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Suppose person A is explaining something to person B, and that person B appears not be listening. Then it is said of person B that:

Il eut l'air de chasser des nuages.

I would translate this as "He looked like he was chasing clouds". However, this was translated as:

He looked as if he were clearing his mind.

So, is "chasser des nuages" some idiom or is this just a very weird translation? I tried to look it up but found nothing.


The quote is taken from the novel Aurélien by Louis Aragon (published in 1944). Before the quote there was a long monologue by the first character about something business related; the last sentence is him breaking off from that topic to say "Voyons, c'est sérieux...". Then came the quote I gave, and afterwards the second person says "Tu dis ?... Excuse-mois... Je t'ai assez mal suivi...".

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    Is the sentence you're interested in something you came up with and then had machine-translated? If no, what is the context? I find it difficult to provide a useful answer in the abstract. – user21018 Aug 6 at 7:25
  • For the sake of back-translating, that English sentence naturally translates as something like: "Il avait l'air d'essayer de se changer les idées". – Con-gras-tue-les-chiens Aug 6 at 8:42
  • @petitrien This is taken from a novel. The context is pretty much what I said. This description is probably a thought in person A's head. – Salamano Aug 6 at 10:54
  • By context, I mean what comes before and what comes after the sentence. It would help determine if "nuages" should be understood as "worries", which is one possible figurative meaning but not the only one. "Nuages" can also be associated with being a bit of a dreamer. The title of the novel, its author, its date of publication would also be very helpful and easy to provide. – user21018 Aug 6 at 11:06
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    When quote from a work say in your question where the extract comes from (not in a comment). Besides trying to explain Aragon needs a lot of background and context (and not only the words just before and after), you have to know about his life and about his work. Aragon wrote this novel in 1943 while he was living illegally (he was a partisan) and Aurélien is a plunge into youthful memories with some of the past "reinvented". And of course never forget is Aragon is most of all a poet and poets have their own use of words. – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 7 at 7:02
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Non, ce n'est pas une expression idiomatique mais il peut s'agir d'un procédé littéraire.

Il a la tête dans les nuages.

Toutefois, les précisions apportées dans les commentaires suggèrent que le personnage est pensif.

@petitrien The book is Aurélien by Aragon again (published in 1944). Before the quote I gave there was a long boring monologue by the first character about something business related; the last sentence is him breaking off from that topic to say "Voyons, c'est sérieux.... Il eu l'air de chasser des nuages." Afterwards the second person says "Tu dis ?... Excuse-mois... Je t'ai assez mal suivi...". Sorry for not giving it beforehand in my question, it just didn't seem relevant to me, and as a rule I prefer an answer which depends least as possible on the context. Thank you.

La phrase « Il eu l'air de chasser des nuages » pourrait révéler le point de vue du personnage ayant parlé « il (l'autre personnage) a la tête dans les nuages » plutôt que de caractériser son état d'âme « il écarte tempo­rairement ses préoccupations », mais sans certitudes.

In English:
No, this is not an idiom but it could be a literary device.
Nevertheless the details you have added suggest that the character is lost in his thoughts.
The sentence il eut l'air de chasser les nuages might reveal the point of view of the character who had been speaking (A) "he (B) has his head in the clouds" rather than characterize his state of mind "he momentarily blows away his worries".


En outre, on peut représenter des idées de différentes façons. (Besides we can represent ideas in different ways.)

Il pleut des cordes.
It's raining cats and dogs.

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    Oui mais l'auteur n'a peut-être pas voulu dire que le protagoniste avait la tête dans les nuages... – Laurent S. Aug 6 at 15:56
  • Hi, is there any chance you (or perhaps someone else) can translate this answer to English for me? – Salamano Aug 7 at 14:14
  • @Fólkvangr Feel free to "correct" my translation. I took the translator's liberty to reorganize your answer :-[. Yours is probably the best answer that can be made. I did not upvote it though because I don't like (sorry) that bit on peut exprimer des expressions équivalentes très différemment, d'ailleurs je ne suis pas très sûr de ce que tu veux dire. J'aurais dit « d'une langue à une autre on peut exprimer des idées semblables mais la plupart du temps il faut utiliser des mots différents. » Ma façon personnelle de dire ça c'est : « on traduit des idées, pas des mots. » – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 7 at 15:47
  • @Laure Thank you for the translation, it was very helpful to me. and Fólkvangr, thank you for the answer :) – Salamano Aug 26 at 9:21
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The initial meaning of this arrangement of words is found in connection with the weather; the subject of the verb is invariably "wind" (vent) or some such entity that connotes the wind; in saying "le vent chasse les nuages" you are saying that the wind pushes the clouds away and thus finally clears up the sky.

