Language can unite, language can also divide. Language can empower, it can also diminish. Or, let’s say it’s how we use language that does all of this and more.
Gender is built into some languages. The very nouns and verbs will vary depending on whether they are masculine or feminine. But the modern consciousness is increasingly veering towards gender neutrality, or not trying to hold up one gender over the other in public discourse.
That is, if we talk about a common noun like a “person”, it’s preferable these days to not always use “he” as the pronoun when referring to the pronoun. Some people also prefer that the choice of gender they identify with be left to them. They may identify with both, either one, or may not think it’s necessary to publicly label themselves as either.
These choices are not about mere whims or passing trends. It is about correcting some serious wrongs in history, because of which women and non-binary people have been systematically kept out of the narrative.
We in the localization industry earn our livelihood through language. It’s important to take note of the steps towards gender-neutrality and help our clients make their content more inclusive and just. Here are some things to consider in the effort to make language gender-fluid.
Be alert to gender bias
Gender bias may come up in the most unexpected of places sometimes, even in machine-translated text. For instance, the words doctor or engineer may frequently be associated with the male pronouns. Take care to train your machine translation (MT) engine, so that gender-neutral pronouns are used, if available in the target language or a workaround such as “they”.
When translating into a gendered language, Google Translate prefers to provide both the masculine and feminine options and leaves it to the user to choose. It says, “…gender bias, often becomes more apparent when translating between a gender-specific language and one that is less-so.”
It’s not surprising though that such biases creep in because machines are, after all, trained based on the bi-lingual corpora that was translated by humans in the first place.
Be clear on what pronouns to use
Some languages, like Bengali, have gender-neutral pronouns. However, many don’t. What then is a translator to do? How then can they strike the balance between syntax, accuracy, comprehensibility, and the use of inclusive language?
To some extent, it depends on what is your target language. Swedish evolved a new gender-neutral pronoun “hen” in 2015. However, even when you have a gender-neutral pronoun, the problem still exists when you refer to a gender-specific noun such as a king or a queen.
Many languages only have binary pronouns: either male or female. In fact, the very sentence structure in some languages depends on gender. Take Japanese, for example. Of course, in Japanese, you also need to know other contextual information such as the social standing of a person. It’s not just how the language is engineered, but culturally, too, women are supposed to speak in “feminine” ways and men in “masculine” ways.
The winds of modernity are blowing strong in Japanese, too, and young people are increasingly choosing to speak less in gendered language and choosing pronouns that are not at the extreme ends of the gender identity spectrum.
Similarly, each language with gender-based verbs, pronouns, and nouns have similar problems.
As always, return to the content creation process
Many problems in translation are problems of writing. Same with gender. When creating content that needs to go across languages and even gender, keep these guidelines in mind from the United Nations:
Omit the gendered word. When writing a sentence with “him” or “her”, consider if it can be written just as well, by simply dropping pronouns.
Use passive voice. Saying “something was done” is an easier workaround than saying “he/she did it”. However, don’t overdo the passive voice, as this can make your language stilted and take time to understand.
Gender-neutrality is not just about text
In some verticals such as gaming, gender goes beyond text. It goes into the creation of the character itself. Games are now being created with non-binary characters. Naturally, the language they use will have to be gender non-specific.
Take care of the images you use in your content, including sales collaterals you send out to clients. Make sure they are not loaded with stereotypical visuals.
Lastly, be conscious of how you speak. It reflects your biases. Try to unlearn them as you go.
Keep pace with developments
Speakers of gendered languages are coming up with innovative solutions to make their language more inclusive. Vowel endings are being deleted from German and Italian; new pronouns are being added to Spanish that can apply to all genders; a third gender has been built in up in Hebrew; we have already talked about the gender-neutral pronoun in Swedish; French feminists have pushed for “asterisks to combine case endings and create a more inclusive gender-neutral plural”.
Keep yourself abreast of these developments in all your target languages. Accordingly, create a diversity of style guide, keep it updated, and share it with your translators.
Strike the balance
Despite all that we’ve argued for till now in this article, it’s also important to remember that gender-neutral language is still relatively new. There’s no doubt that we have to unlearn and re-learn our language to make it more fair to sections that have been excluded forever from the dialog. However, help your audience understand how you’re trying to be fair and inclusive in your language. It’s a good idea to mention somewhere that you’re introducing gender-neutral pronouns. You could perhaps design an icon to indicate that, too.
As a localization company working in the industry since close to decades now, we welcome this step in making our languages more diverse and less violent. We work with our clients to help them create content that reflects their spirit of diversity.