Some, like Spanish or French, have a masculine and feminine form of a noun, and adjectives and certain verb tenses have to agree with them. Other languages, like German, add to this system a third gender, neuter. In certain languages, the genders of nouns and their rules are fairly simple, while others are more complex. For example, in Romanian, the plural form of a noun may be a different gender than the singular form.
Even if the language you grew up speaking does have genders, they can still be tricky when it comes to learning or translating another language. For one thing, as we’ve seen, not all languages have the same number of genders, or the same way of using them or making them agree with other parts of a phrase. For another, words don’t have a universal gender ascribed to them – a feminine noun in one language might be masculine or a neuter in another.
Other languages may recognize gender with pronouns (like “he” and “she” in English), but not require agreement with verbs and adjectives. On the other hand, languages like Japanese, Finnish, and Basque, don’t have gendered pronouns at all.
Writer Robert Stitt recently published a great short article about gender in language and its implications on translation. He divides linguistic gender into three broad groups:
– Grammatical gender. This covers the examples I talked about in the previous paragraphs. Professor Uwe Kjær Nissen divides this category further, adding pronominal gender. The latter is what you see in languages that are often considered not to have genders, like English. Although a majority of our nouns are ungendered, there are words, like husband, that apply to one gender and must agree with the pronoun referring to them.
– Semantic gender. This is basically the same thing as pronominal gender. As Stitt points out, semantic gender may seem like a fairly straightforward concept, but when it comes to translation, it can be tricky. He illustrates this by explaining how an English-speaker would refer to an animal whose sex it doesn’t know as “it”, whereas in many other languages, you would have to give the animal a gender.
That being said, in some languages, this isn’t necessarily a problem. For example, in French, a mouse, une souris, is always feminine because the noun souris is feminine. Incidentally, while that does make for an easier choice, it can be kind of weird when you do know the gender of the animal – say if you’re talking about Mickey Mouse, who’s clearly not a girl (and who, perhaps partially because of this, has kept his English-language name in French).
– Social gender. This category may be the hardest one of all if you’re looking at things from a translator’s point of view. It refers to the social implications behind certain nouns. You’ll most often see this with jobs. For example, in many cultures, a nurse is usually, or even always, a woman, but that may not be the case for a specific text or in the target culture.
Some gender issues with translation go into the nitty-gritty of our work. For instance, if I’m translating something from English to French, I have to know if the word “they” is describing a group of men, women, or nouns that would be mostly feminine or mostly masculine in French – or if it’s simply being used as a gender-neutral pronoun.
That brings up another, more complex issue. As Stitt writes, when it comes to new gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed in different cultures in recent years, not only is it impossible to translate these pronouns into languages that lack the concept or construction for them; in some cases, no one can even agree as to what the official gender-neutral pronouns are in the native language.
Another issue at the crossroads of language and human rights is gender bias in translation. For example, if a translator reads an English text that mentions a nurse, and no indication is given about the nurse’s gender, what do they do if they have to determine a gender for this word in the target language? Often, translators will look at the culture the text comes from. If nurses tend to be female in that culture, they’ll probably opt for the female form of that word.
This isn’t just the case for human translators. A number of recent articles have exposed the fact that translation ‘bots work with algorithms, which means that they, too, will opt for the most common gender associated with a profession.
This puts some people up in arms, and not just because it could result in a mistranslation. Feminists, members of the LGBTQ community, scholars, and many of the rest of us would argue that it’s limiting to assume a profession is automatically tied only to one gender. Take the author of this article, who reveals that even if it comes from a genderless language like Malay, Google and Microsoft’s translation ‘bots will automatically consider a programmer a male, in languages that require a gendered pronoun.
So, how can a good translator cope with genders in language? They may have to reach out to the person or organization who created the original text, to get some clarification or at least to see if there’s a preference of some sort. Another option is for a translation company to use an in-house guide, with gender-related rules followed by all translators. Nissen suggests that they could also use footnotes, although of course that would depend on the purpose of the text (people reading a short, non-academic article or instruction guide probably don’t want to bother with a detailed explanation of gender in language).
As for clients, if you’re getting a text translated and you know there could be a gender-related issue (maybe your text specifically refers to male nurses, for example), making a note for or reaching out to your translator may be a good idea.