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I often see the words "thou" and "thy" used in English translations from other languages, as opposed to the modern "you" and "your".

I thought this was something specific to translations of Sanskrit (when trying to create a historical or formal "mood"), but I recently saw the same thing with some other languages, e.g. a translation of the Polish national anthem.

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    What translations are you looking at? Could they just be older translations? Mar 20, 2020 at 3:43

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First, just to note—"thou" and "thy" aren't Old English. Old English, capitalized, generally refers to the language Beowulf was written in:

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.

That said, the use of archaic words like "thou" is generally just an issue of style. Sometimes (such as when translating religious texts) it's meant to emulate the aesthetic of the King James Bible, which was deliberately archaic even for its time; other times it's just meant to sound formal and dignified.

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Sometimes, the words "thou", "thee", "thy" etc. are used in translations from other languages to disambiguate the singular and the plural. This has traditionally been especially important in bible translations, so "thee" and "thou" has come to be associated with those.

For example, Exodus 20:13 reads "Thou shalt not murder". It is translated from Hebrew, "לֹ֥֖א תִּֿרְצָֽ֖ח׃", that is, "don't kill". The source sentence was in the singular, that's why the translator chose "thou" over "you".

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  • I don't think this really answers the question. Yes, at the time of the King James Version, the singular thou was available, so the translators used it. The question is why people continue to use such obsolete words in certain kinds of translation.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 20, 2020 at 23:45
  • @ColinFine Polish has t-v distinction. In the original of the anthem they use "Za twoim przewodem" which is singular.
    – Anixx
    Mar 21, 2020 at 13:57
  • @Anixx: and Modern English doesn't. Normally, when translating Polish, or any other language which has t-v distinction, we lose that distinction just as we lose grammatical gender. It is a stylistic decision whether to enlist archaic words in order to preserve that distinction.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 21, 2020 at 14:19

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