The famous & infamous ‘you’

A few years ago, when I was in my first years of English studies in college, one of my lecturers was this bright American PhD student. She knew she was bright; she was also beautiful and she happened to be aware of that fact, too. Combine this with her young age, barely a few years older than the rest or even younger in some cases, and you will understand why most people in the class did not like her.

“She’s so pretentious,” students would sniff “and have you noticed the way she speaks, too ? ‘Not your average novel’, ‘your expectations’, ‘you’, ‘you’, ‘you’! As if she were above us.”

Indeed, when this lecturer wanted to refer to something generic, she used ‘you’, as Americans do. Yet to untrained French ears, who were still getting used to having all of their classes delivered in English, ‘you’ was one more mark of arrogance; one more way of setting herself apart from the rest.

Use of the second person is so much less frequent in French that a translator needs to be careful when dealing a source text containing ‘you’. One does not want to risk sounding arrogant or even peremptory: using ‘you’ may feel like the author is giving orders to the reader. Yet is it always so?

Marketing copy can and does use the second person. The reader is directly engaged in the copy’s message and this is a way to hook their attention and to convey the point that the company is truly user-focused. Yet there is a fine line that must not be crossed, here again, between engaging the reader and pushing the goods too aggressively in their face (both copywriters and translators take it into account).

Self-help & personal development texts, if they use the second person, must be especially careful not to sound bossy : nobody wants to sound like a new-age scammer, not even new-age scammers themselves.

As for literary texts, if you find one where the narrator uses ‘you’, it is either a classical novel addressing the reader (as in ‘Reader – I married him’, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre) or used as an experimental technique (as in Michel Butor’s La modification or the titles of the slightly more mainstream Guillaume Musso).

To decide whether to keep every use of the second person in the target text is thus to analyse the source text to determine if ‘you’ points out to a shared experience (in which case ‘nous’ or ‘on’ for instance, would be used) or if it is really meant to address the reader only.

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