LGBTQ Terminology and Translation: Do Emerging Identity Definitions Cross Cultural Boundaries?
Updated: Sep 23
We recently had a training with a client whose organization provides healthcare options to the LGBTQ communities in our area. Here’s what we learned and the questions raised for localization projects
Translation and localization for any outcome is, at its core, a communication challenge. We know that understanding the culture of the target language is critical to acceptance of your content by that culture. An ongoing project with a local provider of healthcare to the LGBTQ communities in our area highlighted an emerging issue in translation and linguistics.
Note: This is a rapidly changing societal issue and this article is just the beginning of a dialog.
Translating and localizing gender identity terminology in other languages
Our client, in addition to serving individuals identifying as LGBTQ, serves a large Spanish language population with that same demographic. In managing the localization of these projects it became apparent that there were complex issues in how individual identities were defined in both English and Spanish. Because the language and usage has evolved very rapidly in recent years, our client offered to come in and do a training to bring our teams up to speed on these important localization issues. The training was enlightening and brought up a large number of translation considerations that we believe are both relevant to our clients now, and will increasingly be important across global cultures.
It’s time for a dialog on gender identification and preference across cultures
These issues, and the societal changes they reflect, are not unique to the US- they are global because they represent acknowledgement of differences that have been hidden or covered up by societies with notions of what is ‘normal’. ‘Normal’ was a standard that disenfranchised large groups of people who felt ‘different’ but were unable or afraid to acknowledge it. Vastly changed access to information and the freedom to express yourself via online technologies have exposed many gender and sexual preferences that are ‘normal’ to the people that express them. Yet, social and legal censorship kept there from being a public dialog and subsequent recognition of these preferences. That is changing and the language is changing with it.
A new glossary of terms is entering the English language as we speak
During the training we were given a three page glossary of American English terms, both positive and negative, associated with these changes. Asexual, cisgender, bisexual, gender fluid, gender non-binary, intersex, pansexual… and terms that are no longer acceptable like hermaphrodite and transexual, having been replaced by more accurate terms. This is not political correctness, it is a reasoned attempt by the LGBTQ community to ‘normalize’ their preferences. To my mind, as a writer, I think they may be erring on the side of too many terms to be viable, however I understand why this has evolved.
Not all preferred terms are possible in all languages, especially references in languages that assign gender specific nouns and verbs: i.e. latino/latina, and now, latinx
In translation, the ability to define a person in non-gender specific language can be a problem, especially with languages (notably, Latin-based) that assign a gender to nouns and verbs but do not have a non-gender-specific alternative. The emerging solution includes the creation of new descriptors like latinx, however acceptance of these is not widespread and may not be understood by many.
The larger issue that translators and content creators have is to understand the reasoning behind the use of certain phrases that comes into play because of these gender identity issues. We have seen, presumably unintentional, examples of this in content sent to us for translation, and it would be easy for this kind of thing to slip by everyone in the translation workflow without new awareness. Unfortunately, this can damage the validity of that content for some whom it is written for. It’s not a simple issue.
This dialog is just beginning
Language constantly evolves. Witness the annual ceremonial unveiling of new words, anointed as belonging to the English language, decided by some Dons in Oxford. They usually have evolved out of street slang until they were in common use. I have no doubt that the many terms mentioned above are also evolving, some more successfully than others. As they evolve and become more accepted, other languages will either adopt them or their own variations. In the meantime, we all, as content and language professionals, need to start watching these developments and planning to include them in our work.
The issue of gender in language is an emerging issue in other countries, however they are principally dealing with male/female gender language: