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How to Avoid Gender Mismatches in Translated Voice-Over

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.

[Average read time: 4 minutes]

What is gender in a linguistic context?

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.

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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.

What are gender issues in translation?

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.

How does this affect voice-over?

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.

  • When a speaker references himself or herself: Let’s look at the phrase “I am honest.” As we saw above, there are two ways to translate the adjective “honest,” depending on the gender of the person to whom it’s referring. In this case, when a professional voice over talent says “I am honest," he or she is self-referencing, so that the translation would have to take the talent's gender into account. This can cause issues, for example when there is no gender reference in the English source script, or when the gender of the speaker is changed in the foreign-language versions.
  • When the multimedia context isn’t clear. Imagine a video in which someone holds out various foods, and commands a second person to eat each one by saying, “Eat it.” As we saw above, that translations would be different depending on what the speaker is holding in his or her hand at that moment – if it’s a long list of items, it’d be very easy for a linguist to lose track and mistranslate one of them.

This is an issue for localized subtitling as well – check out our previous post, Context in Subtitles Video Translation, for examples of the issue. 

So how do you avoid gender issues?

There are three ways to do this:

  1. Make sure that translators & QA reviewers ALWAYS have source English audio and video files for reference. This is a must for all audio-video translation projects, and this is why. Even a short 15-second video can go disastrously wrong if the voiceover references something on-screen and that context isn’t provided.
  2. Let translators know if you’re not going to stick to speaker gender. Translators assume that the translated voice over will use speakers of the same gender as the English. Of course, this may not always be the case. If it isn’t, let your translators know.
  3. Be careful when re-using translations. Translation memory re-use is one of the great advances of the past 30 years when it comes to localization. But it also creates some challenges, and gender mismatches are some of the most common ones. If you’re leveraging existing work, make sure that it gets checked against the new context – i.e., against the multimedia elements. This is especially necessary when the previous translations come from documentation, since that often has a genderless narrator.

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.

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