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I am watching a lot of American and English movies on Netflix with the original sound and German subtitles. I've noticed that in the subtitles, when two people are talking, the formal pronouns are always used when the two characters address each other, regardless of their relationship.

For example, a conversation in Sherlock between Sherlock and Watson (extremely good friends, one might say): Sherlock says to Watson something along the lines of: Sie sind […] or Sie haben […] gemacht, while the audio is You are […] or You've done […].

This happens in all the series and movies I have watched. Another example would be The Expanse where crew members would talk to each other in formal language.

I'm assuming it's not a slip-up, since it's Netflix and it's on such a huge scale, but what's the reasoning?

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    Not a direct answer to Netflix's practice, but it's not that uncommon for people to stick with the form they have used for each other since they first met, even if the relationship has changed a lot by now. – Annatar Jan 30 '18 at 8:51
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    Friends and The Big Bang Theory do use "du" and "ihr". – Eller Jan 30 '18 at 8:52
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    In the case of Sherlock Holmes an Dr. Watson they call each other by their surnames, and in German it would sound funny to use "du" together with the surname. – RHa Jan 30 '18 at 9:52
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    @RHa Sherlock and John call each other by their first name combined with Sie, not their surnames, in the german version. – tallistroan Jan 30 '18 at 10:17
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    In the case of Sherlock vs. Watson I could hardly imagine them using "Du" without completely ignoring the Conan Doyle books. – tofro Jan 30 '18 at 12:00
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The answer is probably that the choice between du and Sie in productions translated from English is not always necessarily natural. Primarily, this is due to the fact that English does not make the same distinction, so the translators have to guess which pronoun is appropriate starting with the first episode of a series.

If a series shows mostly the work of two or more characters, translators may thus err towards using Sie. At any point in the series, the following can happen:

  • Something about the characters' past is revealed that implies they should have called each other du all along.
  • The actual relationship between the characters is conceded more depth, or something between the characters changes.

In both cases, continuing to use Sie seems off to German viewers, but on the other hand, it can be hard to naturally switch the pronoun when the original dialogue doesn't. (That is, the original dialogue doesn't contain a line like "Let's say du to each other!", or anything less explicit that provides an obvious good time when characters should start switching to du.)

These issues are a reason for the tongue-in-cheek rule of thumb that in German versions of originally English language shows, "characters only use du if they have slept together" (presumably because no matter how unnatural a sudden switch to du would appear, it's still more believable than the characters sticking with Sie at that point, at least while they're alone).

With that said, it does not seem particularly alien to me for work partners who are also something like friends to use Sie toward each other. Maybe it doesn't happen so much in real life, but it is so common staple in detective shows and similar that two protagonists refer to each other only with their surname (without prepending Frau or Herr) and Sie. This is my impression of the principle at work in Sherlock, and appears in other police procedural or similar shows with two protagonists, as well.

  • This seems like the most reasonable explanation. Coming from a mother tongue in which formal and informal pronouns are also a big deal, the shows' translations just seemed so off to me. Thank you for adding the historical/cultural perspective. I do believe, though, that translators should become more intimately acquainted with the shows they are translating, otherwise it just adds to an average experience – viorel Jan 30 '18 at 13:07
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    @viorel: I agree translators should be very acquainted with the show being translated, but there are even more glaring issues sometimes than using an appropriate pronoun (e.g. consistently translating fictional, or even not so fictional but obscure in the target language, concepts across episodes of a series). Especially with contemporary story-arc-based serials, there can be a real difficulty, though, if e.g. the relationship between characters is only revealed in the season 2 - something the translators cannot possibly take into account in season 1. – O. R. Mapper Jan 30 '18 at 14:40
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    Often with subtitles one can truly notice translaters never even saw video footage of what they were translating, otherwise they would have used the proper translation for the setting. I know someone who does the occasional translation job on subtitles and she usually just gets the texts and has to work off that without any video footage or audio footage. It makes it really hard for her to guess context and how it's meant. Usually you chose the most formal translation when in doubt. – Tschallacka Jan 31 '18 at 10:01
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Your assumption that it is not a slip-up because it is Netflix may be wrong. If it was too expensive to put effort in proper dubs or subtitle, or if it does not pay off otherwise they simply will not do it.

