Translating "You"

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Translation/ Interpretation By: Tutor no longer registered
Subject: Translation/ Interpretation
Last updated: 24/08/2017
Tags: european literature, forms of address, translation

'Translating the Pronominal Form of Address in European Literature'

 A large proportion of those who have agonised with Raskolnikov's dilemmas, wandered with Lemminkainen or been swept along by the magical tale of the Little Prince  have done so thanks to translations from the original language. But languages such as Russian, Finnish and French differ from one another so notably that the perfect translation is impossible to achieve.

It is well known that English distinguishes itself from other languages by its curious lack of register in the second person pronoun (in other words we use the personal pronoun 'you' regardless of number or status in society), but even those languages that do make such a distinction do not do so uniformly, for example use of the formal and informal second person pronouns in Finnish and Russian differs enormously.

In earlier times English too was known to distinguish between these two forms. This essay examines the usage of the second person pronominal forms of address in certain European languages and the translation of these forms in literature. After presenting the usage of the forms of address in English (now and in the past), French, Russian and Finnish, I shall briefly discuss the unique position of English and the extent to which people are aware of it. This essay also attempts to answer questions such as: Is it really important to convey a sense of register when translating (especially into English), and if so what are the best ways of doing so? Would the clarification of such distinctions automatically render a translation overt, and thus in some way inferior? What stands to be gained from such a clarification? To assist in the explanation of certain points I shall use existing professional translations of the following famous texts: Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment (Russian), Ibsen's The Lady from the Sea (Norwegian), Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince (French) and Lonnrot's Kalevala (Finnish).


The little English word ‘you’ has been used for the past 350 years to convey three different concepts: the addressing of a close friend or family member, the addressing of a higher authority, and the addressing of more than one person. Contrary to common belief, even in the days when the word ‘thou’ was in common usage, it frequently did not indicate a difference between formal and informal ‘you’, merely a distinction between singular and plural forms. This was the original distinction in all European languages (which explains, incidentally, why in all European languages except Catalan God is addressed using the informal method). Those occasions in English when ‘you’ is used to address someone of higher social status, thus relegating ‘thou’ to being potentially insulting, are influenced largely by the French system, which addressed those of higher status in the plural at a time when the French language was held in high regard by the English. By 1650, however, the form of address ‘thou’ had already virtually disappeared in English as ‘you’ gained more and more of a foothold. It is still preserved only in some western English dialects.

The French triple address form is thriving: vous exists as a plural indicator, in which case both the verb and adjective forms are in the plural, and as a formal singular form, when the verb takes the second person plural form but the adjective remains in the singular. The informal form tu is still used generally only with good friends, family and children:

Vous êtes gentils                You (masculine plural) are kind

Vous êtes gentil                  You (masculine singular formal) are kind

Tu es gentil                        You (masculine singular informal) are kind

Despite this, the system is becoming a little less formal: 150 or so years ago children were expected to address even their parents as vous.

The Russian system is by and large used in the same way as the French, in that formal singular and general plural use the same pronoun, and the second person plural form of the verb; however the adjective in the formal singular may be singular or plural depending on whether it is long or short form. Russian, like French, upholds the formal usage in most cases outside intimate relations with friends and family, although the ironical usage of the formal form is somewhat more widespread (see page 6).

The examples below are long form adjectives. I have used the past tense as the verb ‘to be’ is omitted in the present tense.

Вы были добрые / vy byli dobrye          You were kind (plural)

Вы были добрый / vy byli dobry            You were kind (masculine formal singular)

Ты был добрый / ty byl dobry               You were kind (masculine informal singular)

In Finnish, the two-tier address system still exists, but the formal form has become uncommon in recent years and is usually used only in writing (though one Finnish acquaintance said she would use the formal form if talking to a Finnish-speaking foreign president, but the informal with the Finnish president!). Once again the pronominal marker is the same word in the formal singular and the plural, although in the formal singular it always takes an initial capital letter, and as in French the formal adjective is always in the singular:

Te olette kiltteja                        You are kind (plural)

Te olette kiltti                            You are kind (formal singular)

Sinä olet kiltti                            You are kind (informal singular)

I also use later examples from Norwegian, a language with which I am not familiar and shall not pretend to be so here. However Norwegian, like Finnish, has all but dropped the formal form of ‘you’. In fact legend has it that the only person one should address as De (formal ‘you’) is the reigning sovereign, who, after this first usage, will suggest using the informal form. In other words it will now be used at most once in a lifetime!

