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A-Z of Translation – the letter Y:

Our entry for Y involves getting personal – to varying degrees:

You – English speakers often struggle with the fact that some languages have two words for “you” – an informal one reserved for family and close friends, and a formal one for everyone else (the exact difference varies according to the language, though – it’s a tricky field). Translators working into such languages sometimes fail to think carefully enough about which form they should use, while translators working out of such languages can tie themselves in knots trying to convey the distinctions they see in the source text (watch out for things like “they were on first-name terms”).

There are also many other cases where language A makes an important distinction that is lacking in language B. Although previously dismissed as an urban myth, the latest research suggests that the Inuit do indeed have around 50 words for snow. More surprising perhaps is the recent finding by researchers at the University of Glasgow that Scots have 421 terms to describe the country’s wintry conditions (one suspects that a lot of dialect terms were included). It would be tricky to try and render all these nuances in another language that lacks such distinctions without ending up with a rather cumbersome text.

As so often, the translator’s job is to strike a balance between capturing the meaning as fully as possible and conveying it in a way that is authentic and relevant in the source language.

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