Tu/vous and all that jazz

On the Threshold, Edmund Blair Leighton

Tu or vous here, would you say?  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Most of the time I’m entirely happy that English long ago lost the thou/you distinction – it’s more democratic, it’s easier to learn and so on. But there are times when my life as a translator would be so much easier if there were still a direct equivalent to tu/vous, du/Sie and so on (this is properly called a T-V distinction).

Sometimes “being on first name terms” works, but English speakers also seem more and more to be on first name terms with absolutely everybody. Sometimes you can indicate the degree of respect one speaker offers another in other ways – stick in a “sir” or “madam” perhaps, or an otherwise gratuitous insult. There are plenty of ways round it, and they’ve been discussed plenty of times before.

What about the other way round though? If you’re translating from English into a language with familiar and formal forms, how do you decide which to use? Is it always obvious? I remember reading a German translation of a Georgette Heyer book where the two main characters carried on referring to each other as “Ihr” even when proposing and accepting marriage… OK, so it’s historical, regency manners and all that, but it struck me as odd at the time and has stayed in my mind for 13 years now!

In his book Is That A Fish in your Ear? (Particular Books, 2011), David Bellos talks about the way translating from English can flatten natural French sentence structures. He cites the example of left dislocation – this is where:

to add emphasis to one part of a French sentence, you take it out of its normal grammatical place and put it right at the start, replacing it in its ordinary location with a pronoun, or dummy word. (p. 197)

So, “But I want an ice cream” might be translated as “Moi, je veux une glace.” Yet apparently it seldom is. Bellos says that left dislocation occurs 130 times in around 45,000 words in a corpus of extracts from recent prize-winning novels written in French, but only 58 times in a similar corpus of novels translated into French. (p. 198)

Does something similar happen in relation to switching between tu and vous (and similar forms in other languages)? Would it occur to an English-French translator (for example) to switch from vous to tu as an extra level of insult or intimacy, or vice versa to create distance? Then there’s Japanese. I have a dim memory from my MA course of a discussion on how to pitch the level of politeness in Japanese speech. There’s some more information on that here: Japanese honorifics. I can’t imagine it makes the life of a translator any easier, either.

I don’t know – it’s not my field. If it’s yours, and you’d be willing to share some examples, I’d be very happy to hear from you.

What Part of 'Thou Shalt Not' Didn't You Understand? - GOD

Photo by Code Poet

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About forwardtranslations

I'm a freelance literary translator from German and French to English. The title of my blog comes from Mary Schmich's description of reading: it struck home with me, and seems especially apt for translated fiction. Here are some of my musings on what I'm reading, re-reading, reading to my children, and translating.
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2 Responses to Tu/vous and all that jazz

  1. Absolutely, as an English-French translator, I look attentively at the level of language to know what to use: tu/vous/on, or instead of tu t’ even. I would not say for instance: qu’est-ce que tu es con [pardon the vocabulary], mais qu’est-ce que t’es con!
    By the way, if you know of any English speaking writer looking for a French translator, I’m available, with very reasonable prices. or from French to Ebglish as well. Thanks!

  2. by the way, I enjoyed very much Bellos’s book!

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