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Many of you linguists out there probably know that in German, as in other languages, we have two ways of addressing people: the formal way ("Sie") and the informal way ("du"). I know that there are similar distinctions in French (tu/vous) or Spanish (tú/usted) and I can just guess how many others. But English does not have such a distinction. This is a constant source of irritation in the translation jobs. It seems that many customers are not aware that such a decision has to be made when moving from English to one of these languages.

Some jobs indeed come with a setting that says "formal" or "informal" and then I know which way to go. But most jobs don't carry this piece of information. This means I have to ask the customer or decide myself. In most cases I will decide myself based on an educated guess, deliver the translation and add a comment stating what mode I used, offering to change it if the customer so desires. Only with longer texts I ask the customer beforehand in order to avoid large revisions.

Wouldn't it be better if customers were "forced" to make this decision when ordering a translation INTO German (or the other concerned languages)? I think the formal/informal setting should be mandatory here.

This is particularly important for those customers who split their work into several jobs. When these jobs are translated by different translators, it will often happen that some translators use the formal mode and others the informal mode in their work. When the pieces are put together later, the result will be a mess to read.

Many texts we translate are used for marketing purposes. The customer will easily see that this kind of mistake will destroy all marketing value of his text. It is in the customers' best interest to make a decision which mode of language to use and to stick to it.

14 comments

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    Alexander

    Good point. I have the same problem when translating from English into Dutch (jij/u). However, if a customer is not aware of the issue (because the distinction does not exist in their language), I wonder if they have a good sense which tone is appropriate. I'd prefer to know at which audience the text is targeted (age, gender) and based on that (plus the subject of the text) make my own choice.

    For jobs that are done by multiple translators, there is indeed the risk of inconsistencies. If there were some means to communicate with other translators about basic choices like this for a specific customer, that could surely help to improve the quality of our work. Considering the low rates, though, I'm not so sure if I would be inclined to spend much time on such communication.

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    carla m.

    Same in English into Italian: formal/informal/masculine/feminine...it can be a nightmare if the client doesn't specify! I remember one job, a brief email exchange between two friends. I can assure you that there were no first names and no way to understand whether they were both male/female or one male and one female. I had to ask the customer, who luckily replied right away or I would have had to decline the translation.

    So I fully agree when you say:

    "Wouldn't it be better if customers were "forced" to make this decision when ordering a translation INTO German (or the other concerned languages)? I think the formal/informal setting should be mandatory here."

    I have to say, the customers I deal with are always very happy and thankful when I take the time to explain the intricacies/doubts involved in a translation ;-)

    Good day everyone!

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    mirko

    I agree with the OP's suggestion. However, in addition to what Alexander was saying (some languages not having explicit formality markers), even the languages where different levels of formality/registers are used do not express it in the same way, and there isn't exactly a 1:1 correspondence in their respective usage. I believe that's more of a cultural thing. For instance, I think the German "Sie" or the French "Vous" are much more commonly used than the Italian "Lei", without the risk of sounding "unnaturally" formal/cold (in addition, Italian also uses "Voi", second plural, which is however different from the French "Vous" when used as a courtesy form), and I also think there are other languages (like Japanese) where the forms and nuances are even more complex from a cultural point of view. Explaining all of that to a customer for each target language and telling them what form would be best for each type of content is no easy task (and a "job" in itself...). And besides, if an English speaking customer decided to use an "informal" tone for a specific type of content (e.g. their website), I believe that doesn't automatically mean that the "informal pronoun" would necessarily be the best choice in every target language...

    So, in other words, the customer should probably choose a specific formality level for each single target language they're translating their copy into (and also different levels for different types of content).

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    Chris

    I second that motion.

    Of course I ask the customer and try do research the context (where possible and mentioned) but it's getting old really fast, especially since some customers answer late or never.

    It would be great if the customer was offered three options when creating a job:

    formal address (along with a short, language specific explanation and some examples)

    informal address (along with a short, language specific explanation and some examples) 

    Leaving the decision to the translator (Including a hint that this might lead to inconsistency if the customer doesn't communicate the decision to the next translator)

    "Some jobs indeed come with a setting that says "formal" or "informal" and then I know which way to go."

