Gender unknown: writing for French translation

We’re writing for a project with a unique mandate: make it easy to translate into French. This is a challenge because we do not know which gender the player will choose to play. This problem must be unique to game writing, so we thought we’d write up a little cheat sheet for people writing in English who may not know what problems the French translators may encounter.

1. Avoid simple past tense and future perfect with gendered pronouns as direct objects. For example “You killed me!” or “I hope you won’t have killed me by then” would have different spellings in French depending on the gender of “me.” Ok: “You killed Adriane!” “I hope you won’t have killed Adriane by then.”

2. Avoid “etre” verbs in the simple past tense and future perfect when the subject is gender unknown. Fortunately, there are only 16, but they’re pretty major: to come, to arrive, to enter, to climb, to stay, to return, to turn back, to be born, to go, to depart, to leave, to get down, to fall, to come back, to become, to die. Click here to find out more about verbs that take etre.

3. Avoid reflexive verbs in simple past or future perfect with the subject an unknown gender. So what are reflexive verbs? These types of verbs inherently reflect back on the subject, ie “I hurt myself,” “I washed myself.” Less obviously: “To amuse oneself,” “to have fun,” and “to be interested” also fall into this category.

4. Avoid adjectives describing your unknown gender. “You’re smart!” “I’m stupid!” — these and most other adjectives in French have different spellings based on the gender of the person described. That said, many exceptions exist, like “orange.” Rather than sharing an exhaustive list, try to avoid them. Ok: “That was a smart thing you did.”

5. Watch for plural subjects with one gender unknown. The above rules dealt mostly with singular masculine or feminine. However, you may find an instance where the unknown gendered person is referred to in a group. If this group consists entirely of males, or males and females, then you can proceed with impunity. However if the group may consist entirely of females, or may not depending on user choice, you will have to follow the guidelines above.

Next week: gender unknown for Yemeni Arabic. Just kidding! You don’t want to know about the duals. Do you find these guidelines similar for other romance languages, such as Spanish? Would you find it helpful to learn about other languages’ issues?

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13 Comments

Filed under Localization, Writing

13 responses to “Gender unknown: writing for French translation

  1. MD²

    Late (as always): you’ll find that this translation problem is anything but unique to game writing.
    It often happens in books that you musn’t be given any informations about a character yet that character is focused on (first exemple I can think of is murder misteries in which you see the murderer act). Count also all texts where sexual ambiguity happens to be central (though it can also helps the work in reverse: one character swaping gender identity can be given the markers of the other gender… not always the most elegant solution, but effective).

    With your 2nd point, you’re going to hit a wall fast on the old classic “X is dead” sentence. They generally used to put something like “X a décédé”, which is correct but feels more than slightly unnatural (enough that it makes some reader stop and think about it which is one of the supreme bads I think) compared to “X est mort(e)” (In some cases I guess the parenthesis might be a good solution :?). I generally go with middle ground “X a rendu l’âme” which has the problem of bringing soul (not always for the best) and more importantly of being stiff and formal (compared to purely factual “X is dead”), changing the mood (a character can use “rendre l’âme”, a pseudo-omiscient info-imparting machine contacting you via text interface wouldn’t… unless it’s been programed to be that way, which makes new meanings erupt). Best I think is to cut the sentence out and take liberties ( with things like “Ainsi s’achèvent les aventures de X” which ,sadly, actuallty introduces a narrator, but one you can impose over the computer; nice tool) but you can’t always do that. There’s no perfectly satisfying solutions, as almost always with translation.

    Luckily you’re proposing to write this up from the start… interesting puzzle, and a nice take on the old gender neutral writing game in French.

  2. Thanks for the fabulous post, and yes, of course, I forgot to mention gender unknown happens when you’re trying to be vague about a mysterious person. In English there are a ton of slang terms for dying, such as “kicked it” or “bought it,” which may be an appropriate substitute for a hip audience in English. Do any of those expressions survive in French?

  3. MD²

    Don’t think the post was fabulous, but it had the merit of existing. -_^

    Tried to make a list of all the semantic equivalents of “mourir” I could think of, which actually was beside the point: whatever variation you’ll choose to use will be context sensitive and imparts more informations than the neutral informative verb.
    The real problem isn’t whether an equivalent to “kicked it” or “bought it” can be found in French, but whether a context can be created in which “kicked it”, “bought it” and the French equivalent will have a proper use in your text, one fitting your aims.

