Linguistic gender mismatches are a very common issue for foreign-language voice-over recordings. They cause confusion, delays in the studio, and sometimes they even cause pick-up re-recordings. While they’re one of the more common problems to all of translation and localization, they’re especially tricky to deal with in the audio recording studio. But it’s crucial to eliminate mismatches to ensure a multimedia localization project’s success.
This post will explain gender mismatches in translation, and how to avoid them in audio production.
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In English, we use different pronouns to refer to a person’s gender identity – she or he. We also use them to refer sometimes to animals with which we have close relationships, referring to our pets as he or she, while at the same time usually referring to other people’s pets as it. Likewise many people refer to vessels as female (“She is a sturdy ship”). But those are exceptions – pretty much everything else in English is gender-neutral, at least linguistically. For example, you’d refer to a bed as “it.”
Many languages, however, assign a gender to every noun – for example, in Spanish beds are female (la cama), but cots are male (el catre). There’s no real reason for this – there’s nothing that makes beds inherently female, or cots inherently male. Moreover, gender doesn’t always transfer from one language to another, even when those languages come from the same family. For example, beds in French are male (le lit). Even the number of gender classes doesn’t transfer from one language to another – some languages make differentiations within genders between animate and inanimate objects, for example. However, gender is so ingrained in the logic of each language that gender mismatches (for example, el cama in Spanish) are nearly incomprehensible to native-speakers.
Finally, gender in language doesn’t just affect pronouns – it can also affect other parts of speech. For example, an honest man in Spanish is un hombre honesto, while an honest woman is una mujer honesta. That’s right – both the articles (un/una) and the adjectives (honesto/honesta) are affected by the gender of the nouns.
And yes, this happens with inanimate objects as well – a clean bed is a cama limpia, while a clean cot is a catre limpio. To further complicate matters, gender affects different parts of speech in different languages, not always articles, pronouns and adjectives like in Spanish.
The main issue for translation is that gender can affect many elements of a sentence. Let’s use Spanish as an example once again. If you’re going to translate the command “eat it” into Spanish, there are two possible translations, depending on what you’re asking someone to eat. If you’re asking them to eat a hamburger, the translation would be cómasela. But for a hot dog, it would be cómaselo.
That’s right – hamburgers and hot dogs are assigned different genders in Spanish, feminine and masculine, respectively. The Spanish translates the suffix for “it” (in red above) accordingly as either la or lo. The issue for translation? There are two completely correct translations for the the phrase “eat it,” and they’re not interchangeable – this is a very real problem for localization, especially if you’re reusing phrases in a translation memory, or if you’re translating phrases out of context.
Aside from the challenges that gender poses for translation in general, two more come from multimedia translation in particular. We’ll use Spanish voiceover production examples to illustrate them.
There are three ways to do this:
Finally, make sure that you engage professional, native-speaker VO directors and QA reviewers for all of your audio translation projects. JBI Studios provides them as part of every single multimedia localization project, and for very good reason. Directors and QA reviewers are crucial to the success of any multimedia localization project. Without them, projects can fall behind in the studio, and professional talents can miss key parts of the script, flub lines, or make pronunciation mistakes – including mistakes pertinent to linguistic gender. In short, hiring a full production team that includes direction and QA is the only way to avoid pick-up re-recordings, additional costs, and delivery delays.