I'm (amateurly) writing the subtitles for an English TV show. I'll illustrate my question using a small example, but I'm hoping to receive answers as general as possible.

One episode has a sentence such as "How are you?", addressed to a person who is behind a sealed door. In English, one who watches the show will learn nothing about the questionee's gender.
Let's assume that the identity of this person is considered a major spoiler (it will only be revealed many episodes later), and that revealing the person's gender will give a big clue regarding the person's identity.

Now, in the target language (Hebrew), this sentence is written differently for male and female questionees.
Let's assume that in our case we have no different wording that can save us.

As I see it, the translator has three options:

  1. Learn the spoiler (in the example above, the gender), and write the subtitles in the correct, yet revealing, manner.
  2. "Play dumb" and write the subtitles as though you don't know the spoiler (in Hebrew and in the example above, in would probably mean to write the subtitles using the male gender, which is Hebrew's "fallback" gender.)
  3. Write both male and female versions in the subtitle (for example write "את/ה", which is Hebrew for "you (female)/you (male)". I don't like this option as it implies that the gender is a vital clue for revealing the identity, and also it's not aesthetically pleasing.)

I think that the second option has the advantage of mimicking the situation where the translator really doesn't know the spoiler (perhaps because he didn't watch later episodes, or because those episodes aren't released yet), which in turn preserves the viewer's effect of surprise.

How is this usually handled with gendered languages where conveying the gender would be a spoiler?

Note about Hebrew:

For those unfamiliar with the language, Hebrew uses gendered verbs. That is to say, every verb has multiple forms - one for if the subject is male, one if the subject is female, and two more for plural subjects. Therefore, the translation problem is not simply a matter of obscuring pronouns but also every verb associated with the character.

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    A favorite line we say along with the TV when we watch murder mysteries is "Oh, it's you...!" Maybe just change what is said to something that goes with that intent. TV Tropes calls it "Death by Recognition". tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeathByRecognition – wetcircuit Mar 1 '18 at 4:43
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    You may be amused to know that The Last Jedi was spoiled this very way in German, as it was translated as Die Letzten Jedi --- a plural form. gizmodo.co.uk/2017/02/… – David Given Mar 1 '18 at 12:01
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    @DavidGiven there is more to it : the translation is sometimes plural, sometimes singular depending on the language. See movies.stackexchange.com/a/84868/26335 – Autar Mar 1 '18 at 12:45
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    @DavidGiven The Last Jedi is a bit of an odd example because in some languages it was given a singular form. The American director also stated the title was singular. The English non-determinate form adds to the symbolism of the movie. (Minor spoiler: the movie is a passing of the torch from one Jedi to another, both at different points in the movie are the last Jedi. Both single and plural forms are correct so indeterminate is artistically in sync.) – Lan Mar 1 '18 at 18:43
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    How would you say "Who are you?" if you heard somebody moving behind the door but didn't know their gender? (Or does that not work, because you'd actually say something like "Who is that?" that avoids not konwing?) – David Richerby Mar 1 '18 at 23:41

12 Answers 12


The question is not whether the translator knows the true gender, the question is whether the character doing the speaking knows the gender of the person behind the door. If they don't, using the default seems plausible and probably be the best option. If he/she does, they would, in real life, use the correct form. Using the default male conjugations and pronouns would, come the reveal, be retroactively incorrect and can make viewers feel cheated.

A perfect solution would:

  • be appropriate, every day language
  • not give away the gender of the person
  • be consistent with the in-world reality (people who know the gender generally wouldn't make grammatical errors relating to the gender)

None of the three solutions proposed satisfies all three requirements.

A potential solution that does satisfy all requirements, but is not necessarily practically possible regarding the number and type of interactions, would be to, yes, be more creative and explore other formulations or grammatical constructs. Think along the lines of an equivalent of "they" instead of "he" or "she", choice of words that obscure gender (example in spoken french: "mon ami(e)" instead of "ma copine/mon copain"), impersonal statement/questions ("How are things?"), or maybe using a descriptive noun instead of a pronoun (example in French would be to refer to the person behind the door as "the beast" (la bete) and use feminine constructs).

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    Re "be more creative": I once saw subtitles for Japanese -> English use "that person" in place of "he/she." Too bad they did it so many times that the spoiler was completely obvious! I think you have to do a lot of elaborate sentence recasting if you want this technique to actually work. – Kevin Mar 1 '18 at 5:44
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    @Kevin: Japanese is pretty strongly gendered, more so than English actually. The only way I can see the translation spoiling a surprise that was there in the original would be if the original dialog used "あの人", which literally means "that person", but is idiomatically used in some situations where an English speaker would use a gendered word, e.g. when a wife refers to her husband. – Michael Borgwardt Mar 1 '18 at 10:35
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    @Kevin: And the translator was being extremely non-creative, as 'they/them' would be a perfect solution here. – Bas Stronks Mar 1 '18 at 19:50
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    @Weathervane: sure we know the writer wants to keep a secret, but the first question is whether or not the spearker even knows the information that the writer wishes to keep secret. If not then it's easy. If so, then the rest of the answer follows from that: basically there are phrases that keep the secret in the original language because they're ambiguous in the right way, but cannot be literally translated while retaining the ambiguity. – Steve Jessop Mar 2 '18 at 14:38
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    For accurate translation of the dialogue, yes, what matters is whether the character knows the gender of the person they're addressing. But for faithful translation of the literary/dramatic work, you also have to preserve the properties of what the audience does and does not know based on what words the characters used. If in the original work, the character knows the gender of the person they're speaking to but the audience doesn't know the gender, or doesn't know if the character knows the gender, any translation that reveals this additional information to the audience is unfaithful. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Mar 3 '18 at 15:59

