Saturday, March 28, 2015

Pragmatics 1001: How do we translate You?

A lot of electronic ink is spent on how to translate 'difficult' words from God downwards, but some of the complexities of translating lie in very simple, basic words that are used even by young child translators. Unfortunately most of the 'translation scholars' are too preoccupied with higher things to bother about them.

One such word is the mundane English You.

The English–speaking child who is addressing an older relative to say You in French, German, Spanish or any of many other languages must decide whether to use either Tu, Du, etc. (the familiar forms), or Vous, Sie, etc. (the polite forms). No fudging; it's one or the other; and once the decision is taken it should be applied consistently – though it isn't always. These days the increased informality within families makes the familiar forms more likely, but once outside – at school for instance – the choice arises. It has little or nothing to do with the acquisition of vocabulary, because both forms are valid translations of You and have the same deictic meaning. English is indeed exceptional in having only one pronoun for it: masculine and feminine, singular and plural, polite and familiar.

So what does it depend on?

On the perceived relationship between speaker – in this case the translator/interpreter – and the addressee. A social relationship inculcated a an early age. A relationship that is recognised by linguists – and more especially by sociolinguists – as belonging to a field they call Pragmatics. The simple example of You essentially says it all. Whenever I speak French, for instance, to somebody I haven't met before, I have to consider it. My choice varies according to social factors. In Canada, for instance, if one uses Vous (polite) to somebody who expects Tu, one may give an unfortunate impression of coldness and distance. On the other hand, when I was a research assistant at the University of Montreal, I once asked my boss, the very Canadian professor Guy Rondeau, which I should use to him when we went to meetings together. His reply was:
"Between the two of us, of course use Tu. But when we are in meetings with outside people, I would prefer you to use Vous."
I remembered his advice when I was doing conference interpreting.

This doesn't mean the child, or adult for that matter, arrives at the decision by conscious reasoning. The social relationship is something we feel intuitively, and so is its linguistic expression. Something we feel every day at all ages.

Pragmatics is still, after 50 years of progress in Machine Translation, one of its weaknesses. MT software isn't endowed with feelng and intuition, though it may simulate them somewhat. Here's a little test you can apply. Ask the MT system of your choice to translate x met y at the station into French. Which French verb does it select? Recontrer (run into by chance) or accueillir (welcome)? Both are valid translations lexically but the implicatiions are different. The choice depends on pragmatics. I first happened on this example in 1970 when I was a structural linguist, and it opened my eyes. But that's another story.

Pragmatics (Linguistics). Wikipedia. 2015.



  1. You can get its translation from here translation

    1. Where is here? It's address not given in your comment.

    2. The location of 'here' is clear if you know the convention that text in blue (in this case, the word 'translation') indicates a link. Which said, the link does not make clear what 'its' relates to.

  2. In Brazilian Portuguese, the familiar "tu" is rarely used in São Paulo (the most populous and rich state). Even in other areas, it is used colloquially but often with the third-person verb. A mess. Which means we almost never use "tu" in translations, except maybe in books (which I do not do).

    But there remains a problem with "you", "your" and all other pronouns: English uses just too many of them. We have verb, article and object concordance, so pronouns are often unnecessary. As a translator and editor, I am constantly fighting excessive "yous", "its", "theys" that clutter the Portuguese text.

  3. Thank you for this information. It confirms my assertion that translating such a simple word as "you"" is a far from simple matter.

  4. In a way, the problem is not dissimilar to that of deciding how you dress or behave towards others. I recently attended a funeral, and hesitated (would it be too formal? Gloomy, even?) over wearing a black suit. In the event, most attendees wore black, so I was in the convention. But on meeting: nod politely? shake hands (coolly? vigorously?)? hug? embrace? kiss on both cheeks? kiss on the lips?

    1. Thank you, but I think there are several significant differences.

      In most societies, the behaviour has to be learnt by children, all children, at an early age and afterwards runs through all discourse, not just special occasions.

      It affects the translating that the children do.

      Though the tu/vous example is indeed a matter of social custom, my suggestion at the end of the post that you submit "X met Y at the station" to an MT French translator is not. It depends on intent or absence thereof, a different factor in pragmatics.

  5. English to German translator would need to know when it is important that the cultural elements of the original text from an English speaking country needed to be transferred to the translated version and when they should not be. Different approaches need to be taken when translating technical texts and legal documents, as opposed to philosophical writings and fiction.

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