You’re about to post a job description for an exciting new role at your global company. You want to ensure that it’s gender-neutral so it resonates with all candidates, and everyone feels welcome to apply. In English, this isn’t so difficult: you could use “they” or “the candidate” to be inclusive.
But gender neutral pronouns like “they” don’t exist in all languages – or if they do, they’re not all widely accepted. Even trickier, words like “candidate” in some languages are gendered, which may mean neutral forms aren’t possible or require workarounds.
Whether you work in human resources, marketing, research, law, or other industries, translating for gender neutrality can be a thorny issue. Let’s take a deep dive into the nuance of gender inclusiveness in translation to understand why it’s complicated and how professional translators approach it.
Why gender neutrality matters
Gender-neutral language aims to create an inclusive environment where all individuals, regardless of their gender identity, feel represented and respected. For many companies worldwide, inclusivity is a core value that they want to foster among their employees and stakeholders. From job descriptions to marketing messages and from surveys to social media posts, the use of gender neutral language has emerged as a top priority.
However, achieving gender neutrality in translation isn’t always straightforward, either due to linguistic limitations of the language or the complex nature of human identity. New gender neutral forms may be rejected because people don’t identify with them, or because of the political mindsets surrounding them.
Some gender-inclusive approaches may also lead to clunky phrasing that may not be ideal for savvy marketing copy. The risk is that a potential customer could get bogged down by language considerations instead of focusing on the overall message. For business texts – especially high-visibility content – this approach may be impractical, even if inclusivity is valued.
Political complexities of gender-neutral language
People may regard gender-neutral forms with suspicion, or reject them outright for different political reasons. For some speakers, certain gender neutral forms just don’t describe their identity or don’t feel organic to them. This is the case for some Latinos who want to do away with the term Latinx because it feels imposed on them by academics (however well-intentioned).
Some French speakers also feel this way about the gender-nonspecific “iel” ending, believing it to be exported from America instead of locally concepted and incorporated into the language. Though inclusivity may be important to speakers, many don’t want outsiders or non-representative groups telling them what terms they should use to describe their nuanced identities.
Finally, efforts toward inclusive language can also be problematic when they cover up other, more fundamental – and often more pressing – issues. Some speakers reject inclusive forms because they’re considered superficial gestures to promote inclusivity on the surface while not addressing deeper structural inequalities. For example, Nicholas Kristof argues, “As for my friends who are homeless, what they yearn for isn’t to be called houseless; they want housing.”
Examples of gender neutrality in different languages
To showcase how gender neutrality works in diverse languages, here are some examples of how certain languages approach this challenge, and what obstacles still remain.
Case #1: Relatively inclusive languages
English is an example of a relatively inclusive language, as it has some gender neutral pronouns (like they) and mostly genderless nouns (doctor, secretary, etc.). Turkish is another good example of a relatively inclusive language, as it doesn’t usually indicate whether the speaker is male or female, and as with English, nouns are neutral.
English does have a history of gendered nouns (stewardess, fireman, etc.), but many of these have been changed to become more inclusive (flight attendant, firefighter, etc.).
Case #2: Masculine-centered languages
Other languages have a default masculine form. For example, in Arabic and Spanish, a group of women and men are described using masculine form (“هم” in Arabic and “-os” in Spanish). In fact, you might have noticed the problem of gender bias when using a machine translation tool like Google Translate!
As you can imagine, this isn’t ideal for certain texts where inclusivity is key. Some businesses work around these masculine-centered forms by adding a note that the text is intended for both women and men. This is a fairly standard practice in Hebrew, for example – though there are new, creative approaches, like this gender neutral mash-up of masculine and feminine endings.
Other language speakers have gone a step further and created inclusive case endings. In Spanish today, some may add “@,” “e,” or “x” as a gender neutral option, such as “niñ@ buen@” (good child), “todes” (everyone), or “lxs amigxs” (friends). These case endings are becoming more widely accepted, though there is still significant resistance to them – and this only addresses the issue in writing, not in speaking. Arabic shows how difficult it can be to get around masculine-centered language. Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives are inherently gendered, typically categorized as masculine or feminine. Some Arabic speakers are now using the plural form of they and you (“huma” (هما) and “intuma” (انتما)), but these forms may sound antiquated to some ears. Arabic is also incredibly diverse and usage depends on the region/dialect/speaker, as well as political attitudes. For example, dialectal variations and differing cultural perspectives complicate the process of establishing consensus around a universal non-binary pronoun. The conservative social climate in many Arabic-speaking regions also contributes to the lack of non-binary representation.
Case #3: Languages with new forms that aren’t yet widely adopted (or actively rejected)
Languages are constantly evolving, but there are a range of mindsets about new gender-neutral forms. In Spanish, for example, the Latinx form is great for some (about 3% of U.S. Hispanics identify this way), but is rejected by other Spanish speakers who don’t identify as Latino or Latina in the first place, or believe it feels like an artificial creation. The complex nature of identity plays a role in how widely adopted and socially acceptable these new forms can be.
This is also the case for some languages that invent new non-binary terms. While Japanese pronouns like he/she/they are hardly used in regular sentences and wouldn’t be a huge issue in texts like a job description, speakers are innovating to express non-binary status by using “X-gender” (Xジェンダー: Ekkus-Jendaa) or “other” (その他: Sonota). These new forms are also sprouting up in languages like Chinese. The term “x也” or “ta” in Mandarin is becoming a mainstream way to express non-binary status.