Go with אתה.

While not natively Israeli, I am currently living in Israel. And from what I know, speaking the language and seeing what goes on here, when you don't know the gender, it's generally defaulted to male.

For instance, people will generally go "יש מישהו שיודע...", not "יש מישהי שיודעת...", unless the target audience is primarily female... such as in the documentation for sherut l'umi, which is written in the feminine.

People will default to male when it's not known... but also, among the younger generation (for reference, I'm a teenager, I interact with teens a lot), people are using male pronouns and stuff when talking face to face with a girl or woman. It's crazy, but in modern colloquial Hebrew among the younger population, the distinction is becoming obsolete. People are just using male more and more.

So in addition to the fact that male is the actual default, the male pronouns are also coming into a sort of accepted use even for when you know that you're talking to someone who would normally get feminine pronouns. Seems pretty clear to me that אתה is the sensible choice here.

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    Certainly if the person doing the asking doesn't themselves know the gender of the person they're speaking to, this makes sense; in general, you'd use whatever pronouns/grammatical forms the character would use, in the language/cultural context, when they don't know. But if the character does know and it's just the reader who doesn't, then, at least in some language/cultural contexts, it may be deceptive (rather than just hiding information) to use forms that imply the speaker doesn't know. Fortunately it sounds like in the case of modern colloquial Hebrew that's not a problem. – R.. GitHub STOP HELPING ICE Mar 1 '18 at 2:37
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    As in (North American) English, one more commonly says "you guys" when talking to a group of females than "you girls", "you gals", etc., that latter usually sounding awkward. – user26940 Mar 1 '18 at 15:08
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    While this is an excellent answer for the specific case outlined by the questioner, I think Bas Stronk's answer is a better answer for how to handle the problem more generally. – Thunderforge Mar 1 '18 at 22:08
  • I agree. I speak a language where almost all parts of the speech are gender specific. In my language too, the default gender is male. For example, when speaking of an unborn child (if the gender is not yet known), we always use the male gender. Native speakers understand that it's the default usage, and don't immediately assume that the subject is definitely a male, and can not be a female. – insanity Mar 2 '18 at 6:18
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    Adding on to R.'s comment: the task of a skilled translator is not to mechanically convert sentences from one language to another. The most skilled professional translators read one language, understand what was described, and then re-write those ideas from scratch in the target language, using whatever words are most appropriate in that language to express those ideas. Sometimes this comes across as choosing the right words. Sometimes this looks like completely rewriting the sentence. – GrandOpener Mar 2 '18 at 7:10

Instead of "How are you?", would it be possible to translate it to "Is everything OK?", "Is anything wrong?", "Is everything alright in there?" instead?

Or is that what you meant by "we have no different wording that can save us"?

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  • Welcome to Writing.SE. Make sure you take the tour to familiarize yourself with the procedures and standards. – JP Chapleau Mar 1 '18 at 14:04
  • Doin' alright? I'd like to think that when there's at least 5 different phrasings in one language, you can likely contrive at least two in another language. Maybe instead of asking if the person is alright, ask if the situation is within acceptable parameters. Hopefully the different object will be significant enough of a change that you can alter the sentence structure to avoid the specific pitfall being asked about. – TOOGAM Mar 2 '18 at 4:00
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    A similar phrasing in Hebrew would be כל בסדר, which as a question is used in the sense of “is everything okay?” No gendered words at all there. – DonielF Mar 2 '18 at 16:03

The best translation is often not word-for-word, you need to get across the overall sense of what is being said. This may not always be feasible for instant translators, but you can do better when you're doing offline translation like you are.

So you should try to imagine what the original screenwriter would have done if they were working in Hebrew to begin with. If it's important for the plot to avoid hinting at the gender of the person behind the door, try to figure out how they would word the dialogue to achieve that goal.

I don't know Hebrew (except for a handful of words I still remember from Hebrew School), but as an analogy in English you could replace "How are you?" with "What's going on?"

The book Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking by Hofstadter and Sanders devotes quite a bit of discussion to effective translation, especially subtleties like this. The authors themselves are American and French, respectively, and they had the additional challenge of figuring out how to translate the parts of their book that discuss words and translation itself.

