Et vous, Vladimir?

by Translation Guy on July 5, 2010

A few weeks ago, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said, “Whenever some key issue comes up President Medvedev and I, of course, have to have a coordinated position. And as before, I see no problem in calling him and say, ‘Listen, let’s reach an agreement, let’s discuss this.’ We develop a coordinated position and make it even more stable and solid… Mr Medvedev does the same. Sometimes he just calls and says: ‘You know, we need to talk. Let’s think about this. There’s this problem, I would like to hear your opinion’… And believe me, Mr Medvedev and I cooperate very productively.”

As an opening paragraph, that’s what we in the blog trade call a “snoozer.” Then how come the Russian press called in the bomb squad when this French interview hit Moscow?

“Putin spoke in Russian, perfectly aware that his answers would be translated into French, which, like Russian, carries a distinction between the familiar ‘tu’ and the polite ‘vous.’  And this meant that the point of one of his answers was missed entirely in English translation,” as reported in Language Johnson, a blog by Economist correspondents about the verbal use and abuse in politics, society and culture globally.

“In Russian (and French), when Mr Putin reproduced his own direct speech to Mr Medvedev he used the ‘tu’ forms of the verbs, while when quoting Mr Medvedev’s speech to him, he used the ‘vous’ forms. And lest there be any doubt, he used three or four examples of each.

“The point of Mr Putin’s answer… was to hammer home that while he says ‘tu’ to Mr Medvedev, Mr Medvedev is obliged to use ‘vous’ back. It was a not very subtle reminder of who is in charge of Russia.”

I had just read this story when I saw the photo of Medvedev and President Obama hanging out after school in a spontaneous photo opportunity showing two heads of state grabbing burgers before the big game.

Similar issues with Spanish ‘tu’. Is it appropriate to use the familiar with a president? As in all these matters, it must have something to do with who is doing the talking. Ahmed Liman commented that “King Juan Carlos uses the familiar ‘tu’ when speaking to his prime ministers who respectfully reply back with ‘usted.’ I also noticed that he does the same thing to Latin American presidents. I was surprised that after he used the ‘tu’ to ask Hugo Chavez to shut up (‘por qué no te callas?’) at a now famous Ibero-American summit, the Venezuelan president, amid a big diplomatic row, still referred to him as ‘Don Juan Carlos’ and used ‘usted.'”

Since the days of “thee” and “thou” are long past, English speakers are tone deaf to these social niceties, and verbally putting an upstart in their place has become rather tedious and difficult, although I’ve noticed plenty in this neighborhood of the United Nations who manage to put people in their place using just plain old “you” faster than you can say “fagedaboutit.”

I wonder why these levels of speech were abandoned in English so early on. Spanish and French familiar form usage is evolving rapidly, and correct usage is far from settled.


  1. Brian P says:

    Wow, that’s astounding. Putin’s defiant insult of his President actually makes me worry about the political stability of Russia more than anything else that’s happened in the last two years.

  2. john says:

    communicating to each other definately makes things easier but it is the media or the translators that should see to the positive side of the conversation(comments).

  3. markowe says:

    It’s interesting that English actually lost the familiar “thee/thou” form rather than the formal “you”. At some point we started all getting very formal with each other, even, say, children with parents or siblings. While it’s a shame we don’t have the distinction any more, it saves us a lot of headaches – in my second language, Serbian, I often hear native speakers very uncertain of which form to use, “ti” or “vi”. On the other hand, I seem to recall that one or more of the Scandinavian languages has pretty much consciously done away with formal forms of address – maybe someone can shed more light on that bit of semi-information!

  4. Sam says:

    communicating with each other definately makes things easier but it is the media or the translators that should see to the positive side of the conversation(comments).

  5. Cindy L says:

    it’s not only the media and the press dat matters . It is the language that causes conflicts between the two persons raising issues.

  6. Decrept says:

    we all are extremely worried about the upcoming government in Russia. the prime minister should move, hand in hand, with his president.

  7. Diane_Dawson says:

    with my point of view all that the country people want is peace and prosperity that can be attained only if government functions properly.

  8. WiggyWaggy says:

    This is a disgrace to the prime minister. They should work together to fix this.

  9. both of them are matured enough and should resolve such problems personally instead of using the media…

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