One of the most difficult words to translate

most difficult words

Every once in a while, I come across those lists of (what are supposed to be) untranslatable words in different languages. One can argue that everything can be translated but these are lists of terms without an equivalent in other languages. So, if confronted with the need to translate these words, we would either use the term which is closest in meaning, despite not conveying it fully, or explain the term using a phrase, which could make the translation too long. But for a translator, these are not the biggest challenges we face daily, as those words tend to be uncommon.


Tu or Você?

I recently came across a TED-Ed talk called ‘One of the most difficult words to translate…’.

I found it quite interesting because it rings so true. ‘You’, a personal pronoun, is said to be one of the most difficult words to translate from English. Could this be? From my experience, yep! The thing is that the ‘you’ will require different translations depending on who is talking to whom. Is it a formal or an informal ‘you’? And what does that even mean? The French use tu or vous, depending on whether they are going for an informal or formal treatment, respectively. In Portuguese, it is similar. We treat people by tu, very informal, or você.

One can assume friends talk to each other informally. But imagine you are translating a dialogue between father and son. Is that formal or informal? The answer is, it depends on the family, as both forms of treatment are possible. Co-workers and colleagues? It depends. In theory, informal treatment shouldn’t get you in trouble, if you know the person well. However, if you have just met them or are in a strongly hierarchical environment, be careful. Some people might not be comfortable with the informal tu just after meeting someone new. You can start with a formal approach and wait until the relationship progresses and you finally hear the other person asking: Trata-me por tu. (You can call me tu.) Paying attention to how the other person addresses you and following along is also an option. Or, you can set your rules and go with what suits you best.

Opting for either tu or você is a sensitive and not always linear issue. Hierarchy, status, age, level of proximity of the relationship, expectations, among others, need to be taken into consideration.


So, if you’re ever working as a translator and come across this sentence [Do you know where the pep rally is?] without any context, (…) your job is to translate ‘you’ for yourselves.


This can be challenging for foreigners to understand. I recently worked on a multilingual project where the client specifically instructed translators to use the informal pronoun when translating their website content. They were aware that in languages such a French, Russian and others there is a distinction between formally and informally addressing a conversation partner. However, despite knowing that the English ‘you’ can have different translations in another language depending on the text, they still instructed translators to use the informal pronoun. I was both surprised and worried after reading this. The German translator immediately informed the project coordinator (who was working directly for the end-client) that he would go with the formal approach for the time being. He explained that was the appropriate approach and the project coordinator, who is Russian, didn’t hesitate on giving the thumbs up.


This was definitely the right decision since adopting the tu form on a company’s website would be a recipe for disaster.


Drop the pronoun

Oftentimes, we don’t even use the pronouns because we don’t need to.

In languages like Romanian and Portuguese, the pronoun can be dropped from sentences because it is clearly implied by the way the verbs are conjugated.

Since verbs are conjugated differently depending not only on verb tense but on person and number, use of the pronoun can sometimes be redundant.

For example:

Are you going out tonight?

Vais sair esta noite?


Tu vais sair esta noite?

Vais = second person singular, verb ir (to go), informal.

Use of the personal pronoun here is completely unnecessary. Unless… (don’t you just love exceptions?) you want to emphasize the tu. You can go with this option to show surprise that the person is going out.

The formal form would be:

Vai sair esta noite?


Você vai sair esta noite?

Vai = third person singular, verb ir (to go), formal.

Vai (third person singular) instead of vais (second person singular) makes all the difference. In English, however, it is always ‘are you going’.


European Portuguese vs. Brazilian Portuguese

Now, I said we use você for the formal treatment, right? And that, if it is redundant, we can simply drop the pronoun. Well, it is not as simple as that. You see, você is the form of treatment, not exactly a term we would use, particularly in writing.

In Portugal and in European Portuguese, when translating a formal ‘you’ we never write the você. The pronoun should, therefore, be implicit. Again, we can do that by conjugating the verb in the third person singular. Writing, and even pronouncing, the você in a sentence can be considered a bit rude. Confused? Well, use of this pronoun is surely not consensual, even for native speakers.

In Brazil, use of você is much more common and widespread across the country. The tu is rarer and used mostly in the south.

Portuguese translations of ‘you’ in an eCommerce website asking clients about form of payment:

Would you like to pay with a credit card?

pt-PT: Gostaria de pagar com cartão de crédito?

pt-BR: Você gostaria de pagar com cartão de crédito?


O senhor and a senhora

If you are sure that your speech is formal, there is also the alternative senhor (sir) or senhora (madam). This is 100% formal and does not hold a negative connotation.

Would you kindly follow me?

O senhor importa-se de me acompanhar?

A senhora importa-se de me acompanhar?

Or simply:

Importa-se de me acompanhar?

This last option is particularly useful in a translation when we do not know the gender of the person the ‘you’ refers to.


Plural forms

What if you are addressing more than one person? Well, the plural form for tu is vocês, oddly enough.

You guys are crazy!

Vocês estão doidos!

When speaking to two or more people formally, you can simply drop the pronoun.

You both need a valid passport to travel.

Ambos precisam de um passaporte válido para viajar.

Another way around it is opting for the plural of senhor/senhora – os senhores / as senhoras.

Would you take some tea?

As senhoras aceitam um chá?


Legal translation

In a contract or agreement, when one of the parties is identified as You, it is not an option to omit the pronoun. In this case, nouns such as User, Buyer, Licensee, or other might be a viable translation. Você would obviously be an awful choice.

legal translation













The translator needs a clear and comprehensive overview of the document from the start to be able to find the most adequate translation. Just looking the term up in a dictionary will not provide a solution.

So, you see, there is a lot to consider when translating ‘you’. If we are not aware of the purpose of a specific sentence or text, translation will not be rendered correctly. Context is, therefore, highly important.

What about you, dear reader? Which words have you found to be the most difficult to translate?

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