He or she

There’s been a discussion on an ITI list as to whether translators into English use ‘he’ or ‘he and she’.

My answer was that it depends on the client, but I often use ‘he and she’, avoiding the construction as much as possible by using plurals and other devices.

It is very common in legal English to repeat a noun rather than use a pronoun: ‘a director must resign a director’s office’ rather than ‘resign his office’ or ‘resign his or her office’. This is useful in other cases too, where the German er / sie / es disambiguates and the translator has to be careful to make clear what ‘it’ refers to.

One suggestion was to follow the Interpretation Act, where the masculine includes the feminine. To that I would say that the Interpretation Act is a good suggestion, but it is intended for interpretation in an English court, whereas my translations go to people all over the world who have not read the English Interpretation Act. But see no. 6 of the Interpretation Act 1978, a PDF of which is on this site.

G.C. Thornton in Legislative Drafting has some suggestions on this, which I list below. But translators do not have the freedom that writers do. (To give another example, if the German cites pages 5 ff., the translator cannot take the advice of citing the exact pages – 5-7, 5-11 or whatever, because the translator doesn’t know which pages were meant…I notice I repeated ‘the translator’ there, instead of writing ‘she’ to include the masculine).

Here are Thornton’s suggestions:

1. Repeat the noun in place of a pronoun. Use ‘his or her’ in place of ‘his’
3. Recast the sentence using the plural
4. Omit the pronoun:
‘On reaching the age of 80, a director must resign office’ (instead of ‘resign his office’)
5. Replace a nominalisation with a verb form:
‘consent to’ instead of ‘give his consent’
6. Recast the sentence using a relative clause:
‘A person who has lodged a memorandum of appeal may…’ instead of
‘If a person has lodged, he may…’
7. Recast the sentence using a participle:
‘before lodging an appeal’
instead of ‘before he lodges an appeal’.

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