In recent years, the debate over the usage of gender-neutral language has intensified. Last year, France’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced a ban on a writing method designed to make the French language less male-centric. Buenos Aires made headlines in July by blocking the use of gender-inclusive language in schools. And quite shockingly, this past month in the U.S., a man upset by gender-inclusive definitions in the Merriam-Webster dictionary pleaded guilty to making bomb and shooting threats to the publisher.
What exactly are best practices for translation? At Eriksen, we receive many questions from clients who seek to be more inclusive of women and non-binary individuals when translating traditionally gendered languages. The solution is not always cut-and-dried. In this article, we look at a few frequently translated languages, examine the pros and cons of gender-neutral terms, and offer alternative strategies for gender-inclusive translation.
Grammatical Gender in Language
Certain languages, including Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, and Russian, have what is referred to as grammatical gender. Nouns are either masculine or feminine. Words take different forms to denote gender, such as the Spanish word for child: el niño (m), la niña (f), los niños (pl. m), and las niñas (pl. f). The gender of each noun must be in agreement with the associated pronouns, adjectives, articles, and in some cases verbs.
Different languages have their own variations. Highly gendered languages such as French and Spanish do not traditionally include gender-neutral nouns or pronouns. Other languages, such as German, include feminine, masculine, and neuter nouns. English is considered non-gendered but does include masculine and feminine pronouns (he/she). Other languages are inherently non-gendered, including Finnish, Hungarian, and Turkish.
Masculine and Feminine in Gendered Languages
Gendered languages traditionally privilege the masculine over the feminine. For example, in Spanish, if 100 female children (las niñas) are gathered, and one male joins the group, the entire group takes the masculine form (los niños). The same is true for many other gendered languages, which also do not typically include an option for non-binary individuals (those embracing gender identities that are not solely male or female).
Given this masculine focus, gendered languages do not reflect the inclusivity many organizations seek to communicate in their messaging. As such, changes are being introduced to include gender-neutral terms that offer more choices than just male or female.
Gender-Neutral and Inclusive Terms
One strategy for making gendered language inclusive has been to modify the words themselves. In traditional Spanish, ending a noun or adjective in “o” typically identifies it as masculine, while an “a” normally identifies the term as feminine. Inclusive endings have been created for certain words to make them representative of both masculine and feminine, and in some cases, nonbinary.
- The “x” has been introduced as an alternative to “o” and “a” to make the Spanish language less male-centric and inclusive of non-binary individuals. Perhaps the most familiar example is Latinx (more on that below). Another example is todos, which means all or everyone, being replaced by todxs, which is gender-inclusive and non-binary. Niños (children), primos (cousins), and vecinos (neighbors) become niñxs, primxs, and vecinxs, respectively. This convention is primarily used in the U.S.
- In many countries outside the U.S., “e” is being used as a gender-neutral alternative to the “o” and “a.” For example, instead of él (he) or ella (she), one can use elle (gender neutral). The plurals ellos (they, masculine) and ellas (they, feminine) become elles (neutral).
- A less frequently used approach is replacing the “o” and “a” with “@” or “o/a.” The “@” symbol is intended to embrace both masculine and feminine by representing both the “o” and the “a” in the same character. The use of “o/a” functions in much the same way. For example, bienvenidos, meaning welcome, can be replaced with bienvenid@s or bienvenido/as. However, while these terms capture both male and female, they do not represent nonbinary people, nor can they be pronounced. As a result, their use has not gained the same traction as some of the other approaches.
Similar changes are being introduced in French, German, and other languages. One example is the median period, which can be inserted into a word to denote both male and female at the same time. The French word for student has both masculine and feminine forms: étudiant (m) and étudiante (f). By inserting a median period, étudiant•e becomes inclusive of both genders in the same word. As in some of the solutions above, this applies only to the written form and does not represent nonbinary individuals.
While some of the examples above are becoming more common in academic publications and government documents, they have not been widely adopted by the public, whether due to politics or simple lack of understanding.
Perhaps the most well-known and divisive term is Latinx. The word was created in the 2000s as a gender-neutral term for individuals of Latin American descent, an alternative to the masculine Latino and the feminine Latina. The word Latinx was added to Merriam-Webster and other popular U.S. dictionaries in 2018. In recent years, it has been embraced by some U.S. news and entertainment platforms, local governments, universities, and corporations.
Advocates say it forces people to re-think gender. The term has become especially embraced by members of the LGBTQ community who do not want to be identified as either strictly masculine or feminine. However, there is also a fair degree of criticism leveled at the term. Because it originated in the U.S., some view Latinx as an example of Americans imposing social norms on different cultures and attempting to Anglicize the Spanish language. Some critics say the term hasn’t gained buy-in of the people it’s supposed to empower.
Regardless of the many arguments for or against its use, it is true that Latinx has not caught on as a widely accepted term among Spanish speakers. Usage and familiarity vary due to generational, regional, and class differences.
