I am translating a poem from Korean. The poet is deliberately avoiding a gender reference (or, deeming it unnecessary) by using a neutral impersonal pronoun. In Korean there are generally few inbuilt gender markers; you have to put them in deliberately. The poet here does not specify. The context seems to refer to a woman, because as far as I know he speaks of his wife, but judging from the language I thought he meant for this poem to appeal to anyone in any relationship - be that friendship, romantic, hetero or homo-sexual etc. There is also a contrast between the impersonal pronoun in the beginning and a switch to a personal pronoun in the end when he refers to his companion. I want to preserve that too.

So how can I refer to this person? "They" is just aesthetically displeasing to me for some reason, and may even confuse someone into thinking the poet is actually referring to a plural number of people rather than one. I tried it, and I can see how it could make it confusing. "He or she" is even worse, it sounds a document, and is very clumsy to fit into poetic structure. I don't want to use 'you' because the poet is using an impersonal pronoun, and I'm sure he has a reason. Is there any other way?

Here is a draft of my translation using 'they' as an interim. It is a beautiful poem. The title is 'Flower'.

Before I called their name

They were but a gesture, no more.

Yet when I called their name

They came to me

And became my flower.

Now I call out

To anyone out there

Of colour, and scent akin to mine:

Please, call my name.

I want to be called,

By such a kindred spirit

And to come to them.

To become their flower.

We all of us want

To become something.

You to me, and I to you

Want to become

Just one meaning

To never be forgotten.

  • 1
    AFAIK, you or they are the only pronouns available in English if you want to stay gender neutral and keep it human. Both sound fine to me when I insert them into the text, but it would be nice to have a non-gendered, but specific, word for use in English. Perhaps you can use the Korean text and make a footnote?
    – Genxthis
    Jun 11, 2016 at 9:31
  • "Soul" is a popular term in some genres, and there are of course more clinical terms such as "person". And "one" is a useful pronoun in some cases.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 11, 2016 at 11:23

1 Answer 1


When writing original work, one solution is to use constructions like "my love", "my friend", or dropping the possessive with "the" or "that" (as in "before I called the name").

The problem with this is of course that as you are doing a translation you may not feel you have the latitude to introduce additional meaning.

I would probably use "they / them / their" and footnote it.

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