Guest post: Non-binary and inclusive language in translation

This is a guest post by Ártemis López, a native of Spain and an ATA-certified translator (ES>EN) and CCHI-certified Spanish healthcare interpreter based in Washington, D.C. They have been interpreting and translating for D.C.’s queer, trans, and non-binary communities since 2011. At the 2018 American Translators Association conference, Ártemis presented a session on the challenges of “de-gendering” when we translate and interpret from or into languages with grammatical gender, and especially when we translate or interpret for LGBTQ clients. The presentation received rave reviews, which prompted me (Corinne) to request a guest post from Ártemis on this topic.

As translators and interpreters, most of us are familiar with the idea of binary inclusive language (i.e. using “he or she” to designate “any random person”). The difference between the binary (i.e., limited to men and women) approach to inclusive language and non-binary inclusive language can be best explained in the singular. Imagine an e-mail sent to all staff of a store. The email could read, “If a customer needs help, ask him or her what he or she needs.” We know the email isn’t referring to one singular person: although the email says “customer,” there must be many customers, some of whom are male and some of whom are female. It really means, “If one of our male customers needs help, ask him what he needs, and if one of our female customers needs help, ask her what she needs.” While this sentence is inclusive of women, it remains binary and ignores people who are not male or female.

A non-binary person (i.e., someone who doesn’t identify as solely male or solely female—perhaps the person identifies as a mix of the two, as neither, or as something else entirely) cannot be referred to as “he or she,” or by any other binary inclusive construction.* It could be argued that they are included in sentences that are grammatically singular but semantically plural–like the email in the paragraph above–but it would be both erroneous and dated to maintain that binary construction in regular speech: “I saw Alex at the store and he or she said that his or her advisor liked his or her dissertation!

There are many reasons to care about truly inclusive language, the most important being that non-binary people exist and deserve to be acknowledged. For translators and interpreters, there’s another reason: we have a responsibility to honor the true meaning of the source. One of my go-to examples is a local organization’s bilingual (EN/ES) intake paperwork, which tries to be inclusive by asking for the person’s pronouns but gives these options: “he/él, she/ella, they/ellos/ellas, other/otro.” The translator simply didn’t understand the meaning of the source, and translated “they” as “plural he/plural she.” While Spanish doesn’t have a normative non-binary pronoun, both “elle” (/eʝe/) and “ellx” (/eʝeks/) are widely used by queer, trans, and non-binary Spanish speakers. This organization cares enough about gender identity to ask for people’s pronouns, and one can safely extrapolate that they would rather give a nonstandard pronoun option than adhere too closely to traditional binary grammar. This is where the intended meaning comes in: translating “they” as “ellos/ellas” is as unfaithful to the source as a translation could possibly get, although by traditional grammatical standards it is correct—perhaps more correct than “elle” or “ellx” could be. In case of doubt, or if we are concerned about using nonstandard language, we can always ask our client what their priorities are.

This isn’t just a matter of hypothetical people insisting on nonstandard language. The community has anecdotally known about this issue for years, if not decades, but now it has become clear to anyone who is paying attention that the refusal to use inclusive language is putting people at risk. For example, it’s now documented that in Canada, non-binary and trans people are opting for medical care in their non-native language (or skipping care altogether) because their doctors won’t honor their identity through their language.

Each language has a different degree of adaptability to non-binary expression, but we must learn how to use it and how to recognize it in all our working languages. In English, “he or she” can become singular “they” (“Alex missed their bus”) in almost every case, most gendered words can also become neutral (“husband” into “spouse”), and sometimes gendered words can be omitted entirely: “excuse me” can replace “sir” or “ma’am” to politely get someone’s attention. Newly constructed non-binary alternatives to language are gaining traction: Merriam-Webster added the gender-neutral honorific “Mx.” to its unabridged dictionary in 2017;  the word “nibling”–a gender-neutral term for “niece or nephew”–is under consideration by the Collins Dictionary, and Facebook famously added 51 gender options to its platform in 2014 (all defined here) and has since added more.

Interjection from Corinne: If you struggle to accept the singular use of “they” for a specific person–as in Ártemis’ bio–rest assured that even the venerable Chicago Manual of Style now allows this even in formal writing, and states that “a person’s stated preference for a specific pronoun should be respected.It’s also worth noting that many of these emerging terms may be viewed with the same level of skepticism that once greeted the now-common title “Ms.,” as recently as the 1980s. (End of interjection!)

My favorite approach to non-binary language is to reframe the sentence. Conventional Spanish rules would say that words ending in “o” can be both male and neutral. I recently saw a Twitter post by a linguist that read, “¿Ya estás suscrito?” (“Are you subscribed yet?”) I couldn’t help but wonder why they didn’t say “¿Te has suscrito ya?” (“Have you subscribed yet?”) instead. Their version uses an adjective in the masculine form and, therefore, genders the reader as male. Using a participle instead would be one character longer, but it would take gender out of the equation altogether without the need for nonstandard language.

The absolute best way to familiarize yourself with non-binary language is to interact with your local non-binary community. The second best would be to interact with the community online, such as through Twitter or Tumblr. I find Twitter particularly useful as a language search engine, as you can easily see how and when people are using specific language.

As the field of queer translation is in its nascent stages, there are very few works that analyze it critically (so far). However, some voices stand out from the crowd. Translating for Sexual Equality (2017, ed. José Santaemilia) and Re-Engendering Translation (2011, ed. Christopher Larkosh) are two great introductory cross sections of voices on queer and feminist translation. Depending on your language pair, it may be easier to find authors by searching for the programs of conferences such as Lavender Languages and searching for presenters’ other works.

The English non-binary language introduction par excellence comes from Teen Vogue. For Spanish, the Universidad del País Vasco has a beginner’s guide to inclusive language, and Asamblea no Binarie put out a shorter but more specific guide. There may be guides for your language(s) written by the community, but it’s also possible that there are none yet; in either case, as I mentioned, it’s best to search for examples of people using language rather than to stick to what a guide says. Language can change rapidly and guides can only present information that is current at the time they are published.

There is no single approach for translating non-binary language, particularly when translating or interpreting across languages with very different grammatical gender (as is the case between Germanic and Romance languages, for example), but that’s the “it depends” reality of our field. All we can do is continue adding tools to our toolbox and learn how to use them to our advantage.

* As is often true in our profession, some of the terms in this article depend on context. Some non-binary people do use “he” and/or “she.” Some people don’t care about pronouns, or use them interchangeably.

Readers, over to you! Especially if you’ve encountered these issues in your own work, we’d love to hear how you handled them!

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20 Responses to “Guest post: Non-binary and inclusive language in translation”
  1. Sam Mowry March 11, 2019
    • Corinne McKay March 11, 2019
  2. Maria March 11, 2019
    • Corinne McKay March 11, 2019
    • Ártemis López March 11, 2019
  3. France Foster March 12, 2019
    • Corinne McKay March 12, 2019
  4. Mark Stables March 13, 2019
    • Corinne McKay March 13, 2019
    • Corinne McKay March 15, 2019
  5. Leyre Alegre March 20, 2019
    • Corinne McKay March 20, 2019
    • Artemis April 6, 2019
      • Leyre Alegre May 18, 2019
  6. Beth Worthy March 27, 2019
  7. Mario Chavez March 29, 2019
  8. Samantha Mowry March 29, 2019
    • Mario Chávez March 29, 2019
  9. Leyre Alegre March 29, 2019

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