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Translation Blog

Pronouns: A tell-tale sign of sub-standard English translations from French or Spanish


Over the course of your life, I’ll bet that you’ve come across at least one text that you knew was a translation straight off the bat.


🙈 If that’s the case, then it was a poor translation because as a translator, our job is to remain hidden, and for you to read the text as if it were originally written in your language. 🙈


Today’s article is precisely about one of the points that immediately reveal that a translation is not up to par, and that is the incorrect translation of subject and object pronouns.


Let’s start with a (very basic) grammar lesson in English.


Subject and object pronouns (e.g. I, me) are handy when it comes to avoiding unwieldy sentences and incessantly having to repeat a noun (person or thing).


  • Subject pronouns are used to replace nouns that were the subject of the previous sentence or paragraph, i.e. the person or thing that performed the action. For example:


                                    Kelly loves reading books. She reads books all the time.


  • Object pronouns are used to replace the noun that was the object of the previous sentence or paragraph. For example:


                            Kelly loves reading books. Kelly reads them all the time.


👍 So far so good 👍



Now, here’s where things typically go wrong when a non-native speaker who is not trained in translation (or a machine translation tool) incorrectly translates subject and object pronouns from French and Spanish into English.


In English, the third person comes in three forms in the singular and plural: male (person), female (person) and thing. This gives us the following pronouns:


                                                               Subject pronoun                      Object pronoun

        3rd person (singular)                     He / She / It                           Him / Her / It

         3rd person (plural)                              They                                           Them



In French and Spanish, the third person comes in two forms – male and female, irrespective of whether this refers to a human being, an animal or an inanimate object.


⏩ To put that all in context and understand the potential ramifications, let’s take the word “company”. The Spanish and French equivalents, entreprise and empresa, are both feminine nouns.


It’s when they become pronouns that problems can arise in translation.


Take this example:


“L’entreprise a connu une période difficile à cause du Covid-19. Elle doit désormais aller vers l’avant si elle veut assurer sa rentabilité."


✅ Here’s one possible translation:


       “The company has gone through a tough period as a result of Covid-19. It now needs to forge ahead if it wants to ensure its profitability.”


❌ And here’s an example of a translation where the pronouns have very much been misunderstood:


      “The company has gone through a tough period as a result of Covid-19. She now needs to forge ahead if she wants to ensure her profitability.”


The native English speakers out there will undoubtedly think that I’m pulling their leg.


After all, the sentence given above is clearly incorrect. It merely serves as an extreme example to illustrate my point because, let me assure you, I have seen and corrected this error regularly.


⚠️ Sloppy translations cost money in the long run to correct them and are also a source of embarrassment.⚠️


💡 If you want to be sure of having a high-quality text in another language, it’s time to hire a professional translator! 💡


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