A colleague contacted me for help. She had to translate a sentence containing "Alaska", and was wondering how to deal with its gender. Her dictionary was telling her that Alaska is masculine, but she thought it should be feminine, as the -a ending is normally associated with the feminine form.
This is a common issue with proper nouns, which don’t necessarily have a clear gender. There is no neutral pronoun in French and so it can be difficult to decide whether something is male or female: is February a "il" or a "elle"?
There is a general rule that says that, when in doubt, a noun should be awarded the gender of the generic noun it’s linked to. For example, Paris is "la ville de Paris", and will be considered female. February is a month (un mois, masculine) and hence a he. However, a problem arises when a noun can be associated with several generic nouns. Alaska could be seen as a State (un État, masculine) or a region (une région, feminine). That’s when translators start reaching for headache tablets.
To get around this problem, I have a little trick that helps me deal with the situation : I displace the gender issue altogether.
For example, if I had to translate
Alaska is colder than Morocco
I wouldn’t try and decide whether it should be
L’Alaska est plus froid que le Maroc
or
L’Alaska est plus froide que le Maroc
I would simply enrich the sentence to get rid of the issue, for example:
Le climat de l’Alaska est plus froid que celui du Maroc (Alaska’s climate is colder than Morocco’s).
The adjective "froid" isn’t associated with the gender-confused "Alaska" any more, but with the very male "climat".
Another example, which can be useful when translating marketing materials:
Fabulouspots is present in 75 countries
becomes
La société Fabulouspots est implantée dans 75 pays
Et voilà !