Gender awareness in Hebrew FOSS translations

Shlomi Loubaton shlomister at
Mon Jul 5 01:13:18 IDT 2010

Hi ,

I would like to start a discussion regarding this issue and I think this
list might be the right place to start it since I believe the problem can be
solved by patching the gettext project.

The problem
(If you understand the problem and agree it is a problem then please skip to
the "suggested solution" part below)

When a computer program addresses the user it's not aware of the user's
gender and in Hebrew it makes a difference since the grammar is different
when a male or female are addressed.
Lets take a simple example like "Select the packages for installation".
The current state in most GNOME translations is that all users are referred
as male beings by default and the above string used to be translated to:
"בחר חבילות להתקנה"

This form of translation is considered offensive or uncomfortable by some
users since it addresses only 49% of the potential users by gender.
Recently, several Ubuntu and GNOME Translators have begun using
"non-genderic" translation which is insensitive to the user's gender and
GNOME is right now in the process of transforming to use this form (which
means mixed forms in the next few months, in all distributions). This, in
some cases, forces translators to use a passive form of the translated
sentence (and sometimes even use a plural form) which leads to translations
like these for the above example:
"יש לבחור חבילות להתקנה".
"בחרו חבילות להתקנה"
"בחר/י חבילות להתקנה"

(All 3 forms currently exist in different sub-projects included in GNOME,
Debian and Ubuntu)
I can provide references to numerous examples in which the new way of
translating just sounds ridicules, loses original meaning or just doesn't
sound right but I would not like to do so to avoid de-motivation of people
who worked hard to make Hebrew speaking Linux come true.

Actions in Program menu bars were also transformed into the passive form.
(SIDE NOTE: I must say, I don't exactly understand the reason for doing
that. In my opinion it's perfectly logical to command the computer to
perform a specific action , like "שמור" which is now translated to "שמירה"
in the passive form and since a computer is usually referred as "male
object" in Hebrew it's fine by me, while other objects are referred in
female forms, like Operating Systems, for example, and if someone says
"המערכת הופעלה" I don't find myself offended by it - therefore,it is not
clear to me why someone found it offensive).

To conclude I would like to note that in my opinion
passive/non-gender-specific translation doesn't sound natural and I fear
this might harm FOSS image in Israel and fuel FUD. While all other Hebrew
programs speak a certain language, ours will speak a strange dialect and
will look totally unprofessional.

Suggested solution

I believe that if something like that bothers FOSS users then it should and
can be fixed using technological means. The place to fix such issue is the
gettext project. Just like gettext can deal with multiple plural forms
(there are more than two in some languages) in different languages, It
should also be able to deal with multiple gender forms.

This is just a draft of what I have in mind:

In the Hebrew PO header the translators would define:
Gender-Forms: ngenders=2; 0=MALE, 1=FEMALE;
(which means there are two gender forms. 1 represents female while 0
represents male)

In the translation itself we'll use something like:
msgstr[,0] "male addressed"
msgstr[,1] "female addressed"

Or, if it's combined with plural forms:
msgstr[1,0] "male addressed"
msgstr[2,1] "female addressed"

As you can see, an additional dimension will be added to enable combination
of different gender forms with different plural forms.

In user space, just like a user has $LANG, $USERNAME and $LC_* environment
variables which provide information about the user, he/she will have a
$USERGENDER environment variable which will be set to MALE or FEMALE:
Then all programs utilizing gettext will read this variable and will be able
to select the right translation using this additional information. Later on
we'll have distributions asking for users gender during installation and
setting this parameter will be well hidden behind a nice GUI.

Well, That's only one initial idea.... anyway.

While that may sound a bit too complicated I believe it provides the best
solution and the right way to do it. I also understand that this may take
weeks or months or even years to refine , improve and get gettext
maintainers to implement it or roll our own patch and hope it gets accepted.

  Shlomi Loubaton.
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