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While my knowledge of hebrew is exactly zero, my native language is also gendered and also uses the male as the "fallback" option.

10+ years ago, using the male would have been the normal and accepted solution. Recently, with the introduction of heavily gender-normaled language constructs, this might not necessarily go well anymore, especially if the character is later revealed to be female.

However, I personally agree with you that gender-neutral constructions are generally unwieldy and seem artificial.

In my language, in many cases you can rephrase a sentence and grammatically eliminate the pronoun. e.g. instead of writing "how is he/she?"" you could write "how are they?" with a false plural. You could also use the formal version of "you", which is gender-neutral in my language.

By thinking laterally, you can avoid the gender-specific pronoun in many cases. Check if such an option is available here, even if it means changing the actual sentence a bit. Translations do not have to be literal.

If there is no such way, I would also go with your initial hunch and use the standard fallback.

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    In Hebrew the plurals are also gendered or default to male for a mixed group so the same problem still applies – Separatrix Mar 1 '18 at 9:19

I don't know Hebrew or gendered languages, but if the character does know who is behind the door, then perhaps rephrase the line to not USE the pronoun:

"How is it going?"

"Everything alright?"

"Everything cool in there?"

"No problems in there?"

Or perhaps there is a similar Hebrew idiom to employ.

Many translated works require loose translations of American idioms that do not make sense in another language; you can treat this like one of them. "How are you" just inquires as to the comfort and mental state of the person in the closet. So do the above lines, so such rewording does not break the story.

I realize this is English and Hebrew may not allow that; it is just an idea I had.

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Specifically with Hebrew you can take advantage of the fact that written text does not have vowels. We rely on context to know how it should be read. Combine that with the fact that Hebrew has many conjugations that are ambiguous without the vowels, and you can make a sentence look ambiguous. For example, the sentence "How are you" can be written on screen as

מה שלומך

Which will look the exact same in writing. (For non Hebrew speakers, when speaking to a man it's pronounced mah shlom'cha when speaking to a woman it's pronounced mah shlomech).

It's also common in casual conversation to drop the second person pronoun, so you can also use this ambiguity with verbs. For example you could translate "do you want something" as רוצה משהו?. (Pronounced rotzeh mashehu when speaking to a man and rotzah masehu when speaking to a woman).

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You do (often) have a fourth option: rephrase the problematic sentence to avoid gender-marked words.

For example, instead of translating "How are you?" literally into a language like Hebrew that has gendered second person pronouns, rephrase it as, say:

"How's it going?"


"Is everything all right?"

or something else that doesn't make a direct reference to the listener, and translate that.

This trick works particularly well for dubbing or for translating written works, where someone watching or reading the translated version usually won't have the original available to compare it with. With subtitling, there's a risk that if the rephrased form is too different from the original, and not particularly idiomatic in the target language, some bilingual viewers may notice the discrepancy and either suspect that something odd is going on, or simply wonder what's wrong with the translation.

That said, in many cases you may be able to choose an idiom that sufficiently natural and concise in the target language that any differences compared to the original can pass off as just an attempt to keep the translated version short (important with subtitles!) and idiomatic.

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What is said in the English version is not actually "How are you", but "Polite conversation with a person who just arrived that doesn't reveal their gender". So that is what you translate. Anything that a polite person could say in Hebrew to a person that just arrived, without revealing their gender.

It is very common that sentences cannot be translated literally, and when that happens, you do your best to express the intent of the author. If there is a joke that cannot be translated then you create a different joke, trying to be as funny as the original. If a literally translated sentence reveals something that shouldn't be revealed, then you replace it with something else.

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Verify if you can use a non-gender-modifying word to reference to the person.

I don't know Hebrew but in Portuguese, for example, the word "pessoa" (person) is always used in the female, doesn't matter whether the person who it references is male or female.

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As with many solutions for dealing with the awkwardness of gender pronouns, you may find the simplest approach is to "react according to presentation"

Eg: if a person is secretly female and another character is interacting with them under the impression they're male, that other character will be reacting according to the idea that they are male and using male pronouns and corresponding gendered phrasing.

When the Reveal happens and the female character is no longer hiding it, then all characters who know about it can switch to appropriate pronouns and gendering immediately.

Simply, rather than try to be neutral, complete the illusion even through the 4th Wall.

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    Sadly doesn't work if the characters do know the gender of the person but the audience doesn't. – Bas Stronks Mar 1 '18 at 19:41
  • Good point, I hadn't considered that scenario. – Ruadhan2300 Mar 2 '18 at 9:34

Often titles of respect are in the plural form, this works in Hebrew as well.

איך מרגיש כבודו הערב?‏

Variations on this theme are used regularly, and the male כבודו is used even when addressing a female.

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  • uh... plural? This looks pretty masculine to me – sq33G Mar 1 '18 at 20:31
  • כבודו is still male. Plural would be כבודם. Not to mention that מרגיש is also male. – Michal Mar 1 '18 at 23:40

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