Sunday, October 24, 2010

To Thou or not to Thou

The second person informal pronoun has dropped out of use in English. Evidently this began mid-way through the seventeenth century. Some people put the date of disuse earlier—evidently because it was a way of signaling that the speaker using the informal pronoun intended to make the person so addressed feel inferior. This didn’t happen elsewhere. Hence when we read eighteenth century German poetry or fiction, the use of this pronoun sounds perfectly natural. Not so in English.

I bring this up as a genuine problem in translation—or in reading old English texts. I’ve often thought that translating the second person informal as encountered in most European languages to this day by using thou, thee, thine, and so on is a kind of artificiality. It isn’t done in translating modern fiction. Why then persist in doing so when translating old poetry? Reading Schiller doesn’t give people the sense of reading somebody old and dusty. It all sounds perfectly modern. Hence I resolutely translate that pronoun into its plural form in English. That way I give it the same timeless feel that the original in another language still retains. As for reading, the Bible comes to mind. To erase the artificially imposed but ultimately secondary meaning on everything that “this is really old,” the new translations do what I do:

What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?
What does a man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?

It profiteth thee, scrivener, to use you for thou, and yours for thine.

1 comment: