Charlie Bavington

French to English Freelance Translator - I.T. specialist

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

The wonder of you

May 18th, 2011 | Categories: translation issues

I’m a bit concerned that too many of these posts seem to be having a pop at something, so time to post something a bit more positive, since I’m not actually a full-time misanthropic curmudgeon.

What follows is not exactly the most original of issues, but one that crops up regularly enough. It can hardly have escaped anyone’s attention (well, not anyone likely to be reading this, anyway) that many languages, for reasons that undoubtedly seemed splendid at the time, avail themselves of a grammatical feature known as gender. This feature, in the case of French (your favourite language probably has similar examples) means that for example all victims and persons are referred to as female (la victime, la personne), and that, f’rinstance, a generic customer or user, say, is male (le client, l’utilisateur), regardless of the actual circumstances vis-a-vis possession of the Y-chromosome or otherwise in the event the customer or user is a human being.

And so it is that your humble interlocutor oft-times finds himself translating documents about customers (’tis the way of the world of commerce) or perhaps users of an IT system, written in the third person singular and sprinkled liberally with the relevant pronouns – il, lui or indeed son/sa/ses – and hence, assuming we are talking about people rather than bodies corporate, running into the minor irritation of how to translate these pesky little blighters, the main issue being, of course, that in contemporary English we quite rightly cannot assume that these people are always male, which rules out using the dictionary translation of “he”, etc., and neither can we use the other dictionary translation of “it”, etc. to refer to people.

It’s only a minor irritation, in many ways, and one not without tried-and-tested solutions. Take a fairly banal phrase such as “l’utilisateur doit changer son mot de passe, et ensuite il doit…“. There are, in my experience, three common or garden solutions:

a) my most frequently-used solution (although a thorough statistical analysis is unlikely to be forthcoming, so take my word for it), is probably to pluralise, enabling the English gender-free third person plural to be adopted, thus: “users must change their password, and then they must…”, although this is not without problems – should it be passwords, or does that mean all users have more than one? Left as it is, does it imply one password is shared by several people? Nonetheless, native English documents often adopt the plural in instructions and similar texts (try googling phrases such as “customers should ensure” versus “the customer should ensure”), so it’s a viable option.

b) the rather stilted, but otherwise hard-to-criticise, “the user must change his or her password, and then he or she must…”. Probably OK scattered infrequently in a text, but how often do we see “his or her”, “he or she” and so on in texts written in native English, as it were? But I cannot lie, I have used it.

c) the informal “the user must change their password, and then they must…”. I’m very much a fan of using the third person plural to double up as the third person singular of unknown sex, and have dropped it into several less formal translations, but it may induce apoplexy in the more conservative reader. And possibly loss of future business, and we wouldn’t want that.

Moving away from common or garden solutions, I’ve been known to use two others:

d) “the user’s password must be changed, and then the user must…” – last resort, really, and I’d wager you’d be unlikely to need to, er, resort to it for this sample phrase. It loses the notion of who does the changing, which is sub-optimal to put it mildly, but in a context where it’s obvious the user is the one battering away at the keyboard, you might get away with it. That said, in this case, one could argue that the structure actually implies someone other than the user changes the password.

e) eschew the fiendish pronouns completely. Only really works for seriously turgid old school legal stuff, where pronouns were pretty much banished from contracts, but imagining for an improbable moment our example phrase was a contract stipulation, you’d end up with “the user must change the user’s password, and then the user must…”.

For completeness (he said optimistically, sure that other solutions must be lurking in the linguistic undergrowth), one option I’ve never used would be to use “he”, etc. in the text (or indeed “she”, etc.) and stick a sentence at the start along the lines of “all references to he, etc. should be taken to include she, etc.”. Another I’m not keen on is to default to “she” instead, which avoids the pitfall we’re trying to avoid by not translating “il” as “he” by default, but replaces it with some others, admittedly perhaps less deep.

All of which is fine and dandy, and unlikely to be news to anyone who has been translating for more than about a day. But it got me thinking about how general (i.e. not translator) English speakers themselves usually deal with the issue. In general texts, I suspect we pluralise a lot. But I turned to thinking about contracts and agreements and similarly formal documents.

In these, I don’t see the plural as an option, for obvious reasons – where one party is entering an agreement with one other party, usually specified at the outset, and like as not with a deft “hereinafter (referred to as) the customer” (singular) for good measure, you can’t go slinging plurals around too often, it’s illogical and I daresay a decent lawyer would make mincemeat of careless usage if need be.

I had also initially thought that i) I rarely (not never, admittedly) see the phrase “he or she” these days, and ii) that use of the third person plural was still too controversial to be used in anything legally binding, say, when bugger me if I didn’t see both in one document. Take a bow, the drafters of the London Olympic ticketing T&C, unflinching in their use of “he or she” and then “their” as the corresponding possessive. Not only that, but they have also pluralised, in precisely the way I thought unlikely in the paragraph above. I suspect this kind of solution happens a lot, the whole thing reads formally, but naturally, despite several solutions being used where French, for example, could stick simply to “le client” and il, lui, son/sa/ses. But when I’m not hard at work, I sometimes don’t notice things that it would actually be useful to register upstairs.

