You, Me, Hir, and Non-Binary Language

By Ártemis López

(This is an English translation of “Tú, yo, elle y el lenguaje no binario,” which was previously published in La Linterna del Traductor, Asetrad’s magazine. Asetrad is Spain’s Translators, Editors, and Interpreters Association.)

Non-binary people are nothing new: we’ve always existed, but we are now being discussed more frequently. If you work in translation or interpretation and haven’t yet had to translate a clearly non-binary text, you will have to eventually. This article will define some concepts, dispel some misconceptions, and propose different approaches to direct and indirect non-binary language in our translations.

If poetry is a weapon loaded with future, as Gabriel Celaya said, language is a weapon with the power to exclude or to nurture. People are increasingly aware about the need to avoid sexist language, but there are many other biases that show through our words. The best way to avoid them is to identify and neutralize them. A recent document by the University of the Basque Country (Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea) recommends “paying attention to expressions and uses that reflect racism, heterosexism, transphobia or ableism” (Fernández Casete et al [my translation], 2018: p. 39). Since inclusive language is so broad a field, my focus in this article will be on a specific facet—the deliberate effort to leave binarism behind and to recognize those of us who are neither women nor men.

I’m going to advocate for a linguistic change that is already taking place, that of elasticizing the two grammatical genders prevalent in romance languages in order to include all people. It bears remembering that language is always tied to a specific communicative situation. Using non-binary language for a non-binary person requires the same flexibility as maintaining a binary person’s matching grammatical gender.

The binary gender system is predicated on the idea that human beings come in two genders alone—men and women. A non-binary person doesn’t feel exclusively male or exclusively female; they can be both genders in equal proportion, or one more than the other, or they could have a completely different gender, or they could have no gender at all, or perhaps none of these apply.

Being non-binary doesn’t always overlap with being trans (i.e., having a gender that does not match the sex assigned at birth). Similarly, whether a person is binary or non‑binary is unrelated to their sexual orientation, just as hair color is unrelated to musical taste or weight to bilingualism.

 


Image by Hayden Stern


 

Some non-binary people speak about themselves using feminine grammatical gender, some use masculine grammatical gender, and some don’t feel comfortable with either option and seek other ways to express themselves. When the Real Academia Española says that “in [Spanish], as in other languages, the grammatical masculine gender works as an inclusive form to refer to mixed groups or to use in generic or nonspecific contexts” (RAE [my translation], 2018), it is overlooking non‑binary people, who are neither mixed groups nor generic or nonspecific people: we are specifically non-binary.

Given this background, we, as translators and linguists, need to learn how to use non-binary language. First, because non-binary people exist and we deserve respect. But even beyond human rights, non-binary people are increasingly visible and, eventually we will find ourselves having to translate for or about a non-binary person. For example, both Asia Kate Dillon and Adrianna Moore use singular they as their gender-neutral pronouns in English, but they are frequently translated as female in Spanish—a translation error just as serious as translating Barack Obama as female.

The news and social media are not the only fields in which we are gaining visibility; as whole people, we also exist in the medical and legal fields. A growing number of countries and states recognize the right to identification documents, whether local or national, that display a neutral gender marker. If we were to translate a non-binary person’s documentation, it wouldn’t just be unethical to translate it in the feminine or masculine; it would also be incorrect. And if it is a sworn translation, it could even amount to misrepresentation. This deontological duty remains true even if the person’s documents are not gender-neutral: our duty is to translate the original message. Let us not forget that the law doesn’t create a right; it merely acknowledges it. Gender laws recognize a reality that already existed and will continue to exist. Thus, if the laws of the document’s target country don’t recognize this reality, that does not exempt us from our duty to reflect it.

What not to do when translating trans or non-binary texts

First, we must take good notice of the grammatical gender chosen by each person and heed it, with no exceptions and without passing judgment. One of the manifestations of transphobia and binarism is speaking about people using the incorrect gender. This is called misgendering in English and hasn’t been conclusively coined yet in Spanish (hacer misgender, misgenderear, malgenerizar, malgeneralizar…). Using binary language to speak about a non-binary person is disrespectful, just as it would be if we used non‑binary language for somebody who is not non‑binary.

There are some specific words that the trans and non-binary communities have chosen to avoid, such as transsexual. Some trans and non-binary people still use these words among themselves as a sort of linguistic activism, but those outside the community should not use them.

