Translating the Language of Common Courtesy

Language Courtesy

Every culture has its own way of expressing common courtesy. The language of courtesy cannot always be easily translated from one language to another. This can be a source of frustration and misunderstanding at first. It takes time to familiarize yourself with someone else’s habits, but if you are a professional interpreter or translator it is vital that you learn what to say and how to say it is soon as possible.

Differences in the way courtesy is expressed are even noticeable between people who speak the same language. In the U.S., for example, it is common courtesy for someone to say “You’re welcome” after someone has thanked them for something. The fact that the British or Australians do not necessarily say anything (although they may acknowledge the thanks with a smile) similar may be a source of surprise for Americans who may even think that the lack of response is an indication of rudeness.

There are courtesy words in the German language that are not used elsewhere in the same way. The most well known is the way a German speaker will acknowledge someone who thanks them. “Danke” or “Danke schön” is followed by “Bitte” or “Bitte schön”, literally “please.”

In East Africa, it is not culturally appropriate (traditionally anyway) to thank someone for something relatively ordinary. For the non-African this might seem to come over as a bit rude. However, the African may consider that a gesture of thanks is rude. It implies that the thanker didn’t expect to have anything done for them. When Europeans started interacting with East Africans a new word was coined in Kiswahili for “Thankyou”. It was “Asante”, a corruption of “cents” which implied that the person was paying for a favour.

In Denmark, the Danish language does not use a word for “please.” There are other ways of showing courtesy when asking for something which amount to what seems to other language speakers as a rather round about way of saying “please”.

There are also different ways of addressing other people based on their status and the level of familiarity you have with them. For example, there are specific courtesy words in the German language for when you address someone else. You would not use the familiar form of “you” (du) with a stranger or your boss! The appropriate word would be “Sie”. There are similar distinctions in French, Spanish and Italian amongst other European languages.

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