Who’s on First: the Pronoun Problem
Pronouns are vital, but they can easily introduce confusion. The most common slip is when it’s not clear what a pronoun refers to. Sometimes, writers don’t notice that a pronoun could refer to more than one thing. It can become a much bigger problem in translation if what’s ambiguous in English is translated unambiguously and incorrectly. A media alert about sustainable initiatives could say: If the women don’t buy all the sweaters, the company will send them back. It’s a bit unclear in English, as “them” could refer to the women or the sweaters. Spanish, however, has a form of them for the women and a different one for the sweaters. Many translation engines will suggest the wrong one –another reason to work with a localisation team instead of running content through software.
We have such a set understanding of pronouns in our own language that we often don’t see the potential for the underlying mistake. I’m an American who speaks two languages where the word for it could also mean he or him. However, when I hear someone say, “I can’t find my bike. He is red” it never occurs to me that he refers to the bike. Worse, many languages change pronouns, verbs and descriptors not just according to number and person but also by gender and case. That means that a single mistake can thread through the entire text.
Solving for Who: the Pronoun Solution
There are a couple of ways to avoid this problem. Use the noun before the pronoun that replaces it. When Aletta met him, she realised how old the CEO was. The combination of Aletta and she works, but you don’t learn who ‘him’ is until the end of the sentence. Also, be wary of too many words between the noun and the pronoun. The Prime Minister had several three-hour meetings in February with the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretaries of the Home Department, Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Defence, and Justice over the course of a very long day, but she ended up confused. Even if the reader knows that the Prime Minister is the only woman in that group, the pronoun is so far away from the noun it’s replacing that the reader will lose track before reaching the pronoun.
Who and What Now?
This brings up the issue of ambiguity. If you have multiple nouns before the pronoun, you may need to rephrase. Patrick Smith resigned in favour of COO Mark Johnson after he was accused of personal misconduct. Does this mean that an innocent man resigned in favour of an accused one or vice versa? This is clearer: Following allegations of personal misconduct, Patrick Smith resigned in favour of COO Mark Johnson. Imagine a social media post for a growing company: Our new office holds a mix of offices and cubicles, a conference room, a kitchen/cafeteria and a copy room. It’s 900m^2. If the copy room is that big, what’s the rest of the office like?! We should rephrase this as, Our new home is 900m^2 and has a mix of offices and open workstations, as well as a conference room, a kitchen/cafeteria and a copy room.
In fact, writers are often fooled by the neutrality of it. CoolPhones is exhibiting the Model X with a new OS and it’s already broken. Does CoolPhones need to fix the phone or the software? Sometimes writers even use it to refer to something that hasn’t or can’t be defined, such as delving into 20 nuanced ideas and summing up with: It proves that…
We Speaking and You Listening?
Be sure to say who we and you are. An update to internal stakeholders and external partners could say: We’re working on a complex project with ambitious goals. To meet expectations this high, you need to set manageable deadlines. The writer means that all recipients are part of a big project and everyone needs concrete goals. External partners, though, might hear that the writer’s team is working hard and thinks that external partners need to be better with deadlines.
Translation multiplies this confusion by four forms of you – singular, plural, formal and informal – and their use can vary by region. Usted, for example, is polite in some places and stodgy in others. Be sure to introduce we or you in a context that tells the translator who the words refer to, so she can choose the right form. The update could say: From our external partners to our own teams, we are all working on a complex project and need to set manageable deadlines.
A Tiny Trouble-Starter
Prepositions vary in usage from language to language. Some languages use prepositions to change the meaning of the verb, like the Dutch preposition “af” changing the verb slap into the verb turn. Others fold prepositions directly into the verb, such as Spanish’s “buscar” instead of look for, making prepositional verb phrases tricky in translation. It’s helpful to use as few prepositions as possible.
Clauses Seeking Homes
The basic structure of an English sentence is subject + verb + object. Instead of inserting clauses between these pieces, add the extra information before and after if possible. This is especially important with subject + verb, as so many languages conjugate verbs by gender and tense. Instead of tweeting Teens who are into fashion post our clothes in selfies, say Fashion-forward teens post selfies in our clothes.
In a world of global communication, there are huge efficiencies to be found by writing for multiple markets. If you keep an eye on these structural elements, your ideas will be localised cleanly and clearly without any risk of getting lost in translation. Looking for more content tips? Check-out our content marketing services and read our Global Comms Guide!