There does not seem to exist a real idiom but an image, a figure of speech people ressort to in various ways. The word « nuage » used by itself keeps the meaning it has in the expression, that is the figurative meaning of "element that casts a shadow over something, that impairs somewhat its normal evolution". Here is a case of that ( linguee1);

  • Biarritz n'a pu dégager le ciel de tous les nuages qui menacent le projet d'approfondissement de la démocratie dans l'Union européenne. (europarl.europa.eu)
    Biarritz did not manage to dispel all the storm clouds attending our mission to promote the democratisation of the European Union.

One should say, pertaining to the style of the above sentence, that it is awfully flawed, as "le ciel" has no figurative raison d'être in that sentence; it is nevertheless a telling sentence.

Here is a case of figurative use of the whole expression (linguee2);

  • Dès lors, afin de chasser les nuages qui pourraient assombrir la Commission en la matière, je pense que des arguments plaident [...]
    So in order to clear up the cloud that could hang over the Commission in this matter, I think there is a case for further [...]

Here is another instance in which "chasser" is taken literally as meaning "hunting for something" (as trainspotters do), the idea being that the contemplation of clouds is a spiritual activity (ref);

We find in that source a reference to the use of the word « nuage » as referred to above;

  • « Avoir un nuage au-dessus de la tête », « pelleter des nuages », « entrevoir un avenir chargé de nuages », « voir passer un nuage dans les yeux de quelqu'un » : autant d'expressions péjoratives associées à ces formes mouvantes qui surplombent nos univers, alors qu'un ciel bleu - ou sans nuages - est symbole de bonheur paisible.

  • Ce n'est qu'une question de perspective, croit l'auteur britannique Gavin Pretor-Pinney, cofondateur de la Société d'appréciation des nuages (Cloud Association Society - CAS) qui regroupe des milliers de membres dans le monde. Tous ont en commun cette volonté de lever les yeux au ciel pour en admirer les beautés. « Adulte, les nuages deviennent un paysage si familier que nous ne les voyons plus. Les seuls moments où ils captent notre attention sont lorsqu'ils font entrave au soleil », fait-il remarquer.

Of course, this particular meaning has to be dissociated from that of the expression with the figurative sense; while we retain the lesson it gives us as concerns the meaning of the figurative "nuage".

Getting back to the general figurative meaning, according to yet another source (ref) the expression can be taken as meaning roughly "to clear up the impression of being physically unconfortable".

I wouldn't therefore speak of an idiom but rather of a general figure of speech, the meaning of which can be stretched to fit different contexts in which the figurative meaning is always something pejorative.

  • Thank you! So what would you guess this means here? Would you say the translation I quoted might have it right, or is it more likely this was meant literally as I originally thought? – Salamano Aug 6 at 12:12
  • @Salamano In fact I had quite forgotten about your translation all busy that I was trying to round up evidence showing the existence of a free usage; now that I check it I can see that it agrees fully with what I say, that is with what pertains to it in my answer. – LPH Aug 6 at 15:32
  • @Fólkvangr C'est une chose de dire que les explications dévient fondamentalement de la question, c'en est une autre de préciser en quoi. – LPH Aug 6 at 17:33
  • @Fólkvangr L'expression n'est pas si étrangère à ma compréhension que vous le laissez croire : il n'y a pas de doute quant au mot « chasser » ; c'est clairement « faire disparaitre » ; c'est expliqué dans mon texte, c'est confirmé par le poseur de question ; il n'y a pas de doute non plus quant à la nature figurative péjorative du mot « nuage » ; ces deux aspects sont mis en évidence dans ma réponse. Il n'y a aucune assertion dans mon texte quant à la nature précise de ce que « nuage » (champ 1) – LPH Aug 6 at 19:46
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    @Fólkvangr Pour appuyer ce que tu dis j'ajouterais que pour vouloir expliquer Aragon demande déjà une bonne connaissance du contexte de l'époque (Aurélien écrit en 1943, Aragon vit dans la clandestinité à cette époque) et de la vie personnelle de l'auteur. Il y a dans Aurélien une grande part de rêverie personnelle (il se replonge dans des souvenirs de jeunesse). – Laure SO - Écoute-nous Aug 7 at 6:40

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