Singular ‘they’ in translation
Singular ‘they,’ yes or no? It has been one of the main dilemmas in my translation work this year. Especially considering the difference between how gender is used in Russian and English languages. For some, old-fashioned sexists (pardon my French), this question in its grammatical and ethical correlation seems a complete nonsense. For some – necessity. For me – very important part of English grammar, though there are cases when using singular ‘they’ is rather a questionable choice in translation.
Singular ‘they,’ is it even a thing?
‘They’ as a singular pronoun has been consistently used since the late 1300s, serving as a nonbinary pronoun to replace he and she in cases when gender of the pronoun to which it refers is unknown, irrelevant, or needs to be concealed.
But here is the difference. In Russian language, each noun is assigned to its gender: masculine, feminine, or neutral. I would like to note here that gender for inanimate objects has no physical attachment such like the noun ‘стул’ - ‘chair’ (masculine in Russian). But knowing gender of this or that noun is vital for constructing grammatically correct sentences in Russian language.
And though in French, there are only two genders: masculine and feminine, the logic behind the use of them stands the same.
Here is an example of how gender works in Russian language
If we know that the word ‘человек’ – ‘person’ is masculine in Russian, we, without a twinge of conscience, will write:
Если человек знает свой (его) путь, то он… -- If a person knows his path, then he…
Or the word ‘студент’ – ‘student’
Каждый студент должен слушать своего (его) учителя. – Every student must listen to his teacher.
Everything seems quite logical, is not it?!
But in English language (or when translating from Russian to English and vice versa), this logic fails us.
Regarding these two sentences, I would say that ‘If a person knows his path, then he…’ has a good chance to stay as it is, meaning literal translation from both languages, unless the context around this sentence is screaming of nonbinary concept where it is important to show that gender of ‘a person’ can be both masculine and feminine.
But of course, we could rewrite this sentence like this:
If a person knows his or her path, then he or she…
I agree, even though the sentence is grammatically correct, it sounds a bit awkward and might be a poor choice when it comes to translating more than just one sentence.
But for the second sentence, I would go with singular ‘they’ just because it feels genuinely more correct to me:
Every student must listen to their teacher.
Students must listen to their teacher. (This translation seems even more relevant to me.)
But sometimes converting singular pronoun (or noun) into plural when translating is rather a poor choice that causes a distortion of flow and meaning of the whole text, making the final translation awkward. And so, in this case the only right choice a translator has is to use singular ‘they.’
Look at these sentences:
A person must know his path…
A person must know their path…
People must know their path…
At first sight, these three sentences seem conveying the same line of meaning but reading each of them feels different. Each of them might be good for certain context, and this is why making a decision of when to use singular ‘they’ is sometimes a purely instinctual choice.
But here is when using singular ‘they’ in translation is not a good option
When translating quotes or expressions based on quotes
A person often meets his destiny on the road he took to avoid it. – Jean de La Fontaine
Even though ‘a person’ in this quote can potentially be a male as well as a female, gender of this person is not the most important part of this message, and so it makes sense to leave this quote as it is in translation as well. Exactly how it was done.
Indirect mentioning of gender
It often occurs in non-fiction books as an attempt of author to use figurative sentences to demonstrate examples and proofs to author’s words and notions.
A patient of mine used to call himself bad names in order to protect his highly susceptible personality from the world around him.
The author of this sentence knows gender of the patient even though it is mentioned indirectly. So using singular ‘they’ translating this sentence and sentences like this one would be a big mistake.
When noun is has a philosophical concept behind it
This dilemma usually arises with such words like: ‘man,’ ‘human,’ ‘God,’ etc.
‘Man is nothing else than his plan, it exists only insofar as it is realized, so it is nothing but the whole.’ – Sartre (Existentialism is a humanism)
The word ‘man’ in this sentence has purely philosophical context and has nothing to do with gender identity.
Another example is:
‘God is in his heaven, all is right with the world?’
Throughout the history of formation of language, so happened that the words like ‘man’ and ‘God’ were referred to as he, and translating it otherwise might just be not a good idea.
To sum up, correct use of singular ‘they’ in translation quite often depends on translator’s logic and instinct.
I have a personal rule:
If you cannot avoid using singular ‘they’ or if without singular ‘they’ the final translation lacks sense or sounds awkward, then go with singular ‘they.’
Just remember those three cases when using singular ‘they’ is a bad idea and you will be fine with your translation.