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Language formality: How do "you" get it right?

GlobaLexicon Language Formality

“Would you like us to use a formal or informal approach when translating?”. “We’ve used an informal approach when translating”. These may be things you’ve heard when commissioning a translation but what exactly do they mean?

It might be helpful to clarify exactly what we mean by formality in language. Sometimes people (particularly English speakers) think it refers to talking casually and not overly formally or that it’s a matter of deciding whether to use slang/colloquial language or more ‘proper’ language. However, as a translation company, when we say formality, we are referring to codified rules embedded in languages and getting them right can be key to conveying your message correctly to your intended audience.

Interestingly, it mainly centres around how you address people or, to put it simply, how you say ‘you’. Let’s look at French as an example. When speaking to someone in French you can either use tu or vous where we would say ‘you’ in English. If you use tu, you’re addressing them informally, you probably know them and they are likely the same age or younger than you. If you use vous, it’s likely that they are a stranger, older than you, or that you’re trying to be respectful.

(As a side note, vous is also used to mean ‘you’ in French when talking to more than one person, though the loss of a plural ‘you’ form in standard English is a story for another day!)

In English, we may use different words which are more or less complicated, more or less polite, speak faster or slower, or even indulge in some code-switching, but our language lacks this inbuilt grammatical distinction. The closest approximation would be companies like Innocent Drinks, who have chosen a friendly, light-hearted and playful tone of voice, and it is this kind of ‘informal’ that clients often think we mean when we ask about formality. Here again though, ‘you’ is simply ‘you’ in English.

While for many of the languages we work with daily, the choice between levels of formality is relatively straightforward, some languages buck the trend. At one end of the spectrum, Swedish tends not to use the formal approach at all, and some speakers may even interpret it as condescending, whereas Japanese has a complicated system of formality which includes ‘honorifics’ and ‘humblerifics’, governing not just how you address people, but also the verbs and expressions you choose.

Formality can also differ between countries speaking the same language. In Portugal, they use tu and vôce in the same way the French use tu and vous, but in Brazil, they generally use vôce for everyone. In Argentina, they don’t use tu and usted like most other Spanish speaking countries, but instead favour vos and usted. Even the two Latin cultures of Portugal and Spain turn to formal or informal to differing extents.

So, when we receive a document to translate, the very first question we ask ourselves is, “Who is this aimed at?”, as it’s important to know exactly who you are speaking to so that you can address them as they would expect to be spoken to. After all, through translating a text, our clients want to speak to people in the way that will best facilitate their message, not offend their potential customer, respondent or reader; getting the formality of a translation wrong can mean a reader ‘switches off’, offended or convinced the text isn’t for them. So, once we know the audience, and any client preferences, we can put our local knowledge to use to determine the most appropriate level of formality.

After all, to paraphrase the song, sometimes it’s not a question of what you say, it’s all in the way that you say it.

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