Gender-neutral texts an unavoidable challenge for translators
Building, promoting and even imposing the use of a gender-neutral language has become a culture that is becoming deeper and spreading more widely every day.
The UN, for example, has come up with a list of guidelines that set a number of strategies to help its staff use gender-inclusive language, not only in the written form of language, but also every other type of communication, including oral, formal and informal. According to Language Insight, efforts to modify the use of language to incorporate gender inclusivity date back to the 1980s.
Language is a human characteristic that is very complicated and diverse in terms of structure, vocabulary use and the way it reflects the culture of the people speaking it. Because of that, the degree of difficulty in handling the gender neutrality issue differ from one language to another. There are languages, such as English, Danish and Swedish that do not have masculine and feminine discrimination when it comes to nouns, but not the personal pronouns. So, a teacher is both a male and female teacher.
This set of languages is called “natural gender languages” because of this feature, yet there has been a debate about using the pronoun “they” to refer to singular nouns in English. In a report by Washington Post, “In 2019 the Merriam-Webster dictionary added ‘they’ as the pronoun to use for a ‘single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.’ Two years prior, in 2017, ‘they’ as a gender-neutral form was added to the Associated Press Stylebook, the gold standard of sorts for journalists. The Washington Post, meanwhile, made the style guide change in 2015.’
Critics, according to the report, argued such a rule “can be confusing and muddy a sentence’s syntax”.
For more gendered languages like Arabic and Latin tongues, it is more complicated, as they have with each verb, noun and adjective a male or female tag.
Yet efforts to impose rules to render Arabic more gender friendly have been in place, a mission undertaken by feminist groups, such as Wiki Gender, which introduces itself as a “collaborative feminist platform that works on producing knowledge on gender, feminism, and women-related issues in Arabic language; and curating and storing other Arabic productions in these fields, be it written or multimedia content. Additionally, we translate into Arabic selections of texts and academic papers covering the topics of gender and feminism. Lastly, we discuss and boldly experiment with Arabic language terms and grammar in order to create and promote a more gender inclusive and accessible modern Arabic.” The group believes that the Arabic lexicon and heritage is so rich that alternatives can be found and promoted for use by text producers.
For translators, they should keep an eye on these efforts in the language pairs they work on to be aware if they should tackle their jobs under the gender neutrality rule.
They also have to be particularly careful when localizing commercial campaigns that take inclusivity into consideration as many international firms have adopted the new trend.
In the words of Language Insight “As people continue promoting gender equality, there is no doubt that languages worldwide will continue to be affected. Therefore, making sure languages are politically and socially correct will be an ongoing task, not only for translators” but also for the speakers of all languages.