The notion of gender and gendered language is a topic that is often in the spotlight lately. It can be difficult to learn how to properly use gender-inclusive language, let alone translate it into and from English. Here are some tips on how to properly translate gendered words between languages.
What is gender-inclusive language?
Gender-inclusive language, also known as gender-neutral language, aims to describe people while avoiding any reference to gender. The United Nations has developed a set of resources to facilitate gender-inclusive communication in the six official languages of the UN: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish. This resource explains that “using gender-inclusive language means speaking and writing in a way that does not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity, and does not perpetuate gender stereotypes.”
Gender-inclusive language is a main facilitator of diversity and promotes inclusivity on any level of social life. More and more businesses have realized the importance of using gender-inclusive language as a sign of respect to their partners, employees, and customers. It has become one of the main corporate values to nurture within a company. Training employees on how to properly use gender-inclusive language can also be an initiative to overcome language barriers in the workplace.
Cultural differences in gender-related language
To apply gender-inclusive language, it is necessary to realize that there are three main types of languages based on how gender is used:
- Gendered languages – these are languages that have grammatical and pronominal gender. In other words, all or most of the nouns are female or male and have to be in morphological agreement with the associated pronouns, adjectives, articles, and verbs. For example, Spanish, German, French, Portuguese, Hindi, Russian, Bulgarian, and most Slavonic languages are gendered.
- Genderless languages – these languages have no distinction of grammatical gender, hence no morphological agreement for gender is required between nouns and the pronouns, adjectives, articles, and verbs associated with them. For example, Japanese, Armenian, Georgian, Turkish, Hungarian, and Finnish are genderless languages.
- Natural gender languages – these languages are gender-free grammatically, e.g., they do not use gendered nouns, however, they have natural gender as a semantic concept and use gendered pronouns. English is the most popular example of this type of language.
It is important to point out that genderless does not equal gender-neutral or gender-inclusive. It is, however, easier to use gender-inclusive language while speaking and writing in a genderless language since it excludes most options of reinforcing gender-related stereotypes.
Natural gender languages have also developed a system to introduce gender inclusivity. In English, for example, the pronoun they is used in singular form when referring to a single person to avoid the pronouns he or she. The incorporation of gender-inclusive language is also much easier in this type of language.
The hardest languages in which to be gender-inclusive are gendered languages. For example, while most professions in English are represented with the same word, in gendered languages there are different words if the professional is a man or a woman. One option in such cases is to write both words with a slash to indicate both genders. Another issue with gendered languages is that many of them are quite rigid and not prone to changes or the adoption of new ideas and notions. In many of these languages, the masculine pronoun he is used to substitute for a person in general. The same goes for all verbs, adjectives, etc. that describe the person when a group of people is addressed with a masculine pronoun and the related semantic tools are also used. This is valid for a group of men or a mixed group of men and women. When a group of women is mentioned, all language figures are female. In a business environment, companies can benefit from corporate translation and language learning as efficient leverages of diversity and inclusivity.
How to incorporate gender-inclusive language in translation
Considering all the above, translating from a genderless or gender natural language into a gendered language and vice versa is quite challenging. The translator needs to consider all of the specific linguistic and cultural differences to produce a translation that does not sound offensive in the given language.
The most important tip for properly using gender-inclusive language in translation is to keep open communication with the client. Check with the client to see whether they would like gender-inclusive language to be used in the translated text and give them the advantages and disadvantages of doing so. Also, explain that in certain languages it may not be possible to translate the complete notion of gender-natural language as such simply does not exist.
When translating into English, here are some strategies that can help you use gender-inclusive language in translation:
- Use non-discriminatory language. When addressing a person, use the right title and form of address that corresponds to their identity.
- Use gender-neutral terms when possible. Avoid words such as policeman, fireman, waitress, and actress that refer to a specific gender and use substitutes like police officer, firefighter, etc.
- Avoid expressions that are related to gender stereotypes such as girls can’t fight, this is a man’s job or similar collocations.
- Use plural to avoid gendered pronouns. Opt for they and themselves not for he or she and himself or herself.
- Omit gendered words whenever possible to write a sentence without them – instead of it will take him a lot of effort to do it, go for it will take a lot of effort to do it.
- Use passive voice as an option to omit a gendered word. Instead of the author is signing his book, opt for the book is being signed by the author.
- Use one instead of he or she.
Keep in mind that every language is unique, and each target audience has specific cultural assumptions related to gender that should be considered when incorporating gender-inclusive language in translation.