The Swedish Gender-Neutral Pronoun and Translation

Marketers are the new avant-garde of language. They say “blogebrity” without a blink and don’t care if “I’m loving it” is good English.

But this time around the guardians of the orthodoxy were the ones feeling adventurous. The Swedish Academy has added to the official dictionary the gender-neutral pronoun hen, to replace han and hon, “he” and “she”, when a person’s gender is unknown or insignificant.

It’s fitting that Sweden be the first country to ‘create’ this type of a pronoun. After all, Sweden is one of the most gender-equal countries in the world and the Swedish ad with a little Spiderman pushing his pink pram is not a cultural outlier.

As for translators translating into or from Swedish, they may not be in trouble as yet. Thierry Jamez, a Belgian translator specializing in the Swedish language and culture, told me: “Right now there are not enough clues to enable us, translators and linguists, to accurately predict the future of the gender-neutral pronoun.”

But if businesses do adopt this pronoun extensively, translators may soon need to figure out how to convert it into languages that lack an equivalent.

A Challenge for Translators Everywhere

The new pronoun will affect translation into Swedish, as there is no translation memory associated with the use of this pronoun. But it will be even more of a problem translating out of Swedish, due to the absence of an equivalent term.

The English language’s alternative to a gender-neutral pronoun has pretty much come to be “they”, though grammarians didn’t initially agree. Curiously, “they” was itself borrowed into English from the Scandinavian language family about a thousand years ago.

Translators working into languages that have masculine and feminine grammatical genders may find dealing with the new gender-neutral pronoun to be Mission Impossible. Verb gender exists in many Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages, and in other language families such as Dravidian and Northeast Caucasian. Working with these tongues demands the application of more elaborate guidelines to engineer a gender-neutral and inclusive language.

Are Swedish Companies Following the Lead of the Swedish Academy?

The use of the pronoun “hen” has yet to become common. Businesses are aware that using “hen” is for now a question of gender political positioning, as in the opinion of some linguists there were already available solutions in the Swedish language. The pronoun was first introduced in the 1960’s and back then it fizzled out without a trace.

It’s true that marketers like to innovate in linguistic matters. But when we are talking about function words, the grammatical plumbing like prepositions and pronouns, they have to wait in line and see what everybody else is going to do.

Only time will determine if the gender-neutral pronoun imposes itself in Sweden, and then, if other languages adopt in the future some equivalent formula that may help translators. Language is flexible, but only so much.