Ursus avait cinquante ans, à moins qu'il n'en eût soixante.

My interpretation: Ursus had 50 years, unless that him didn't have sixty.

Which don't make any sense.

  • This is a sentence from L'homme qui rit by Victor Hugo, I expect that if you read this book you are not a beginner in French and you could use a dictionary. You cannot get the second part of the sentence right because you did not understand the first part. Look up il avait cinquante ans in a dictionary. Then look up for il , which cannot be "him", it is a subject pronoun. – None Jun 26 '19 at 17:28
  • This might help you as well. – None Jun 26 '19 at 17:37
  • 1
    @Laure I think the "tricky" bit is the n', which is not present in most other languages. Changing didn't have for had would make "sense" in the broken English version. – rsanchez Jun 26 '19 at 19:00
  • 1
    À moins que translates to unless, so you have an extra that in your translation. And en would translate to of them here. So literally: Ursus had 50 years, unless he had 60 of them. More idiomatically, Ursus was 50, if he wasn't 60. – Peter Shor Jun 27 '19 at 1:07
  • 1
    Is it the “ne” that bothers you in this sentence? – Stéphane Gimenez Jun 27 '19 at 10:58

You made a few mistakes in your translation:

Ursus had 50 years, unless that him didn't have sixty.

  1. You translated il as "him". But il is a subject pronoun, so you must translate it as "he":

Ursus had 50 years, unless that he didn't have sixty.

  1. The Romantic idiom uses avoir for your age, while the Germanic idiom uses to be. Luckily, the translations between them are more or less seamless. (On the same note, in English you say either "to be n" or "to be n years old".)

Ursus was 50 years old, unless that he wasn't sixty.

  1. When you encounter ne in French and it isn't paired with a negative particle (pas, rien, jamais, aucun, que, etc.), it's almost always semantically empty, rather than indicating verbal negation.

Ursus was 50 years old, unless that he was sixty.

  1. You translated a grammatically correct French phase (à moins que + clause) by a grammatically incorrect English prase (unless that + clause). When translating, you should avoid word-for-word substitution, at the very least whenever it leads to broken grammar.

Ursus was 50 years old, unless he was sixty.

This is now a "literal" translation, and has yielded an English sentence whose meaning is unambiguous. Getting here is the first step. Next, we need to ensure that it's natural and fits in context. That means asking, "What is the speaker trying to say?" Sometimes you're lucky and the literal translation has the same force in both languages. But often, you have to adjust in the target language to make sure that readers understand what the author meant them to understand.

In this case, I would probably go with something like this, with the caveat that I would need to read the sentence in the original paragraph to be sure.

Ursus was fifty years old — though he might well have been sixty.


Regarding the sentence quoted, the author expresses a certain hesitation regarding the age of Ursus. He’s not really sure of Ursus' exact age.

In the second part of the sentence, the author goes back on this statement by saying à moins que to designate his previously quoted statement.

Literally, I think you can translate à moins que with Unless.


I don't remember the context but it means that the narrator thinks that Ursus was 50 years old but he could be 60 years old. Their main opinion is 50 but they have a doubt of him being older.

  • 3
    The translation into English would be "Ursus was fifty, unless he was sixty." But giving a translation doesn't help much where future reference is concerned... – None Jun 26 '19 at 19:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.