When I worked as a Russian tutor in the UK, I had a lot of sympathy for my students, who struggled with a lot of things: from alphabet and pronunciation to cases and numerals. Russian is not an easy language to learn by any stretch of imagination. One thing I struggled with, as a teacher, was getting my students to address me correctly – in a formal way. While in English you address everyone with “you”, Russian and some other languages have formal («вы») and informal («ты») pronouns. My students kept addressing me as «ты» – not through a lack of respect, but because the concept of formality must have been very new to them.
Yet the tone of voice and the degree of formality are extremely important in order to avoid any misunderstandings and cultural faux pas, and it’s as true in face-to-face communication as it is in an online world. So what’s the best way to address Russian customers when translating or localising your marketing content?
How formal do you want to be?
When translating or transcreating any marketing materials into Russian, the first thing to consider is how formal or informal the Russian copy should be. Make it too informal, and you risk offending people. Stick with a safer and a more formal option, and it might put off younger people, who are used to cool and edgy copy that speaks directly to them.
So here’s a quick guide:
- «ты» – very informal, can be used to address teenagers and young people under or just over 20
- «вы» – formal, but the safest and the most universal way of addressing customers
So far, so good? Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. You might also come across «Вы», written with a capital letter. It is often used to show utmost respect, especially when it comes to selling high-end products. In fact, you’ll find this spelling on the websites of the biggest jewellery brands that have their websites translated into Russian, but it is extremely formal and is just not good style. As Maxim Ilyahov, the author of an Advanced course on editing puts it, ‘Respect is not in the capital letter, it’s in the attitude.’
When things get a little tricky
It’s usually safe to use a more formal option for most types of communication, including websites and apps. That said, if you are targeting young people – as one of my clients, a sportswear brand, does – you’d want to address them informally, using «ты». All the motivational slogans and punchy taglines would lose their power if used with a safe and respectable «вы».
However, if you want to localise your website or app, you will inevitably have some system messages, such as “Are you sure you want to delete your account?” or “Forgotten password?”. This is where it gets a little tricky: these would look really odd if written in a casual and informal tone because they have been used with a formal “you” for years. One of the apps I’ve localised addressed pregnant women specifically and before I came on board the team decided to you an informal «ты» throughout the app. But this meant that a neutral “Forgotten password?” in English turned into somewhat demeaning and condescending «Забыла пароль?» in Russian, which female users may find offensive (I know I would have!).
A lot of the time you can find a workaround and avoid using “you” in the translation altogether. It is also possible to write punchy and informal product descriptions, while keeping system messages in a more formal tone.
However, it is essential to think this through in order to make sure the tone of voice and the level of formality are consistent across your website or app. This makes for effective communication and happy users!