How do gender issues affect translation?

Have you ever discovered while learning a foreign language that what you always assumed as feminine could be masculine in another culture? Or that some languages didn’t make any gender differences as it is the case of Chinese or Turkish?

Around one-quarter of the world’s languages use grammatical gender. For instance, most of the Indo-European languages refer to a three-gender classification (masculine, feminine and neuter) although the gender attribution varies according to the cultures.

English is one of the rare in this family to do little distinction regarding gender. No hesitation when using you for example as it refers to anyone. Or when employing an article; whoever you are speaking about makes any difference (the girl, a hairdresser, etc). On the opposite, Russian marks the gender almost in every word of a sentence until the extent of certain verb forms.

So, what are the various challenges when it comes to translating?

Gender perception

Would our mother tongue shape the way we think about gender? Research tends to prove that people think, act and perceive the world variously due to the influence of their native language. Speakers of heavily gendered languages such as Hebrew show, for example, more sensitivity to differences between men and women. This is not surprising as everything in their language is seen either as male or as female. A 2002 study showed we tend to describe inanimate objects accordingly to the gender classification. The Germans will speak about a bridge (eine Brücke) as slender because it is feminine while Spanish people will probably use words such as strong quite simply because it is masculine for them (un puente).

The gender gap

How to proceed with a translation from a non-gendered language to a gendered one? Let’s take the example of the word “it to refer to a cat. If you have to translate into a language such as Italian, it really matters to know whether the animal is a male or a female. If any clue about the gender is given in the source text, it may be quite tricky to deal with. Conversely, imagine a book in which many details emphasize on the fact that the hero is a man. It won’t be easy to preserve context when translating into a language that doesn’t care about gender.

Dropping the gender?

The last decades, the binary systems have been more and more called into question especially by the third-gender. This community, not always inclined to use gender-neutral pronouns, started to play with binary systems by creating new words. In Spanish, todos, the male form of everyone and todas, the female declination, is turned into todøs. Some cultures such as in Sweden have actually chosen to opt for transgender pronouns in order to erase those semantic divisions. Hen has been officially introduced in the Swedish language as an alternative pronoun to hon (he) and han (she). This is another type of puzzles that translators have to solve nowadays.

Gender issues can’t be neglected in translation as they may lead to misinterpretations more or less serious. A funny example is the tradition of the chocolate for Valentine’s Day in Japan originating in fact from a mistranslation. When chocolate companies began encouraging people to celebrate lovers’ day in the years 1950, people were given the idea that it was customary for women to give chocolate to men on that day. Hence the importance to select qualified translators able to tackle correctly those issues!

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