The peculiarity of the address system in English has long been a sticking point with translators and language students. Since any distinction in registers was phased out in the 1600s (so long before English was a recognised lingua franca), English-speaking language students must consciously learn when and how to make such distinctions in French, German, or Spanish (the most commonly taught foreign languages). However there is no reason to believe this should be more difficult for a British student than for example a contemporary Norwegian student of German, as in both cases usage of the pronominal forms when addressing people differs considerably between the two languages.

British English speakers are typified by a lack of enthusiasm in language learning and it is fair to say that the majority cannot communicate confidently in any foreign language (indeed, some would say that even our grasp of our mother tongue is often somewhat tenuous). Most British adults retain little more than hazy memories of a solitary French O level or GCSE and would struggle to order a pain au chocolat, s’il vous plaît. Obviously though there are plenty of students sufficiently interested in foreign languages to take degrees, and arguably Britons with some knowledge of a foreign language and culture are more likely to read foreign literature in translation anyhow, but the non-linguistically educated do not give these differences in pronominal register much thought. This being the case, is it really necessary to make the effort in rendering different forms of address when translating foreign literature into English? Will English speakers have enough language knowledge to appreciate the nuances conveyed in the original even if they are spelt out? May not such efforts at clarification even succeed in confusing the issue further? Considering the stereotype that Britons abroad are best known for - drunken stag and hen nights and football fans’ brawls - one might suggest there is little to be gained by translating foreign literature into English at all, never mind worrying about overt translations of register.

But that is to miss the point. The present situation in the UK may seem lamentable to the language purist, but in many ways it is improving, with the reintroduction of compulsory language learning to GCSE, the rising popularity of more ‘exotic’ languages like Russian and Mandarin, government-initiated (perhaps questionably) specialist language academies, and the current trend for ‘Scandi-noir’ books and television serials with their accompanying Danish jumpers. And although the ability acquired by GCSE level in a foreign language is generally lost rather rapidly, concepts of the major European languages such as noun gender and forms of address are generally retained, with Britons who have completed a higher education in any subject (and therefore arguably more academically inclined) likely to maintain some general knowledge of the systems of foreign languages, even if not the ability to speak them well, throughout their life. Such people are also more likely to take an interest in international classics of literature, theatre and cinema, and therefore foreign culture. Interaction between people is an intrinsic part of a nation’s culture and this is often marked by forms of address and, especially in older foreign literature, the use of the personal pronoun. Translations that do not take into account the use of register in the original can fog the status of certain relationships, which may be inherent to the work. It is not true to say that the lack of distinction in personal pronouns in English means that English speakers do not differentiate in language style depending upon who they are speaking to – quite the contrary. Though the general trend towards informality in language may be seen also in England, looking at any example of contemporary English literature it may be seen that that distinctions in language style still exist, thus Britons are quite capable in theory of understanding the pronominal system in other languages, being as it corresponds in all semantic ways to our own, for example our use of Mr, Mrs, Sir, Madam. These distinctions are useful in preserving boundaries between respect and intimacy (not that the two cannot co-exist). Distinctions such as this may also be used as a literary device, as I shall go on to demonstrate.

Given that pronominal distinctions of register serve these two essential functions, and that they are easily comprehensible to the English speaker, there is a real advantage to be gained when translating foreign literature if the translator makes some effort to draw attention to these distinctions. Whether this may be achieved smoothly is open to discussion, and brings the perennial question to the fore: should a translation be overt or covert? The opinion of many professional translators is that a translation should be specified as such at the beginning but should nonetheless read as though it were originally written in the target language. It will be obvious in examples given later that in most cases even the most eminent translators appear to pay scant regard to differences in pronominal register, subsequently the English (or other target language) reads fluently but simultaneously lacks something of the inherent quality of the original. Let us consider the following fragment of text from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment where a police administrator is asking Raskolnikov why he has come to the station:

- Чего тебе?                                                                        “What do you want?”

Он показал повестку из конторы.                                           Raskolnikov produced the message he had been sent.

- Вы студент? –спросил тот, взглянув на повестку.                 “Are you a student?” asked the man, glancing at the message.

- Да, бывший студент.                                                          “Yes, a former student.”


At first the policeman addresses Raskolnikov in the informal way (тебе, in bold above). Then, on seeing the message, he switches to the formal form of address (Вы, in italics above), which he continues to use for the duration of the interview. I translated the above quickly myself without taking into account the change of register (beyond using the non-contracted form ‘you are’), but it reads fairly smoothly. It is a covert translation, but could be said to be lacking, if not inaccurate, because it fails to make clear the change of register, and with it some aspect of Russian culture: the respect due to students at that time. A translation that explicitly draws attention to the change might read something like this:

- Чего тебе?                                                                                        “What do you want?” asked the man peremptorily.

