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December 28, 2015

“Savoir-Faire” vs. “Know-How”: How Translation Services Are Affected by Cultural Differences

by brenton

Anyone who is bilingual knows that translation is a difficult procedure.  Not only does grammar vary from language to language, but often, one language may have words which another language doesn’t have.  How do you translate phrases such as “je ne sais quoi”?  Technically, you would say, “I don’t know what,” but this really doesn’t convey the sense of charm that goes with the phrase “je ne sais quoi.”

Translating “Je Ne Sais Quoi” and “Savoir-Faire”

To say that someone has a certain “je ne sais quoi” is to suggest that there is something unspeakably appealing about them.  Perhaps they have a certain sense of style or, to use another French phrase, “savoir-faire,” the closest equivalent to which in English is “know-how.”  But “know-how” doesn’t express the sense of knowing what to do in every social situation or passing oneself off with ease.  The English word “address” comes closer in meaning, but “address” now has a more archaic feel to it.

Cultural Differences Affecting Translation

Why is it so difficult to translate phrases like this?  One of the reasons is because different cultures emphasize different traits.  In France, it’s considered very important to have a certain amount of “savoir-faire,” to be socially adept and have good manners.  In England and America, two of the countries where English is the main language, society emphasizes different qualities.  In the U.S., it’s often considered important to be a self-made man, to rise on the basis of your own merits.  In England, the bluff, congenial Englishman is the norm.  He is a straightforward kind of man who recognizes others like him at a glance and doesn’t need “savoir-faire” to be a respected member of society.

Building a Bridge Across Cultures Through Translation

Of course, these categorizations are very general and should not be taken as fact.  There are, no doubt, men with savoir-faire all over the world and self-made men or bluff, congenial men within France.  However, it’s important for a translator to take into account societal values when making a translation.  Something that appeals to a self-made man may or may not appeal to one with savoir-faire and vice versa.  To find that common ground which connects all cultures and to enable one to see what’s good about another is the goal of the translator.

Contact us for translation services that take into account cultural differences and similarities.

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