Inclusive Language and Translations

From the SWET Newsletter Archive/Editors’ Corner

Many journalists and writers are working hard these days to free their prose of sexist bias. When they don’t, editors often must help them out. A translator, who must take into account the characteristics of two languages at once in the routine course of her work, has special problems in this regard.

The preceding sentence illustrates one of the characteristics of the English language that translators and editors need to take into account: it referred to the translator’s work as “her work.” English requires that the gender of the person being talked about be specified in this way, or that we use some device to avoid doing so. If we were writing in Japanese, we wouldn’t have to do that, because pronouns do not need to be used, and the words commonly used for “writer” or “editor” or “translator” are not gender-specific. (Assumptions are made by readers, or listeners, about the gender of the person being talked about, but that is a different problem.) As a language, Japanese is more flexible, more supple, than English; the use of pronouns can be avoided entirely, and a word like ningen for example, meaning “people” or “the human race” or even “one person,” does not require any thought about gender in the way an English equivalent like “mankind” and the supposedly generic “man” do.

The translator of Japanese into English is often faced with a piece of writing in which a person or a category of people is being discussed—a doctor, perhaps, or a government official, if it’s a news story—who in the Japanese original has no specified gender. In English, in most cases, the person must be referred to at some point by a pronoun—“he,” “she,” “his,” “her.” And in English, writers have been going to great lengths to avoid making sexist assumptions about the sex of anonymous people in categories, like public officials, disaster victims, or short-order cooks. The translator is writing for that audience, but also working from a text, in Japanese, whose author is making assumptions about the gender of characters or persons mentioned and doesn’t worry about the assumptions readers are making. An article on karōshi—death from overwork—probably assumed that all the victims are men. A piece on Nintendo computer games assumed that the kids who buy and play with them are boys. A feature on tourism blames “OLs [office ladies] and housewives with time on their hands” for the free-spending habits of Japanese travelers overseas.

The translator’s job is to reflect in a second language the spirit, if not the letter, of the original piece of writing. Does that mean translating the assumptions along with the prose—conveniently using masculine pronouns and masculine category words like “spokesman,” “chairman,” and “policeman?” Or can the translator overturn or buffer the assumptions, by deliberately switching pronouns, using “he or she,” or using gender-neutral words like “spokesperson,” “chairperson,” and “police officer, or by editing out gender-specific words?”

Translators don’t always see eye to eye about the matter, any more than journalists or other writers do. Some feel that the translator’s first obligation is to be accurate. If the government mouthpiece who is being referred to in a news article is a man, even if he isn’t named, it’s accurate to call him a “spokesman.” If the Self-Defense Forces personnel who went to Cambodia were in fact all males, they can collectively be called “policemen and soldiers” or “the men sent overseas.” That’s accurate.

Other translators would venture further into the realm of “affirmative-action” type language—using gender-neutral terms like “spokesperson” for everyone in every case. The argument here is that while these words do still seem clunky and cumbersome to us at times, only their constant use will render them the “normal” and accepted way of referring to people in a neutral, or inclusive, way. The problem is that the writer of the original sentence would be very unlikely to use such terms, with their determined neutrality. How far should a translator go in editing the original author in this way?

Another problem for the translator from Japanese to English lies in the gender-specific nouns that do categorize—some would say patronize—by gender in Japanese: joryū sakka (woman writer), jo-i (woman doctor), and so on. These are very similar to English terms that were used in the past but are not used today to emphasize a woman’s doing something that “normally” would be done by a man. Words like this—“poetess,” “aviatrix,” “coed”—are called “markers” by linguists; they are used to “mark” the standard (male) forms of words—“poet,” “aviator,” “college student”—as “female, or special exceptions.” Precisely because such terms are not considered correct usage in English, the translator is treading on thin ice if using them in a translation; better, if that is the purpose, to specify gender with pronouns, the device that English does offer for marking gender without making a special point of it.

For the translator in the opposite direction, from English to Japanese, the problem may be a quite different one—reproducing the inclusivity of the newly de-biased English text in Japanese, which does not include newly minted vocabulary that bends over backwards to be neutral about gender. There is no Japanese equivalent of “spokesperson” or “chair” (hōdōkan/hyogensha, for the former and iin-cho for the latter are gender-neutral). The flavor of this type of English is not easy to duplicate—nor would every translator want or need to do so.

Perhaps we can offer some guidance to translators who are bound by the need to be faithful to the original but also want to eliminate objectionable wording and assumptions that will mislead or offend readers in the target language. The first step is to be aware of biases and exclusions in the original text; often these are embedded not in the language but in the underlying assumptions. Where assumptions are being made and where these are an integral part of the writer’s intent, they should be preserved or indicated in some way that makes the reader or listener aware of what is going on. The story on karōshi, for example, might specify that “90 percent of those afflicted are men.” It could be noted that “workers who are transferred to far-flung branch offices by their companies—the “tanshin funin phenomenon”—are women as well men. Where the assumptions are peripheral, inaccurate, or unintentional, they can probably be eliminated or compensated for. The “OLs and idle housewives” could become just “free-spending tourists” of unspecified gender. The women authors and doctors can be writers and physicians who happen to be women.

By making changes like this—by being conscious of the assumptions that are being made in both languages and the effect they have on readers and listeners—the translator is adding an extra dimension to the work being done. We talk about non-sexist or non-biased language—emphasizing what the words are not. It might also be useful to talk about “inclusive language”—making an effort to write and speak in a way that includes everyone rather than excludes on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, age, physical ability, or other categories when they are irrelevant to the subject being addressed.

Bias is based on ignorance and insensitivity. It is fed by language and can be challenged by language. Language is only a symbol; but the way it is used can, over time, change attitudes and assumptions. Today it feels very strange to pick up a book published in the 1930s or 1940s that is littered with the use of “man” as the general term for human beings. We don’t write that way any more in English; and it seems odd to see it now. Perhaps it is not too optimistic to think that the written and spoken word, and our careful usage of it, can do something to cure social bigotries like racism, sexism, and homophobia. That is something many of us would like to think our work contributes to.

(This article was contributed to the SWET Newsletter, No. 64 [March 1995] by Susie Schmidt; and edited for publishing online April 2015)