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The evolution of gender, language and translation

By Katie Reed | May 25, 2023 | Blog Translation Tips


Language has always evolved to accommodate sociocultural changes, but not all languages will adapt in the same fashion, or at the same pace. Consequently, when societal shifts happen, how that change is reflected by different languages may vary greatly. 

As self-confessed word geeks, TLF is interested in all changes to language and making sure our team can adapt translation projects to keep up with ever-changing cultural norms. For this blog, we asked some of our expert linguists for their take on the challenges of gender-specific language and emerging changes and trends.


The rise of gender-neutral language

Recent years have seen a change in the way gender is approached in the world as a whole and in the language we use. Traditional use of only male and female genders has been expanded to include gender-neutral and non-binary people. Market research for example has adapted the question, ‘Are you male or female?’ to include options such as ‘non-binary’ or ‘prefer not to say.’ This trend towards more widespread use of gender-neutral language offers increased inclusivity, but can be challenging to replicate in other languages, which might be structured differently or be limited to traditional genders.

Use of gender in different languages

Each language uses gender differently with some, such as English, revealing gender through the use of pronouns (e.g., he, she or they). Others, such as Turkish, don’t, instead employing a single word ’o’ for he, she and it. That said, you wouldn’t often see ‘o’ as a stand-alone word, as Turkish incorporates many parts of speech into words through different syllables, such as ‘gidiyorum’ (I am going), ‘gidiyorsun’ (you are going) and ‘gidiyor’ (he/she/it is going). The fact that he, she and it use the same form means you can talk about a stranger endlessly without revealing their gender (or whether they are human or a pet, for that matter!)

In other languages, the endings of nouns or adjectives can change depending on the gender of the speaker or person being referred to. A gender-neutral approach in the source may be difficult to present in a translation.

Some languages have a default masculine form, such as German (as we’ll see later), Arabic and Spanish where a mixed group of women and men are usually described by the masculine form. One way to deal with this issue may be to add a small note to state that the text is meant for all genders, something often used in Hebrew, for example. It’s not a gender-neutral approach but does at least acknowledge a mixed audience.

Another method is to amend case endings to a more inclusive style. For example some Spanish speakers add ‘@’ ‘e’ or ‘x’ as a gender-neutral option such as in the words ‘niñ@ buen@’ (good child), ‘todes’ (everyone), or ‘lxs amigxs’ (the friends).

Some languages are creating new non-binary terms to increase inclusion. For example Japanese speakers are using the ‘X-gender’ (Xジェンダー: Ekkus-Jendaa) or ‘other’ (その他: Sonota), but as the language itself doesn’t use ‘he’ or ‘she’ very often and the endings of nouns and adjectives don’t change it’s less of an issue.

In Mandarin Chinese there are three third person singular pronouns: 他 (ta ‘he’), 她 (ta ‘she’), and 它 (ta ‘it’) and, while they have different written forms, the pronunciations are identical (tā). In spoken Mandarin, ‘tā’ is/was gender-neutral, referring to all genders or none, but in 2015, in response to the gender-neutral debate, a new pronoun ‘X也’ was introduced as a gender-fluid pronoun. Also pronounced ‘tā’, it is only relevant when used in the written form. In general, though, the issue of non-binary pronouns hasn’t drawn as much attention in China as it has in other countries.

In German, gender-sensitive or non-binary language is still very much at the ‘awkward stage’ with no clear solutions or consensus. German nouns are not gender neutral – they have a gender indicated by different articles and endings (as opposed to English, for example). Traditionally, the ‘generic masculine’ of a noun would have been used for all people, with women (and non-binary people) included by implication. For example, the masculine plural ‘Studenten’ (students) is used to apply to men and women, but the feminine plural ‘Studentinnen’ is used to mean women only. Understandably, this convention has come in for criticism as discriminatory, reflecting patriarchal social structures and reinforcing gender stereotypes.

Therefore, to reflect both genders, variations like Studentinnen und Studenten, Student/innen, Student_innen, StudentInnen or Student*innen have become more widely used, each with their advocates and detractors. Added to that, recent voices have pointed out that even these solutions only reflect the male and female gender and by definition are ‘binary’, with non-binary people being implied rather than explicitly included. As in many cultures, attempts are being made to make German more gender-sensitive and awareness is growing, but it’s a gradual process.


The value of the human touch

Gender inclusivity in language goes hand in hand with awareness of a broad range of cultural sensitivities and norms, which is one of the many reasons that expert human translation is such a valuable tool. An experienced translator is aware of the cultural context around gender-neutral language in both your source and target languages, so they can maintain your tone and intended message, and elicit the intended response from the reader.


How TLF can help your translations use gender-neutral language?

Machines may be playing an increasing role in translation, but they still have a long way to go in keeping up with and matching the sensitivity of human translators in the evolution of language.

Contact TLF to discuss how we can help you maintain cultural sensitivity and inclusivity in your next translation project.





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