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Translation at the Crossroads: Gender Neutrality

Translation at the Crossroads: Gender Neutrality

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Gender neutrality has been troubling linguists for the last decade, and rightfully so. How do we express it? Some languages have had a way to express it, while others have created one to be politically correct. What is that politically correct way to express gender neutrality, and how do you render it through translation?

In 2006, the #MeToo movement signalled the alarm against gender inequality and abuse. The impact was so significant that the European Parliament revisited its language and communication guidelines in 2018, taking the form they have today – Gender-Neutral Language in the European Parliament. These guidelines were updated to reflect the linguistic, social and cultural shifts of the past ten years, emphasising the responsibility that international organisations have to observe gender sensitivity in written communication, translation, and interpreting.
According to the guidelines, gender-neutral language is “a generic term covering the use of non-sexist language, inclusive language or gender-fair language.” The purpose of gender-neutral language as defined by the European Parliament is to “avoid word choices that may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm”. Language is, therefore, a mirror of prevailing attitudes and habits able to minimise gender stereotyping and bring about social change.
From a translation standpoint, these guidelines are an invaluable source of information as to how gender neutrality should be conveyed into other languages. As people of words, translators and writers have the same duty to acknowledge the impact of their word choices because “Language does not merely reflect the way we think: it also shapes our thinking. If words and expressions that imply that women or men are inferior are constantly used, that assumption of inferiority tends to become part of our mindset…” (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Guidelines on Gender-Neutral Language, 1999).

The role of the translator

Arguably, translators must convey the meaning and intent of the source text(s) as faithfully, accurately, clearly, and appealingly as possible. But at the same time, translators are responsible for avoiding gender-biased language and opting for gender-neutral alternatives in cases where the source language text is not gender-specific.
Regarding gender neutrality and ways of expressing it, the European Parliament guidelines classify languages into three categories:

Natural gender languages (English)
Grammatical gender languages (German and French where nouns have a specific gender and their determiners – adjectives or pronouns – change form according to the gender of the noun they determine)
Genderless languages (Hungarian, Persian or Chinese which do not have masculine and feminine pronoun forms or already have a built-in gender-neutral form for person)

At the crossroads of political correctness

After years of toil and dispute, LGBTQ advocates have managed to break the barriers of gender-focused language by introducing new non-binary terms and phrases and repurposing existing words and syntactic constructions.

In this article, we look at four language examples and how they express gender neutrality.

1. Gender neutrality in English: “They” as singular

Gender distinction is almost non-existent in English, except for the singular form pronoun when there is a need to assign a masculine or feminine gender, as the context requires. Well, that changed as of 2017 when the Associated Press introduced “they” as a singular form of the 3rd person singular pronoun in its Stylebook. Two years later, in 2019, the Meriam Webster dictionary also added “they” as the pronoun form to use for a “single person whose gender identity is nonbinary”.
Of note, the pronoun “they” and its possessive form “their” with a singular meaning can also be encountered in Shakespeare and Jane Austen’s works, among other well-known English-language authors, until Victorian scholars and grammarians imposed “he” and “his” for non-female references.

2. The Spanish example: inclusive case endings – “x” or “@”, “e”

Spanish clearly distinguishes between masculine and feminine nouns and pronouns. The definite article also changes form depending on the noun gender – el (masculine) or la (feminine). However, modern Spanish has introduced gender-neutral forms, such as “Latinx” or “Latin@”, frequently used in the US instead of “Latino” (masculine) or “Latina” (female).
In Argentina, teens have replaced the “standard” feminine and masculine endings with the gender-sensitive “e” – “Latine”, according to Samantha Schmidt, journalist at The Post. “Their efforts are at the center of a global debate over gender, amid the growing visibility of non-binary identities and a wave of feminist movements worldwide”, she noted.
The movement made waves in the Argentinian media in 2018 when Natalia Mira, a young activist, used gender-inclusive language in a public interview and was assaulted by a male journalist on the live broadcast.
Spanish is spoken in 20 countries across South and Central Americas, Equatorial Guinea in Africa and Spain in Europe. Given the diversity of its dialects, there are no set standards as to gender-neutral language use. Each nation or community uses its own rules, depending on preference.

3. The Arabic way: duality to express gender neutrality

Arabic is yet another grammatically gendered language, where verbs, nouns and adjectives change form depending on male/female gender. Male is the default gender in plurals, even if it’s the only male-gendered item in a female group.
Modern Arabic, relying on classical, Koranic language, has a dual alternative for verbs and nouns that are not gender-focused. Hence, some Arabic speakers prefer the dual of “they” and “you” “huma” (هما) and “intuma” (أنت), as a gender-pure alternative. Colloquial language has eliminated the dual, so for non-native speakers, these forms may sound very formal.
Others, for example, use masculine and feminine interchangeably to oust the supremacy of the male gender and patriarchal dominance (linguistically). Like Spanish, Arabic has many dialects, and each community has developed its own conventions and colloquial “rules”.
But how do you express notions such as “gay”, “bisexual”, or “transgender” in Arabic? Some resort to a transliteration of the English LGBTQ words, while others prefer to use the phrase “ mujtama’a al meem” (مجتمع الميم). After years of strife, militants of the LGBTQ community in Lebanon championed linguistic barriers, introducing the terms “mithly” (مثلي) and “mithliya” (مثلية) for “gay” as a standard widespread nowadays in the media and thus replacing the former Arabic equivalents of the English “deviant” or “pervert”.
However, gender inclusivity and tolerance for gender-neutral language is reduced in Arabic-speaking countries. It would probably take generations to change the mentality and idiosyncrasy around gender and sexuality.

4. Hebrew, a new linguistic perspective – neutral endings

Like Arabic, Hebrew distinguishes between noun genders and assigns a specific gender to verbs and adjectives, depending on the noun they determine. Hebrew gender-neutral language uses a feminine plural or a mixed gender, sometimes male, sometimes female for the same referent.
Nowadays, there are several ways of grammatically expressing gender neutrality and thus eliminating binary dissociation. For example, the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, an initiative of the gender neutrality activists in Israel and other Hebrew-speaking communities, has created a third gender in Hebrew, partly by exploiting non-binary references in classical Jewish texts, such as the Talmud and Torah. Male Rabbis writing the Mishna, a third-century Jewish commentary book, recognised multiple gender categories. Therefore, modern Hebrew speakers most likely can recognise the same.
One possibility to express gender inclusivity in Hebrew is to use both male and female genders on nouns and verbs, sometimes split by a period. For example, “I write” in Hebrew is expressed as “kotev” (כותב) in the masculine and “kotevet” (כותבת) in the feminine. If a gender-neutral form is preferred, then the same sentence would read as “” (כותב.ת).

The western perspective

Western languages such as German and French, both grammatically gendered, have started applying gender neutrality in official contexts and paperwork. Germany, for example, has been using gender-neutral language in administration since 2014, when the Federal Ministry of Justice decreed that all institutions use gender-inclusive language. In its voting system, the term “wählende” (voting person) is preferred to “wähler” (male voter) or “wählerin” (female voter).
Comparatively, in France, the use of asterisks to express gender neutrality – “ami*e*s” (friends) – if the desire is to eliminate gender categorisation.
Since gender neutrality is here to stay, it may be worth doing a linguistic exercise, not just one of imagination, to attempt to accept it, don’t you think?
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