In the French drama series Plus belle la vie the character Zoé has been fighting to prove her father Stéphane’s innocence after he was identified as a murder suspect. In one episode Stéphane asks Zoé how she’s holding up when she comes to visit him in prison:
Comment tu te sens?
How are you feeling?
-Pas terrible. Je sais que c'est pas toi qui as fait ça.
-Not great. I know it’s not you who did this.
If Zoé were feeling “not terrible,” that might suggest that she’s doing fairly well, but the rest of the episode suggests otherwise. In fact, pas terrible is an idiom meaning “not great.” Though terrible often has a negative sense as it does in English, it can also mean something along the lines of “formidable,” “huge,” or even “terrific”:
J'ai eu une chance terrible cette année.
I've been tremendously lucky this year.
The meaning of terrible really depends on context. So when the narrator of this news segment calls Roman Polanski’s Death and the Maiden “un film terrible,” we can assume he’s not giving the movie a bad review, but rather commenting on its harrowing subject matter:
Une pièce du Chilien Ariel Dorfman,
A play by the Chilean Ariel Dorfman,
dont Polanski tira un film terrible avec
which Polanski made into a chilling film with
Sigourney Weaver et Ben Kingsley.
Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley.
Captions 2-3, TLT Toulouse - Dorfman mis en scène à ToulousePlay Caption
Though it can be easy for English speakers to misunderstand the meaning of terrible, there are many occasions when it directly translates as "terrible," as in this trailer for Beauty and the Beast:
Lors d'une terrible tempête, le marchand perdit sa fortune.
During a terrible storm, the merchant lost his fortune.
Caption 3, Bande-annonce - La Belle et La BêtePlay Caption
You might be wondering why we have une terrible tempête here but un film terrible and une chance terrible above. The answer will help you decipher the adjective's meaning: when terrible comes before the noun, it usually means "terrible," but when it comes after the noun, it usually means "tremendous," "formidable," or something similar.
Just double-check whenever you come across it to make sure you aren’t in the midst of une terrible méprise (a terrible misunderstanding)!