Translating “vous” and “tu” in English

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?

By |2016-10-18T15:48:36+00:00May 10th, 2012|Technical corner|18 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Nathalie Reis May 10, 2012 at 3:45 pm

    Simply beautiful and perfectly translated…

  2. Laurence May 10, 2012 at 4:19 pm

    Quelle merveilleuse observation !

  3. Carolyn Yohn May 10, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Wonderful! Clever lines like this are what keep me translating. It’s so exciting to find solutions like this!

  4. céline May 10, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    So nice to be able to share this with fellow translation geeks 🙂

  5. Catherine May 10, 2012 at 7:42 pm

    On my last transatlantic flight, I watched “La Délicatesse” (starring Audrey Tautou) in French, with English subtitles. It’s about two office workers who become friendly. If I remember correctly, after they go out for dinner, she calls him “tu” and he replies quite happily “on se tutoie maintenant?”. It was translated as “so you call me ‘baby’ now?”

  6. Anita May 11, 2012 at 11:12 am

    Absolutely wonderful examples!

  7. Simon May 11, 2012 at 2:26 pm

    The Germans have similar conventions. There’s the story of ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl meeting Margaret Thatcher, and in his rather broken English saying to her: “You can call me ‘you’.”

  8. Ramon May 14, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    Quite interesting examples. I never encountered that particular problem in my French translations, but I DID encounter it when translating from Spanish (“usted” and “tú”, which are the French “vous” and “tu). I don’t recall how I solved it exactly, but it’s always very difficult to translate these cases…

  9. Steve Vitek May 14, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    “Taking his hand in hers” is IMHO a mistranslation because the woman in the novel did not do it, did she?
    There are many words for the pronound “I” in Japanese, depending on whether I am a man or a woman and how polite or casual I want to be (watakushi, watashi, washi, boku, ore, atashi, uchi, kochira).
    Just because English does not have 8 different ways to say “I” does not mean that I can add new elements that clearly mean something (there is a big difference between saying “Tu” instead of “Vous” and taking someone’s hand into yours, isn’t there?).
    If it were a patent translation, it would be a mistranslation.
    I can understand why the translator did it, but I disagree. I think that this is going to far. This borders on rewriting, which is not a translator’s job.
    I suspect that the author of the French text would agree with me.

  10. Malika May 15, 2012 at 7:01 am

    I agree with Steve and i think the translator goes so far in his traslation.

  11. céline May 15, 2012 at 7:09 am

    Ah but you see Steve and Malika, I disagree that the translation adds elements that aren’t in the source text, or things that didn’t happen. The woman did do something that changed the nature of their relationship, and introduced a closeness between them, which could be conveyed by a physical gesture.
    I agree that in a patent translation, it would be a mistranslation. Patents deal with information and matters of the brain. Literature deals with feelings and matters of the heart, which often requires a lot of creativity. I often translate reports of development organisations, and I rarely have to stray this far from the text, but then I also translate creative texts, which force me to do so. Let me give you a recent example, in a cinema review where the author thought that the intrigue in the film was just too far-fetched.
    “There’s suspending disbelief, then there’s suspending the impossible.”
    My translation:
    “On veut bien avaler des couleuvres, mais pas des boas constricteurs.”
    I’m adding a whole menagerie to the translation, although no animal was mentioned in the source text, and yet I think it conveys perfectly the sense of slight outrage and hyperbole in the original. Plus it fitted with the general humouristic tone of the rest of the review.
    As for your suspecting that the author would agree with you Steve, well… I might as well reply that I suspect that good old St Jerome would agree with me, why not, as I have just as much chance to know or find out whether I’m right.
    But I’m interested, Steve and Malika: I agree that the translator was bold, and I’m not sure I would ever be that bold, but at least, she made an attempt at conveying the evolution of a personal relationship. You must agree that the shift between “vous” and “tu” must be kept. How would you translate it?

  12. Peter May 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    I agree that the translator added something, but the overall meaning was preserved, which is obviously the most important thing. Might there be other, better ways of doing it? Probably. A mistranslation? Far from it. This translator gets excellent grades in my book.

  13. Rachel Ward May 15, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Steve and Malika – you definitely have to bear in mind that literary translation is quite different from patent translation!
    I don’t know that I’d have taken that line myself but something needs to be done. In a recent (German) translation I did, a character shifts from “Sie” to “du” to show disdain to the person he was addressing. There I had to find other ways to increase the rudeness of what he said. (Can’t remember off hand what they were though.)
    I remember another example from “Traitor” by Gudrun Pausewang which I translated years ago now. In it, a young girl is staying with an adult woman during the Second World War. As they get to know each other their relationship changes to one of friendship. In wartime there is no money for Christmas presents so the adult says Anna can give her “das Du” instead. I went for “to call her by her first name”.
    In the same book, Anna is surprised that the new postmistress in her village uses “Sie” when speaking to her. There I used “addressed her as an adult”.

  14. Steve Vitek May 15, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    Celine, I don’t know how I would translate it as I don’t translate novels, mostly because the pay is low and also because I feel that I am no longer really native in any of the languages that I have been faking for a living so successfully for decades.
    But as I tried to indicate with my example of how impossible it would be to try to translate 8 or more different ways to say I in Japanese into English, some things are better left unsaid, and some things are better left untranslated.
    You can’t get pregnant or get hit by a sexual harassment suit when use Tu instead of Vous.
    But when a woman takes a man’s hand into her’s, either and both of these scenarios can occur.
    That is why I personally think that the translator went a little bit too far in this case.
    But it is certainly an interesting and valid approach on the part of the translator.
    I am just pointing out that we have an obvious problem here.
    But as you know, no matter what the translator does, somebody will always find something to criticize about the translation.

  15. Geraldine Oudin May 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm

    Bonjour Céline,
    I translate both novels and technical material and as someone mentioned earlier, these two activities are very different from one another.
    I agree that the translator had to add something in order to convey the subtle change of atmosphere in the conversation when one of the two protagonists decides to switch to “tu”. I would tend to think that her taking his hand might be a little too much, but it is impossible to tell for sure without reading the whole book and knowing more about the relationship of the two characters.

  16. Sylva May 23, 2012 at 8:27 am

    I have to agree with Steve and Malika – I think the difference between “vous” and “tu” should be solved linguistically – using a grammatical or syntactical element – not by adding an action that is not in the original. We shouldn’t do that even in literary translation 😉
    In German or Slavic languages, this is easy (with their “Sie/du” or “vy/ty”), but in English… how about adding the name of the person she is going to miss? That would express some intimity, don’t you think?

  17. céline May 23, 2012 at 10:15 am

    I agree Sylva, it is a bold translation, and I like bold translations. Your idea could very well work, but only if she didn’t use his first name before.

  18. May May 24, 2012 at 1:50 pm

    The first time I met my future in-laws, I addressed them both with ‘tu.’ When we found ourselves alone for a minute, my then-boyfriend quickly told me to use ‘vous’. I was taken aback by the request, but complied. I thought perhaps the right of ‘tu’ would be rewarded to me later on. We married and I’ve still received no invitation to address his parents with ‘tu’ despite our very good relations. You would think that since French is my non-native language, ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ would carry no significance to me. But it does, and I feel the difference.
    We are all products of our cultures and upbringing. I found it extremely difficult to address my boyfriend’s parents by their first names. In Chinese culture, it would be extremely disrespectful for me to address on a first name basis those who are older than me. My mother-in-law had a good laugh when I referred to her husband as ‘the father’.

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