Monday, 24 November 2008

Just a formality

One of the hardest things in any foreign language is learning to use the formal register.


That was the sound of thousands (read 'one or two') of readers simultaneously clicking their browser windows shut.

French is ok: anything French is normally work and therefore 'vous'. Unless you're elderly, or married to a diplomat, anyone you meet socially is 'tu' (although traditionally apparently it's a bit naughty to ask guys if you can se tutoyer: so that's one to remember when you're out hunting for a sugar daddy on Bvd St Germain). Having said that, it's now a bit trendy to call your colleagues 'tu', especially in a translation company where everyone is under thirty and wears jeans to work. It leaves you a bit confused with older colleagues and the boss's PA... will they be offended because you've made them feel old??

Polish: well, everything about Polish is hard. You can forgive a stupid foreigner a couple of mistakes here and there.

No, the really complicated one is Italian. If you learnt Italian at university, you probably studied abroad on the Erasmus scheme, and you probably hung out with lots of long-haired groovy sociology students who called everyone 'tu'. If you went to a British or American university back home, your professors were probably relaxed enough to slip into the informal at the earliest possible moment (not wanting to distract from important things, like Italo Calvino and Marco Tullio Giordana, with complicated things like personal pronouns).
In the formal, pronouns work in a similar way to Polish: the formal personal pronoun is the same as the third person singular, except with only one gender: everyone is a feminine 'Lei'. Having said that, there's also a very archaic form: 'essi', which I am not too sure about.
Basically you are calling the person 'Her' all the time (hmm - like a Scottish laird: 'is Himself at home?), and conjugating as appropriate (la, le, with or without capital letters).

Now, when you're applying to work for an Italian firm, you send them an email in polite Italian, they email you a test translation in polite Italian, you complete it, they give you a score and ask about your rates, etc, all in nice polite (hellishly complicated) formal Italian. Cordiali saluti all round.

When a slightly harassed project manager sends you your first job request, it's still all 'La prego di consegnare ...' and 'Le mando i files ...' ecc.
And you continue - watching your step, because the more correspondance is exchanged, the more chances you have to slip up - with the polite forms of address.

I can't even begin to list the possibilities for disaster here. Imagine you are a professional linguist with an image to maintain. Imagine that - unlike me, ahem - you have up until now managed a steady flow of dialogue without any typos, or mistaken endings, or bent genders.
Now you are getting to know your project manager better, you want to build up an easy working rapport with them, but at the same time maintain a professional distance. Do you stay formal and risk sounding archaic (imagining mirthful project managers reading out bits of stilted Italian from their English correspondants to peals of laughter)? Or do you slip into 'tu' form and hope they don't notice?
I was doing my best to keep a formal tone, when suddenly, the project manager starts calling me 'tu' (rather offhandedly - 'when you translate, make sure you check this and this, and then spellcheck, and check for uniformity' and so on). Relieved, I started using the informal too, along with all the accompanying dry rot of modern email correspondance (lower cases, lack of accents, etc).

Suddenly: wham! We're back in the formal, effectively Szanowna Pani - ing each other all over again.

Have I offended her? Should I have stayed virtuously formal while she slipped into the second person? Have I won or lost respect through some complex pronomial game of which I was not aware? Did I use some anachronism of antique Italian and is she mocking me??

Find these answers to these and more in the next exciting episode of Pinolona's translation life...*

*Welding glossary not included.


peixote said...

...and why is it that, when corresponding with two (or more) people that you want/need to be formal with, you still use "Vi"? As in "Egregi Signori, siamo lieti di informarVi..." and not "informare Loro" as would seem logical?

PRQ said...

Just you wait until the formal register is re-introduced into English. It's true! "You" and "yours" was the formal register, while "thee" and "thine" was the informal.

(This topic occupied an entire twenty minutes in a History of English course I took several years ago, and it's all I remember, so I had to bring it up.)

It's really not fair that all other languages get to experience this awkwardness while we English speakers suffer such linguistic blandness.

expateek said...

Love the bit about browsers clicking shut. One does wonder, sometimes, if one is boring people to death.

Rest assured, you're not.

Keep it up! x

pinolona said...

Peixote: 'Loro' has actually been falling out of use for some time now, to the extent that when I was at uni about four or five years ago we were taught not to use it except in veryveryvery formal situations.
(Lepschy &Lepschy p 107 ed. Bompiani 2002: 'l'equivalente plurale 'loro' e piu elevato , e tende a essere sostituito da 'voi' '. etc.)
Also often I find in older books or those set in the southern regions, you see 'Voi' instead of 'Lei'. Italians do this to confuse us.

PRQ: exactly! And I've read (but only on the internet and I can't find the ref. now) that in some regional varieties 'youse' is now used as a formal personal pronoun. I think we should reintroduce a plural form. From now on I will address groups of people as 'all y'all'.

Expateek: Thanks! Ah well if they're bored they don't have to read the site, it's not compulsory (slashing the Christmas card list even as we speak).

Jerry Adams said...

Ah, Pino, non ti devi preoccupare di queste piccole sciocchezze! :))

You're 100% on the money, though: Italian formal register is a b*tch sometimes. Voi, Lei, and - last but not least - Egli.

Life would simply be too boring without them.

Anna said...

And for once "Szanowna Pani" doesn't sound so complicated. Thanks!

Darth Sida said...


Would you choose to use "ye" as youse? On hearing "ye", would your default guess be:
- it's plural,
- it's singular,
- it's 'the',
- it's American,
- it's Scots
- it's obsolete (barring God Rest Ye, but only when by Ian Anderson),
- or else? Thx.

pinolona said...

Darth! I never answered you!

I would hear 'ye' and know that it is plural, but only cos I'm a geek. My first thought would be that it is an archaic form and I would assume that the speaker is using it to add humour in some way (or maybe that's just cos I'm the class clown :)

I've seen it used as 'the' as in 'Ye Olde Englyshe Tea Roome', but that's just silliness for marketing purposes.

Sorry for the delay...