At which point I decided to compare two roughly equivalent documents, not dissimilar to the type of stuff I translate fairly often, and demonstrating the issue perfectly. I hauled out the T&C for my Société Générale bank account in France, and the T&C for my HSBC account in the UK. To cut immediately to the chase for once, I find that HSBC uses the second person to refer the account holder, and Soc Gen sticks to the third person. (In fairness, I know this is not a universal distinction – I know of at least one French insurance company that uses the second person in its policies to address the policyholder directly, as it were.)

This was something of a Eureka moment for me. In essence, then, it seems we have a sixth solution for those situations where the third person referred to in a text may naturally be taken to actually be the reader, along the lines of:
f) “As the user, you must change your password, then you must…”
Not the most elegant solution, perhaps, for that particular example, but I wanted to show it could be done, alongside the other options.

As luck would have it, while drafting this post, I had two examples where I was able to use this new, to me, approach. The first was in a brochure, which, while written using the third person, was clearly attempting to appeal to the reader to become a client, hence the third party roles mentioned were ripe for conversion to the second person, which apart from being a neat solution linguistically, surely has the benefit of engaging the reader more?

Hence “le [noun] gère librement son [noun], il peut également…” became “as the [noun], you manage your [noun] as you see fit, and you can also…”.
(Apols for the redaction, but the full phrase makes the end client obvious, and apart from potential confidentiality issues, the bulk of the English translation on the website has nothing to do with me and I’d hate anyone to think it did!)

The second example was an amendment to a contract of employment, full of le salarié doit this and l’employé s’engage à that, plus the accompanying pronouns. Given that the employee was a) the intended reader and b) named at the start of the amendment, it was the work of an instant to add a quick “hereinafter referred to as “you”” and then the work of quite a few more instants to whack in “you are to” and “you undertake to” and so forth, but the overall effect did the trick, I feel.

“Well,” you may be thinking, “I’ve just read 1,500 words for nothing,” in which case I apologise. But while I doubt very much I’m the first person to have thought of it, I don’t recall ever seeing this idea suggested anywhere else before (not that I claim to have completed the internetz, or anything), so I thought I’d shove it out there and see if anyone has any thoughts…

  1. May 18th, 2011 at 16:16
    Quote | #1

    I think it’s a nice solution. I already use it sometimes. Not that I’m trying to steal your thunder: it’s a very specific context, patient information sheets / informed consent forms for clinical trials, which try to be both formal and familiar, if that makes sense. In other words, the register is formal, but must also be reassuring. As the reader is in most cases the person being invited to participate in the trial, addressing them (him/her/it) directly is the most natural choice.

    I can’t think of any other areas I translate where this might be workable, but it’s certainly worth bearing in mind. Although I really wish that “they” would hurry up and be universally accepted for all registers of English as a gender-free singular pronoun.

  2. admin
    May 18th, 2011 at 16:33
    Quote | #2

    As far as the “thunder” thing goes, au contraire, I am much reassured that someone whose opinion I hold in high esteem has already adopted it. In a way, the more people tell me they already use it, the happier I’ll be about it… except for wondering why they all kept it under their hats :)

  3. May 18th, 2011 at 16:59
    Quote | #3

    Well, in this context the Italian uses the equivalent (Lei, i.e. formal “you”), so I didn’t really think of it as being a solution so much as a translation! It’s more like a letter, in a way, where it’d be standard to use “you”.
    It’s true though that sometimes the Italian jumps around a bit, addressing the reader directly in one bit and then calling them “the patient” in another, whereas I try to keep it consistent.

  4. May 19th, 2011 at 03:46
    Quote | #4

    Conversely, what do translators do when translating text that uses “you” from English into a language that uses gender specific endings on verbs?
    I translate into English from a few such languages, but here are some thoughts on the subject. (Examples in Bosnian.)
    One way to deal with second person singular is to use the polite 2nd person form of the verb, similar to 3rd person plural masculine. But that is not always appropriate (instructions addressing children, for instance, should not use the polite form).
    The same issue arises when translating health assessment questionnaires or diaries that ask about the previous seven days, often using first-person statements, e.g., I was nauseous; I did not sleep well. Present tense would not cause a problem, but past tense requires a gender-specific ending (imao/imala – had, spavao/spavala – I slept).
    I’ve seen such statements translated with the dual endings (kind of the “he/she” option): Imao/la mucninu; Nisam dobro spavao/la.
    Another solution for the first-person dilemma is to use a different form of expression, where the actor is no longer the subject of the sentence. One could say, “Nausea overcame me” or “My sleep was troubled.”
    I’m curious how this works in other languages, and what strategies translators use for first and second person subjects, where the sex of the subject is not identified.
    Thanks for posing this question!
    I enjoy the curmudgeonly posts, by the way. I make the rounds of three or four bad-attitude blogs, and always feel refreshed afterwards.

