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I'm translating a novel from Spanish to English, and in the very first chapter there's a sentence that roughly translates as "we followed a strict diet, especially after She appeared". In this case, she refers to leukemia, which is a feminine noun in Spanish.

Logically, in English I should use it, but there's a caveat: the disease isn't disclosed in the book until much, much later, and the use of she is intentional to avoid mentioning the disease, so it would likely give away too much and spoil the intended effect.

So the use of a personal pronoun (he/she) seems preferable in this case, but I'm unsure how to proceed, as using the feminine pronoun she works best in the context but I don't want any gender-based discord.

Any suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks!

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    That would not be at all idiomatic in US English. I wonder if you couldn't find another term ("critter" might work in the US) that would provide the associations you need.
    – Hot Licks
    Apr 10, 2020 at 17:10
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    I would look at it as a literary device... maybe personification. Nothing wrong with that, especially as you have a "reveal" at the end of the story. But this is writing advice, something we don't normally do here. // BTW, was "ella" capitalized in the original? If so, then I would definitely use "She". Apr 10, 2020 at 17:21
  • Could alternativley try "the appearance", leaving questions of person/gender out 'till you're ready for the reveal. Apr 10, 2020 at 17:30
  • possible dupe: "Using she with gender neutral nouns" Apr 10, 2020 at 17:46
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    Good point, @Rattler, "Ella" is capitalized in the original. And it's also an "ella" who gets sick, which is what the author is playing with, so I think sticking with "She" (personification as a literary device) is probably the best bet.
    – akando
    Apr 10, 2020 at 19:21

2 Answers 2

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I would stick with she. The reason because that is how the author perceives it. Even more with how this writing is a novel and not an academic writing. in this book with the disease; who is the person that has this disease and what is their gender?

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I recommend using a gender-neutral phrase like "the thing" or "it" to refer to the disease.

I'm fluent in both Spanish and English and understand why 'she' was used in the original text (la enfermedad, or illness, is feminine). However, as a native English speaker, it sounds unnatural to refer to diseases as 'she'. For example, news broadcasts do not refer to Covid-19 as 'she' or 'he'.

Using 'she' inevitably leads a reader to form certain impressions of this unknown 'thing'. Using 'she' gives the impression that the thing is a living creature (a human or animal) or a certain prized possession (like a valued car or yacht). This would create certain connotations that don't seem to align with the idea you want to convey.

This can be avoided using a neutral yet still generic term like "the thing" or "it".

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  • More importantly, Spanish does not have a true equivalent to "it"; there is no neuter pronoun, even in the plural, so Spanish has to use "he" or "she" (or rather "el" or "ella") to refer to everything, even inanimates. This creates an ambiguity in the Spanish that simply cannot exist in the English, namely "does this pronoun refer to a person or an object?"
    – No Name
    May 19, 2023 at 1:17

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