Translation, Translation Culture

Gender Issues In Translation

Mary had a little lamb its fleece was white as snow…it followed her to school one day, which was against the rules.

This snippet from an English nursery rhyme seems simple enough. However, when translating it into another language or culture, things might not be so simple. For example: was the lamb a girl or boy? What was against the rules, the lamb going to school, or the girl?

While this may seem silly to many, it is not a laughing matter in the world of translation. In fact, gender issues create a whole lot of questions during translation that are not only challenging because a mistranslation could change textual meaning, but it could go so far as to cause offense.

A Look at Three Main Gender Issues

Grammatical Gender: Grammatical gender refers to gender assigned to nouns. Some languages do this and others do not. Two main problems arise when translating between these two systems:

  • The source language uses a gender-specific article or pronoun, but the target language does not have such. There are times when the gendered use of “you” may be grammatical only, but there may be other times when it is important that the “you” refers to a boy or girl given the context of the text. Since English does not have a gender-specific word for you, the translator must address this issue.
  • The source language does not have a gender-specific article or pronoun, but the target language does. While English may just say sun or girl, putting an “el” before sol or a “la’ before fille is not an issue when translating into Spanish or French. The issue arises when the gender in not specified in the source language and it could change the context in the target language. Consider “I do”; no gender is associated with the pronoun “I” in many languages not only must the pronoun be gender specific, but the verb form of “do” must be conjugated based on gender as well.

Semantic Gender: Semantic gender refers to the male and female nouns as distinguished by biology. While this seems self-explanatory, there are issues that have arisen. For example, a cat in English is only addressed as “he” or “she” if the gender is known, otherwise, the cat is referred to as an “it”. This option does not exist in many languages. Making things more difficult, several cultures are trying to do away with gender altogether and are coming up with transgender pronouns such as “zie, zim, zir, zis, and zieself” instead of “she/she, him/her, his/her, his/hers, himself/herself”. Since not even the queer community can agree on their choice of gender-neutral pronoun, translators could run into some interesting dilemmas in the years to come.

Social Gender: Social gender refers to the biological gender that is assumed based upon a noun use and the society in which it was used. The distinction between sex, gender, and roles are not as clear as they once were, yet, in a linguistic sense, the lines have not been adjusted. For instance, the English word “secretary” once implied that the position was held by a male, this is no longer the case. In other cultures, the word “cook” or “maid” will have a distinctive gender assignment, culturally.

Many social-gender roles have deep historic and cultural roots, and, though they are often highly stereotyped, the contextual issues associated with translation cannot be overstated. Complicating matters, the cultures, context, and ideology behind the gender assignment change making the translation all the more difficult.

When choosing a translator, ensure they have the cultural and linguistic expertise in both the source and target language to deal with the gender issues that are an important part of the translating culture.

This post is written by Robert Stitt, a content writer with Ulatus.

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