The term transsexual, or transexual, should be particularly avoided both in Spanish and in English because it has traditionally been used to pathologize trans and non‑binary people or to establish a difference between those who fit some medical criteria and those who do not. Being trans isn’t an illness (Burke, 2011), and using medical terms to refer to people who are not ill denies the progress of the trans community. Instead of transsexual, we use trans (the most common term, both in Spanish and in English) or transgender (transgénero in Spanish). Conversely, we use cis and cisgender (cisgénero) to refer to people who are not trans. All these words are adjectives and are invariable in number and in gender: both “a transgender man” and “transgender people” are correct, and they should not be used as nouns (e.g., “the transgenders” or “she’s a transgender”). Some terms, such as transgendered in English and transgenérico in Spanish, were not coined by the community and should not be used by cisgender people. Words such as transvestite (travesti) and tranny should never be used without a full understanding of their history and context. Additionally, drag is a queer art form but it isn’t necessarily trans, and a majority of drag queens are cis men portraying a character.

What can we do when our source uses these problematic words and we must translate or interpret them? It’s really not a dilemma: there is only one correct answer, and it is to transmit the original message as is, without whitewashing it. Begoña Martínez Pagán (forthcoming [my translation]) says that, instead of cleaning up the problematic words on our own, the first step is warning our clients, as we would be “[providing] a disservice to society, and [placing] the reader in a dangerous situation if we conceal the warnings that could be seen in the text”.

How to translate trans or non-binary texts

We must pay close attention in order to identify when a text is purposefully ambiguous regarding gender. For example, if the original text is in English and uses singular they, or if a Spanish text repeatedly uses la persona instead of él, the intention may be to include non-binary people.

There have been many different approaches to avoiding the generic masculine over the years. Some of them, like the use of -a/o or -@ in Spanish or the splitting (desdoblamiento) into masculine and feminine forms, only go halfway, as they are still binary approaches: niños y niñas (boys and girls) doesn’t include non-binary kids, and bienvenid@ (welcome) leaves out non-binary people. If you find them in other translated or complementary materials from your client, it may be best to propose more inclusive solutions.

There are two principal strategies for translating a trans or non-binary text into Spanish while preserving the intention of the source. I reiterate that I refer to texts where the source includes non-binary people implicitly or explicitly, so the generic masculine, the splitting of forms or even the neutral feminine would erase part of the message. We can resort to linguistic juggling to evade explicit gender, what I call Indirect Non-binary Language (INL); or we can employ explicitly non‑binary language even if it does not fit the formal standards, that is, Direct Non-binary Language (DNL) (López, 2019).

In order to determine the adequate approach for each case, it is crucial to return to translation theory and analyze the context and the communicative situation of the source text. For example, a clinic that provides healthcare services to the queer community or a Unitarian Universalist church will probably want to employ Direct Non-binary Language, whereas a foreign language school or a gym may prefer Indirect Non-binary Language. In any case, if your client uses solutions like the “at” symbol, I heartily recommend translating with DNL and starting a conversation about the pros and cons of each approach.

Indirect Non-binary Language (INL)

INL involves modifying the sentence to avoid all gender manifestations, either by choosing neutral words or by rephrasing in order to switch grammatical categories: instead of “¿ya estás inscrito?” (“are you registered yet?”) using a masculine adjective, we can say “¿ya te has inscrito?” (“have you registered yet?”) using a past participle and no gender marker. Linguistic sleights of hand—joining or splitting sentences or flipping clauses around to make the text sound more natural—is a common occurrence in translation. INL is pretty much the same thing.

One of the primary INL techniques in Spanish is the use of epicene or invariable words, preferably with feminine grammatical gender precisely because that’s the marked gender in that language. By doing this, when a feminine gender agreement appears a few words later, the inclusivity of the message will stand out. We need to choose articles and adjectives carefully while using INL because an epicene noun picks up grammatical gender if it is modified by a gendered adjective: “my interpreter is very happy” translates neutrally as “mi intérprete está muy feliz,” but it becomes masculine as “mi intérprete está muy contento.”

Direct Non-binary Language (DNL)

Unlike INL, DNL unapologetically and explicitly affirms inclusion of non-binary people. Writing a document with INL delivers a different message from another written with DNL: the former could deliberately include us or could be just a matter of chance, while the latter is all about inclusion. For example, a queer clinic that uses singular they in their forms instead of he or she does so with the clear intention of stating that the organization prioritizes the comfort of all people above obliging language purists.

