M1: Unit 3: Chapter 3 – Gender and Language

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 5: Gender Oriented Approaches
Chapter 2: Gender and Translation Text 1: Ensler
Chapter 3: Gender and Language Text 2: Sappho
Chapter 4: Gender-related Metaphorics on Translation

Chapter 3 – Gender and Language

When we hear the words ‘gender’ and ‘language’, we tend to think about what are often called ‘inclusive language’ efforts. The classic example for such efforts is the introduction of gender-differentiated or, on the contrary, gender-neutral terms for certain professions (E.g. ‘businessman/ businesswoman’, ‘fireman/ firefighter’, ‘chairman/ chairperson’, etc.). The results of these efforts can be rehabilitating for oppressed groups such as women, who wish to feel fully included in all aspects of the society. One particular area where these efforts focus on is the interpretation of religious texts, mainly the Bible, where much controversy has been generated through the use of ‘inclusive language’.

For some, however, these efforts are misleading. The argument is that language not only acts like a pair of spectacles through which we see and make sense of the world we live in, but it is also a powerful tool with which we create the world surrounding us. When it comes to issues of gender, race, ethnicity, class, etc. language then not only acts as a symptom of a given society’s ill-formed attitudes towards the minority groups, but is actually the cause of the oppression of these groups. Their critics see the ‘inclusive language’ attempts as an unsatisfactory compromise, which will only make the marginalised groups “feel at home” in societal structures which are fundamentally hostile towards them.

Once these issues are brought into awareness, the language inevitably looses its aura of ‘objectiveness’ and ‘neutrality’, becoming open to confrontations. Studying translation from a gender-oriented perspective is therefore often an ‘un-learning’ process, during which deep-rooted thoughts and beliefs based on thousands of years of statements, clichés, argumentation, metaphors, etc. have to be challenged.

How does the language create gender-related attitudes, then? It does so, for example, through connotations, collocations, marked vs. unmarked words, generalisations, grammatical gender, and silences (i.e. where relevant words are missing).

Connotations are crucial in establishing the gender roles. What do you envisage when you hear the word ‘bachelor’? And when you hear ‘spinster’? Although their denotations are ‘unmarried adult male’ and ‘unmarried adult female’, respectively, the value judgements attached to them are markedly different. Collocations, on the other hand, establish what is (im)possible for a particular gender. For instance, while men have ‘physiques’ (i.e. physical strength and body size), women have ‘figures’, indicating ‘aesthetic shapeliness and sexual attractiveness’. ‘Woman’ often collocates with adjectives which depict them as caring, nurturing, loyal and supportive in secondary roles, while ‘man’ often collocates with adjectives which hint at roles of leaders and decision makers.

When we hear words such as ‘woman priest’ or ‘male secretary’, we realise that these words are ‘marked’ terms, indicating deviations and atypical situations, while the ‘priest’ and ‘secretary’ are the unmarked forms reflecting the norms. The limiting or even damaging effect of such words is considerable.

Gender-related issues in language are often associated with generic grammatical rules: e.g. the use of ‘man’ and ‘he’ in English, taken to refer to the whole of humankind. This is also one area where the ‘inclusive language’ efforts have concentrated on. The conservative responses to these efforts often claim that interference in the ‘natural’ rules of language is inappropriate. Yet the grammatical rules are not ‘natural’. For centuries, they had been written down in grammar books by male scholars, who, more often than not, were keen on ‘correcting’ the ‘kitchen language’ talked by women at home. When one looks at historical turning points of language standardisation in a given country, one finds out several references to the importance of ‘correcting’ the language of mothers and other female caretakers, who were then supposed to pass the language on to the next generation.

Finally, language can create certain attitudes towards gender through silences, i.e. ‘lack’ of words. For instance, in English, while there are words to indicate sexual power in men, such as ‘virile’ or ‘potent’, for women only the extremes of ‘frigid’ and ‘nymphomaniac’ exist. The sexual intercourse is referred to as ‘penetration’, but it is never referred to as, say, ‘enclosure’. Dictionaries also are often written from a ‘phallocentric’ world view.

The main question behind the relationship between language and gender is: Who speaks? Who speaks from positions of authority in religious institutions, in courts, in government institutions, and in the media? Who offers us their learned opinions on science, industry, technology and finance? Where is the female ‘voice’ in advertisements? Who narrates and who listens? When it comes to the translations of these ‘speeches’, then, an awareness of gender-related issues and language proves to be highly valuable.

Further reading: Bird 1988; Goddard and Patterson 2000.

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