used to talk about something everyone knows about but no one wants to mention it because it would be awkward (for example : talking about sexuality with your parents)

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Quelques transpositions intéressantes que Linguee propose :

  • une épine dans le pied,
  • cela doit sauter aux yeux,
  • question [qui] domine toutes les autres,
  • le problème dont personne n'ose parler.

Bien sûr le contexte influe largement sur le choix de l'expression utilisée, mais la situation embarrassante est chaque fois soulignée.

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"C'est gros comme une maison qu'il la trompe".

C'est évident. Tout le monde le sait. Mais peut-être pas elle (celle qui est trompée).
J'aurais pu écrire (petite dédicace, ils se reconnaîtront) :

"C'est gros comme une maison qu'il la trompe, et elle, elle voit rien !"

NB: les phrases en exemple appartiennent au langage parlé.

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"Il plane une ombre dans la pièce" could be used and translates the atmosphere of discomfort.

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  • Ou lorsqu'un moment de silence gênant se fait qu' "un ange passe"
    – Koresh
    Feb 4, 2015 at 10:44
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Although not nearly as idiomatic as “The elephant in the room,” the notion of “things that [go] unsaid” in awkward situations is also captured by the English expression “spinach in the teeth” (bullet 3 under “Bitlets” from ‘The Death of Enthusiasm’/Wordpress).

Used in part of a one-on-one exchange/dialog, a rough French equivalent ... :

[Tu me regardes comme si j'avais] un truc coincé entre les dents (Link to Reverso/context)

... would admittedly NOT work very well, because it would imply, as it does in English, that the speaker was NOT aware of any problems and it would essentially be a way to ask:

“Why are you looking at me like that? What’s wrong [with me]?”

Used as part of a third person narrative, however, although not a fixed expression like you’re seeking, I think it would work pretty well to capture the idea of the “elephant in the room” by implying that everyone present was aware of an embarrassing/awkward fact or topic that they were nervously ignoring or avoiding:

“Ils se regardent/se regardaient comme s’ils ont/avaient tous un truc coincé entre les dents.”

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Ce n'est pas une traduction directe mais l'expression regarder ailleurs rend assez bien cette notion de sujet qu'on évite d'aborder. Elle a été rendue fameuse par cette phrase de Jacques Chirac à propos du réchauffement climatique:

Notre maison brûle et nous regardons ailleurs.

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You could use the phrase "le boeuf sur le toit" = literally "the bull on the roof".

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    Je n'ai jamais entendu cette expression. D'où vient-elle ? As-tu des exemples d'utilisation ? Sep 26, 2015 at 20:05
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    Je ne pense pas que "le boeuf sur le toit" soit une expression idiomatique portant une signification particulière, celle-ci ou aucune autre. C'est la traduction française du tittre d'une chanson brésilienne, le nom d'un cabaret et d'une oeuvre de Darius Milhaud.
    – Eusebius
    Sep 27, 2015 at 7:37
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"Crever l'abcès" could maybe work? It literally means "to lance the boil", and I saw it being translated as "to clear the air".

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    Une source peut-être ?
    – Toto
    Mar 11 at 10:19
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Discuter du sexe des anges.

C'est-à-dire, perdre son temps à discuter de choses futiles/inutiles pour ne pas avoir à affronter le vrai sujet qui est, lui, d'urgence. Un gros problème qu'on évite de tacler par lâcheté, ou par indifférence, ou les deux.

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