Joking aside

Sandy Millar Photography

An international, multilingual conference can provide myriad opportunities for putting one’s foot in it. Humour, for example, does not always translate easily, so if you are attempting to lighten the mood with a quip in your keynote speech, it can be good insurance to consult a professional interpreter or translator first to ensure that hilarity in one language isn’t met with confusion or blank stares in another. The use of puns, elaborate or extended metaphors, and local slang is better avoided altogether.

Different languages have different approaches to gender and pronouns, which can make translation interesting at times. While French and German insist on genders for all nouns, and having the adjectives agree, English does not. So far, so simple for English speakers. But where things get trickier in English is when pronouns apply to an entity/person with a biological gender. In these non-binary, gender diverse times, “he” or “she” don’t always suffice. One makeshift solution is to apply “they”, “them” or “their” to people who identify as neither male nor female. That can work to a point, but they are plural pronouns, which can start getting tricky when precise meaning is required. There are plenty of alternatives being used within transgender or “genderqueer” communities, such as ne/nem/nir/nirs/nemself, ve/vir/vis/verself. None of these trip off the tongue and it’s unlikely they will broaden into general usage any time soon.

Nonetheless, issues of gender and gender neutrality are becoming more prominent as are discussions about diversity – all of which may present some interesting new challenges for translators!

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