“You can say you to me”

Published 17th January 2011
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The other day, I was talking to a friend who has just returned to the U.K. after living in Vienna for twenty years. “I had to leave,” he said. “People were starting to address me as Sie rather than Du.” He was partly joking, of course, but I knew exactly what he meant.

Lingua Translations knows that getting things like level of formality correct are vital in interpreting.

For English students of German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, …. or any other language which uses different forms of address to imply varying degrees of familiarity, this seems to be one of the issues which cause them the most consternation and anguish. Even native speakers can find themselves in a social minefield guarded by all sorts of arcane rules: It’s up to the older person to suggest progressing to a less formal way of addressing each other (usually over a drink)… unless one of the people involved is either a woman, or higher up in the hierarchy. Neither does being on first-name terms with somebody necessarily resolve the question of how to address them. To make matters worse, many people who like to think of themselves as hip, trendy and cosmopolitan increasingly feel like my friend and me. I remember being really chuffed when I turned sixteen and our teachers had to start using “Sie” as a token of respect – nowadays it just makes me feel old.

I wouldn’t want to speak for any other languages, but in German the safest bet is still to use the polite form when in doubt. It’s better to insult somebody by being unnecessarily formal, rather than by assuming a degree of intimacy the other person feels uncomfortable with. And it’s far less embarrassing for that person to say, “Wir können uns ruhig duzen” (“Why don’t we use the familiar form of address?”), rather than the other way around.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough already, it confronts translators with all sorts of additional problems. Working from an English source text, we have to decide whether the all-purpose “you” is formal or informal (or whether it is in fact an impersonal pronoun, which should be translated as man, on, se …) – and whether an informal usage in the original needs to be localised for the target culture by changing it to something more formal. This is particularly relevant in advertising and marketing, where everything depends on getting the tone right. Ikea, for instance, seems to have decided to ignore the social rules which prevail in the host country, and to rely on rugged Scandinavian charm instead. So all the signs in its German shops address everybody from the 19-year-old student shopping for his first studio flat to the pensioner buying net curtains as “Du” – which I personally like (see above) but I know many people find it quite irritating. When interpreting, getting the level of formality right is paramount.

On the other hand, literary translators and film subtitlers working into English must dread those moments in a novel or screenplay when the issue comes up between two characters. It’s hard enough to explain to English-speaking audiences, but how can you possibly make it sound natural in a dialogue?

Have you ever come across this issue when interpreting or providing professional translation services? What methods did you employ to make it sound natural?

If you would like more information about our translation or interpreting services, please let us know.

The other day, I was talking to a friend who has just returned to the U.K. after living in Vienna for twenty years. “I had to leave,” he said. “People were starting to address me as Sie rather than Du.” He was partly joking, of course, but I knew exactly what he meant.

For English students of German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, …. or any other language which uses different forms of address to imply varying degrees of familiarity, this seems to be one of the issues which cause them the most consternation and anguish. Even native speakers can find themselves in a social minefield guarded by all sorts of arcane rules: It’s up to the older person to suggest progressing to a less formal way of addressing each other (usually over a drink) … unless one of the people involved is either a woman, or higher up in the hierarchy. Neither does being on first-name terms with somebody necessarily resolve the question of how to address them. To make matters worse, many people who like to think of themselves as hip, trendy and cosmopolitan increasingly feel like my friend and me. I remember being really chuffed when I turned sixteen and our teachers had to start using “Sie” as a token of respect – nowadays it just makes me feel old.

I wouldn’t want to speak for any other languages, but in German the safest bet is still to use the polite form when in doubt. It’s better to insult somebody by being unnecessarily formal, rather than by assuming a degree of intimacy the other person feels uncomfortable with. And it’s far less embarrassing for that person to say, “Wir können uns ruhig duzen” (“Why don’t we use the familiar form of address?”), rather than the other way around.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough already, it confronts translators with all sorts of additional problems. Working from an English source text, we have to decide whether the all-purpose “you” is formal or informal (or whether it is in fact an impersonal pronoun, which should be translated as man, on, se …) – and whether an informal usage in the original needs to be localised for the target culture by changing it to something more formal. This is particularly relevant in advertising and marketing, where everything depends on getting the tone right. Ikea, for instance, seems to have decided to ignore the social rules which prevail in the host country, and to rely on rugged Scandinavian charm instead. So all the signs in its German shops address everybody from the 19-year-old student shopping for his first studio flat to the pensioner buying net curtains as “Du” – which I personally like (see above) but I know many people find it quite irritating.

On the other hand, literary translators and film subtitlers working into English must dread those moments in a novel or screenplay when the issue comes up between two characters. It’s hard enough to explain to English-speaking audiences, but how can you possibly make it sound natural in a dialogue?

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