"I am a Jew from the Soviet Union":

Text, Gender and English in Arabic Translation

by Dr. Aboudi Jawad Hassan


January 2002




Once I asked my first year translation class (translation beginners) to translate into Arabic in writing a letter that opened with the following sentence:

I am a Jew from the Soviet Union

signed by a lady named Rebecca Niedleman without drawing their attention to the signature. After reading the text and then translating it, each translation of these translation beginners started with the following:

أنا يهودي من الاتحاد السوفيتي

I am a (male) Jew from the Soviet Union

The reasons behind this inaccurate and sexually inappropriate translation in the view of this author are:

(1)     Arab students take it for granted that every (I) in any sentence represents a male speaker. Then every noun and/or adjective following the Arabic pronoun (أنا) (I) is formally unmarked for masculine.

(2)     Many of the students read the text to be translated and pay little or no attention to the disambiguating clues available in or through the context.

(3)     Beginners in translation, despite the repeated reminders by their teachers, tend not to relate their sentences to their contexts.

(4)     On top of all that, when learning English as a foreign language, students’ attention is not always drawn to the morphological differences between the two languages in terms of gender. That is because “in English, biological gender is of some importance only in the selection of the personal pronouns “he”, “she” and “it”; it figures nowhere else in the morphology.” according to A.Z Guiora (1983). On the other hand in his view, sex of participants in Arabic becomes quite an important factor in determining selection of grammatical forms.

To solve this translation problem this research paper has drawn mainly on assumptions made by G. Brown and G. Yule (1983) who claim that their views on the role of context are universally applicable. According to these assumptions the analyst/hearer is advised to scrutinize the context to find out only the clues needed in order to extract an unambiguous interpretation from a stretch of language. If we go back to our example above and draw the students’ attention to one clue, which is the signature of the writer, they will define the gender of the speaker. Then the sexually appropriate, cohesive and coherent translation would be:

أنا يهودية من الاتحاد السوفيتي

I am a (female) Jew from the Soviet Union

The objective of this work is to draw the attention of translators and students of translation to the significance of the context in disambiguating the gender of the first person singular pronoun when translating from English into Arabic. This will lead to improvement in the quality of texts translated from English into Arabic.

It should be noted here that for considerations of space and to avoid repetitiveness this paper confined itself to the translation problems associated with the first person singular pronouns.

To substantiate this work’s views, three authentic English texts with their translations are going to be analyzed. These are texts (A), (B) and (C) and will be appended with their translations at the end of this work.

What comes next after this short introduction is an overview containing various views of this linguistic area in both Arabic and English. A section describing the approach and the data follows this. The third section contains the analysis of the texts mentioned earlier. Finally, we conclude this paper with some remarks on the role of context in determining the gender of the first person singular pronoun. Let us move on to the next section, which deals with the views of gender in both languages.  


Due to the fact that they belong to different families of languages, obviously there are differences between Arabic and English on one or more language levels. In Arabic, it is commonly believed that in terms of gender, forms are divided into masculine and feminine. This formal division is made according to:

(a)     the referent’s biological sex as in the following examples:

رجل = ( m ) = man

 امرأة= ( f ) = woman

ولد = ( m ) = boy

 بنت= ( f ) = girl


(b)     conventions as we will see in the following examples:

جمل  = ( m ) = camel

  سوق = ( f ) = market

قمر = ( m ) = moon

شمس = ( f ) = sun


However, there are forms, which can be either feminine or masculine like:

طريق  = road = ( f/m )

سكين = knife = ( f/m )

سلاح = weapon = ( f/m )


More importantly, suffixing it with one of the following can feminize a masculine form:

(a)     al Ta’a  al Marbūta:

 = ( a male student ) ( طالب )

= ( a female student ) ( طالبة )

  = ( a male teacher ) ( معلم )

 = ( a female teacher ) ( معلمة )


(b)     al Elif that can be abbreviated or shortened ( al Maqsūra )

 = ( a male thirsty person )        ( عطشان)

 = ( a female thirsty person)      ( عطشى) 

= ( the oldest son )  ( الابن الأكبر )

 = ( the oldest daughter ) ( البنت الكبرى )


(c)     al Elif that can be long or lengthened ( al Elif al Mamdūdah)

= ( he is good looking )  ( حسن )

 = ( she is good looking ) ( حسناء )

  = ( blind male person ) ( أعمى )

= ( blind female person ) ( عمياء )

= ( a one-eyed male person ) ( أعور )

 = (a one-eyed female person)( عوراء )


However in Arabic, there are nouns which are formally feminine but functionally masculine e.g. Hamza,Talha and Zakariya (حمزة وطلحة وزكريا ).

