I love how English is usually simpler than French. In English, anybody is a “you”, but in French, you might be in front of a “tu” or a “vous” situation. A dilemma that many people who learn French are struggling with, particularly anglophones, who are not used to make a difference between a formal pronoun (vous) and an informal pronoun (tu).
I was looking for a way to easily explain it when I found this amazing diagram created by William Alexander and published in the Los Angeles Times. Take a minute to read the different hilarious options, it’s worth it!
What it means in the translation world
The choice between “tu” or “vous” is one of the reasons why human translators are still relevant: even with powerful algorithms, machine translation tools can struggle to determine the right pronoun in French. Let’s look at this simple sentence as an example:
You are perfect for the job.
Scenario 1: A boss interviews a candidate for a position to fill and finds him excellent. He says, “You are perfect for the job.” In French, this would be translated with a “vous” since we are in a formal context:
“Vous êtes parfait pour ce travail.”
Scenario 2: A mother cheers up her son before a job interview. She says, “You are perfect for the job.” This is a “tu” situation (ordinary talk between family members):
“Tu es parfait pour ce travail.”
Scenario 3: A speaker motivates a crowd of employees attending a conference as part of their training for work. He says to the audience: “You are perfect for the job.” Since he talks to more than one person, it can be translated by the plural “vous”:
“Vous êtes parfaits pour ce travail”.
I hope you don’t have a headache yet!
This is one of the reasons why it is so important to hire professional translators for your translation projects. You would not want a serious document to be misinterpreted or to sound informal when it should not…
If you need serious conversation help…
As an English-French translator, I am always glad to answer your questions about my first language. However, I do not teach French. Some people are brilliant teachers, such as Jessica from French Your Way, who offers online courses. Her article about “Tu or vous?” is great and I recommend it to you if you want to know more about one of the many great mysteries of French.