May 22, 2023

How do you du? (Or: Long time, no Sie)

Written by Ian Winick

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I remember the very first time I felt drawn to the dark art of translation.

When I was thirteen years old, a schoolfriend showed me a script of a French play. A spectacularly dull play, if memory serves, but with one saving grace: the original French was on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right. I remember it like it was yesterday. I can’t recall what the play or any of the characters were actually called but, in my defence, I can’t remember much about yesterday either.

At this time, my fellow schoolmates and I had just started to learn French and, having managed to pull our adolescent heads out of our own arses for a few hours a day, were still trying to get them around the alien notion that French had two words for you: tu and vous. In case you’ve never come across this before, the general rule is that tu is used for family, friends, children and people who spill your beer, and vous is used for everyone else (and for plurals). The same applies to German – the informal du and the formal Sie – and most other European languages within culturally defined parameters.

Anyway, at the climax of the play – a rare moment where something actually happened – the leading man cried “Don’t go, Éloïse!”. But all he got for his trouble was a Miss Piggyish retort along the lines of: “I beg your pardon, Monsieur, I believe you called me by my first name!”. But … and here’s where it gets interesting … the original line in French didn’t actually mention her name at all. Maddened by his walled-up passion for the charmless Éloïse, our hero had deployed the familiar tu. Which, in those straitlaced times, was probably a dangerously short step from Austin Powers’ “Shall we shag now or shall we shag later?”.

It was this culturally adaptive aspect of translation – tossing a linguistic pancake in the air and catching it in a differently shaped pan – that caught my imagination at the time. To convey a linguistic phenomenon that didn’t exist in English (i.e. using an informal you), the translator opted for the closest thing that would work in the context of a play set at a time when Jane Austen’s Mr Bennet called his wife “Mrs Bennet”. Which was using someone’s first name in a horrifyingly overfamiliar way.

Before it fell into disuse in the 17th century, English had its own equivalent of tu, the informal pronoun thou, while you was reserved for formal use or for addressing more than one person. These days, some language learners – especially English speakers – live in dread fear of using the wrong form of address and mortally offending someone they’ll probably never meet again. In fact, I once crossed paths with an Irish teacher of French and German who was a self-proclaimed expert at initiating conversations without using either form of you, cunningly waiting for the native speaker to take the lead instead.

Although I pride myself on my ability to tie myself in anxious knots about just about anything, I can’t say that this has ever really bothered me. Having studied in France and lived half my life in Germany, my experience has been that these things are dictated quite clearly by any given situation. Fifty years ago, German university students would have addressed each other with a tentative Sie on the first day of term, but these days if you’re talking to fellow students – or playing in a tennis competition, making music with other people or even ordering a drink in a dingy bar – du is the natural choice. But if I’m at the doctor’s or in court or if someone has my testicles in a vice, I’ll always stick to the more formal Sie.

In a work context, fellow translators making contact for the first time will generally opt for the informal approach, much in the same way as most people will – by the transitive property – use du to each other when introduced by mutual friends. And it’s not uncommon for longstanding customer relationships to evolve from Sie to du over time. Sometimes customers test the waters by signing off with their first name only, or by using Ian rather than Herr Winick and steering clear of any personal pronouns. When I pick up on these vibes, I usually come out and say that I’d be perfectly happy to do the du with them, so to speak. And that almost always does the trick.

I remember getting on a bus behind a young woman who was duzed by the over-friendly driver – who, in fairness, was probably old enough to be her grandfather – and she cut him down with a rather sharp Haben wir zusammen im Sandkasten gespielt? (Did we play together in the sandpit as kids?). Other languages have equally withering put-downs, such as the French On n'a pas élevé les cochons ensemble (We didn't raise pigs together) or more endearing versions like the Polish Z tobą wódki jeszcze nie piłem (We’ve never drunk vodka together). I imagine the closest you could get in English would be something like the following exchange:

- Hello, my name is Aloysius but my friends call me Al
- Then I will call you Aloysius

Apparently, it’s not unknown for divorced couples in France to go back to vouvoying each other after they go their separate ways. On a similar note, I recently watched a French series set in the 1960s and was surprised to see an upper-class couple using the formal vous to each other after over twenty years of marriage! I can’t imagine how this works in the bedroom but I’m sure “Give it to me, big boy!” isn’t quite the same.