    For your personal pleasure (I’m sure:D ), take that:

    agoniser, aller ad patres, avoir vécu, calancher, caner, casser sa pipe, cesser, claboter, clamser, claquer, crever, cronir, diminuer, disparaître, décliner, décéder, dégénérer, dépérir, expirer, fermer les paupières, fermer les yeux, finir, finir sa vie, finir ses jours, paraître devant Dieu, partir, partir entre quatre planches, partir les pieds devant, passer, passer dans l’autre monde, passer de vie à trépas, passer l’arme à gauche, perdre, péricliter, périr, quitter ‘, quitter la terre, rendre l’esprit, rendre l’âme, rendre le dernier soupir, rendre son dernier souffle, renoncer à, s’abâtardir, s’achever, s’affaiblir, s’amenuiser, s’anéantir, s’effacer, s’en aller, s’en aller entre quatre planches, s’en aller les pieds devant, s’endormir, s’estomper, s’obscurcir, s’éteindre, s’étouffer, s’évanouir, se crouler, se dissiper, se mourir, se perdre, se retirer, souffrir, succomber, terminer sa vie, terminer ses jours, tomber, trouver la mort, trépasser, y rester, échapper, être emporté, être enlevé, être rappelé, être tué, cesser de vivre, crampser, faire sa valise, laisser ses guêtres, laisser ses houseaux, passer le pas, payer son tribut, perdre la vie, perdre le goût du pain, rompre avec, se désagréger, sortir entre quatre planches, sortir les pieds devant, être ravi

  4. I think it would be impossible to translate into French when you don’t know the gender! What a nightmare. That’s an interesting use of French translation that I had never thought of before.

  5. MD²

    @Learn to speak french: that’s actually a pretty common writing game (well… as far as writer in learning and pseudo-writer like myself are concerned I guess).

    I think one of the hardest texts I had to translate since I started learning japanese was a very short story, the recollection of a mundane day by someone using only feminine forms… only for you to realise at the end that it actualy was a transvestite speaking, when he finally reaches the public baths. THAT was a nightmare, given that, for the text to work, you had to try to impart japanese feminin forms in French while avoiding French ones.
    Also, I mean, if someone can write a whole book in french with a e lipogram…

    Sigh… I write all that only to realise I’m more than probably talking to a spammer…

    Hope this will somewhat interest the hosting cabal anyway. ^_-

  6. Thanks for the exhaustive list! We’ll have to put that to good use, perhaps as a design challenge on the game design boards 😉

  7. Pingback: Towards a Game Vernacular « Writers Cabal Blog

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  9. je suis tres content de ce que vous avez fait

  10. I’d definately would like to learn more about localization into turkish and german. Actually once I had the chance to translate a causal game into german. It was a bit difficult because the game developers would at first refuse me to give a free version of the game, whereby I think that one of the best ways to achieve a good translation is to play the game and see how the text works in context. Probably they thought I’d black-market it :P. Anyway, it wasn’t the best of experiences, but then, I still would call it “bon pour L’Orient” 😉

    Ah and for a really nice but sad piece on the verb “etre” I recommend Andre Breton’s same titled poem: The Verb Etre.

    Thanks for this article!

  11. Hello!

    Nice post, it’s great to read that game writers are taking into account translation when they write dialogue.

    I work in localization and I am Spanish and it’s usually a nightmare to translate dialogue when the player can choose between a male or female character. We normally have to come up with similar solutions to those you point out in your article [“That was a smart thing you did!” and so on], but it sure makes everything easier if it’s been thought out in advance.

    I am quoting you in my blog (still early days and the layout is temporary).

    Cheers!
    Diana

  12. Thanks for stopping by, Diana. Since most games are translated into Spanish and French, the localization aspect is something we have to think about! Be sure to link back to our blog if you quote us. – Sande

  13. maloria

    Hi Sande! It would be great if you could share more tips or details about your experience in writing with loc in mind. So happy to hear that someone out there understands how challenging it is to translate dialogue with gender unknown!

    You guys are linked!

    Cheers,
    Diana
    http://gamelocalization.wordpress.com/
    http://www.wordlabtranslations.com

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