All of these are Arab proper nouns.


In terms of concord, Canterino (1975) claims that any changes in the sex of the referent will lead to changes at the phrasal and sentential levels e.g.

= (a faithful man ) ( رجل صادق )

= (a faithful woman )  ( امرأة صادقة )

= (John is a good [male] teacher)  (جون معلم جيد)

= (Linda is a good [female] teacher)  (ليندا معلمة جيدة)


On the same front W. Wright (1967) claims that in most Arabic non-imperative sentences, when the sex of the referent changes, there are morphological verbal changes

فتح النافذة هو) ( = He opened the window

فتحت النافذة ) هي ( = She opened the window  

However, Wright claims that there is no morphological verbal change in this kind of sentence when the sentence is uttered by a singular male or female speaker whatever the tense of that sentence:

  (افتح النافذة) non-past (imperfect) /f/m = (I open the window).

(فتحت النافذة) past (perfect) /f/m = (I opened the window).


The same can be said about the sentences uttered by plural male or female speakers

 (نفتح النافذة) =  non- past (imperfect) f/m (We open the window).

 (فتحنا النافذة) =  past (perfect) f/m (We opened the window).


This also is the case when the sentence is imperative directed to two male or female addressees like:

   (افتحا النافذة) = imperative directed to two f/m addressees. (Open (you two) the window)


Now let us move on to see how gender agreement is achieved in English. It is commonly believed that gender is not very important in English if it is compared with other languages like German. For example a nominal phrase like:

A good teacher 

can be used in English with either feminine or masculine referent, i.e. there is no need to inflect the determinative and the adjective to agree with head noun of the phrase which stays unchanged. In German on the other hand the phrase:

  ein guter Lehrer (a good male teacher)

is used only with male referent while it can not be used  with a feminine referent unless the determinative and the adjective are inflected to agree with the feminine head noun of the phrase. Then the phrase becomes:

  eine gute Lehrerin (a good female teacher) 

It is also commonly believed that at the sentence level the gender of the complement in English does not determine the choice of the subject pronoun unlike in German. Let us go back to our previous example “ a good teacher”. This nominal phrase can be used equally with the pronouns “he” or  “she” or by implication any other singular pronoun while the German phrase “ein guter Lehrer” agrees only with the pronoun “er” (he) and the phrase “eine gute Lehrerin” agrees only with the pronoun “sie” (she). We will, therefore, have two different nominal phrases in terms of gender in two different German sentences while we will have the same nominal phrase in the corresponding English ones:

  Er ist ein guter Lehrer (He is a good teacher)

Sie ist eine gute Lehrerin (She is a good teacher)


After this brief account, let us move on to discuss the approach and the data of this work.


The approach

This section is devoted to describing the approach applied to the analysis and the data. As mentioned earlier, in this work we are going to draw mainly on assumptions made by G.Yule and G.Brown (1983) who claim that their views are universal. They claim that the discourse analyst/hearer should be equipped with some principles, which could help him/her interpret what he/she encounters. They cite two main principles. These are:

(a)     the principle of local interpretation.


(b)     the principle of analogy.

For the purpose of this work, we are going to confine ourselves to the first principle; the principle of local interpretation. Before embarking on examining this principle, it should be noted here that this principle is applicable to translation for the following reasons:

(i)     The translator is a kind of a discourse analyst because he/she (whether trained or by trade) has to read and analyze the original text before translating it.


(ii)     These principles are devised to enable the analyst or the hearer to extract interpretations from stretches of the language spoken or written.

It goes without saying then that the translator is a person whose task is to arrive at an interpretation of a written stretch of the language. This interpretation can only be achieved by reading and analyzing the passage.

According to the principle of local interpretation, the analyst is asked not to build a context larger than he/she needs. He/she just extracts the needed clues. If, for example, you are asked by a friend to pass him/her over a book, you will give him/her the nearest book to you and if there is no book you will say there is no book near to me. Of course you will not go somewhere else to bring the book.

If the Arabic translator, for example, is asked to translate paragraph six in the following English text into Arabic, the translator doesn’t need to expand the context farther than paragraph five to discover the number of the plural form ‘officers’.

