On peut se tutoyer? The impossible task of conveying complex concepts in limited space

With more foreign language content coming to popular streaming platforms like Netflix, the art of subtitle translation continues to be front and center. Have you also noticed how, sometimes, translators are faced with an impossible task?

Take for example the French sentence “On peut se tutoyer?”, which showed up in a recent episode of “Call my agent!”(Dix Pour Cent) , the French TV series which debuted on Netflix internationally on January 21st last year and has already reached over 70 million views!

The French question was translated in English as “Can we become friends?” While this translation does not even come close to the meaning of the original French, it is also easy to see how, especially given the text space limitations of a fast-moving TV series, it is very difficult to do the original justice.

You see, in French, there is an important distinction between tu, the informal “you,” and vous, the formal “you.” The verb: tutoyer means “to use tu” and vouvoyer means “to use vous”.

With the question “On peut se tutoyer?”, you are basically asking if you can address someone more informally. This has little to do with becoming friends although it is certainly a plea to engage in a closer relationship. How would you go about conveying that in just a couple of words without compromising pace or meaning?

Understanding how this works in French requires a better understanding of the cultural implications. Switch to “tu” too early or uninvited in a relationship and it will create an instant awkward moment and in the worst-case scenario you will offend someone. Yet, use “vous” for too long and you may sound stuffy, making your interlocutor feel old or even alienated.

On paper, the rules appear straight forward. You should ‘vouvoyer’ anyone higher up in the social hierarchy: your boss, work colleagues, neighbors, anyone you’ve never met, people older than you by say, half a generation or more, officials, teachers, doctors, etc. You should ‘tutoyer’ your close friends and those of your partner, children and teenagers, close colleagues, people who ask you to tutoyer them. To complicate matters more, on social media pretty much anything goes.

In practice, the waters can get quickly muddied and it’s easy to get confused. Should you “tutoyer” your in-laws, for example? Or your neighbor’s son? In these situations, even the French differ radically. Some switch quickly from vous to tu while others adhere faithfully to the former.

As the translation debates about subtitles continue, what has perhaps become most obvious is the depth of the emotional investment the audience has found in these binge-worthy shows. Maybe it is inevitable that non-native speakers will miss nuances.

Hopefully, in the end though, we come away with even more respect for the translators. We should have nothing but admiration for the professionals tasked with conveying foreign language concepts correctly in very limited space.

Stefan Huyghe
Stefan Huyghe is Vice President of Localization at Communicaid Inc. where he focuses on running high-level operations, workflow optimization, database development, social selling and community building. He has over 20 years of experience working in the language industry is fluent in Dutch, French, German, and English.


Weekly Digest

Subscribe to stay updated

MultiLingual Media LLC