How to Figure Out a Gender of Proper Nouns

By Stacey
Dec 1, 2013 · 3 min

Every translation professional has a few dirty tricks up their sleeves, especially for linguistic challenges like determining a proper noun’s gender.

How to Figure Out a Gender of Proper Nouns | One Hour Translation

Translation professionals are all individuals; we have our weaknesses and strengths and we have our pet peeves, although they’re not universal. What bothers one of us may not bother another at all. Which makes it even more remarkable when you identify a linguistic quirk that equally annoys every single translation professional you meet, regardless of their experience, language pair, or personality.

The one quirk of language I’ve found that almost universally annoys translation pros throughout the world? Simple: Gender. Translating the gender of proper nouns can be a time-consuming and incredibly annoying exercise in futility, unless you can employ a few simple tricks. As much as I hate to describe any aspect of professional translation as a ‛trick,’ the fact is sometimes you have to resort to tricks in order to survive. And the gender of proper nouns is one of those times.

Tricks of the Trade: Associated Generic Noun

So when faced with a proper noun and a language that requires gender in order to properly conjugate verbs, you can try to find the associated generic noun. For example, if you have a city like New York – should that be masculine or feminine when translated into French? Well, a city in French is associated with the feminine noun la ville, so it’s a good guess that New York should be considered and treated as feminine. The associated noun rule works pretty well, and is generally reliable.

The downside is all that extra time spent figuring all this out. If every time you encounter a proper noun you have to determine its associated generic noun and go from there, you’re going to be slowed down. Plus, in some cases you might be able to imagine multiple associated nouns, leaving you just as confused as before.

Tricks of the Trade: Rewrite

A better approach, sometimes, is to avoid the issue altogether. This is my favourite dirty trick when working on translations – I just avoid the whole issue.

How does that work? Simple. Let’s say you have a simple sentence that says New York is colder than the climate in Paris. Let’s not argue about whether that’s true or not – how do we cast colder – as froid or froide?

Well, what if we re-wrote the sentence to read The climate of New York is colder than Paris? Now we’re working from the word climate, which is absolutely masculine in French, and all the mystery is gone.

Some might say this approach also creates more work for the translator, and that may be true – the solution to the gender of proper nouns is likely a choice based on your personality as a translation professional. Some will find re-casting sentences easier than other tricks, some won’t – we’re all unique, and we all have our dirty tricks!

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