Gender in translation

gender in translation

Some of the greatest difficulties in the translation process spring from problems related to gender. Misinterpretations of the gender of a word in the source language can lead to serious communication problems in different areas.

 

Grammatical gender

Firstly, there is the issue of basic grammatical differences between languages.

If we analyse languages of Germanic origin, such as German and English, we can see that they have three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. On the other hand, modern Romance languages (such as Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and French) have only masculine and feminine genders – with the masculine assuming the “neutral” grammatical function whenever necessary.

By way of example, we can examine the following sentence in English: “the cat climbed the tree”. In this case, if the translator had no other information or context, it would be impossible to know whether the subject of the sentence (“cat”) is a male or female cat – in such cases, by default and in the absence of a neutral grammatical gender, the masculine is used.

Even among languages with a neutral gender, the translator is not always presented with clear and definitive options. In a medical text in German, the expression “die Patientin” (“the patient”) uses a feminine declension. In English, it can be translated as “the patient” (neutral gender) and it will be grammatically correct. However, the full meaning of the phrase can only be obtained by adding an adjective – “the female patient” – to indicate that a person of the female sex is referred to.

 

Semantics and style

Grammatical gender is central to literary and academic translation, since it often affects the actual meaning of the text.

For example, in Portuguese “sol” is a masculine noun while “lua” is feminine. However, in German it is exactly the opposite: “Sonne” is feminine and “Mond” is masculine. Any literary, philosophical or academic text that relies on the contrast between these two words (or tries to analyse it, in the case of an academic work) will cause a headache for whoever wishes to translate it into Portuguese.  It is up to language professionals to find intelligent solutions to the problem, add notes to the translated text, and where possible contact the authors of the original texts to ask for guidance.

 

Social and professional context

In the Portuguese language, most professions and activities have masculine and feminine designations – “tradutor/tradutora”, “médico/médica”, etc. – and there are even some neutral-leaning designations, such as “policía” and “artista”.

In languages like English, “doctor”, “translator” and “artist” are always gender-neutral nouns, which simplifies texts but leads to complications in terms of cultural context and significance. Despite the language’s gender neutrality, it is still common to associate certain professions exclusively with one of the sexes: for example, most “taxi drivers” are considered to be men, hence the use of the masculine definite article by default. At the same time, the profession of a “nanny” – a person who cares for children – is so closely linked to women that there is no direct translation into the masculine in Portuguese.  In the Portuguese language, the default solution is to use the masculine grammatical gender, but alternative and creative solutions can be found which reference both sexes so as to produce a more inclusive and comprehensive text.

 

Approaches

Whenever the structure of the text allows it, translators must find ways to work around these issues. One of the most simple is actually used in this article – adding the feminine grammatical gender to the noun and articles, e.g. “o(a) tradutor(a), os(as) tradutores(as)”. Another technique is to use both personal pronouns, “ela ou ela” (he or she), “eles e elas”, where feasible in grammatical and stylistic terms. With academic or literary texts, where the use of the grammatical gender can have various nuances and levels of meaning, it may even be necessary to resort to footnotes in order to clarify the matter.

Without sensitivity on the part of translators, the choices made may give offence, obscure the substance of the original text, or even distort the meaning of the message, leading to a botched translation.

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