    Actually it's worse. Even a style guide that asks for a friendly, informal tone can't guarantee that "Sie" isn't the appropriate translation in that case. (Though most of the fault would lie with the customer in this case. That's why it would be important to offer language specific explanations/examples. )

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    Chris

    This remains a constant source of confusion and lost time as well as inconsistent translations between different translators.

    Please find a solution for this.

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    Val

    I agree with the OP. I also feel that for very large projects there should be a Gengo language specialist available to make these decisions, but this rarely happens. Whenever I've been in large projects where many translators were participating and I made some questions regarding style or register (such as using "tú", "usted" or the infinitive which would have solved the conundrum really well in that particular translation into Spanish), they were not answered. Later, I saw many inconsistencies in unfinished translations by other translators, which is understandable as there were no guidelines.

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    Lara Fernandez

    Hi all,

    Thanks for this interesting discussion. From Gengo's point of view, our Style Guides offer general pointers. For example, our Spanish (Spain) Style Guide indicates the use of "tú" for informal texts, and "usted" for more formal texts. In most situations, if the customer doesn't specify which one to use, it would depend on the content on the text and the translator (who is a native speaker of the target language) would be expected to make a decision accordingly. 

    Because the original post mentioned the English to German example particularly, I've spoken with our LSs in that language pair, and here are some interesting comments that I received:

    Most languages do make a difference between formal and informal address. In this respect, English is something like the odd one in the bunch. So the problem is that native speakers of English sometimes don't really understand what this distinction really means. I've seen more than one case where the customer used the "informal" tag, but actually referred to the overall tone - friendly and casual - of the text. So even if we make the formal/informal choice mandatory, we don't have a guarantee that the customer knows what he's choosing in the first place. And in-depth explanations of the relevant conventions for each language might scare off many customers rather than help them.

    And here we come to another problem: Even in languages where the formal/informal distinction is more or less common, the conventions surrounding its use can vary greatly. One small example on the highest level, so to say: In German, God is always addressed informally. In Dutch (an extremely close relative of German), that would be considered highly inappropriate, God is addressed formally there. So even if a customer clearly understands the decision between both styles, his idea of how it must be implemented can differ very much from what the translator thinks.

    For German, the rule of thumb is rather simple in my opinion: If you want to play it safe, address the reader formally - you can't go wrong because nobody would feel offended. If the choice was wrong, the result might sound a bit strange for the target group, but that's all. In addition, one can use the formal address and deliver a very friendly and 'approachable' message at the same time. In other words, the formal address does not need to sound stiff and distant. On the other hand, you can completely upset your target group if you address them informally when you shouldn't. (Just to give you an idea: In Germany, you can get fined if you address a policeman with the informal "du" because it's considered an insult in that context.)

     

    Because of issues like the ones mentioned above, such as situations where customers are not really aware of what formal or informal address can entail in the target language, we don't plan to make choosing mandatory at the time (in our regular order process) and trust our translators to make the right decision.

    However, I believe that other cases, like the one @Val mentions, in which several translators work on the same project, require a choice, and I will be bringing the issue up with the team to make sure that, in large projects, a decision is reached and communicated to all translators involved.

    Thanks,

    Lara

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    Chris

    Thanks, Lara!

     

    How about a checkbox/option that the translator can set and that's visible in other collections?

    If the customer submits a collection the next time, they might get a small popup that points out which form of address was used for their last collection and asks if they want to stick with that for this collection as well. (Since it might be an unrelated translation.)
    Maybe with a small explanation that points out the difference between overall tone and address. Explanations could be hidden behind a link, so only people interested to know more would see it.

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    kvstegemann

    @Lara, this is not only a problem with large projects. Many clients post their content in small pieces over time, which then will obviously be translated by different translators. But the content is later used in one context, for example in one app or in one web page.

    We need more awareness in these clients that this piecemeal approach is harmful to the consistency of their content. Clients need to be aware that translation is not a determinate process, where the same input always generates the same output. This is one of the main reasons why machine translation does not work and will not work for quite a while. This is the reason why they choose human translation, a service like Gengo. And they lose some of the advantage of human translation when they neglect to give a minimum of instructions.