Он показал повестку из конторы.                                                      Raskolnikov produced the message he had been sent.

- Вы студент? –спросил тот, взглянув на повестку.                                                                           “Are you a student?”

                                                                                 The man, speaking in a more refined tone,  glanced at the message.

- Да, бывший студент. “Yes, a former student.”


This reading is more stilted, and perhaps there is little to be gained by it at this non-pivotal moment in the narrative; all the same it now gives the English-speaking reader a flavour or Russian culture at the time. (Professional translations of this excerpt are discussed shortly.) 

While texts written before the 1700s do not of course incur this same problem, as the distinction may be correctly rendered by you and thou, this is rarely a feasible solution with more recent texts. (An interesting exception is the German philosopher Martin Buber’s famous thesis Ich und Du, written in 1923, which lays emphasis on an ideal, informal relationship with God. The English translation of this paper is rendered as I and Thou. However, this translation is often misconstrued as meaning quite the opposite of the German, as many British wrongly believe that the word thou, being archaic, is therefore high register!) Let us now look at how some famous works have been translated into English and Finnish by noted professional translators.

One of the great works of Russian literature, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment has been translated into all the major world languages. The two professional translations I shall discuss here are those of Constance Garnett (English, c. 1900) and J A Hollo (Finnish, 1967). Dostoevsky makes full use of the possibilities of the Russian formal and informal ‘you’, which are used comparably today as in the time of the book (mid-1800s). The example discussed on the previous page of the dialogue with the police administrator was translated by Garnett and Hollo as follows. In these examples words indicating the informal ‘you’ are in bold, while those indicating the formal form are italicised.

- Чего тебе?                                                                                                                

Он показал повестку из конторы.                         

- Вы студент? –спросил тот, взглянув на повестку.             

- Да, бывший студент.                                                                                       


‘What is it?’

He showed the notice he had received.

‘You are a student?’ the man asked, glancing at the notice.

‘Yes, formerly a student.’


This is rather effective as the administrator’s second question would, in the same register as the first, have been something like ‘So you’re a student are you?’ Merely by using the non-contracted, non-inverted form of ‘you are’, there is an indication of formality that was not present in the previous question. This could therefore be considered an accurate yet covert translation.

J A Hollo’s Finnish translation is entirely faithful to the Russian in terms of register:

- Mitä sinä tahdot?

Raskolnikov näytti saamansa haasteen.

- Oletteko ylioppilas? – kysyi kirjuri vilkaistuaan kirjelmään.

- Olen, entinen ylioppilas.

As a general rule, Hollo adheres closely to Dostoevsky’s choice of register, which does not sound out of place as the Finnish of that period would have employed the formal Te form in much the same way as the Russian вы. There are some exceptions to this adherence, however, as will be seen in the next example. It is important to remember that the differentiation between the two forms ты and вы in Russian is so dependent upon personal taste that the same speaker may change form in the same speech to the same person. The most notable example of this occurs when Raskolnikov’s close friend Razumikhin is telling the former what he was saying while in a delirious state:

- О чем бредил?

- Эк ведь наладит! Уж не за секрет ли какой боишься? Не беспокойся … Да, кроме того, собственным вашим носком очень даже интересоваться изволили … Заметов сам по всем углам твои носки разыскал и … вам эту дрянь подавал … Etc

This pattern of alternating between formal and informal forms of ‘you’ continues throughout Razumikhin’s speech, occurring in total eight times. Its English and Finnish translations are as follows (English first):

‘What did I rave about?’

‘How he keeps on! Are you afraid of having let out some secret? Don’t worry yourself … And another thing that was of special interest to you was your own sock … Zametov hunted all about your room for your sock, and … he gave you the rag …’ Etc

-Mitä olen puhunut?

