He, she, they + er, sie, sif, sier, xier = ∞ 10 terms related to gender and sexuality that require sensitivity in translation

A black and a white person in front of an orange background with the word "they", "them", "sier" and "xier" written on it.
They, them, sier, xier...? Not that easy! | © Goethe-Institut. llustration: EL BOUM.

Translation is incredibly challenging: translating sensitively demands that historical, geographical, political and social contexts be taken into account. The text to be translated is attached to its own particular discourses, and a good translation needs to be aware of these. Yet different languages and their different linguistic worlds have developed different discourses around particular issues and problems. As if it weren’t already complex enough, language is constantly changing - especially in relation to political and therefore sensitive terms. In this article, we look specifically at English and German, and discuss 10 terms related to gender and sexuality that are difficult to translate. Since language is constantly evolving and changing, this list might look very different in a year, in five or in ten years. It is in no way exhaustive.

By Anna von Rath and Lucy Gasser

Due to the existing discourses on some of these topics in English, English terms are often retained in German usage. However, familiarity with such English terms may well be related to people’s educational and class background. What is more, when hearing politically sensitive alternatives for the first time, they can seem cumbersome and unwieldy. These difficulties are symptomatic of the fact that we need to build awareness for these issues, and foster a discussion culture in this subject area. It is important to create visibility for these difficulties, in order to develop discussions which we must have if language and society are to become less sexist and heteronormative.
For these reasons, we offer a discussion of some key terms and selected examples which, based on our research, warrant consideration when it comes to sensitive translation. We understand ourselves as being in the process of learning in regard to the translation of sensitive terms, and are fortunate in being able to draw on the important work of Lann Hornscheid, Kübra Gümüşay, Linus Giese and many more. For explanatory purposes, and in order to deprive the more sensitive expressions of their potentially elitist elements, the following text reproduces individual discriminatory terms. With our explanations, we invite readers to engage with possibly unfamiliar terms and terminology in the hopes of developing more respectful ways of interacting with each other.

The authors of this text are Anna von Rath and Lucy Gasser, editors of poco.lit., literary scholars in the field of postcolonial studies and white cis-gender women.

 1. Gendered nouns

The fact that the German language ascribes a gender to all nouns poses many problems for translating with sensitivity for gender and sexuality. This is particularly evident in the case of nouns that label people. For instance, in English, doctor is gender-neutral, whereas in German one would traditionally have to choose between Arzt or Ärztin, the former a male doctor, the latter female. This implicitly results in a gender binary - the person would have to be categorized as either a female or male doctor - a classification that the person described might prefer to avoid. The restriction to only two options, male or female, erases the existence of non-binary and intersex people. There are examples where this is even more explicit than with doctor, such as Krankenschwester (meaning nurse, but entailing the word sister). While in English both doctor and nurse can also have implicitly gendered connotations, they are at least theoretically applicable without gender specification.
This difficulty of translating into German is exacerbated by the distortion translation programmes produce. If you enter the term researcher into a translation programme, it is most likely to offer Wissenschaftler (male researcher) as the result. In Germany, many people still claim that the generic masculine is intended to include all genders. This line of argument, added to the bias revealed in translation programmes therefore serves to maintain the masculine as an unmarked norm, while at the same time attributing certain jobs (such as nurse, doctor or scientist) to particular genders.
Although this discussion might feel a bit old hat, and many orthographic alternatives have already been established in German, such as the internal-I, the underscore, the asterisk or the colon, they are still rarely used in mainstream media and even more rarely in everyday speech. The sometimes understandable counter-arguments are repeated: it’s too convoluted, texts become too long, it looks unattractive and disturbs the flow of reading or speaking. But the problem is real: language influences ascribed gender roles, and both the generic masculine and the gender binary serve to deny the existence of some people.

2. Partner

The issues discussed in point 1 can become even more acute when concerned with describing the members of a relationship. English-speakers now use the term partner more and more commonly in place of wife, girlfriend, husband, boyfriend, etc. This allows one to avoid having to disclose the sex of one’s partner(s), and thus having to provide information about one's own sexuality which one might perhaps prefer to keep private. In German translation, this word is of course not so neutral or ambiguous, because it becomes either Partner (male partner) or Partnerin (female partner). When written, Partner*in is a convenient substitute, and some people insert a pause in place of the asterisk when they speak - like a stumbling block within the word. Finally though, it's simply much more complicated than in English – a more fluid, if initially strange-sounding, alternative could be Beziehungsperson (relationship person).