Usually we use the formal address Sie to unknown people, people of a higher rank, but also often amongst collegues or sometimes even amongst people we know for long. We always use Du amongst friends nowadays but note that this was different in the times Sherlock Holmes lived, when even children addressed their parents with Sie.

Whatever the intention of that show might be, one thing is for sure: they don't care about language as much as we don't switch from formal to informal and back. If this occurs within the same show it may indicate that more than one person wrote the subtitles and nobody reviewed them.

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    From my personal experience with how subtitles are being produced (often through contractors and under extreme time pressure), I agree with your view. It's not an easy job – keeping consistency and being true to the target culture – but any slip-ups can significantly throw off viewers. – slhck Jan 30 '18 at 11:59
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    "in the times Sherlock Holmes lived" - note that while the series Sherlock replicates and interprets the characters from the original Sherlock Holmes novels, and heavily uses the original plotlines to develop its own stories, it is set in the present day. – O. R. Mapper Jan 30 '18 at 12:07
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    @slhck: As soon as that happens I bet that they will have vacancies for native Germans to review subtitles. My daughter (13) always turns off subtitles when she feels her English is better than their German ;) – Takkat Jan 30 '18 at 12:08
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    @slhck subtitles for the hearing impaired are usually marked as such and are different. They contain notes like "dramatic music" which are quite annoying if you can hear well enough. – Carsten S Jan 30 '18 at 16:47
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    the netflix series Star Trek Discovery offers complete, painstakingly accented and camel-cased Klingon subtitles for all episodes. I thought it was a joke until I tried it. so much for effort they're willing and capable to put into this. – dlatikay Jan 30 '18 at 23:49
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In the German dubbed version Sherlock and John also use Sie when talking to each other.

One reason might be, that they still have a somehow professional relationship which maybe should be enforced by the use of Sie. Especially in a business context in a German speaking company it is still quite common to use Sie instead of du, even when talking to colleagues you have known for years.

EDIT: Having just watched the first couple minutes of Black Mirror with German audio and German subs, I noted that the subtitles constantly changes between the use of du and Sie even within a single conversation between two people, while in the audio Sie is always used. There is also no obvious reason for the constant change of the pronouns and this can definitely be quite confusing to the viewer. So my conclusion that the German subtitles matches the German dub is not always right. And it even might be true that Netflix actually don't put much effort in producing the subtitles in some cases, however this is just a guess.

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    Sherlock and John was probably example. I noticed use of "Sie" in contexts where I am sure it should be "du" (for example in scenes where people fight). Also, I noticed that many times subtitles do not correspond to what actors say (when dubed). – BЈовић Jan 30 '18 at 13:32
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    Just a note: Maybe I understand your sentence the wrong way, but fighting with each other is in german not at all a general reason to switch from Sie to Du, if all "contestants" used Sie before. Besides that, subtitles are most of the time not a 1:1 copy of the spoken words, which is understandable because there is only a limited space to write and especially when the actors speak very fast, it's hard to keep up with reading at the same speed. However the basic meaning should ideally stay the same, which unfortunately is not always the case. – tallistroan Jan 30 '18 at 17:53
  • For example, few days ago I watched "12 monkeys", in a scene where Bruce Willis is beating a guy, he still tells him "Sie... " ("Sie dreckige schwein, or something like that). German is not my native language, but I find that quite funny :) – BЈовић Jan 31 '18 at 9:41
  • @BЈовић There are many articels in german about the huge difference between: "Sie A...loch" and "Du A...loch" – Angelo Fuchs Jan 31 '18 at 12:09
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The form of address in German is part of the speech and vary in dependence of social relation. Further more it is different in parts of Germany how you address your counterpart by default. So it can be very subtle which address is suitable in which situation.

