Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Thinking of 'You'

During the past couple of days, I was reading a novel by a Swedish author whose work I think should be in English. As I was reading it, I thought about some aspects of the book that would make it challenging to translate. One of the primary things I noticed was that the book was written in second person -- sometimes in second person singular and sometimes in second person plural. English has only one word for both of these ('you'), but Swedish has two words ('du' for the singular and 'ni' for the plural), so in Swedish it was very clear when the narrator was referring to one person and when two or more people were being referred to. It would sound awkward to always write in English 'you two' or 'you all' or something along those lines, but how else could a translator portray the difference between 'du' and 'ni'? Obviously, just using the word 'you' for both singular and plural would ignore certain nuances of the Swedish text.

Similarly, Swedish, like some other languages, uses the second person plural as a polite form of singular 'you' (other languages use the third person as a polite form, and still others, of course, have an entire system of polite language). English does not show politeness through the choice of person, so what is the best way for a translator to capture the sense of politeness imbedded in word choice? Sometimes titles can work, but not in all situations.

So how do translators solve a problem like 'you'?

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