A French Construction You Couldn't Possibly Do Without
Elegant writers (both current, and aspiring) of French prose will occasionally make use of the formula
[So and so] ne saurait…
—followed by an infinitive.
For translation purposes, learn this easy and generally applicable rule:
The Professor’s Rule for Translating Ne saurait
Translate ne saurait as “could never” or “couldn’t possibly.”
- The second negative particle pas, usually required after the verb, is never used with this construction. The reason: savoir is one of the four verbs that can get away with ne alone for the negative (see the French Language File Ne Without Pas IA.) It is in fact a stylistic elegancy not to use pas with these verbs, and since ne saurait is a highly elegant expression…
- Savoir followed by the infinitive means “to be able to” in the sense of “to have the necessary knowledge or skill in order to.” Putting the verb into the conditional and simultaneously making it negative produces a very broad “would not be able (OR: would not know how) to under any circumstances…never in a million years.” Hence my suggested translations.
If you’re eager to learn other functions of the verb savoir, consult the French Language File of that name: Savoir.
- On ne saurait nier l’efficacité de ces remèdes. (One couldn’t possibly [One could never] deny the efficacy of these remedies.)
- Nos alliés ne sauraient commettre une telle offense. (Our allies / could never / couldn’t possibly / commit such an offense.)
- Nul ne saurait exprimer mieux que Proust l’instabilité de nos états internes. (No one could possibly express better than Proust the instability of our internal states.)
- Nous ne saurions trop louer les efforts de ces patriotes. (We couldn’t possibly praise enough the efforts of these patriots.)
- Les Russes ne sauraient envahir l’Afghanistan en un pareil moment. (The Russians couldn’t possibly invade Afghanistan at such a moment. OR: It’s inconceivable that the Russians should… OR: It would never enter into the Russians’ minds to…)
- « Je suis le seul objet qu’il ne saurait souffrir. » (I am the only person he couldn’t ever stomach.)– Racine, Phèdre 4.5.1212
- « Il ne saurait donc être objet de science. » (It / could never / couldn’t possibly, then, be an object of scientific study.)– Edmond Faral
- « Le point de vue messianique ne saurait plus être le nôtre. » (The messianic point of view couldn’t possibly continue to be ours.)– Marcel Proust
Ne saurait followed by a noun phrase is a different matter. Consider:
- « …en un mot tout ce que le public ne saurait que le lendemain ou plus tard… » (“In a word, everything the public would learn only the next day or even later…”) – Marcel Proust
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