Gender neutral translations

I’m doing a French to English translation now that’s rather literary. The original author uses a lot of what we’d refer to in English as “he/man language.” French doesn’t have an “it” and “they” can’t be used to refer to one person of either gender.

It’s still really common to hear homme (man) refer to humanity, and il (he) refer to an individual. But it’s also common to hear the individual referred to as une personne (a person) and later referred back to with elle (she) because the word personne is feminine.

The important thing is to get the author’s intent across in English, and I’m trying to fine-tune my reading to see whether L’homme (Man) refers to an outdated form of gender-exclusive language, as sometimes occurs in English; men as a gender specifically and intentionally; or humans as gender-neutral as one can get in French, which would require me to get as gender-neutral as I can in English.

Wikipedia has an example of an excerpt that shows that the gender-neutral he/man language isn’t really gender-neutral in English:

“As for man, he is no different from the rest. His back aches, he ruptures easily, his women have difficulties in childbirth….”

The thing is, my partner says there’s nothing wrong in French with translating the last clause there as il a des difficultés pendant l’accouchement (he has difficulties in childbirth). Since the assumption is that L’homme really is a way to refer to the entire species and il is just the French way to say “it,” saying that “he” has problems in childbirth isn’t really an issue.

So now the challenge is to decide what each instance of what appears to be he/man language (to me as an American) is referring to, taking into account that the apparently gender-neutral term might be referring to an individual of unknown gender assumed to be male (the text is a woman discussing prehistoric painters, who, by virtue of being prehistoric, are of unknown gender but often stereotyped as male) or is actually referring to L’homme as a species, a nuance that many French people don’t really even think about but that is needed in the English language.


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