These things vary from country to country, much like greeting rituals and tipping practices. My charming Catalan friend and colleague Marta Pagans once told me that TV and film translators are instructed to introduce the informal tu instead of the formal vostè after two people have kissed on screen for the first time. I think it’s also fair to say that German dubbing tends to be a little heavy on the Sie, often reverting to a shotgun wedding of first names and formal personal pronouns that I’ve only actually ever seen on game shows on German TV but is pretty common in France.

The clear tendency these days, in Germany and elsewhere, is towards the informal. And while I am usually more than happy to swap grey formality for sunny informality, I draw the line at companies like IKEA duzing me in their advertising. Just because I can’t stop buying your damn tea lights doesn’t mean we’re friends.


Big thanks to my sister Ruth for providing the visuals for this month's offering. Check out her Hello Ruth website to see the wide range of personalised cards, calendars and other gifts she offers.

18 comments on “How do you du? (Or: Long time, no Sie)”

  1. Oh, that made me chuckle. I'm now trying to unsee the picture in my mind of your testiclés (to quote Little Britain) in a vice... I agree. Germans are becoming more and more informal. Even 10 years ago, you wouldn't go to a party and necessarily say Du to everyone - particularly if you were over 40. Nowadays, it's almost a given, unless it's a very formal event.

  2. I learned these differences in school and unlearned some of the differences in real life. With my own students in Canada, the notion of " to be on a first name basis", as found in Vinay and Darbelnet, meant little. This revealed how times change. Great piece. Thanks. Kathryn

  3. I understand that it was a symbol of respect and good breeding to call your spouse vous in France until the 1980s or so. So it was a class difference too. Always struck me in old films!

  4. Very nice piece of writing, Ian.

    Perhaps it lacks a paragraph on the North American "youse", the attempt at a plural second person that tends to signal class origin. (Needless to say, I grew up with it!)

  5. I went to France in 1963 as an au pair boy with school French. I tutoyed the kids I was minding. One day the eldest (15) conveyed a complaint from his parents that they took exception to me tutoying them. So I switched, and then found myself vouvoying the kids.
    It took me a while to get my head around using the required form of address in context.

  6. I have been working for american companies for more than 35 years by now which kind of estranged me from proper german . I am all 'Kanst Du machen wie Du meinst' these days

  7. In the mid-80ies I got to know a youngish French couple with 2 little children, and they addressed each other with 'vous'. It's rare, but probably even today there are some couples using this super polite form.
    There is also the middle solution of using 'vous' but addressing the person with their first name: 'Bonjour Jean, comment allez-vous?' I heard this several times in the French part of Switzerland.

    1. Hi Alexandra! That's very strange about the couple you mentioned. But I think the "middle solution" is pretty common in France - I have a customer who addresses me in this way too.

      Am I right in thinking that Italian is less formal when it comes to "tu" and "lei"?

  8. Years ago, I heard the (surely apocryphal) story that Charles DeGaulle avoided the whole tu-vous dilemma by calling everyone vous, including his wife of many years.

    1. In the hilarious series Au Service de la France, the Colonel - a devoted de Gaulle fan - also uses "vous" to his wife. Maybe that's a nod to that?

  9. Fun and well written, Ian, congratulations. I was reminded of Hollywood films of the 50s (Maybe 40s too) in which the son often addresses his dad as 'sir'. Do you think that would qualify as a 'vous'/ 'Sie' in translation? (Can't remember daughters doing it but I might be wrong)

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