The Ambiguity of Gender in Translation

Translation refers to the understanding of the word meaning and then producing the same text or word that relays the same message but uses a different speech. Simply described, translation refers to a process that entails replacing a sentence in one language with another text in a different one. It is, therefore, important for a person translating to first fully comprehend the message in the source language before translating it to retain its meaning. After translation, the phrase should be able to stand on its own and be understood independently from the source. It can be a complex process that incorporates aesthetics, pure language, logics, reality, and ethics (Bermann & Wood, 2012).

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According to Tytler and Huntsman (2008), ambiguity in language translation has philosophical applications. Understanding it can be helpful in solving philosophical problems. For example, when two individuals talk about the word light, it could mean the opposite of darkness or not being heavy. The use of these two words differently can be a bit puzzling. By understanding the ambiguity of translation, it makes things easier. It is, therefore, one way of linguistic expressions. Linguistically, ambiguity includes concepts, symbols, signs, terms, words, and notations (Becker, 2011).

The essay will discuss some examples of ambiguity, the causes of it in literature, and its various types. Different manifestations of translation ambiguity will also be discussed with relation to the Arabic and English languages.

Gender in the language refers to the grouping of nouns into neutral, feminine or masculine classes. In such a case, the choice of the noun in a given syntax class has an effect on other words to be used in a sentence, such as pronouns, adjectives, and articles. There is, therefore, a need to disambiguate the gender of singular pronouns when translating between Arabic and English. The following ones are the common translation ambiguity problems (Tytler & Huntsman, 2008).

Pronominal and Grammatical Gender

Becker (2011) says in her book that in English nouns are categorized as being neutral, being feminine or masculine. The classification is based on the phonological or morphological features. Grammatical gender can result in some difficulties in translation within the source text having gender of nouns being grammaticalized. For example in Arabic, the following sentences are written in the same way, yet they have different meanings.

أ اَ ؽانة فٙ قغى انرشج حً – the sentence means that ”I am a male student in the translation department.”
أ اَ ؽانة فٙ قغى انرشج حً – ”I am a female student in the translation department.”

From the two instances, we can learn that in English the gender has been given some consideration. Meanwhile in Arabic the pronoun I does not mark the use of adjectives and articles in the remaining part of the sentence. In English, gender is important in the selection of pronouns like it, she, and he. In English, the gender system is based on criteria that reflect some personal possessive pronouns. Ambiguity also lies in translations where in the Arabic language the pronoun اْ is used to represent feminine gender. In English, it is a neutral pronoun.

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Social Gender

It deals with two semantic categories. The features, male and female, refer to the gender of the subject person. Nouns with such characteristics, e.g. woman, ايشأج and man, سجم, have a gender specifying function in a sentence. Nouns like a secretary or a lawyer, on the other hand, do not specify gender. Regardless of this, pronouns are assigned to reflect on normative conditions in a society. According to Tytler and Huntsman (2008), for instance, in English-Arabic translation, the rules of local interpretation state the following fact. A translator expands the text or limit of the context in order to find clues that will assist in getting a coherent, cohesive and gender sensitive appropriate translation. Ambiguity results if such social gender pronouns are not taken into consideration. The following one is an example both in English and Arabic after translation. ”One of his lawyers failed to turn up for the session.”

In Arabic, it is ambiguous because it could be written and read in two different ways as shown below:

نى ٚحؼش احذ يحايٛٙ انجهغح or
نى ذحؼش إحذ يحايٛاذٙ انجهغح

In Arabic, the English sentence translated above could mean that a lawyer has been female or male.
Becker (2011) says that ambiguity also occurs in translation where there is a gender agreement. For instance, in English, the sentence ”A clever student.“ is neutral and could mean male or feminine. In such a case, the determinative and adjective do not have to agree with a head noun for it to make sense. In the Arabic language, however, the sentence should be clearly described so as to know who is being referred to. When translating this sentence from English to Arabic, the reader is, therefore, faced with ambiguity. The reason is that the sentence has two different meanings.

In Arabic, it could be written as:

ؽانة ركٙ – to mean male
ْٙ ؽانثح ركٛح to mean female

Factors that Cause Ambiguity

Ambiguity in English words, connotations or sentences can be caused by several factors.

  • The first one is the use of a pronoun without clarifying what or who a referent is. For instance, the sentence is below: ”Tom rang his dad last night and they talked for about thirty minutes. He told him that he would visit him the following day.”

From this sentence, it cannot be determined if the pronoun he refers to Tom or his Dad.

The other example, ”I arrived at the bridge and welcomed my family. They had waited for more than 30 minutes. It complicated matters.”
In this sentence, the word it needs some clarification so as to understand what it refers to.

  • The second cause of ambiguity is a phonological factor. It refers to the juncture in a sentence when the word is used. It occurs when there is a transition of a sentence to another speech. When a person speaks, for instance, phonemes glide to each other. It produces different combinations that may lead to various meanings. For instance,

”My niece had a greidei.”