    • admin
      May 19th, 2011 at 11:20
      Quote | #5

      Interesting stuff. I suppose that in general, the suggestion I was making was to take a step back, not worry too much about the sources text’s use of the 2nd or 3rd person (say), but just use whatever would naturally be used by a ntive speaker writing the document from scratch. Presumably Bosnian has a way of intructing children that works :).

      That said, since presumably a native Bosnian writing a diary would use the appropriate gender first person forms, that approach falls down (and to be fair, the same problem arises in French with some verbs, with something as simple as “I went” being either “je suis allé” (m) or “je suis allée” (f), or indeed adjectives, e.g. “I’m happy” being “je suis content(e)”. I have no bright ideas for this problem…

  5. May 19th, 2011 at 08:21
    Quote | #6

    I don’t translate into such languages, but obviously translating from Italian (including backtranslations) I see the various author/translator strategies. The general tendency is to use the dual ending, e.g. “Lei è obbligato/a…”. However, they don’t all do this – I translated an ICF the other day which used the masculine ending only (“se Lei è idoneo…”). Of course, where a particular part is aimed at one sex only (e.g. pregnant or breastfeeding women), that will be gender-specific.

    Interestingly, the tendency in informal writing in Italian is to use an asterisk when addressing a number of people of both sexes: traditionally, as with French and I assume most languages with gender- and number-specific endings, the masculine plural is used (e.g. “carissimi” as a greeting at the start of an e-mail). Nowadays, in forums and mailing lists, it’s ever more common to see “carissim*”.

  6. May 19th, 2011 at 08:22
    Quote | #7

    Oops, just to add that that first paragraph refers to information sheets and consent forms for clinical trials – the subject doesn’t really crop up in anything else I do.

  7. admin
    May 19th, 2011 at 11:29
    Quote | #8

    I guess as long as there is a solution that can be justified by native-speaker usage, you’re laughing. My inspiration was twofold. A suggestion (I may have misinterpreted) I read that “it” was OK for people of unknown sex, and a realisation I was seeing far more “he or she” in translations, including my own, than I was in real life here in the UK.

    That * thing is odd – insert a wildcard vowel of your choice, as appropriate? Still, no worse, in its way, than the French solution for a PC version of “thanks, everyone”, which is “merci à tous et à toutes” (or vice versa – ladies first, and all that). Would they go for “merci à tou*”?

  8. May 19th, 2011 at 16:45
    Quote | #9

    The French? I doubt it!
    It is a bit odd, and I doubt very much it’ll ever catch on in formal writing. It’d be interesting to know if its use is limited to a handful of Italian translators who first started using it in the Italian forum of, from whence it spread to a couple of translator/freelance mailing lists (or vice versa), or if it’s widespread. I might have to investigate some Italian social forums.

  9. Gillian Hargreaves
    May 20th, 2011 at 16:35

    I undoubtedly fall into your “conservative” category, as I really can’t bring myself to use “they” and “their” for singular purposes. One solution not offered so far, which I have seen in use and occasionally use myself, is “s/he” but that doesn’t solve indirect pronouns and possessives, unless one could employ a solution such as “him/er” or “her/im” and “his/er” or “her/is” … no, I don’t think so somehow.

  10. admin
    May 20th, 2011 at 17:55

    Ah, well now, see, how would you say “s/he” if you had to read it out loud? (Maybe I should ask MHH the same question about “carissim*”…!) I ask because I just think of it as shorthand for “he or she”, to save space (ApSIC tells me that, as I thought, I too have used it). Still, fair point, and spot on about the rest – sounds like a convention of formal cockneys :-)

  11. November 6th, 2011 at 19:53

    Using ‘you’ to refer to the generic reader/user/etc. in formal B2C texts is good old Plain English :).

  12. James Davis (jim)
    January 4th, 2012 at 13:58

    Translationg from Italian I use all these (they/their, he or she and you, a “one” sometimes fits OK) and often you can use a “we” in instead, although it wouldn’t fit the password example.
    A few years ago I started very carefully to adopt another that I haven’t used for years and that is the old fashioned “he” and “his” with the masculine as the generic third person singular. The reason was twofold. One major client told me they didn’t want Chairperson, they wanted Chairman, even when used generically. I told them that the likes of Thatcher, Clinton and Merckel would not be amused, but to no avail. At around about the same time, a the Vatican ordered all the various generic “person”s in a translation on the pope to be rewritten with “man”.
    In business you either decide that the “client is always right” or boycott. The large client in question actually refused to have dealings with any company involved in the arms trade, so, what is a he or a her, when questions of life and death are at stake: “The user must change his password and he must…” and as the hippies used to say “Right on man. Peace man!” :)

    • Charlie
      January 4th, 2012 at 17:12

      Fair points… but never mind that formidable triumvirate, I know plenty of women who would be a bit narked to always and only read male pronouns. But as you say, the customer is always right, so I’d either have to suck it up or not do the work. Could depend on the readers, too – not everything produced in English is intended for UK/US/Australian/etc. readers, and if the target were non-EMT people, perhaps it wouldn’t matter so much (and indeed, perhaps some of the other solutions might be confusing…).

      FWIW, I usually go with “Chair” not Chairperson :-)

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