I don't know other series but for Sherlock in a modern sight as interpreted by the BBC series I can state following:

Sherlock has a special lack of social interaction. This is called Asperger. Often very intelligent people can not interact well just by feelings. Sometimes they have problems to get to close to anybody even nearest family members and close friends. So to keep a formal distance they might use the formal form of address always simply to avoid closer contact. Even if they are aware it is not applicable in this situation or relation they keep this by habit. Simply you also could say it is Sherlocks arrogance to keep everyone under his level even Watson. But how this can be excused related to special "disabilities" of Sherlock is a long, long discussion. ;-)

PS: If Asperger is applicable to Sherlock might be subject of big discussion and might be seen controversal however it narrows his behavior quite well.

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(When writing this answer I thought it is about the movie with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. I don't know the series, except knowing that it exists. So instead of old times I guess old fashioned would still apply.)

Not that long ago, people used to talk formally even to their own parents, or siblings, or husbands/wives. That can also be seen/heard in the German audio version of movies that take place in old times (maybe until the early 20th century or so).

Another answer suggests that it is due to the professional relationship between the two protagonists. While this might be part of the reason, I think that it is mostly because of the historical time, because while you would refer to your colleagues as "Sie" today in some companies, you wouldn't do so with your close friends (who may or may not be your colleagues as well).

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    "because of the historical time" - what historical time? The series Sherlock is set in the present day. – O. R. Mapper Jan 30 '18 at 12:09
  • @O.R.Mapper Even if it's set in the present time it's still Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John H. Watson, who are gentlemen and it's hard to imagine that two gentlemen would use "du" even when they're in a friendly relationship. – Eller Jan 30 '18 at 13:47
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Inherited literary and historical context

Building on Raimund's answer, while the action of the Sherlock TV series is set in the present, the fictional universe is built on a historical work set in the 19th century, a time when two educated German gentlemen friends would have addressed each other using “Sie” under most circumstances.

This is exacerbated by the German translation of the original works by Sir Arthur1 to which the series may want to stay faithful to some extent.


1 Search for “Sie”, case-sensitive and whole words only. “Späte Rache” (referring to the letters “RACHE” on the wall of the murder scene) is the title of early German translations of “A Study in Scarlet”, now most commonly translated “Eine Studie in Scharlach” or “~ Scharlachrot”. I chose the last chapter because the two characters only get to know each other in the first.

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    That should be "Sir Arthur". You never use a surname with the "Sir" of a knighthood or a baronetcy. – Martin Bonner Jan 31 '18 at 15:50
  • @MartinBonner: Thanks! I hadn't noticed before. – David Foerster Jan 31 '18 at 16:15
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Actually this is more a problem of the English language, which has only you for formal and informal style. (The ancient thou is seldom used outside of the bible, and the other choice is something like attaching "Sir"). Details may be found in Wikipedia under the somewhat dry title T-V distinction.

So each translation has to decide, what is more appropriate for the situation given. In German Sie is used quite often in business contexts as well for the older generation.

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    It's not a problem of either language. It's a problem of translation. – Chris H Jan 31 '18 at 10:53
  • @ChrisH If the translator has to guess (i.e. consider the context and relation of talking persons), because the source language provides no distinction, this surely makes translation more difficult. But I can't really agree, that the language is not responsible to a certain (in my opinion: strong) degree. – guidot Jan 31 '18 at 11:12
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    There are plenty of languages with no T-V distinction, and plenty of languages with distinctions that don't match up with German Sie/du. That causes problems when translating from those languages into German, but the problem is that there's a difference between the target and source languages. You can't just pick one of the languages involved and declare it to be the problem. Why do you believe the lack of a distinction in English is "more a problem" than the existence of a distinction in German? – Chris H Jan 31 '18 at 12:25

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