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In English, when you are talking to someone and want to show respect, you mostly do so by adding words. Calling someone “sir”, “madam” or “Your Majesty” means that you hold the person in front of you (or the person you’re writing to) in a certain consideration. But for the most part, the structure and content of your sentence remain the same: “Good morning” and “Good morning, madam” differ only for the honorific, but are otherwise the same sentence.

Italian, on the other hand, gets crazy with courtesy forms. The most shocking thing about it is that you show respect by changing person. That’s right, the actual, grammatical person of the verb you’re using. Sometimes you even have to change the gender! Let me show you.

Suppose that you meet a friend on the street, and you want to greet him. To say “Hi! How are you?” in Italian you could go with:

Ciao! Come stai?

Now, let’s say that you want to use the same greeting, but the person you meet is someone you’re supposed to show respect to (your teacher or your boss, for example). First of all, you need to use a more formal salute; not the colloquial “Ciao!”, but a more formal “Buongiorno!” But after that, to show your interlocutor the proper respect, you also have address them as “her”… even if they are the person we’re talking to and they happen to be male!

Here’s how you can say “Hi! How are you?” in a formal way:

Buongiorno! Come sta?

“Sta” is the third person singular of the verb “stare”, which is what we use for “to be” in this case. Now, if the honorable person were to reply “I’m fine, and you?”, and they wanted to use the same courtesy form, they would say something like this:

Io sto bene, e lei?

Which literally means “I’m fine, and her?” Even if they’re talking to you and you happen to be male.

If English is your native language, this will probably seem absurd. But this courtesy form actually has historical roots: during the Renaissance, nobles were addressed as Sua Signoria or Sua Eccellenza, meaning respectively “His Lordship” and “His Excellency”. However, signoria and eccellenza are female in Italian, so female pronouns were used. Centuries later, we still use the third person singular (female) in lieu of the second person as a form of respect.

But it gets weirder (yes, there is weirder). It’s rarely used nowadays, at least in official Italian, but there’s a courtesy form that consists of adressing the other person with the second person plural (“voi”). That’s right, we’re making two (or three, or legion) of one person.

(we’re not alone in this, though. The French do it as well)

Here’s how you might greet, say, the Pope if you met him down the street:

Buongiorno, Santità! Come state?

State is, of course, the second person plural of “stare”, while Santità is “(Your) Holyness”.

You will almost never see this courtesy form used today. There are notable exceptions in some dialects, especially those from southern Italy (Neapolitan being the most notorious one), but for the most part it’s considered obsolete. It is, however, still considered the “right” form to adress royalty (although we have no royalty) and some important figures, mostly religious ones.

In italian there are also words like “signore” and “signora”, which are sometimes used were you would expect to see “sir” or “madam”, but the changing of person and (sometimes) gender is the thing that shocks foreigners the most. Many people think we’re crazy (and, being Italians, we might well be).

Courtesy forms come up a lot in translations. With three different levels of formality, it’s a pain to decide which one you have to use at a given point in a translation, especially when the English text gives you no clue about it.

What’s the appropriate form to use, for example, when a werewolf speaks to her pack alpha? Second person plural (from now on SPP) would seem right, since pack alphas are a kind of royalty, but it also might sound archaic. On the other hand, third person female (TPF) risks sounding like the character is addressing her accountant, not someone who could very well rip her to pieces. The translator has to look the contest and employ every little bit of his cultural awareness to make sure the translation is flawless.

It gets easier with other genres. Fantasy generally uses SPP, which is perceived as more “ancient”. Stories set in the contemporary present usually go with TPF, because that sounds more realistic. But then again, no two stories are alike, and translating courtesy forms the correct way can be sometimes challenging. But challenges are, after all, among the things that make translating a beautiful work.

 

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