duplicate treesI think I can trace back my love of translation to one particular passage, discovered while studying a French text and its translation in English side by side. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which novel it was, or the exact phrasing, but I do remember that during a conversation, one of the characters moved from using “vous” to using “tu” to address a troubled young man in need of comforting. As there is no lexical equivalent in English, the translator used a technique called compensation, where something that can’t be translated in one part of the text is expressed somewhere else, in a different way. It went something like this:

“Mais êtes-vous certain de vouloir nous quitter?”
“J’ai bien peur de ne pas avoir le choix.”
“Tu vas me manquer.”

The switch from “vous” to “tu” indicated a shift in the relationship from formal to something more intimate and personal. This is how the English translator dealt with it:

“But are you sure you want to leave us?”
“I’m afraid I have no choice.”
“I’m going to miss you,” she said, taking his hand in hers.

The increasing closeness, which was expressed through language in the French text, was thus translated by a physical gesture in English. I remember thinking that this was just wonderful, and being quite taken by the cleverness of it all.
Last night, I saw Monsieur Lazhar, a Canadian film (in French) which I cannot recommend highly enough, and which contained another great example of how to translate “vous” and “tu”. I actually was glad of the subtitles due to the occasional québecois quirk, which is how I spotted this particularly good translation. It happens when Mr Lazhar arrives at one of his colleague’s for dinner, and he says (roughly remembered – my memory isn’t what it used to be):

“Bonsoir Marie, c’est très gentil à vous de m’avoir invité.”

To which Marie replies:

“Je t’en prie, on se tutoie.”

The subtitles were:

“Good evening Ms. Dupont, thank you for inviting me.”
“Please, call me Marie.”

Clever, no?