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Recognizing the “Je Ne Sais Quoi” That Distinguishes Good French Translators

Anyone who has ever tried machine translation and seen the awkward results knows that the human touch is important when it comes to translation. Languages are a lot like human beings, with their own special quirks. Something that makes sense in one language can make little or no sense in another one.

“Je ne sais quoi”

The phrase “je ne sais quoi” in French literally translates to “I don’t know what” in English. The English phrase doesn’t mean anything other than the fact that its speaker seems to be unaware of something. However, any French translator will tell you that “je ne sais quoi” refers to an elusive quality that separates or distinguishes a person from others.

One might say that when it came to style and charm, Audrey Hepburn was possessed of “je ne sais quoi.” Many other people who don’t immediately seem to stand out but eventually distinguish themselves in the eyes of others possess “je ne sais quoi.” The French actress Audrey Tautou is perhaps yet another contemporary example of the application of this phrase.

How Beauty or Charm Can Sneak up on You

In some cases, a person’s beauty or talent are immediately obvious. Everyone would agree, for example, that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are both extremely attractive and talented at the same time, given that both have won Oscars. However, their possession of these qualities is quite obvious, so they can’t really be said to possess “je ne sais quoi.” It’s the people who sneak up on you, who impress you even when you’re not really open to being impressed, who possess this quality.

At one point of time, having a gap between your two front teeth was a big no-no for models and actresses. Nowadays, however, it has become a fad. The actress Anna Paquin was able to charm audiences with her “je ne sais quoi” which made the gap between her teeth charming rather than unattractive.

English vs. French Culture

The phrase “je ne sais quoi” might also indicate the difference between English and French culture. Is it possible that the French have a greater understanding of subtle charms, that they recognize people with “je ne sais quoi” faster than the English for whom beauty is generally immediately present or not at all?

Novelist Philippa Gregory contrasts the English and French ideas of beauty in her novel The Other Boleyn Girl which was also made into a movie starring Scarlett Johansson and Natalie Portman. If you compare the looks of these two actresses, you’ll see that Johansson’s beauty is immediately visible for she has blond hair, blue eyes and luscious curves. To see Natalie Portman’s beauty, you might possibly have to look a little further and recognize her “je ne sais quoi.”

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