This sentence is heard in two ways
-My niece had a grade A.
-My niece had a gray day.

It can be hard to eliminate this ambiguity. However, the sentence can be well understood by making proper stops while talking.

  • The third cause of ambiguity is lexical factors. Ambiguity often occurs when a word with different meaning is used in a sentence. This state when using the language can be termed as polysemy. It can exist in verbs, adjectives or nouns. For instance, in the word below,

”He rushed to the bank.”

The word bank could mean a sloppy side of a river; and it could also mean a bank where people store their money. In Arabic, the sentence above could be written as
انه هرع الى البنك

Another example in the below sentence,
”She did not bear children.”

The word bear means endure or tolerate; and, according to the use in this sentence, it could also be that she did not give birth to children. The words in bold should be considered carefully in order to understand the meaning of the sentence. Attention is required to disambiguate the sentence (Becker, 2011).

  • The fourth cause of ambiguity occurs in some parts of speech. When one word is used in a different part of speech, it is called a multifunctional word. In such a sentence, the use of multifunctional words causes different understandings and deeper structures.

For example, in the sentence below;
”The driver saw the American dance.”

The American modifies the word dance. This sentence is ambiguous. It is because it could mean that a driver saw a person of American origin dancing. It could as well mean that the dancer that the driver saw was dancing like an American.

Another common cause of ambiguity in linguistics is a syntactical factor. Syntactically, words make up some phrases, which then make up sentences. There is, therefore, a syntactic relation that depicts the inner parts of sentences. The manner, in which words are organized, can help in determining the meaning of the sentence.

The following one is the example below:
(Old women and men) النساء و الرجال القديمة

This sentence could mean as follows:
-Old women and old men or
-Old women and young men

Types of Translation Ambiguity

People are ambiguous in how they use their language. The reason is that ambiguity is one of the ways of linguistically expressing oneself. As stated earlier, an ambiguous phrase or word is one that has more than a single meaning. The definition, however, does not define the sense that such phrases have. For some languages, grammar provides this information. Grammar closes a gap that exists because of ambiguity in translation. Grammar pairs forms and meanings systematically, hence resulting in ambiguous forms that have more than several sense (Bermann & Wood, 2012).
Basically, there are two types of translation ambiguity; structural and lexical. Lexical ambiguity is the most common one. Some examples include words such as suit, pen, and ship; and verbs such as run, draw, and call; and adjectives like hard, dry, and deep. There exist different tests for ambiguity. One of them entails having two antonyms that are not related, for instance, the word hard. It has two meanings that are unrelated; the opposite is being easy and soft. The other test is called the conjunction reducing test. Like in this sentence, ”The doctor pressed one suit at his hospital and the other one in the federal court.” The word suit is ambiguous in the sentence. Normally, suit means clothing worn. However, in this sentence, it has also been used to describe a legal process (Becker, 2011).

The examples given above are for words that have several meanings. Ambiguity is not always clear when only one word involved. For instance, the noun dessert and the verb desert are pronounced in the same way but spelled differently. They are distinct words called homonyms. The other example is the verb bear and the noun bear. They sound in the same way and are also spelt similar. Translation ambiguity also exists in words such as respect, which can be used as nouns and can also be used as verbs. The other example is also seen in the word over. It can be used as a preposition and as an adjective within the same sentence. Based on these examples, there is no format of drawing a line between the use of homonymous and ambiguous words within one sentence (Bermann & Wood, 2012).

Connotations in meanings are very unstable. Denotative meanings that a word possesses naturally are also different. It means that a phrase that has two meanings belongs to one natural code semantically with other such words. Recent studies by linguistic scholars have been carried out to try and explain how readers are able to solve semantic and syntactic ambiguities while reading. The theory for sentence processing has been formulated to help solve ambiguities. When readers master this theory, they are able to decide on ambiguities very fast while reading without having to think for long. Applying this approach requires that the reader keenly reads the words before and after the ambiguous phrase.

Tytler and Huntsman (2008) says that lexical semantics explain the subtle and rich semantic behaviors of highly flexible and common words like put and do and the prepositions to, in and at. All these words have some uses that are related closely and often called polysemous words instead of ambiguous.

Structural ambiguity refers to a situation where a sentence or phrase has different underlying structures. For instance, in the sentence ”The boy hit the dog with a stick” and ”visiting parents can at times be boring.“ The ambiguity here is structural because the phrases can be structurally interpreted in two different ways. Another example is this ”John knows a rich man than Bill Gates”. The two meanings in the sentence are such as, John is a person who is richer than Bill Gates. The second meaning is that John knows a man who is richer than any person that Bill Gates knows. However, one would wonder about the following sentence, ”Freddie loves his dad and so does Edwin”? The sentence could mean that Freddie loves his Dad and also loves Edwin too. Otherwise, it could also mean that both Freddie and Edwin love their Dad.