- Oletpa vääjäämätön! Huolestuttaako sinua jokin salaisuus? Ole huoletta … Sitä paitsi herätti sinussa erinomaista mielenkintoa oma arvoissa sukkasi … Zametov etsi kaikki nurkat ja ojensi sinulle … tämän miätttömän rievun … Etc


Razumikhin’s usage of the formal form in the Russian original is ironical. Of course as a good friend he would generally use the informal ты to address Raskolnikov, but in switching to the formal form when talking about a humble dirty sock the speech becomes amusing and sarcastic. While the Finnish translation does not, unlike in other examples, imitate this register switch, and of course the English translation cannot, both do echo the elevated register of language. A simpler paraphrasing of the Russian might be for example ‘тебе очень интересовал свой носок (‘you were very interested in your sock’). This would not carry the hint of irony, but the style of language in the Russian original собственным вашим носком очень даже интересоваться изволили is translated reasonably effectively in the English ‘another thing that was of special interest to you was your own sock’ and better (at least closer to the original, using the same expression ‘awaken an interest’) in the Finnish ‘Sitä paitsi herätti sinussa erinomaista mielenkintoa oma arvoissa sukkasi’, giving us an idea of irony and sarcasm without explicit use of a high-register form of address.

From Russian let us move on to consider Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. This story, ostensibly for children but well worth re-reading as an adult, is rather unusual in that it was written and published simultaneously in English and French. Therefore the English version can scarcely be criticised as an inadequate translation. The Finnish version, translated by Irma Packalén the year after the original was published in 1943, uses the French source text. In the following extracts the little prince is travelling from planet to planet looking for a way to nurture a flower he has found. The first planet is inhabited by a king, and nothing else. The little prince addresses the king thus:

- Sire, lui dit-il … je vous demande pardon de vous interroger …

- Je t’ordonne de m’interroger, se hâta de dire le roi.

- Sire … sur quoi régnez-vous?


The formal address is used by the little prince while the king replies using the informal form, as might be expected, and as reflected in the Finnish translation:

- Teidän Majesteettinne, sanoi hän valtiaalle … pyydän anteeksi että kysyn …

- Käsken sinua kysymään, kiirehti Kuningas sanomaan.

- Teidän Majesteettinne … mitä hallitsette?


The elevated form of address is confirmed in the Finnish even by the title used, although this would be inherently understood in the French already by the use of Sire, which would never be used with the pronoun tu. The English translation, one may argue, does not need the pronominal distinction as the elevation of form is understood by the King’s obvious social position (however ironic this may be) and the use of the title Your Majesty. The little prince retains the use of vous throughout the encounter. However when later addressing a drunkard of advanced years, the little prince uses only tu, as is faithfully represented in the Finnish:

- Pourquoi bois-tu? Demanda le petit prince.

- Pour oublier, répondit le buveur.

- Miksi sinä juot? Kysyi pikku prinssi.

- Unohtaakseni, vastasi Juoppo.


Saint-Exupéry’s English version makes a slight change to the verb, however, which gives a corresponding air of informality to the little prince’s speech to the lack of vous:

“Why are you drinking?” demanded the little prince.

“So that I may forget,” replied the tippler.


As may be seen in the Finnish text, ‘demand’ is not the standard English translation of the French demander, rather ‘ask’. But here the ‘mis’-translation serves a useful purpose.

In all other encounters on these planets the little prince opens the dialogue with vous but soon changes to tu.

An example of where alternation between formal and informal ‘you’ is used as a plot device may be seen in Ibsen’s Fruen fra Havet (‘The Lady from the Sea’). In this extract from Act Three of the play Ellida, the married heroine, comes face to face with an old lover, whom she does not initially recognise, and who suggests she elope with him. The play was written at a time when the formal-informal distinction between De and du was strictly adhered to. The quotation is taken from directly after the appearance of the ‘stranger’ in Ellida’s garden, where she is sitting alone:

ELLIDA: (Ser overrasket og aengstelig på ham.) Hvem er De? Söger De nogen her?

DEN FREMMEDE: Det kan du vel forstå.

ELLIDA: (studser.) Hvad er det! Hvorledes tiltaler De mig! Hvem leder De efter?

DEN FREMMEDE: Jeg ser da vel efter dig.


Ellida is positively appalled that someone she does not recognise should address her as du (“What is this? What did you call me?”). This poses two problems in a modern-day rendition: in translation to English, how can this difference be portrayed, and even in the performance of the original Norwegian, how can the enormity of the apparent faux pas be understood by a contemporary audience which no longer makes the distinction? Perhaps Norwegians, being generally familiar with their literary classics, would be well aware of this distinction. However translations into English have struggled with the former problem. McFarlane’s 1966 English translation treats the point thus:

ELLIDA: [looks at him with surprise and fear] Who are you? Are you looking for someone here?

STRANGER: You know I am, Ellida.

ELLIDA: [startled] What is this! What did you call me? Whom are you looking for?

STRANGER: I’m looking for you, of course.