3. they/them

Many non-binary people in the English-speaking world use the pronouns they/them, as an alternative to the prescriptive binary of she/he and her/him, with which they do not wish to identify. In queer communities in Germany, there are a number of pronouns, which have not (yet) become established in the mainstream, e.g. sif, sier or xier. Most often, the pronouns they/them are retained. Alternatively, in the German language, the pronoun can simply be avoided by repeating the name of the person: This is a solution that bypasses the problem, but it can lead to some very cumbersome formulations.
On the other hand, it is difficult to convey German peculiarities in English. Here the starkly gendered form of the German language - otherwise so often a problem for gender-sensitive translation – in fact offers possibilities for subversive linguistic interventions that are not possible in English. The novel Biskaya by SchwarzRund offers an example of this: At one point, SchwarzRund writes about a person who can be called either “mein Mama” (my mother, with my declined for a masculine noun) or “meine Papa” (my father, with my declined for a feminine noun). The grammatically incorrect use of possessive pronouns breaks up the normative gender roles and expresses a queer playfulness in its stead.

4. Man

Man and mankind are often used to describe the human species in its entirety. This is also a relic of linguistic sexism in the English language, as it inscribes the masculine as norm and representative, although what is actually meant is human, humanity, or humankind -- i.e. Mensch or Menschheit in German. When translating texts that use man in this sense, there is a danger of exacerbating this residual linguistic sexism, because of course the direct translation of man is Mann.

5. One

English furnishes a neutral pronoun in the form of one, which has no equal counterpart in German. The phrase “one cannot be sure”, for example, serves to communicate that something cannot be known with certainty, without specifying any particulars about that anonymous, ungendered one.  In German, the phrase would likely be translated as "man kann sich nicht sicher sein". The expression man in German is often criticized because it is so obviously reminiscent of (or derived from) Mann. Alternatively, some people now use mensch (human): "mensch kann nicht sicher sein".

6.Coming out 

In both English and German, coming out refers to the public positioning as lesbian, bisexual, trans*, inter*, queer, gender-nonconforming or genderqueer. This term could be translated in German as herauskommen or sich bekennen, but the English version has established itself in Germany. This term is not completely uncontroversial in either language, since coming out is indicative of a foundationally heteronormative presumption. It is assumed that a person is heterosexual or cis-gender until they publicly “admit” that this is not the case. Heterosexuality and cis-gender are thus set as the norm.

7. Queer & Camp

Queer is an early example of a term that was first used pejoratively, and then appropriated by those it was supposed to diminish. Initially, queer meant strange or unusual, but in the 19th century was developed into an insulting description for homosexual people and practices. Since then, it has become a term of empowerment that people who want to position themselves against normative assignations of gender and sexuality use for themselves. It shares some ground with the term camp, which, especially in British culture, is positively associated with queer aesthetics and a kind of ironic tastelessness.
Queer and camp are terms that have for the most part been adopted into the German language. However, they are certainly not familiar to the broader masses of society, and translation programmes are still likely to suggest komische or seltsame Person (peculiar person) for queer person. And for camp, either Zeltlager (as in a place with tents) or the insulting word tuntig, which is intended to ridicule the supposedly affected behaviour of gay people (and which translates back into English as an offensive F-word). In other words, the inattentive use of translation programmes can erase the years of hard work that went into appropriating insulting terms for emancipatory politics.

8. Transe

Transe in German is an insulting diminutive for the word Transvestit. It is used as a swear word, not only for trans people, but also for cross-dressers and people who do not correspond to normative images of woman or man.
Fortunately, this word cannot be translated into English. But there is always the danger that people who learn a foreign language from the people around them (and not in a language school) pick up casually-used insults and use them as "normal", unproblematic language.

9. Squirting

Squirting is the English word for the release of a secretion in the vagina during sexual arousal. In German translation, this term is immediately attributed to one sex and translated as weibliche Ejakulation (female ejaculation). This type of translation negates the existence of men with vulvas - i.e. some trans men who can also squirt. At this point, it might be worth mentioning again that gender is a social construction that cannot be clearly defined by penis or vulva.

10. Non-Western concepts of gender

In other linguistic contexts, there are various concepts that go beyond the gender binary that is so firmly anchored in the German language. These concepts are difficult or impossible to translate. Understandings of gender and their expression in language are founded in different traditions of knowledge-production. An example would be hijras in South Asia, who represent a kind of third gender. The term is used to describe intersex and transgender people.
Two-Spirit is also a term for an alternative gender that can be assigned neither to the group of men nor of women. Two-Spirit manifests the idea that two souls live in one body. The term was coined by Anishinaabeg - Indigenous groups - in North America. Indigenous peoples, who lived in these territories before the colonization of North America by Europeans, had alternative ways of conceptualising gender, but with colonisation, colonisers enforced the notion of the gender binary – which Two-Spirit opposes.