In America, this gesture might translate roughly to "I don't know";
in France, it means "c'est normale!"
There exist some words in French for which there are no exact English translations. This is apart from idiomatic expressions like Quel dommage or Grâce au ciel. There are, of course, plenty of loan phrases, such as laissez faire, la pièce de la resistance, or noblesse oblige, which we use in English; but these often do not have the same connotation in the context of a French conversation.
No, the "untranslatable" is something different altogether.
The existence of untranslatable words points to conceptual areas that exist in French but not in English. Perhaps one of the most representative examples of the untranslatable are the french words normale and normalement. Many dictionaries will tell you that normale means "normal," and online translation engines will turn c'est normal into "it's normal" and normalement into "normally" or "usually." I find these translations misleading, but I've been struggling to find a way to convey the appropriate nuance.
Here is a typical conversation in which normalement would appear:
A: Est-ce que vous pouvez m'aider? Je n'ai pas bien compris la dernière annonce. Ils ont dit que le train departra ou pas?Can I ask you a question? I didn't quite hear that last announcement. Did they say that the train is leaving or not?B: Normalement on part dans vingt minutes, mais on ne sait jamais.We should be leaving in twenty minutes, but you never can tell!
As you can see, in the above conversation, the term normalement has the sense of "theoretically" or "ideally". But this is also not a perfect translation, as it would not make sense to translate the phrase c'est normale into "it's theoretical." Below is a conversation that hinges on the nuance of c'est normale:
A: Je suis desolé, mais mon vélo est bloqué par votre voiture. Est-ce que vous pouvez avancer juste un petit peu?I'm sorry, but your car is blocking my bike. Could you move forward just a little bit?B: Bof, je veux bien mais il faut attendre cet camion.Well, I'd like to, but we'll have to wait for that truck.A: Ah oui, c'est normale.That's how it goes.
In a corollary to the Wharf Hypothesis, I would like to argue that the words normalement and normale evoke a sensibility that doesn't exist in other cultures. Maybe we could call it "French resignation"; what's normal in France is not necessarily normal anywhere else.
When you start to think about it, I think you'll notice that we (meaning English-speakers) have adopted many French terms and phrases in order to express feelings of regret and resignation. In American politics, we use the phrase laissez-faire to describe the kind of government that shrugs its shoulders (see photo at top) and consents to let its people do whatever the hell they want. And if an English-speaker says c'est la vie, he or she is communicating the inevitability of an inconvenient situation. What c'est la vie actually means is c'est comme la vie française; the implication is that inconvenient situations are French in nature, which many French people would confirm.
What are some other examples of these kinds of untranslatables?
(nerdy math joke)
It occurs to me that I should reread Doug Hofstadter's Le ton beau de marot, which is all about the art of translation. I've also been thinking a lot about translation in movie titles and subtitles. There's a movie that came out a while ago in the US called Religulous; the word "religulous" is a mash-up of the words "religious" and "ridiculous," which evokes the movie makers' beliefs about faith. You can imagine that this would be difficult to translate into another language. However, the French translation is rather impressive: "Religolo," a mash-up of the words "religieux" (meaning religious) and "rigolo" (meaning funny or odd).