    The idea should be that repeat clients create at least some minimalistic style guide for each target language. This can be a one-pager, mind you, answering the basic questions like target audience, project context, and intended tone and formality level. This would be not much effort and at the same time could be a big quality leap for the resulting translations in some cases, giving the client more value for their money. You could even offer some sample style guides created by your language leaders for certain contexts (like computer gaming, app localisation and such) to get them started. But they need to be aware what a big difference this makes. It's all part of the effort to engage their own audience better, not only by addressing them in their own language, but also by addressing them in a natural and appropriate way. It's a selling point.

    Edit: I agree with most of the things your English to German experts said, but simply using the formal address in all cases is not a satisfying solution. There are many cases where the formal address can be simply wrong, not by offending anyone, but by being totally out of place and alienating the audience. For example, in a computer gaming context, in a student programme, in a dating environment, or in any other case where the client is known for a usually flippant and easygoing tone, which is part of their marketing effort.

    Edited by kvstegemann
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    Alexander

    The comments of the LSs convinced me the wisest thing to do is have the translator(s) decide on behalf of the customer.

    As for the consistency problem, this issue is just a special case of the general problem how to translate a specific word ("you") when there are several options. For example, in my own target language (Dutch), the word "teacher" could be translated as "docent", "leraar", or "onderwijzer". Any choice is fine, but it's just weird to use these words alternately.

    So I think we're actually talking here about a per customer TM.

  • -1
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    carla m.
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    Val

    Right now there are at least 100k words split among different translators for the moving company, Tú/usted in the TM matches are all over the place. Which one do I choose? Do I change them? Do I leave them as is? So frustrating, Support says "We will look into it and will take an appropriate action if needed". But I need to translate now! *cries*. And TM matches are paid less, so it's more work for less money, work that would not be necessary if an action had been taken by someone at some point in this project.

    Translating "you" as "tú" or "usted" does not affect only that one word. It's conjugations and pronouns as well. Ama/amas, tiene/tienes, puede/puedes (and these are only regular verbs, then you have the irregular verbs and the verbs with enclitic pronouns which make everything more complicated), le/te, su/tu, se/te, lo or la/te, contigo/con usted. I may be missing something in this list. Imagine that strewn all over 20k words.

    The word "you" does not even have to appear in the source text for me to be required to choose one of these options (e.g., if there is an imperative in English). Even if "you" were added as a term in the glossary, I may not see it in a short collection.

    Edited by Val
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    Chris

    @Lara Fernandez

    I'd like to bring this up once again, as it remains a problem. (Perhaps we should open a feature request for it?).

    Currently the customer can choose between different options when submitting a job. The problem is that he doesn't get properly educated about what these choices entail and that tone and address aren't separated. 

    The choices are: Informal, Friendly, Business, Formal, Other.  

    Now while some should be expected to be pretty clear, the truth is that most of them are pretty much anyone's guess.
    While "formal" hardly will lead to or require an informal address, pretty much all of those could be selected for texts that actually need formal address (yes, even informal). Business, too, could need informal if the customer selects this because he thinks it's a safe bet for his purpose and is unsure about the rest (written from experience).
    Also they are exclusive.

    Separating tone and address would help with that I think. Both with options to let the translator guess. (Remind the customer again to share links to already translated texts for the same project or to describe the purpose of the text in more detail.)
    If that option is chosen (Let the translator guess), indicate that clearly in the collection. You might think that an absence of clear instructions is enough, but it's something else to be clearly told that the customer has chosen to leave the decision to the translator.

    And, like mentioned earlier, ideally and also importantly we would need to find a way to communicate that choice to other translator working down the line on the same projects. (This might also entail blocking all but one collection until a choice is made if several are submitted at once).
    I try to get customers to do that themselves, with varying outcome. I could simply say "Not my problem", but a text constantly switching address leaves a really unprofessional impression. It would reduce a lot of unnecessary back and forth and would also be in Gengo's own best interest if they could tackle that problem once and for all.

     

     

     

     

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    Romana

    Hi all,

    I strongly agree with all translators above, and hope the topic is still being discussed by Gengo staff. I translate English to Dutch and have this issue with almost every single job. There needs to be a simple solution implemented for customers, because most of the time they are unable or don't have the time to respond to my question about the formal/informal tone. Any information is welcome; most jobs have none. Simply saying "we trust our translators to make the right choice" is not enough; most of the time it is impossible to decide. I am able to make an educated guess but for most short translations there is not enough context to be absolutely sure. I worry about consistency with every short translation and feel sorry for customers because they are unaware of the problem.

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