Thursday, September 29, 2011



I have been reading (aloud, I hasten to add) The Lion the Witch the Wardrobe (1950), by C.S.Lewis. Remarkably, within the space of half a paragraph (at the end of Chapter 7) the author comes up with three different solutions to the same problem:

(...) Susan drained the potatoes and then put them all back in the empty pot to dry on the side of the range while Lucy was helping Mrs Beaver to dish up the trout, so that in a very few minutes everyone was drawing up their stools ...and preparing to enjoy themselves. There was a jug of creamy milk for the children (Mr Beaver stuck to beer) and a great big lump of deep yellow butter in the middle of the table from which everyone took as much as he wanted to go with his potatoes, and all the children thought - and I agree with them - that there's nothing to beat good freshwater fish if you eat it when it has been alive half an hour ago and has come out of the pan half a minute ago. And when they had finished the fish Mrs Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll, steaming hot, and at the same time moved the kettle on to the fire, so that when they had finished the marmalade roll the tea was made and ready to be poured out. And when each person had got his (or her) cup of tea, each person shoved back his (or her) stool so as to be able to lean against the wall and gave a long sigh of contentment.
In real life, I don't know anybody who applies the "rule" of English grammar that the masculine is the generic form, as in

Everybody who brings his lunch put it on top of his desk
which is an instruction given by the (female) narrator's (female) teacher to her class of boys and girls, in Chapter 2 of To Kill A Mocking-Bird (1960). The rule is followed not just by the teacher but also by the narrator. Here, in Chapter 26, for example:

Once a week, we had a Current Events period. Each child was supposed to clip an item from a newspaper, absorb its contents, and reveal them to the class. This practice allegedly overcame a variety of evils: standing in front of his fellows encouraged good posture and gave a child poise; delivering a short talk made him word-conscious; learning his current event strengthened his memory; being singled out made him more than ever anxious to return to the Group
In real life, the they/their option is the one people actually seem to use; he or she/his or her has a certain currency, particularly in writing; and the he/his option is used by virtually nobody.

Nobody, that is, except for translators (see earlier post for particularly egregious example).

I imagine there are two reasons why the rule is popular among translators:

1) it's a rule (you have the authority of the grammar books as a defence),

2) it's convenient (one less thing to think about: it allows a mechanical word-for-word substitution without your having to waste time pondering the underlying meaning).

The translator may also derive some gratification from notions of standing firm against insidious forces of feminism and political correctness.

But more often than not the problem with the practice is not he versus she, but he versus it.

Here is an example from a recent EU invitation to tender, for translators in fact, and itself obviously a translation:

The tenderer shall be bound by his tender throughout the performance of the contract, if the contract is awarded to him
The lack of thought behind the practice is then laid bare:

Each tender must be signed by the tenderer or his legal representative
i.e. if the tenderer is an individual the tender must be signed by the individual concerned and if the tenderer is a company then it must be signed by the person with authority to sign on its behalf.

But a tenderer having a "legal representative" can only ever be an it, never a he.

No doubt the French original had son which can be his, her or its depending on the antecedent. To use his here is mistranslation, pure and simple, under cover of a pseudo-rule of grammar.

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This was very interesting to read. I am not a native English speaker, but I've been learning English since I was 7, so I look at myself as quite advanced in the English language. I really like this post, as it enlightens something I have never thought of before - even when I read C. S. Lewis' books in English. :)
I come up against this problem regularly translating from Spanish to English: su/sus can be his, hers, its or theirs. The easiest way round it is to make the subject plural: "Tenderers... their". "His or her" just sounds extremely clumsy when repeated several times in a relatively short text.
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