Are you struggling with how to work with gendered language and how to translate gender? If so, you’re certainly not alone - and Tomedes is here to help. This can be a sensitive area of language for a whole bunch of reasons. I’ll look at some of those below, but when it comes to translating gendered language there are also practical considerations to think through. How do you convey gendered nouns into a language that doesn’t use them? What about languages that use three genders, or five? When it comes to translating gender can be a tricky topic. And that’s before we even begin to think about machine translation and gender…
I’m sensing already that this could turn into quite a lengthy article, but bear with me. It’s an important topic for anyone who has to translate gender as part of their work. Get it wrong and your translation will be inaccurate at best and offensive at worst. Let’s dive in and look at gender, language, culture and more – and how translators can navigate all of these successfully.
Gendered language is a huge topic. Did you know, for example, that research has shown that gender prejudice exists more in gendered languages? And that women earn less in countries that use gendered languages? According to a World Bank study of 4,000 languages, accounting for 99% of the global population, 38% of people speak a gendered language. The study found that:
“Gendered languages are associated with worse labor market participation rates for women and more regressive gender norms.”
With that context in mind, let’s start with the basics and define gendered language. A gendered language is one where the majority of nouns are either male or female. Examples include Hindi, Spanish, French and Portuguese. In Spanish, for example, a tree is male (‘el árbol’), while in Portuguese it is female (a árvore).
This does not mean that all other languages are genderless, however. There are genderless languages out there – Bengali, Japanese and Turkish, among others – but there are also languages that sit halfway between the two. These are referred to as ‘natural gender’ languages. They are languages that don’t use gendered nouns but that do use gendered pronouns.
English is an example of a natural gender language. While it doesn’t use gendered nouns (let’s ignore the whole blond/blonde discussion for today), it does use gendered pronouns, with ‘he/him’ for males and ‘she/her’ for females.
Knowing how to approach the need to translate gender is fundamental to the work of a translator. Getting it wrong could lead to inaccuracy and confusion in the translation. It could also, in certain situations, lead to offence.
Gender can be a sensitive subject. It can be deeply personal, as gender is a fundamental part of our identity, whether we identify as transgender, nonbinary, genderfluid, genderqueer, cisgender or anything else. Social, cultural, religious and historical factors all influence the way that societies and individuals feel about gender, meaning that it can be a highly emotive topic.
I’m going to stick with looking at gender from a language perspective today – specifically, from a translation perspective. Nonetheless, it’s important to understand the context of how the discourse around gender has shifted in recent years, particularly in many western countries.
We’re thinking much more about how we speak about gender now. In Canada in 2017, eight-month-old Searyl Atli made headlines when she became the first baby in the country to be issued a health card without a gender marker, effectively removing the potential for gender bias in the way she is treated as she is raised. In Germany, in 2018, the government introduced a law that allowed for a third gender to be recognised on legal documents. Our conversations, laws and mindsets are broadening to encompass less binary definitions of gender. And so are our languages.
In contemporary English, for example, pronouns are changing. She/her, he/him, they/them, ze/zir, ze/hir, xe/zem, zie/hir, xe/xem and ey/em are all in use. In France, impassioned debate is taking place around gendered language and ‘écriture inclusive’ (inclusive writing), which a series of laws have tried to stamp out of classrooms, in favour of traditional, gendered language.
These shifting linguistic landscapes can make life tough for translators. So let’s turn now to looking at translation gender issues. Those who translate gender as part of their work have three main issues to address, so let’s look at each of these.
Grammatical gender describes nouns that are assigned genders – as I mentioned above using the example of trees being masculine in Spanish but feminine in Portuguese. Some languages also use neuter nouns, which are neither masculine nor feminine.
This means that a translator who is working on converting a document from English to French (for example), needs to translate gender accurately for each noun. This kind of translation from a natural gender language to a gendered language also means paying particular attention to verb endings and adjectives, which may also change within gendered language as a result of the particular noun being used.
Genderless or natural gender language to gendered language can also mean the translator needs more context. For example, should ‘the child’ in English become ‘la niña’ or ‘el niño’ in Spanish? You see my point.
If a document talks about someone being a ‘teacher’, do you assume they are male or female? A whole range of societal assumptions come into play here. Picture a primary school teacher in the UK, for example, and you’ll likely be imagining a woman. Picture a firefighter and chances are you’ll visualise a man.
Our relationship with such societal assumptions is changing – but slowly. Translation gender issues can arise as a result of our ingrained assumptions. They can also be impacted by changes in language, such as the expansion of the range of pronouns being used in modern-day English, a non-exhaustive list of which I included above. This means that translators need to be careful of their own assumptions and sensitive to the context of the translation at all times.
In South Sulawesi, the Bugis people have five genders: men, women, ‘calalai’, ‘calabai’ and ‘bissu’. All five co-exist harmoniously, in line with the Bugis’ cultural beliefs. How, then, does a translator capture such deep-rooted distinctions when translating into English? And which pronouns should be used? I don’t propose to answer these questions definitively today, but it’s interesting that, over the years, translators have progressed from translating ‘bissu’ to ‘transvestite priest’ to ‘gender transcendent’, which at least comes a little closer to conveying a great deal of cultural context into just two words.