However, the question is whether the sentence really ambiguous. Someone could argue that the clause phrase so does Edwin is unambiguous. The reason is that it can be read unequivocally to mean that Edwin does what Freddie does. Despite this, there are two possibilities that can be viewed as the same thing due to alternatives being not semantically fixed. In such a case, the ambiguity is, therefore, described as semantic ambiguity under determination. However, one should ask whether the sentence is really ambiguous. One might argue that the clause so does Edwin is not ambiguous. It is because it may be read unequivocally as saying in the context that Edwin does the same thing that Freddie does. Although there are different possibilities for what can be termed as doing the same thing, these alternatives are not fixed semantically. Hence the ambiguity is just apparent since it is better described as semantic under determination (Tytler & Huntsman, 2008).

Lexically, a word could be polysemic. It means that the word could be having a meaning that dominates over the other one. It has some meanings that when spoken or written, a listener or reader easily associates the word with one sense and not the other one. Therefore, it means that some ambiguous words can either be dominant or have subordinate syntactic structures. From the authors above, phrases that change from one state to another are not dominant. This type of ambiguity is usually common when translating cultural terms from English to Arabic. The lexicalist sentence theory explains that when a reader or listener is exposed to different syntactic structures, he/she will most probably associate the sentence to the syntactic context familiar to him/her. Contextual and semantic information helps in resolving ambiguities.

Further Examples of Ambiguity

The sentence with more than one representation is syntactically or semantically ambiguous.
Semantic ambiguity relies on the meaning of a phrase or phrases which can be misinterpreted.
Syntactic ambiguity means that for the ambiguity to be seen, the words have to be used in a sentence to cause misinterpretation. The word order here could result in a different meaning; and whether the word is used as a verb or as a noun (Bermann & Wood, 2012).

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Ambiguity in Spoken Language

There is an example, ”I intend to give him a ring tomorrow.“ The sentence has two meanings. One is that he intends to call him the following day; and second one is that he intends to give him a ring, in this case, jewelry. This sentence is, therefore, the example of ambiguity in a spoken language.
Another example is, ”I know a girl with a cat who has fleas.“ The sentence is unclear in the sense that it could mean a girl or a cat which has fleas. In this case, it is syntactically ambiguous because the syntax, and not the words, is not clear. In order to understand the meanings of ambiguous sentences, the words can be expressed in a different way or use grammatical terms to explain how the words function and the structures of sentences (Becker, 2011).
Another example is in this sentence, ”Mine exploded.“ The first meaning of this sentence is that ”the one that belonged to me exploded.“ While the second sense is that the device which was explosive exploded. Grammatically, the first meaning of this sentence describes the first person possessive pronoun and verb, while the second sense is a noun and a verb.

Ambiguity in Read and Written Language

Tytler and Huntsman (2008) say that ambiguity in writing is not a bad thing. It actually stimulates the reader to think broadly as he reads on a subject matter. Ambiguity is used by authors and writers as a linguistic device that strengthens the written literature in different ways. For example, ambiguity can be used by a writer at the beginning of a story. Ambiguity, being contradictory or confusing, then draws the attention of the reader. The one is curious to solve a mystery in the ambiguity and will, therefore, have the urge to read on. In most cases, ambiguity will be cleared at the end of the piece of literature. The initial confusion is important as it can create some interest or conflict (Tytler & Huntsman, 2008).

According to Bermann and Wood (2012), a perfect example of using ambiguity in the start of the written paper is found in the famous novel A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. The opening sentence in the novel is very ambiguous because the author keeps confusing readers with words that have opposite meanings. For example, he says that it was one of the worst times and one of the best ones. He also states in the first sentence that there was winter and summer at the same time, and that there was darkness and light at once. These statements are contradictory. Due to the ambiguity in them, the reader is keen to read on so as to determine what unfolds. In writing, being clear and concise is important. The use of ambiguity strengthens a piece of writing (Becker, 2011).


In English, there are genders: neuter, feminine, and masculine. Meanwhile other languages like Arabic have two genders only: feminine and masculine. In English, just a few nouns are categorized based on gender (Bermann & Wood, 2012). Adjectives and verbs do not have gender, and it is where ambiguity in translation emerges from. Linguistic clues are very important for language translation as they help a person to disambiguate. There are certain fields of human activities that ambiguity should be avoided. They include contracts, business agreements, and legal proceedings. The wordings in such settings should not have more than one meaning. In conclusion, it is clear that language ambiguity can either be a blessing or a curse for translation.

A word or a phrase can be described as ambiguous if it can be understood in several different ways. It is various from vagueness though. Vagueness occurs when the meaning is indistinct. It occurs in contrast between standard definitions and can be understood differently. Ambiguity is not a figurative device that can be chosen for decoration. However, it links content and its form indirectly and arbitrarily. In ordinary English, ambiguity is very common though one tends not to notice it. The reason is that the context within which the word or sentence is used just selects one correct meaning.

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