 


A patient intake form from a queer clinic. Given the communicative situation, the fact that the form asks for the correct pronoun, and even the blank space for the patient to fill out if needed, we know that the clinic places more importance on the comfort of their patients than on adhering to the dictionary. In this context, translating that they as ellos/ellas (pl. m. they/pl. f. they) is a very serious translation error: first, because the referent is singular; and second, because it only provides binary pronouns where the source is expressly non-binary. If a person who uses non-traditional pronouns were to read this form, that person could not even realize that the clinic is being positively inclusive, because the translation itself is exclusive.


 

So . . . how do we use DNL? The two options gaining traction in Spanish are the neomorphemes {-e} and {-x}, although there are other options ({-i}, *, _, omitting {‑o} and {-a} . . .), and more solutions will probably keep appearing if resistance against {-e} and {-x} continues. Both are generally easy to form: take a grammatically feminine sentence and change the feminine morphemes ({-a}) for neutral {-e} or {-x} while following spelling rules. For example, “my friend is a writer” could be “mi amigue es escritore” or “mi amigx es escritorx.” We start with a feminine sentence because the masculine doesn’t always include a gender morpheme—as would be the case with señor or él—and to avoid false positives. For example, if our dialect only has “eres un sol” (“you’re a delight,” literally “you’re a sun,” with a masculine article) but not “eres una sol,” then the clause remains unchanged.

{-e}

The morpheme {-e} dates back to at least 1976, when Álvaro García Meseguer spoke about linguistic sexism in Spanish, albeit in binary terms:

Como las desinencias en o y en a son, en la mayoría de los casos, las propias del masculino y el femenino, una solución sencilla consiste en asignar la desinencia en e al género común, es decir, a la persona.

Así, cuando une se dirija a un grupo en una conferencia, en una carta circular, etc., podrá comenzar diciendo «querides amigues». Les trabajadores podrán escribir en sus pancartas reivindicativas «estamos hartes de ser explotades». Les polítiques podrán llamar compañeres a sus partidaries. Les progenitores podrán educar a sus hijes más fácilmente en forma no sexista. En los periódicos, los anuncios por palabras solicitarán une cocinere, une abogade o une secretarie. (García Meseguer, 1976)

Since the –o and –a endings most often denote masculine and feminine gender, a simple solution would be to assign the –e ending to the common gender—that is, to people in general.

Thus, when one addresses a group at a conference, through a newsletter, etc., one could start by saying “dear friends.” Workers in a demonstration could write “we’re tired of being exploited” on their banners. Politicians could call their supporters their siblings-at-arms. Parents could educate their children in a non‑sexist way with more ease. The newspaper classifieds will ask for cooks, lawyers, or secretaries. (My translation; underlined words include this {-e}.)

Álvaro García Meseguer changed his mind about the sexist aspect of the masculine used as neuter, but the morpheme took root in the non-binary community regardless. In fact, {-e} already has a neuter value in Spanish, as is the case with intérprete (interpreter) or fuerte (strong). {-e} is nothing new, and it’s been part of specific sociolects for decades. What is new is its use becoming mainstream, due in great measure to the internet and social media, which free every non-binary person from having to create their own language as used to be the case.

Some words that already end in {-e}, like señores (sirs/men) or autores (authors), aren’t gender‑neutral on their own, so we need to express that neutrality in a different way. Sometimes it’s enough to add an article (les señores), and sometimes we can introduce “a piece of information or a stylistic effect elsewhere in the translated text if it couldn’t be reflected in the same spot as in the original text” (Hurtado Albir [my translation], 2001: p. 270).

We have a good example of the use of {-e} (and of {-i}) to express non-binary identities in the European Spanish dubbing of Netflix’s series One Day at a Time, translated by Javier Pérez Alarcón. In the second season, we are introduced to Syd, a non-binary character who uses they and them in English, and to Margaux, who uses ze and hir and only appears in one episode. In that specific episode, “To Zir, With Love,” Pérez Alarcón faced wordplay and comical confusion stemming from the various pronouns used that he couldn’t reflect using INL, for example, when the characters were planning an outing. Translating any of the non-binary pronouns as él (he) or ella (she) would invalidate the joke and miss an important cultural context.

When we get there, she takes her team to the stairs, ze takes zir team to the parking lot, and they take their team to the corner. He, she, they, and ze will all meet up at the fair-trade coffee shop between the two Starbucks. Cuando lleguemos, ella se lleva su equipo a las escaleras, elli se lleva el suyo al aparcamiento y elle se lleva el suyo a la esquina. Él, ella, elle y elli se reunirán en la cafetería de comercio justo entre los dos Starbucks.

