Interpreting and Gender

Let’s talk about inclusive, non-gendered language.

Girl with a coat on a bicycle in the city

Photo by Katie Rainbow

Over the last few years, the feminist movement and various marginalised groups (LGTBQI+, racialized communities, people with functional diversity, etc.) have been claiming that their realities also need to be represented in language so that certain individuals are no longer subject to discrimination when we communicate, whether verbally or in writing.

Inclusive, non-gendered language

This is certainly a very broad issue but, in a nutshell, advocates for the use of inclusive language claim that using the male form as generic to refer to a mixed group is inadequate because it reinforces the hegemonic conceptual framework. Meanwhile, the use of non – gendered language aims to dissolve all those mental structures about roles and practices that we have assumed to be either feminine or masculine.

If we approach this subject from an interpreting perspective — which is the matter in question — the picture gets even more complicated. If we want to interpret in an inclusive way from a language like English into Spanish or Catalan, we will quickly realise that we are dealing with very different languages in terms of gender markers. While English barely uses them (children, doctor, worker, blonde, funny, etc.) in Spanish we find them all over the place: in nouns (niño,-a; doctor,-a; trabajador,-ra), adjetives (rubio,-a; gracioso,-a), articles (los, las) possessives (mío, -a; nuestro,-a) and pronouns (él, ella; ellos, -as).

«Los niños juegan alegremente a la pelota».

In Spanish, the grammatical male is also used as generic. When we say “Children are happily playing with the ball” (and in this scenario there are both girls and boys), in Spanish it would be translated as “Los niños juegan alegremente a la pelota”, so girls must guess in which cases “niños” also refers to them and which ones it does not. Given that English has gender-neutral terms (children v. boys or girls), this hardly ever happens, but in Spanish there are very few nouns with unmarked gender (epicenes). Therefore, what are their options? Los niños y las niñas, les niñes, lxs niñxs, l@s niñ@s… There are numerous proposals on the table, but there is yet to be a clear solution.

Choose your words

Photo by Brett Jordan

Hence, it is challenging to translate gender in a completely inclusive way during a simultaneous interpretation from a language such as English into Spanish or Catalan, mainly because the aforementioned alternatives might work for written texts (although the Real Academia Española, the institution that regulates the Spanish language, disapproves of them), but options are even fewer when it comes to oral discourse. Due to the speed at which the original speech must be interpreted, mentioning all the gender inflections that the term may have (e. g. los directivos y las directivas) will increase the length of the Spanish sentences, making it even more difficult for the interpreters not to lose track of what is being said, meaning that the audience will probably find the interpretation rather unnatural and baroque.

Complications go even further!

We must remember that there are people who use their preferred gender pronouns to introduce themselves. How should any interpreter into Spanish proceed when anglophone speakers present themselves with masculine, feminine, gender-fluid or non-binary gender pronouns? Hi, my name is Jake and my pronouns are they/themor I’m Alex and my pronouns are she / theirs .

When in such situations, the importance of interpreters being provided with reference material (a list of speakers, biographies, participants’ presentations and speeches, conference programmes, etc.) and enough time to prepare for the assignment is undeniable. This allows them to make the most suitable decisions and to avoid any wrong assumptions about the gender identity of those they will interpret for.

To conclude, it is worth mentioning that people make mistakes. Being willing to learn and correct ourselves is more important than seeking perfection.

If you find it necessary not to pronounce an exclusive or offensive discourse, you are one step towards inclusion, so if you keep an open mind and think critically, you will always find a way to communicate without discriminating against anyone.

Equality is diversity

Photo by Amy Elting