Flexibility and Formality: The Challenges of Translating Czech
A Slavic language spoken by just 10 million people, Czech is in many ways the opposite of English. Its grammar is flexible and playful, and allows for word creation and combination to suit contextual needs. For example, Czech people call their country by several different names: Bohemia, Czechiya, and the Czech Republic are all common choices.
Czech has multiple levels of formality, and picking the right form of address is a crucial way to show respect; so, understanding the cultural context you’re translating into is important for making your content reach a globalized Czech audience.
When preparing to translate and localize your content into Czech, here are some things to keep in mind:
Word order is flexible; word endings matter
Czech words fit into many different places in a sentence. Meaning is determined by suffixes on the ends of words. For example, a Czech speaker may say “David pozval Janu” (David invited Jane) or “Janu pozval David” (It was David who invited Jane). Both of these mean “David invited Jane.” Czechs play with the word order to emphasize different meanings.
Put important information at the end of the sentence
The end-weight principle of syntax places the most important information at the end of an utterance. English, with its fixed word order (subject-verb-object), is less flexible than Czech.
When translating from English to Czech, it’s important to change the word order to make sure that known information is mentioned first and new or important information appears at the end of the sentence. A sentence translated directly from English can be grammatically correct, but if it does not follow the end-weighted word order that the reader expects, it betrays the “translated” quality of the text.
Czech allows for the possibility of nearly infinite word creation in the form of diminutives and augmentatives. While in English there are only a few words that make diminutives (e.g. pig – piglet), in Czech, diminutives and augmentatives can be created from nearly every word by adding suffixes. This is often done with first names: parents of little children are likely to have a stock of diminutives for expressing affection (and some augmentatives for reprimanding).
Gender and suffixes
The addition of the suffix -ová to female names of foreign origin (e.g. Hillary Clintonová) has recently become a hot-button issue after the Czech weekly magazine Respekt decided to drop the -ová in favor of original spellings. The -ová suffix comes from the possessive case and essentially means “belonging to.” It dates back to a time when a woman belonged to her father and carried his surname, and then passed to the ownership of her husband when she got married.
While progressives and feminists argue that it is anachronistic, the suffix plays an important grammatical role. Members of the regulatory bodies of the Czech language point out the necessity of the suffix to integrate the names grammatically into the sentence. Since the suffix indicates the grammatical case and the person’s gender, it helps ease understanding. The use of foreign female surnames in their original form is catching on, but is still far from being widely accepted: 99.9% of Czech women still use the -ová suffix. Dropping the suffix in your content may appear forced and unnatural to many Czech speakers.
Know who you’re talking to
Did we mention that Czech has two forms of address? These are “vy” (formal you) and “ty” (informal you). The polite “you” is basically the plural form of the pronoun “you.” To use the informal “you” in a situation which requires a certain level of politeness, such as addressing a person who is not your friend or family or someone older than you, is considered extremely disrespectful.
Know your Czech movies
Czech people love to reference movies in any conversation. Until the late 1980s, it was impossible to openly mock the Communist Party or discuss politics in general. In response, Czechoslovakia’s booming film industry made films featuring dark, subtly critical humor. The majority of the population, especially those over 30, use references from classic films in daily conversation. Czech conversations are full of references to and lines from classic movies, and sometimes you’ll hear entire conversations spoken in movie lines. Localizing non-technical texts may be more difficult than language translation, because the cultural context may not transfer into the target language.