15/07/2021

Gendering, part 2:
How other languages do gendering and what that means for translations

Gender-neutral language, which addresses all genders as much as possible, puts an end to stereotypical role models and helps to raise social awareness. In the first part of our three-part post, we outlined what we think matters and why we use gender-neutral language ourselves. In this second part, we will now explain how gendering works in other countries, languages and cultural contexts and what therefore needs to be considered in translations.

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Other countries, other genders

There are languages in which neither nouns nor pronouns are gendered. In these languages, therefore, no linguistic distinction is made between, say, a female doctor and a male doctor, as in German, nor is there any differentiation with regard to “he/she/it”. This group includes languages such as Estonian, Finnish, Turkish or Hungarian, as well as some Asian languages. A sentence such as “he/she/it loves him/her/it” could take on all conceivable forms in these languages without this really being expressed linguistically. So who loves whom is irrelevant in many languages.

In other languages there are gendered pronouns, such as the German “er/sie/es” (he/she/it), but little to no distinction in the use of nouns. In English, for example, “friend” or “driver” can be masculine, feminine, or diverse, but would be specified more precisely by a pronoun if necessary: “As the driver of the vehicle, he was fully responsible for the accident.” In English, therefore, both forms or an all-inclusive “they” are often used to express gender appropriately: “As the driver of the vehicle, he or she must make sure that…”. 

However, a recent decision by the Canadian Joint Terminology Panel, which identified the term “unmanned vehicle” for a vehicle without a crew as gender-specific and prescribed the use of “uncrewed” in future, shows that the gender debate is not irrelevant for the English language. 

The debate begins when it becomes gender-specific

Many other languages and language families, including the Romance languages, are gender-specific. Whether it’s “Student und Studentin” in German, “conducteur et conductrice” in French or “leitor e leitora” in Portuguese for the English expressions “student”, “driver” or “reader”, from many terms that refer directly to humans, one reads the gender directly in the words of these languages. The extent to which the gender discussion is being pursued is as large as the actual implementation in the language.

In France, a middot is often used to include all forms, as in the example “étudiant.e.s” for “male and female student”. However, the Ministry of Education there determined in May 2021 that gender-neutral written language is prohibited in French schools. The argument for this aligns with a 2017 recommendation from the Académie Française, which stated that gender-neutral language is difficult to read and understand, and therefore makes learning more difficult.

Spain shows its creativity when it comes to its implementation, where the gender signs -@ (which stands for the masculine O and the feminine A), -e and -x provide three possibilities for the written language. So a sentence such as “todos los niños”, with all children in the generic masculine, since female children would be “niñas”, could be expressed with gender neutrality by “tod@s l@s niñ@s”, “todes les niñes” or “todxs lxs niñxs”. 

However, similar to in France, the institution for ensuring the stability of the Spanish language, the Real Academia Española, continues to recommend the use of the generic masculine or universal words such as “la niñez”, where “childhood” is used synonymously with “the children”.

One reason for this may be that writing with gender neutrality is somewhat more complicated in Spanish than in German, since adjectives also have a clear gender reference (“todos/todas”) and have to be gendered accordingly.

The recommendation for generally valid formulations also applies in Dutch, where, for example, the railway hasn’t greeted all “dames en heren” (ladies and gentlemen) for years, but instead greets all “reizigers” (travellers). Overall, there are many nouns in Dutch in which gender is not linguistically marked or for which there is no feminine form. For example, “burgemeester” applies equally to both male and female mayors. 

In other languages, there are sometimes artificially created female occupational titles, which, however, are hardly ever used in everyday language, or every so often there is reverting to doubling, i.e. naming the masculine and feminine form one after the other. An example is “prezados leitores e prezadas leitoras” (“dear male readers and dear female readers”) in Brazilian magazines. Whether the masculine or feminine form is mentioned first in these cases also depends very much on the country. 

It becomes interesting when the gender of the addressee is already clearly reflected in verbs: In Polish, for example, a sentence such as “Thank you for choosing our product!” would be explicitly addressed to either men or women simply because of the verb form. In everyday life, this is often avoided by using something like “Thank you for the decision in favour of our product.”

Translation status: It’s complicated, but it works

The topic of gendering, which is being heatedly discussed and handled in Germany, is also sparking discussions and many different kinds of implementation in many other countries and languages. So what needs to be considered for translation?

Companies that have consciously decided in favour of gendering in German should also examine this decision for other languages in light of corporate communication. In doing so, the gender behaviour of the target country and the possible linguistic transpositions must be considered as well as the particular text type or the target audience being addressed. 

For example, while in many languages technical documentation is still formulated in a rather general or generically masculine manner, also in order to be as short and comprehensible as possible, in advertisements and tourist texts for marketing material much emphasis is now placed on addressing all readers in a gender-inclusive manner.

The foreign branches concerned should also be involved in the decision about whether and in what form the opposite gender is used in a target language or for a target market. After all, no one knows the market as well as they do and, ultimately, the decision for or against gendering is a corporate decision or part of a communication strategy that must be considered separately for each language.

To impose this “from above” just because a corresponding decision has been made in German would be just as inappropriate as ignoring the issue for foreign languages. 

If there are no subsidiaries for the particular target market, companies are well advised to coordinate closely with translators and service providers who also know the country-specific conditions and can assess them.

To date, however, there are few or no official guidelines or specifications in all countries. This topic will certainly continue to develop a lot in all business languages over the next few years and will therefore also become a key issue for translations. It is important and remains exciting.

By the way, in our concluding third part you can read how machine translation (MT) deals with the issue of gendering, how the various transpositions such as asterisks, middots and the Spanish @ sign are recognised by machines and why gendering in MT also reveals deep-seated stereotypes: “Gendering in machine translation – how it works and what to watch out for”.

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