General Knowledge

One of the most difficult words to translate.

Which is the hardest word to translate in this sentence? “Know” is easy to translate. “Pep rally” doesn’t have a direct analog in a lot of languages and cultures, but can be approximated. But the hardest word there is actually one of the smallest: “you.” As simple as it seems, it’s often impossible to accurately translate “you” without knowing a lot more about the situation where it’s being said. To start with, how familiar are you with the person you’re talking to? Many cultures have different levels of formality. A close friend, someone much older or much younger, a stranger, a boss.

These all may be slightly different “you’s.” In many languages, the pronoun reflects these differences through what’s known as the T–V distinction. In French, for example, you would say “tu” when talking to your friend at school, but “vous” when addressing your teacher. Even English once had something similar. Remember the old-timey “thou?” Ironically, it was actually the informal pronoun for people you’re close with, while “you” was the formal and polite version.

That distinction was lost when the English decided to just be polite all the time. But the difficulty in translating “you” doesn’t end there. In languages like Hausa or Korana, the “you” form depends on the listener’s gender. In many more, it depends on whether they are one or many, such as with German “Du” or “ihr.” Even in English, some dialects use words like “y’all” or “youse” the same way.

Some plural forms, like the French “vous” and Russian “Вы” are also used for a single person to show that the addressee is that much more important, much like the royal “we.” And a few languages even have a specific form for addressing exactly two people, like Slovenian “vidva.” If that wasn’t complicated enough, formality, number, and gender can all come into play at the same time. In Spanish, “tú” is unisex informal singular, “usted” is unisex formal singular, “vosotros” is masculine informal plural, “vosotras” is feminine informal plural, and “ustedes” is the unisex formal plural.

Phew! After all that, it may come as a relief that some languages often leave out the second person pronoun. In languages like Romanian and Portuguese, the pronoun can be dropped from sentences because it’s clearly implied by the way the verbs are conjugated. And in languages like Korean, Thai, and Chinese, pronouns can be dropped without any grammatical hints.

Speakers often would rather have the listener guess the pronoun from context than use the wrong one and risk being seen as rude. So if you’re ever working as a translator and come across this sentence without any context: “You and you, no, not you, you, your job is to translate ‘you’ for yourselves” … Well, good luck. And to the volunteer community who will be translating this video into multiple languages: Sorry about that!

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