For linguists who want to translate texts into gender neutral language, these new forms may be a good option. However, it’s also important for the majority of speakers to understand the translated text. When a new form isn’t yet widely adopted, usage may be out of place depending on the context.
Case #4: Languages that haven’t yet adopted new forms
Finally, there are languages that haven’t yet adopted new forms. Russian is a good example of a language that doesn’t have a neutral pronoun or a non-binary option. Like many other Slavic languages, it has a grammatical structure that relies on grammatical gender. Even more complex verbs must be conjugated to match gender in Russian. Given these linguistic limitations, gender-neutral language isn’t yet possible in Russian – though some activists are reflecting on this issue and hoping to invent new forms.
Finding the balance
Ultimately, gender neutrality in translation isn’t a straightforward matter – it requires a deep understanding of language, culture, and the complexities of human identity. While new forms are becoming widely available in some languages, others have not yet evolved to accommodate and recognize non-binary grammatical forms.
Often it comes down to a balancing act between what’s possible at this point in time linguistically and what we want to be possible. Translators play a vital role in navigating these challenges, striking a delicate balance between linguistic efficacy, overall impact of the text, and inclusivity. They can help to identify appropriate gender-neutral terms and ensure that translations are inclusive and respectful of diverse gender identities where possible, in addition to ensuring that the audience understands and resonates with the intended message.
Our linguistic strategies for gender inclusion
When it comes to adopting gender inclusion in translation, there’s no one-size-fits all approach. At Multilingual Connections, we work closely with our language experts to create an inclusive translation that fits your business goals.
1. Utilize gender-neutral terms where available and appropriate
Whenever possible, our expert linguists craft texts that utilize the latest inclusive terms suitable for the cultural context and linguistic limitations. For example, instead of using masculine-gendered terms such as “maestro” (teacher) in Spanish, a professional translator might choose the gender-neutral word “docente” (teacher).
2. Tweak plural and singular forms
In addition, linguists can play with plural and singular forms to stay inclusive. This can be done by making a gendered term plural, and then gender-neutral by eliminating the gendered article. Let’s take the example of “menor” (child or minor) in Spanish, which in the singular would necessarily be gendered: “En el caso de un/una menor…” (In the case of a minor). Here is the plural version with the article omitted: “En el caso de menores de edad…” (In the case of minors).
Sometimes it’s even possible to keep singular forms but simply drop the article that denotes masculine or feminine. For example, the phrase “soy artista” (I’m an artist) can achieve a gender-neutral form by forgoing the “la/el” article.
3. Widen the vocabulary scope for inclusivity
Similar to the famous phrase in English “ladies and gentlemen,” some languages mention both masculine and feminine forms. When talking about teachers in Latin America, for example, it’s not uncommon now to hear people refer to “maestros y maestras” (male and female teachers), whereas in the past the male form “maestro” would have been used to include both men and women. Using both articles and forms together in written language “los/las maestros/as” also increases inclusivity, but these options exclude non-binary people and may unnecessarily complicate the readability of the text.
4. Find gender-neutral sentence structure
If there’s no widely-used neutral language available, translators can find workarounds. Sometimes there is alternative syntax that avoids the concept of gender entirely. For example, instead of saying “bienvenidos” (welcome), which is gendered masculine in Spanish, a good alternative may be “les damos la bienvenida” (we welcome you), which has no specific gender. In other languages such as French, switching from passive voice to active voice can avoid use of masculine-gendered forms as well.
Taking steps towards gender inclusivity
Gender inclusive language can both include and alienate your readers or users. Even if you have good intentions about the community you’re trying to connect with, you may inadvertently isolate those very same people if you don’t understand their unique preferences.
That’s why it’s vital to get expert linguists on board to strike the right balance between inclusivity and readability. Organizations worldwide are developing in-house resources to handle gender inclusion in their own way – and so should you.
To this end, we highly recommend that your company:
- Lean on expert translators who specialize in inclusivity – like us! Our translators can help navigate linguistic challenges, identify appropriate gender-neutral terms, and ensure translations are culturally appropriate and inclusive.
- Create your own style guide to define how gender inclusivity will be part of your brand voice. This will help guide your localization team through tricky areas and provide consistency, especially for gendered languages.
- Perform a language audit of your company materials (both written and visual) to ensure inclusivity at all your customer touch points. Refreshing these materials can guarantee a positive experience for diverse users.
- Check that your automation tools aren’t gender biased. ChatGPT, Google Translate and more have shown to favor masculine forms, so be sure your company tools aren’t unintentionally reflecting this bias.
By taking these first steps, your business can foster gender inclusion across all your target languages and minimize any potential linguistic limitations.
How Multilingual Connections approaches gender inclusivity
At Multilingual Connections, we partner with our clients to understand what goals they want to accomplish through translation, and when inclusiveness is on the list, we work with expert translators to identify the most gender-neutral language available that also aligns with the translation’s requirements. Wherever possible, we advocate for a gender-inclusive yet flexible approach that prioritizes readability so that the text resonates with its target audience. For example, if gender-neutral language makes for cumbersome reading, we work with our translators to modify word choices so it reads naturally, without compromising inclusivity entirely. Every language and culture is unique, which is why we offer linguist consulting services for businesses that are interested in understanding the language nuances as they relate to their business goals. Language has always been complex, and gender neutrality is no exception. Get in touch with our expert team today to learn how we can overcome your challenges in translation, including gender neutrality.
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