There can, of course, be no perfect translation that indicates the continuing difference in register between Ellida’s addressing of the stranger and his of her, but this translation does portray Ellida’s shock at the over-familiarity by the stranger’s addressing her by name (and by Christian name only), although he does not in the original Norwegian. In these circumstances this would seem to be the best way of getting around the problem. It is certainly more effective than Fjelde’s 1970 translation that misses the crucial point and makes Ellida sound somewhat rude:

ELLIDA: (looks with astonishment and terror at him) Who are you? What do you want here?

STRANGER: You know well enough.

ELLIDA: (starting) What’s that! Why are you speaking to me. Who are you looking for?

STRANGER: I’ve been looking for you.


This translation is not as close to the original as McFarlane’s and does not seem to gain from its differences – on the contrary it may confuse the audience, which would not understand why Ellida was so affected (though Fjelde claimed ''I believe that a translator should employ the style which the original author would have used if he had written in the language of those who are to read him in translation.'' Hmm, hard to argue with that, but hard also to know what Ibsen would have thought of Fjelde’s attempt here).

Finally, let us turn our attention briefly to what is arguably the most famous publication in the Finnish language: Elias Lönnrot’s compilation of the Kalevala. This text has been translated into English several times though only twice directly from the Finnish and unabridged. I shall mention here excerpts from these two direct translations of W F Kirby (1907) and Keith Bosley (1989). The language and style of the original Kalevala, gathered as it was by Lönnrot from the recitations of peasants in the years prior to its first publication in 1835, are of course difficult to imitate, but it is interesting to note that despite the form ‘thou’ already being wildly archaic both at the time of the original Finnish and of Kirby’s translation, Kirby nonetheless uses it. For example Rune Seven lines 89-92 in the Finnish runs thus:

Sanoi kokko, ilman lintu:

- Ellös olko milläskänä,

Seisotaite selkähäni,

Nouse kynkkäluun nenille,

In Kirby’s English version we have:

Said the bird of air, the eagle,

“Let thy heart be free from trouble;

Climb upon my back and seat thee,

Standing up upon my wing-tips,

This again may be contrasted with Bosley’s 1989 translation:

The eagle, bird of the air,

Said: ‘Don’t you worry at all!

Get up on my back

Rise upon my wingbone tips!

The difference in language style between the two translations is stark. Although Kirby’s use of language is archaic and his translation does not reflect the change of register in the original, at least in this case the former point is a plus in terms of translation ‘accuracy’ (in that the Finnish is now archaic too), while the second is largely irrelevant, since it may be assumed that the change of register in the Finnish is more down to scansion than the eagle’s tenuous grip on social graces. As a personal opinion, I much prefer Kirby’s translation to Bosley’s. Its archaism is in keeping with the original (which itself had its oral roots long before Lönnrot’s compilation), the scansion flows and the text is asking to be read aloud … in short it sounds old-fashioned and charming, much more so than Bosley’s translation, with its rather un-eaglish language and un-English sounding literal rendering of kynkkäluu as ‘wingbone’. Of course, these translations were both deliberately done in this way - Bosley was aiming for a syllabic verse form for accuracy and variety of meter.

Of course this essay could go on indefinitely with all the source material available, but I shall end it here because it’s bedtime. To conclude, then, I would maintain that the issue of translating the different forms of address using the second person pronoun is well worth looking into in greater depth than has thus far been achieved. I have attempted to demonstrate in this essay that despite widely varying systems within the European languages, all are able to express similar ideas of register. In English we may use titles (Sir, Mr, mate), varying verbs and adjectives to describe how something is said (entreated, asked, demanded), ‘thou’ (in certain situations), name forms (Posh Spice, Mrs Beckham), and register of language in the rest of the sentence. It is not necessarily true to say that careful translation of these forms would be of no benefit to the English reader, nor need we assume that an overt translation of such register alternations necessarily lacks subtlety (though it may). We owe it to the great authors of the past and present not simply to bypass this challenge. We should always keep in mind the period in which the literature is set, the period it was written, and the period in which the translator’s target audience is reading. This can have an enormous influence on the translation of different forms of address by keeping faithful to the source text as well as not hindering the understanding of contemporary audiences.

It is my hope that we can look into these challenges in more detail and trust that, though there is no one solution to the problem of translating pronominal forms of address, many different circumstances and techniques, when considered carefully, may subsequently lead to a convincing translation which remains entirely faithful to the intentions of the original author.

Originally written January 2005, revised June 2015

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