Inclusive writing and translation03 September 2021 Reading time: 4 min
Towards more inclusive language
As society makes efforts toward greater inclusivity, our language is naturally evolving along with it. By now, you have likely heard of inclusive language, as many organizations are re-evaluating the way they communicate. While in past eras, we modified our language use to remove gendered assumptions (e.g. you likely won’t hear someone say female doctor these days), we still have work to do to ensure we are not reinforcing outdated ideas of gender. Many professional writing guides even suggest avoiding gendering whenever possible, as it can needlessly alienate readers.
Inclusive language isn’t new. English has already moved away from gendered job titles, favouring neutral replacements like server over waiter/waitress and chair or chairperson over chairman or chairwoman, as just two examples. We also moved away from the honorifics Miss and Mrs. towards Ms., acknowledging the oddity of introducing a woman by her marital status when we don’t do the same for men. The gender-neutral Mx., currently more widely used in the UK, is now gaining traction.
Also, while many of us learned that “he” is a generic used for concision, it still implies that the default human is a man. Naturally many have tried different solutions: defaulting to he with an explanatory note that it really means he and she; the clunky he or she and his or her, or the even more potentially confusing solution of alternating between he and she throughout the text. But despite inclusive intentions, these formulations can be distracting and still ultimately exclude everyone whose gender doesn’t fit within the he/she binary. Hence the resurgence of singular they.
Singular they and gender inclusivity
Like any social change, the third-person singular use of they faces some pushback from those who consider this usage new and see neologisms as less correct. It is, however, over 600 years old, with the Oxford English Dictionary tracing it back to literature published in 1375. Only in the 18th century did (male) grammarians push to have he favoured as the generic pronoun. They also never really went away; it has since been commonly used to refer to a hypothetical or unknown individual (e.g. “Someone was at the door.” “What did they want?”), even by professed opponents who don’t realize they are doing it.
Singular they not only does away with the he/she formulation problem, it includes non-binary individuals. A study of over 10,000 US teens and adults by Pew Research Center found that 35% of Gen Z and 25% of Millennials know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. Consumers and employees from these generations expect organizations to actively include people of all genders in their communications; sticking to binary ideas of gender or defaulting to masculine pronouns no longer comes across as neutral choices.
The use of more all-encompassing language demonstrates inclusive leadership in this linguistic shift. It’s important to remember that usage determines the rules of language and not the other way around; take the example of singular you, a former plural that has taken a similar trajectory, slowly replacing singular thou, thee, and thy in the late 1600s, causing its own uproar among grammarians at the time.
How this cultural shift translates
So how does this all relate to translation? We’ve just seen ways in which the English language has shifted towards a more inclusive approach. As each language comes with its own grammar and challenges regarding gender and inclusivity, this creates added considerations for translation.
While some languages are gender neutral, some, like English, are partially gendered (English has gender markers in third person pronouns, possessives and some nouns and titles), and others, like French, specify a subject’s gender more often (like in the nouns, pronouns and adjectives). So if you’re translating from a more gendered to less gendered language, like French to English, for example, gender markers can often be easily removed, but a translation in the other direction may very well require that the author provide the translator with the gender of any people being referred to since the text itself may not.
The translator will also have to make a specific stylistic choice based on how their client wants to present themselves and who the target audience is. French still does not have a single, generally accepted gender-neutral form of writing, but various solutions are in practice, such as rewording the sentence to avoid referencing individual people, switching third person to second, or using as many neutral formulations as possible and the masculine form when gendering is inevitable. Another solution is using doublets: dots or dashes to combine masculine and feminine forms (e.g. male étudiant + female étudiante = étudiant.e), however, these solutions come with their own considerations with regard to inclusivity, like difficulties for visually impaired readers who use software to read.
What this means for your translations
It’s important to choose a translation provider who is aware of the cultural context around inclusive language in both your source and target languages, so they can maintain your tone and intended message, and elicit the intended response from the reader.
Talk to your translation provider to discuss solutions; they’ll appreciate that you did, as they will have to make various judgment calls in the text’s approach to inclusivity. You’re not expected to know the ins and outs of inclusive language in other languages, but if you know your audience and their expectations, the right translator will tailor the target language to your audience. Translators are, after all, intercultural communication experts whose job is to make sure your voice accurately represents who you are.