Outside of this episode, which is particularly challenging due to the two sets of non‑binary pronouns, Syd appears in various episodes in the second and third seasons as their relationship with Elena develops. Since Syd explains their pronouns in their first episode, this is a very clear case of a non-binary person calling for a DNL translation. Translating Syd in the feminine would not only disrespect the non-binary community in general, as if we should be suppressed or whitewashed, but it would also betray the original message.

{-x}

Another DNL strategy, the {-x} morpheme is probably related to the English X seen “in the feminist tradition of writing womxn to erase, though the use of that X, the man or men from woman or women. [. . .] Spanish queer activism uses it not only to free language from the so-called ‘generic masculine’ but also [to do away with] the limits of gender binarism” (translators’ note by Hidalgo and Schimel in Putuma [my translation], 2018). People sometimes dismiss this strategy as unpronounceable, but the fact remains that it is employed, albeit mostly in writing, as an act of linguistic activism that forces the reader to reconsider. The use of a sound and a letter alien to Spanish is no coincidence. Besides, the morpheme can be pronounced. It is, indeed, pronounced in several different ways: traductorx (translator) could be /traduk’torks/, /traduk’toreks/, /tradukto’rekis/ o /traduk’tore/ (López, 2018), with the last one pronounced like {-e} since both approaches can overlap. (Since writing my original Spanish article a year ago, I have found two more pronunciations, /traduk’toreʃ/ (as in Galician) and /traduk’toreʧ/, and there may be more.)

When faced with an English text that uses this “activist” X, we need to find the best place to insert our {-x} morpheme, whether it falls on the same word or a different one. It’s a compensation technique similar to that proposed by Amparo Hurtado Albir (op. cit.).

The following text by Arrate Hidalgo and Lawrence Schimel who turned to the Spanish {‑x} morpheme to translate a text full of this English X provides an interesting example of this strategy:

You will realise your lovers gave you their mothers’ stuff, too
And that maybe unlearning should be a place
And all the womxn in your family should gather there more often
Until unlearning is a tradition you can pass on to your children

Te darás cuenta de que tus amantes te dieron las cosas de sus madres, también
Y que quizás desaprender debería ser un lugar
Donde todas las mujeres de tu familia deberían quedar más a menudo
Hasta que desaprender sea una tradición que podáis pasar a vuestrxs hijxs
(Putuma, 2018)

In this case, as in Perez Alarcón’s translation, DNL gracefully solves a translation problem that would be incredibly complicated to tackle through normative language.

I won’t say using DNL is always easy. In her doctoral dissertation, Lucia Donatelli (2019) builds on the work of Jonathan David Bobaljik and Cynthia Levart Zocca (2011) to group Spanish nouns in three classes. This categorization highlights the difficulty in applying this technique to certain nouns, like príncipe (prince) and nuera (daughter-in-law).

Non-binary English

According to Kirby Conrod (in press), who received their PhD in Linguistics from the University of Washington, pronouns “act as a placeholder for extremely specific [noun phrases] (like proper names) where the meaning is an exact set of entities (sometimes exactly one)”. In Spanish, with its conspicuous grammatical gender, DNL is formed through morphemes in adjectives, articles, nouns and pronouns, whereas in English one can simply resort to singular they or a neopronoun. Neopronouns are simply newly‑coined pronouns that join the traditional four (he, she, it, and they). Some of them have been documented for a very long time, like thon, thons and thonself, which were first used in the 19th century (Baron, 1986: p. 200). English also utilizes non‑binary neologisms, such as entle, a portmanteau of aunt and uncle, or Mx., a neutral alternative to Mr. and Ms. that Merriam-Webster added to its dictionary in 2017.

Conclusion

In this article, I set forth some gender-related translation problems and various possible solutions. I acknowledge that it’s a controversial topic, as the very existence of non‑binary people challenges social orthodoxy. However, “‘standard’ language and ‘correct’ spelling are collective agreements, not eternal truths, and collective agreements can change” (McCulloch, 2019). For example, Lex Konnelly (2019) says speakers can take a gradual approach to adopting singular they and move forward in three stages through small changes in their word choice. In fact, I’ve never proposed a glossary—bilingual or even monolingual—because the progressive social acceptance of this and other groups is reflected in linguistic changes that would outpace any glossary every couple of years.

