In this age of heightened awareness around gender equality, the use of gender-neutral language has become more important than ever. All communications issued by companies and organisations need to be composed in a sensitive way to avoid causing offence. When you translate any of your language assets — whether your website or a blog post — from German into English, it is important to work with an experienced translator (preferably a native speaker) who understands the rules and who keeps up to date with the prevailing ways of thinking on the subject.
Even though English speakers don’t have to navigate the 'Gendersternchen' minefield that exists in German, there are still a number of nouns that can cause problems. It’s not the done thing nowadays to use words such as 'policeman' or 'fireman' because they assume that only men work in these professions. Gender-neutral alternatives must be used instead, i.e. 'police officer' or 'firefighter'. Other similar examples that may cause offence include 'chairman' ('chairperson' or 'chair' should be used), 'comedienne' (use 'comic') and 'stewardess' (use 'flight attendant').
And the Oscar goes to...
So, should a female thespian be referred to as an ‘actor’ or an ‘actress’? Opinions are divided on this matter. Fiona Shaw (known for playing Mrs Dursley in the Harry Potter films) prefers the term ‘actress’. As she explains during a BBC interview: “I think the experience of being an actress is so fundamentally different to being an actor that any illusion that making the name the same, would make the experience of an actress the same, would be humbug really and would just cover the cracks.” Whoopi Goldberg, on the other hand, presented a counterargument in a newspaper interview: “An actress can only play a woman. I'm an actor – I can play anything.”
So, it really comes down to personal opinion and I imagine, in most cases, journalists will ask the actor or actress for their personal preferences.
Mind your pronouns
Sometimes German speakers of English believe that an English speaker has made a mistake with their pronouns, when in fact they are just ensuring the language remains gender neutral. The sentence I have just written is a good example. The grammatically correct version is:
Sometimes German speakers of English believe that an English speaker has made a mistake with his or her pronouns.
This version ensures that the singular noun 'English speaker' agrees with the right singular pronoun 'his' or 'her'. This sentence might be grammatically correct, but it’s not necessarily a good approach. Firstly, using 'his' or 'her' makes the sentence unnecessarily long and clumsy. Secondly, what if the English speaker in question is non-binary and does not identify as a man or a woman? This is why the so-called 'singular they/their' is a feasible solution. A better solution still is to change the noun to a plural or re-word the sentence to avoid the problem completely.
The expression 'Hey, guys!' is often used as a friendly greeting and a way to get people's attention in a meeting or social gathering. But in recent times, many people have started to feel uncomfortable and conflicted about using it because it effectively excludes a large number of people who do not identify as male or otherwise. Some people describe it as 'female-minimising', grating and annoying, so it is better avoided. Instead, you could opt for more neutral and equally friendly alternatives such as 'Hey, all', 'Hi, everyone' or 'Ya'll' if you live on the other side of the pond.
Some people are also sensitive about words that incorporate the word 'man', such as 'man-made', 'mankind' or 'manpower. In these cases, you can use a gender-neutral alternative: for example, 'synthetic', 'humankind' and 'workforce'. The correct word choice can come down to personal preference, but it is also very important to identify the most commonly accepted forms. Good translators always carry out thorough research to ensure that these kinds of terms are handled sensitively. They will keep on top of the latest trends and refer to reliable sources, such as guides published by the NHS, UNESCO and The European Parliament.
So, whatever your views on whether language should be changed to take into account modern sensibilities, it is generally a good idea to be aware of the words that have the potential to cause problems.
Are you already aware of the problem words and expressions? Have you figured out different ways to avoid making any blunders? I would love to hear what you think.
For the German version transcreated by Magali Karee and Sarah di Fausto from Saramatik Transcreation, click on the "Deutsch" language button at the top of the page.