Gender Inequality

God created Man and women. It would have been so good had it been left to that itself. But then man created languages. And he created male and female for almost everything around him. Sometimes he even went on an overdrive to create the neutral gender as well. Yes I am talking about mysterious classification of words in the Indo-European languages into mainly three categories: Masculine, feminine and Neutral. And just to say, that is only the beginning of hell for we translators.

The English language is among the lucky few where the genders are restricted to mostly its natural gender. Living forms like a dog is a male and a cow is a female. But inanimate objects would happily be clubbed as neutral. But this is again all thanks to modern English. Old English, which died a natural death in the tumultuous times of 12th Century England. It had genders to all its nouns. If old English was still in practice, you and I would never have understood the Magna Charter. And good riddance to it for maybe because of that the English could spend more time on the Industrial Revolution and colonising the World.

But the rest like French and Spanish have 2 genders and German have 3. PHEW!!! But when we translate we always wonder, what selection basis are employed to distribute the words in these genders. What Great Battle of the Sexes ended with each opponent collecting the spoils in their own gender arena? At first glance one might think so but after a li’l digging in you will realize that they too follow a path in deciding its gender. The physical attribute of the thing or the structure of the word are generally the decisive factors. But like any rule you would find more exceptions than the norm.

Now some Germanic languages like Swedish have taken an easy way out. Many words have fused together their masculine and feminine genders over time to form a FOURTH NEW GENDER called as common gender which is different from neutral gender. Is this better or more confusing? Ask a Swedish translator.

And translators have another set of words to thank called as epicene. These words stay the same for both male and female gender like estudiante (student) in Spanish. So strong is the gender politics in Europe that even languages have not been spared. The EU parliament sent out a directive in all languages to be followed in choosing such epicene words that do not hurt the sensibilities of gender. Traditional occupations of men like chairman will now be Director and Sportsman would be an athlete.

But if you believe that if you know the gender of thing in one language you can use the same in the language you are translating, I would say you are as naive as the voter who believes the politician’s speech. “River” in French is feminine but masculine in German. So the river Rhine undergoes a sex change operation as it flows from France to Germany. 😉 Sometimes the word can be pronounced or even spelled the same way but connote different genders in different languages. “Ananas” or pineapple is pronounced the same in German and Hindi. But while the Germans feel it portrays feminine beauty, Hindi considers it masculine enough. The poor little word “tram” goes from Masculine in Polish to feminine in Czech to neutral in Romanian.

English and French would allow the genders to invade the personal pronouns as well like he/she and il/elle. But others contained them outside the doors of personal pronouns and have common words for both. Like dia in Indonesian, hän in Finnish, voh in Hindi and o in Hungarian. But while English shed its genders long back it has the liberty to use them at will.

For the sentence “It is raining” would be hard to frame in French since “it” is neutral, something unheard for a Frenchman. So it becomes masculine “Il pleut” or He is raining. Quite a treat imagining “him” raining for such a wrongly translated sentence. Mixed gender words like siblings may have its german counterpart “Geschwister” but if translated to Hindi you would need to spend a few more precious moments translating to “Bhai-behen” describing the brother sister combo of words.

Sometimes a same object hijacks two genders if it has more than one word describing it. Wagen is masculine and Auto is neutral in German. Still they both mean car in English. In other times, keeping up with the rules, the natural gender itself is violated. For a “mädchen” or girl in German is considered neutral till she gets Mrs. Married and the Irish stallion “stail” would die of humiliation on knowing its feminine and a German horse or Pferd would have to migrate out of Germany to change from neutral to its original gender.

It’s becoming evident now that this complexity of gender has not spared even the dumb animals. We should thank our stars that PETA hasn’t protested on that issue. YET!!! Or even the fact that the animals don’t know about this as well. Some animals have just one gender while speaking about it. Dogs are referred as he and cats as she in English. Of course there are words to describe them genderwise but in general this is how it goes. La aguila or eagle in Spanish is always a feminine word and there is no El aguilo. Of course there exists male eagles or else they wouldn’t reproduce. If you understand how that works its good or
go ask your parents for that’s not my job. I will stick to the gender labyrinth for now. So to describe the elusive male eagle in Spanish you would say La aguila macho.

Countries too have been targeted. While the French and Spanish might consider India feminine and Pakistan Masculine, the English would find both of them and France and Spain and all the countries as “she” only. Germany would prefer to call everyone’s motherland as masculine barring a few. A translators job is indeed challenging in the face of all these genders. After all its this very gender that gives the sentence structure its beauty. Depending on the language the sentence changes as per the gender you are speaking to or sometimes as per the gender of the person speaking. The gender can simply change only the Noun with its article or maybe the adjective, verb and pronoun might just be a part and parcel of the grand change as well. They are not the guidelines. They are the essence of a good translation.

2 thoughts on “Gender Inequality

  1. Ronald, said:

    Rosina, our member on LinkedIn, sent me an email with below text –

    Hola Ronald:

    Acabo de leer tu artículo “Gender Inequality” y me encantó. Te felicito por tu perspicacia y tu capacidad para “ver” cosas que otros no ven.

    Discrepo en un par de cosas.

    Cuando hablas de “águila”, es un sustantivo femenino como tú dices, pero va precedido del artículo “el” o del indefinido “un”. Decimos; EL ÁGUILA BLANCA y la concordancia de genéro se da en el adjetivo no en el artículo. Pero hablamos de LAS ÁGUILAS BLANCAS y acá hay concordancia en femenino tanto en el artículo como en el adjetivo.

    Eso sucede con casi todos los sustantivos femeninos que comienzan con A tónica.

    el agua, las aguas
    el alma, las almas
    el aula, las aulas
    el ave, las aves
    el arte, las artes

    La excepción en este caso serían las letras del alfabeto A y H. Decimos LA A y LA HACHE.

    También en el caso de ARTE que adopta la forma masculina en singular, pero la forma femenina en plural:
    el arte gótico, el arte precolombino, el arte egipcio, las artes plásticas, las artes escénicas.

    Cuando tú dices que águila no tiene masculino, se presta a confusión con los epicenos:

    el sapo, pero no la sapa
    el ruiseñor, no la ruiseñora
    la hormiga, no el hormigo
    la pulga, no el pulgo
    la liebre, no el liebre
    Para especificar el sexo en estos sustantivos llamados epicenos, decimos “el sapo macho”o “el sapo hembra”.

    El género es un accidente o morfema que caracteriza al sustantivo, dotándole de una de las dos posibilidades combinatorias que llamamos femenino y masculino, las cuales mediante la concordancia, permiten la manifestación explícita de ciertas relaciones entre las unidades o palabras del enunciado.

    “El estudiante” que mencionas no es “epiceno”. Los epicenos son los que nombré anteriormente.

    En el caso de EL ESTUDIANTE podemos decir LA ESTUDIANTE,

    Este grupo es el de sustantivos comunes con neutralización de género.

    ¿Y qué me dices de EL CARACOL? Es un adjetivo masculino, epiceno, aunque muchos gastrópodos sean hermafroditas.

    Si estás en desacuerdo en algo, dímelo.

    Muy interesante el tema.



  2. I’ve signifies appeared at it through that point of view and have been enlightened. I will have to get some extra data and report it back. Thanks.

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