Pretending that non-binary language doesn’t exist is a non-starter; this is a specialized, ever‑expanding field. Eventually, all of us will need to learn about it and understand how to use it in order to respect this group’s right to their own identity. Our duty as translators, interpreters and linguists is to properly understand the realities that our sources are attempting to transmit and to convey them as faithfully and clearly as possible.

In practice, it’s perfectly possible to banish the so-called neutral masculine, even in romance languages. In the original Spanish article, as in this English translation, I don’t use it a single time.

 

Bibliography and references

Baron, Dennis. Grammar and Gender. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. ISBN: 9780300038835.

Bobaljik, Jonathan David; Zocca, Cynthia Levart. “Gender markedness: the anatomy of a counter-example.” Morphology. 2011, v. XXI, n.º 2, p. 141-166.

Burke, Mary. “Resisting Pathology: GID and the Contested Terrain of Diagnosis in the Transgender Rights Movement.” Sociology of Diagnosis [Bingley, United Kingdom], v. XII: Advances in Medical Sociology (2011), p. 183-210.

Conrod, Kirby. “Pronouns and Gender in Language.” Oxford Handbook of Language and Sexuality. [Accessed: July 10th, 2019]

Donatelli, Lucia. The Morphosemantics of Spanish Gender: Evidence from Small Nominals (PhD dissertation). Defended at Georgetown University (Washington, D. C.) on May 6th, 2019.

Fernández Casete, June; Martínez Odriozola, Lucía; Fernández González, M.ª Ángeles; Momoitio San Martín, Andrea. Uso inclusivo del castellano. Bilbao: Dirección para la Igualdad de la UPV/EHU & Pikara Magazine, 2018. [Accessed: July 10th, 2019]

García Meseguer, Álvaro. “Sexismo y lenguaje.” Cambio16. N.º 260 (1976). [Accessed: July 10th, 2019]

Hurtado Albir, Amparo. Traducción y traductología: introducción a la traductología. Madrid: Ediciones Cátedra, 2001. ISBN: 9788437619415.

Konnelly, Lex. “Gender diversity and linguistic advocacy: innovation in the use of singular they.” Presentation at THEY, HIRSELF, EM, and YOU: Nonbinary Pronouns in Theory and Practice, a conference at Queen’s University (Kingston, Canada) in June 2019.

López, Ártemis. “Queeriando: Expressing Ourselves in Spanish.” Presentation at the Philadelphia Trans Wellness Conference in Philadelphia in July 2018.

López, Ártemis. “Syd-nificant others or Syd-nificant selves? Audiovisual translation of gender identities for mainstream audiences.” Presentation at THEY, HIRSELF, EM, and YOU: Nonbinary Pronouns in Theory and Practice, a conference at Queen’s University (Kingston, Canadá) in June 2019. [Accessed: July 10th, 2019]

Martínez Pagán, M. Begoña. “El lenguaje inclusivo, parte de la ética profesional de la traducción: el papel liberador de la lengua en la creación de un mundo más justo.” Presentation at the MariCorners: I Congreso Internacional sobre Lengua y Aspectos LGBTQI+ conference at the Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid, Universidad Politécnica de Madrid (Spain). In press.

Mcculloch, Gretchen. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language. New York: Riverhead Books, 2019. ISBN: 978-0-7352-1093-6.

Putuma, Koleka. Amnesia colectiva. Arrate Hidalgo & Lawrence Schimel [translators]. Madrid: Flores Raras, 2018. ISBN: 978-84-946018-7-3.

Real Academia Española (@RAEinforma). “#RAEconsultas No es admisible usar la letra ‘x’ ni la ‘e’ como marca de género. Es, además, innecesario, pues el masc. gramatical funciona en nuestra lengua, como en otras, como término inclusivo para aludir a colectivos mixtos, o en contextos genéricos o inespecíficos” [Tweet]. May 30th, 2018. [Accessed: July 10th, 2019]

 

[Proofreader of this article: Paul Merriam, Intercambios reviewer and Editorial Committee member]


Ártemis López is an ATA-certified Spanish<>English translator, and a CCHI-certified Spanish healthcare interpreter. They hold an MA in medical translation from the Universitat Jaume I in Spain, are a PhD Candidate in Linguistics at the Universidad de Vigo, also in Spain, and have been translating and interpreting for queer, trans, and non-binary communities since 2011.