For one reason or another c’est la vie is one of the most well-known French expressions among English speakers. In fact, most people who are familiar with c’est la vie don’t even speak French and only know what the expression as a whole means and not what each individual word means.
If you haven’t figured it out already, the correct way to spell this phrase is c’est la vie. This means that all other spellings including ce la vie, se la vie, say la vie, ce est la vie, cie la vie and sa la vie are all incorrect.
The best and most obvious translation of c’est la vie is “that’s life” (c’est = that’s, la vie = life) and the expression is most often used when confronting something unfortunate that you just have to accept.
There are a handful of good English translations for c’est la vie including “that’s how it is”, “that’s the way it is”, “that’s just how it is”, “it is what it is”, “oh well”, “such is life” and of course “that’s life”.
For example if you’re at work and don’t get the promotion that you thought you were going to get someone might say c’est la vie because, although unfortunate, it’s something that a lot of go through throughout the course of our lives.
Believe it or not, even though you can totally use c’est la vie with French speakers it’s actually used more in English which is sort of funny when you think about it. It’s not exactly clear as to why exactly this is, but some guesses for this are English speakers’ desire to sound classy (as French is stereotypically) and the fact that the French themselves have many more other ways to express the same idea than just c’est la vie.
Other uses for c'est la vie
We’ve already gone over that c’est la vie is typically used for unfortunate, but often just things that we just have to deal with in life. However that doesn’t always have to be the case. There are instances where you would use c’est la vie and you don’t have to be speaking about anything negative. For example you can say c’est la vie de (that’s the life of..) and then whatever thing that you’re referring to. In order to explain this better let’s just look at a few examples below.
Étudier 24h/24, c’est la vie d’étudiant – Studying 24/7, That’s student life (that’s the life of a student)
Être célèbre et gagner beaucoup d’argent, c’est la vie de footballeur – Being famous and making lots of money, that’s footballer life (that’s the life of a footballer)
Dormir et se faire caresser, c’est la vie de chat – Sleeping and getting pet, that’s cat life (that’s the life of a cat)
Using C'est La vie to express your passion about something
In some instances you are so passionate about something that you describe it as your life. If you haven’t already guessed, c’est la vie can be used in this case. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
Le foot, c’est la vie – Football (soccer) is life
La musique, c’est la vie – Music is life
It may go without saying, but you would really only use c’est la vie in this circumstance if you are really into something.
Expressions using C'est la vie
C’est la vie de château – That’s the life (literally that’s castle life)
C’est la vie de château, pourvu que ça dure – That’s the life, as long as it lasts
There are a couple of expressions that use c’est la vie that we should go over. The first, and more useful one is c’est la vie de château. You may or may not recognize the word château as castle which makes the expression as a whole read as “It’s castle life”. This may seem a little bizarre and not mean much, but it really means to live “the life” or to live a life of luxury. Although it doesn’t change the meaning of the expression in the slightest, some people say c’est la vie au château instead.
There’s actually a somewhat famous French song that’s titled C’est la vie d’château avec toi which, although it’s difficult to pin down an exact translation, means that being with you is like living a life of luxury. Some people say c’est la vie de château, pourvu que ça dure which means “that’s the life / life of luxury as long as it lasts”.
The other expression that we should go over is definitely a strange one. To be honest, although this one is technically in French the French themselves don’t ever use it. Not only do they never use it they don’t even know what it is! The expression is c’est la vie, c’est la guerre, c’est la pomme de terre which, when translated literally, means “that’s life, that’s war, that’s the potato”. This is just a longer way of saying c’est la vie.
The origin of such a silly expression is likely hard to trace, but it probably has something to do with the fact that guerre and “terre” rhyme. Like I said, this surprisingly isn’t used by the French although if you have the chance you should tell it to your French friend for a good laugh.
Other ways to say c'est la vie in French
By now we know what c’est la vie means and how to use it in a sentence, however there are other ways to express the same idea. Let’s take a look at a few of them here.
Using c'est comme ça as an alternative to c'est la vie
This is a must-have for all aspiring French learners, because it’s used quite often and is also really easy for learners to understand. Literally translated as “It’s like that” (c’est = it is / this is / that is, comme = like, ça = that) its real translation is closer to “that’s the way it is” or even “that’s just the way it is”. As you can see, this is basically the same thing as c’est la vie.
One thing that should be noted is that c’est comme ça doesn’t HAVE to be used in the same way as c’est la vie. You are totally free to use it like we would use it like we would use “it’s like that” in English. For example you could say…
C’est comme ça parce que c’est ce qu’il voulait – It’s like that because it’s what he wanted
Using c'est la guerre as an alternative to c'est la vie
C’est la guerre – That’s life (that’s war)
C’est la guerre (literally “that’s war”) is more or less another way to say c’est la vie. If it wasn’t already obvious, saying “that’s war” sounds much harsher than just “that’s life” which causes some to believe that c’est la guerre can be used for more purposeful actions rather than accidental ones. This isn’t a hard rule however and both of these can be interchangeable.
Using c'est ainsi as an alternative to c'est la vie
C’est ainsi – That’s how it is / That’s just how it is / It is what it is
This one is another great alternative to c’est la vie. The best translation of c’est ainsi is “that’s how it is”, “that’s just how it is” or even “it is what it is”. The word ainsi can sometimes be a hard one for English speakers to wrap their head around but my best advice is to just think of it like “like this” or “this way” making c’est ainsi translate literally as “it’s like this” or “it’s this way”. When you look at it like this becomes a little easier to understand.
Using On n'y peut rien as an alternative to c'est la vie
On n’y peut rien – We can’t do anything about it / Nothing can be done about it
On n’y peut rien, although useful, can be difficult to English speakers or just young French learners in general to understand. The biggest hang up is with the letter “y” thrown into the mix. If this throws you off as well I recommend not worrying about it for the time being. Just know that on n’y peut rien is best translated as “we can’t do anything about it” or “nothing can be done about it”.
It’s a little different than some of the other ones we’ve already gone over as far as its literal translation, but when you think about it for a minute it’s actually not that far off as far as its actual meaning goes.
Using que veux-tu as an alternative to c'est la vie
Que veux-tu ? – What can you do (about it) ?
Que veux-tu faire ? – What can you do (about it) ?
Moving away from some of the “harder” phrases que veux-tu ? is actually pretty easy to understand for French learners of all levels. Literally translated as “what do you want?” it’s just another way of stating that nothing can be done about a current situation and to just let it go.
Probably the best translation in English for que veux-tu ? would be “what can you do?” or even “what can you do about it?” It may seem obvious, but this one should only be used in informal situations when you are with your friends or family. Also an alternative to que veux-tu ? is que veux-tu faire ? (literally what do you want to do?) which essentially means the same thing.
Using c'est des choses qui arrivent as an alternative to c'est la vie
C’est des choses qui arrivent – These things happen
Ce sont des choses qui arrivent – These things happen
C’est des choses qui arrivent (alternatively said as ce sont des choses qui arrivent) is another really easy phrase to understand as its literal and its real translation are almost the same thing. Literally translated as “It is things that arrive” the real translation is “these things happen”. Just like with the other phrases we’ve gone over in this article this is best used when something unfortunate, but not entirely unheard of happens.
I hope that with this guide you should now have a good grasp on not only what c’est la vie means and how to use it, but also a handful of alternatives that you can use instead.
Feel free to check out my list of other French vocabulary to help improve your French.