Gender Neutrality in Asian Languages: A Linguistic Analysis

As our world evolves, social forces continue to drive change. Among these is the need for inclusivity in how we address people in terms of gender. Because everyone has their own specific gender identity, “old-fashioned” gender roles are no longer sufficient.

And in languages and translation, there is an ever-rising need for gender neutral translations. However, achieving this goal can be challenging. That’s because every language has specific grammatical gender structures.

In this article, we explore three case studies of Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin and then share our insights into creating inclusive translations. Let’s discover more!

The challenges of achieving gender-neutral translations in Asian languages

Achieving gender neutral translations in Asian languages is accompanied by several challenges. Below, we briefly explore three case studies, namely, gender neutral translations in Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

Japanese

Japanese is considered one of the most complex languages together with its three writing systems. What is more, there is a distinct difference in terms of how words are spoken (with inflections reserved for men and women) and how words are written.

Therefore, while adverts and written text may emerge as gender-neutral, spoken language such as in film or video games, requires a special touch by the translator involved. What is more with Japanese is that “what would be communicated in a gesture or inflection in other languages often has its own separate register and rules.”

This means that sentence final particles (SFPs) that tend to indicate a specific gender at the end of a sentence need careful translation to ensure that a gender is either not assigned to the speaker or spoken word or that it is assigned, depending on context.

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Korean

Although Korean does have a gender neutral pronoun in addition to “she” and “he”—”kyay”—it is broadly agreed that this pronoun is used by people of the same age or younger and is used in informal settings.

With Korean being a strong language of honorifics, the use of “kyay” is therefore not always appropriate. Moreover, with machine translation (MT) often generating gender biased results, the challenge of gender neutral translations arises in image and alt text translations (image captioning), content recommendations, and automated employment.

This gender bias in MT can be considered challenging to overcome, because of traditionally assigned gender roles that assume, for example, that a doctor is a male or a nurse is a female.

Mandarin

With Mandarin, it is important to note that the language does not have gender-neutral markings. What is more, gender is often inferred from context, titles, and names.

However, despite the lack of gender neutral language markings, there is a small shift towards using “Ta” and “X” to mark someone’s identity as gender neutral, especially if that is how they choose to identify themselves as.

While this is still a phenomenon that’s minor, it is getting traction in several online communities and forums, although when it comes to gender neutral translations, the challenge can really manifest itself because of the absence of gender-neutral markers and inferences related to gender.

What are the linguistic nuances related to gender?

There are some languages—such as Turkish—where nouns are not gendered, unlike French, German, or Spanish, and others. This linguistic distinction can make gender neutral translations much more seamless. However, with Asian languages, systems of non-gender-neutral markers, tone inflections, and honorifics, are just some of the nuances that a translator must take into account when creating a translation that is inclusive.

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Insights into creating inclusive translations

Despite these nuances and challenges, there are ways to create gender neutral translations that aim to be more inclusive—whether in a professional environment such as job advertisements or in more informal settings such as video games or subtitling of films. Some examples of these methods include:
Gender Neutrality in Asian Languages

  • Using names or nicknames as a direct and respectful way to avoid using gender-specific pronouns
  • Using titles such as “Mr.”, “Ms.”, “Mrs”, “Dr.”, “Prof.” etc., also introducing a level of politeness into the conversation
  • Another strategy is to use the plural form “everyone” when dealing with a group of people or people of uncertain gender
  • Using “he/she” or “they”, again without specifying a specific gender
  • Addressing people by their profession or occupation, such as “student”, “teacher”, “senior”, “master”, etc.
  • Using pet names for close relationships, such as “dear”, “my love”, “baby”, etc.
  • When it comes to strangers, it’s advisable to communicate with them by addressing their identity, for example, “dear passengers” or “may I ask you?”.

Conclusion

Gender neutrality in translation can be a difficult task to achieve, particularly in some of the most prominent Asian languages. This is where translators and their computer-aided tools, including machine translation, need to work together to create gender neutral translations that create a culture of inclusivity.

Although linguistically and grammatically speaking this may not always be possible, what is possible is to introduce a consciousness, mindfulness, and awareness of these challenges so that new solutions can be developed that do not encroach on people’s identities or make them feel unnecessarily excluded or judged.

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