With grammatical gender, the assignation of a noun as either masculine or feminine is often arbitrary and does not relate to the item being described. With semantic gender, the meaning of the noun does determine its gender. A bachelor, husband, stallion or cockerel, for example, is male; a wife, sister, mare or hen is female. Again, something that translators need to factor into their work when they translate gender terms.
There’s a fine balance between remaining true to the source document and producing a translation that applies gender neutral language. The client’s wishes will come into play here, of course, but there are certain tips that translators can keep in mind in order to produce more gender neutral translations.
The first tip is to consider the use of gender neutral terms wherever feasible - police officer instead of policeman, firefighter instead of fireman, server instead of waitress, and so on. Of course, this quickly comes unstuck when translating into a language that forces a choice between two gendered nouns (and where other elements of the sentence must be treated differently based on that choice), but it’s still a desirable approach wherever it is possible.
If you’re in the position of having to choose between a masculine or feminine word (let’s say you’re translating from English into Portuguese and have to use either the feminine ‘doutora’ or the masculine ‘doutor’ for ‘doctor’), then it’s time to consider context and societal assumptions. Should you use ‘doutor’ and conform to ingrained gender bias, opt for ‘doutora’ and chance confusing the reader or try and find a gender neutral term that risks making the text less clear?
As I’ve mentioned, dialogue with the client is important here, as they may have a clear preference on how to treat such issues. Another option is to use ‘doutor/doutora’ if doing so would serve within the context of the document.
There is no single, definitive correct approach here. The same is true with pronouns - the treatment of them will depend on the context and the languages in question. What is key is that the translator keep up with current thinking on gender neutral pronouns in the languages with which they work.
In English, it’s possible to use ‘they’ and ‘their’ to refer to an individual when their gender - as I did in the preceding sentence and in this one. However, this isn’t possible in languages where ‘they’ and ‘their’ only have masculine and feminine terms. In this case, the translator will need to look at more recently introduced gender neutral terms, which many languages are now using. Many of these terms are still subject to debate, so again dialogue with the client is important.
As well as using nouns that are always a certain gender, gendered languages may also use male and female versions of the same word. Job descriptions are a prime example of this. In German, for example, a male teacher is a ‘Lehrer’ while a female teacher is a ‘Lehrerin’. In Portuguese, it’s ‘professor’ or ‘professora.’ In Spanish it’s ‘profesor’ or ‘profesora’. And so on and so forth with different languages and different professions.
For a human translator, this can cause issues if they don’t have enough context to know the gender of the teacher. For a machine, even with context provided, the translation quickly becomes inaccurate.
I quickly put Google Translate to the test with the ‘teacher’ example. I entered “I am a teacher” with no context. This produced translations that used ‘Lehrer’ in German and ‘professor’ in Portuguese, with Google Translate assuming in both cases that I am a male teacher. In Spanish, it gave me two options, using ‘profesor’ and ‘profesora’ with a note that translations are gender-specific – a step in the right direction, at least.
Next, I introduced context: “My teacher is helpful. She helps me learn.” A simple couple of sentences that make it explicitly clear that I am talking about a female teacher. The results speak for themselves.
German: Mein Lehrer ist hilfreich. Sie hilft mir beim Lernen.
Portuguese: Meu professor é útil. Ela me ajuda a aprender.
Spanish: Mi profesor es útil. Ella me ayuda a aprender.
Despite the additional context, with the use of the word ‘she’, both the German and Portuguese translations still assign a male gendered word. The only difference here is that the Spanish translation now does too – a step backwards from the previous translation.
The point here is not to bash machine translation in general – it’s simply to showcase the importance of outstanding quality assurance processes when it comes to machine translations, including those to and from gendered languages. You can read more about how to assess the quality of translation via the link below.
Read more: How Is Machine Translation Quality Assessed?
When it comes to how to translate gendered language, translation agencies need to ensure they have robust processes in place. At Tomedes, this starts from our initial discussions with each of the translation professionals with whom we work. Certainly, we ensure that each of our translators has outstanding language skills, but we also look for individuals who are specialists in particular fields and who keep their language skills fresh. That includes keeping up with recent language developments and having their finger on the pulse of societal shifts in attitude (and accompanying linguistic evolution).
Quality assurance also plays a big part in Tomedes’ approach to tackling gender neutrality issues and creating accurate translations of gendered languages. We ensure that every translation is carefully reviewed before it is shared with the client. This includes an awareness of gender bias and the need to use accurate and appropriate gendered, natural gender and genderless language, as befits the context of each document.
I hope that the above has inspired you to pause and think about the treatment of gender in the translation process. It’s not always easy to translate gender but doing so is often an everyday part of a translator’s work. As such, it’s something that it’s worth stepping back and thinking about from time to time, particularly given the shifting context in many societies around gender and gender bias these days.
If you have any questions relating to translation gender issues or have a document to translate in a natural gender language, English, please feel free to speak to the Tomedes team today.