Belgium suspends deportation

Brussels (AFP): The Belgian government said yesterday it was suspending all deportation procedures after the violent death of a young Nigerian woman while resisting expulsion from the country.(1)

Interior spokeswoman Dalila Douisi said the deportation procedures would be suspended until further notice at the request of the Belgian airlines Sabena.(2)

“we need some time to evaluate how these deportations are carried out,” Douisi said.(3)

The Nigerian woman, Samira Adamu, 20,died in a Brussels hospital on Tuesday evening after falling into coma during a struggle with the police a board a flight due to leave for Togo.(4)

Two Belgian police officers were charged on Wednesday with manslaughter after the death provoked a national outcry About the degree of force used to expel illegal immigrants.(5)

The officers had placed a cushion over her face under an apparent routine precaution to prevent expelled persons from screaming and biting.(6)


The availability of the lexical ‘two’ in paragraph six is the clue which the translator needs to translate the English plural form ‘officers’ in paragraph six into the Arabic dual form الضابطان instead of the Arabic plural الضباط.

It must be mentioned here also that according to this principle, an interpretation can only be achieved if the entities referred to in the context (e.g. temporal or locational settings) remain unchanged. When there is a change in these entities the analyst is asked to minimally expand the context in order to obtain an interpretation. Suppose, for example, somebody asks a friend of yours in your presence to pass him/her over the book and you said there was no book but later you realized it was not you who were being requested to pass the book over but your friend. Here there is a change in the addressee and you have to know exactly who was requested to pass over the book.

According to this principle the analyst should be able to utilize his/her knowledge of the world and his/her previous experience of similar events. If, for, example a letter to editor of a magazine opens with this sentence:

I am a teacher from Jordan

And in the seventh sentence of that letter the writer says:

I am in the third month of my pregnancy

We can specify the gender of the speaker on the basis of our knowledge of the world. That is because that pregnancy is a biological quality associated with just one sex. Any mention, therefore, of one sex in this situation mutually excludes the other. Thus the gender of the speaker in the above example can easily be identified.

As for the past experience of similar events, it provides the analyst with expectations and hypothesis, which enable him/her to recognize different kinds of communicative events. These events as Yule and Brown claim “take place against a background of a mass of subconscious expectations also based on past experience which we might summarize following Van Dike “the assumed normality of the world”.

Expectations arising from past events not only enable the analysts to extract an interpretation but also provide further affirmation of their validity. If the expectation about an event came true, this would consolidate the expectation and encourage the one making it to go farther. One of the most important expectations is the expectation of establishing regularities.

In English-Arabic translation guided by his principle of local interpretation, the translator should expand the written text or the context to the limit where he/she could find clues helpful to produce cohesive, coherent and sexually appropriate translation. These clues could be linguistic and/or extra linguistic and could delimit the gender and/or the number of the speaker(s) or addressee(s). He/she should also be attentive to the constancy of the entities referred to in the text or context.

Now one may ask about the types of clues the translator seeks to find. As Lotfi (1990) suggests there is a number of signaling expressions in written texts enlightening the translator and helping him/her determine the gender of the speaker in texts with a high frequency of the first person singular pronouns. These are:

1)     Expressions almost exclusively used by one sex not the other, like:


                     a)         skirt.

                     b)         bra

                     c)         high heels

                     d)         lipstick

                     e)         purse

                      f)          Razor blade--------etc.


2)     Biological qualities exclusively associated with one sex not the other:


                     a)         Pregnancy

                     b)         Breast feeding

                     c)         Monthly period/menstruation

                     d)         Face-shaving


3)     The existence of common nouns likes:


                     a)         Wife/husband

                     b)         Son/daughter

                     c)         Man/woman


4)     Titles of address:


                     a)         Mr./Mrs./Miss/Ms/Messrs.

                     b)         Sir/Madam


5)     The availability of formally inflected English expressions like:


                     a)         Actress

                     c)         Ambassadress

                     d)         Stewardess


6)     The availability of gender clarifying expressions like:


                     a)         Male nurse

                     b)         Woman teacher


7)     The availability of proper nouns:


                     a)         Linda

                     b)         Tom

                     c)         Christine

                     d)         John----------etc


Lotfi also claims that when these linguistic clues are not available in the written text or they are not sufficient, the translator should ‘hunt’ for extra-linguistic clues available in or through the context. These are:

a)     The photo of the speaker(s)

b)     The voice of the speaker(s)

c)     The medium through which the text is communicated. For       example, texts written in a publication associated with one sex not the other (Woman’s Own) are mostly written by members of that gender. The clues can be better explained through the following diagram:


Now let us turn to the data for this work. For consideration of space and to avoid repetitiveness, three English texts in which the pronoun ‘I’ is frequently used are going to be analyzed here. More precisely, the texts are letters to the editor appeared in a number of publications. These are written and read by native speakers. The texts are translated by the author of this work and checked by native speakers of Arabic and English. For ease of reference the texts and their translations are given alphabetical letters (A), (B) and (C) while the sentences are numbered.

Part Two: Text, Gender and English in Arabic Translation