According to a national, bilingual study by the Pew Research Center, only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term Latinx, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves.
The Backlash Against Gender-Inclusive Language
Above and beyond Latinx, countries around the world are grappling with the usage of gender-inclusive terms. Some feel the changes degrade the language. In Buenos Aires, a new policy bans teachers from using gender-neutral words in class and in communications with parents. This regulation is at odds with other Argentinian institutions that formally recognize gender-inclusive language. Similar debates are being had in other countries across Latin America. Proposals seeking to ban gender-neutral language in schools or government documents have been initiated in Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, and Brazil.
Feminization of Professional Titles in French
The debate continues in France, in a nation where the language is intensely gender specific. In the French language, words for certain job functions have been strictly masculine by tradition. For example, there simply was no word for a female doctor. In an attempt to make the language more inclusive, feminine words have been introduced to complement traditionally masculine job titles. As an example, the word docteure (f) was introduced as a female counterpart to the traditionally masculine docteur. As in Spanish, a mixed-gender group of doctors defaults to the masculine (docteurs). In order to create an inclusive group of doctors, one would use the rather lengthy les docteurs et les docteures (male doctors and female doctors). It was only in 2019 when the Académie Française, the official guardian of the French language, gave these terms its stamp of approval when it voted to approve the feminization of professional titles.
However, French institutions have not been fully welcoming of this trend, particularly when it involves long mixed phrases or outright changes to traditional language. In 2017 Prime Minister Édouard Philippe of France issued a ban on inclusive writing in official texts. And in 2021, the prominent dictionary publisher Robert caused a fervor when it elected to add the gender-neutral pronoun iel to its latest online edition.
Alternative Strategies for Gender-Inclusive Translation
At its core, good translation is all about sounding natural. Language should be easily readable by native speakers of the target language. Inserting terms such as todxs or hermano/as into a sentence may cause people to pause, or disconnect, as the term is known linguistically. These newly created words can be unfamiliar, impede scanning, and be difficult (if not impossible) to pronounce.
When our clients seek a gender-inclusive approach with a less obtrusive result, Eriksen offers a variety of strategies to make the language inclusive without impeding readability:
- Translators change the structure of a sentence to make it more inclusive. For example, to welcome someone in Spanish, one might entirely replace the masculine word bienvenidos (welcome) by writing les damos la bienvenida (we welcome you). A sentence can be constructed in a way that replaces niños (children) with the gender-neutral menores (minors). For example, entrada gratuita a niños menores de 12 (free admission for children under 12) becomes gratuita para menores de 12.
- Gender-neutral terms can be selected where available. For example, a gender-neutral term for people (gente or personas) can be selected instead of men/women (hombres/mujeres).
- Where possible, translators can drop the article that marks a term as masculine or feminine. Examples include la/el pianista (pianist) and la/el psiquiatra (psychiatrist). When the articles are dropped, there are no gender identifiers in these words.
- Another solution is the desdoblamiento (unfolding/widening) approach, which includes the masculine and feminine, such as bienvenidos y bienvenidas. However, it is very important not to overuse this strategy – it lengthens texts, impedes scanning, and excludes nonbinary people.
- Translators can also use collective nouns. Instead of profesores (teachers) they can use profesorado (teaching staff). Likewise, instead of los ciudadanos (citizens), translators could select la ciudadanía (group of citizens).
No Simple Solutions
Nothing we’ve described is a one-size-fits-all approach. What may be advisable for a more traditional organization may not be the best approach for a progressive nonprofit. As an example, Eriksen works with a nonprofit that translates materials for an LGBTQ audience from English into German. They elect to use the median period to make terms gender inclusive. This choice reflects the organization’s audience, messaging, and mission.
Because there remains no firm consensus about how to handle gender-neutral language, it’s important to consider how far it is appropriate to push convention without alienating your audience. Sometimes the solution comes down to a balancing act between inclusivity and readability – between the language we would like to see, and the language used daily by the target audience.
Culturally Competent Translation
At Eriksen, we rely on the expertise and cultural sensitivity of our team to find the best possible solutions to issues of gender-inclusive language when they arise. Culturally competent translators, language quality experts, and project managers offer insights into the appropriateness of gender-neutral terms and ensure that such words convey the intent of the author with sensitivity to the audience. We also advise the use of a style guide when embracing gender-inclusive solutions. By defining preferred terms up front, a style guide helps ensure that all translations consistently adhere to preferred terminology.
Language is not static. Cultural norms change, and the words we use to describe ourselves and others evolve to reflect the times. We cannot ignore the stereotypes perpetrated by the use of gendered language. Yet the act of moving away from traditional linguistic rules and embracing new conventions remains polarizing to many. Ultimately, solutions for gender-inclusive language should be considerate of the audience, appropriate to the nature of the content, and reflective of the organization’s mission.