Translating Gender Identity in a Non-Binary World

translating gender identity in a non binary world
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Translation, in its simplest context, involves converting words from one language to another, in order that the same information can be shared with audiences of different nationalities. However, translation is rarely that simple in reality. Messages that are acceptable in one culture can cause offence in another. The same is true of individual words. This can cause headaches for translation companies in many areas of their work, from general marketing documents to the translation of information on more sensitive topics.

Who requires non-binary gender translation?

Government departments and charitable organisations with a focus on areas such as human rights, sexual health and identity issues are among the most common bodies to request translation on non-binary gender matters. However, as our global understanding and acceptance of such matters grows, the breadth of organisations requesting work on such documents is expanding.

Gender identity

Gender identity is a hugely sensitive issue. Different countries and cultures have vastly different attitudes to matters of gender identity. Even within the same country, opinions can vary wildly, as shown by the controversy within the United States regarding the introduction of rules requiring schools to accommodate transgender children by allowing them to choose a bathroom based on gender identity instead of gender at birth. 

Gender identity refers to an individual’s perception of their gender. That perception does not necessarily correspond with their biological sex.

Gender binary is the term used to describe the fact that most societies view gender as simply male or female, with defined social norms relating to each of these genders. Some Native American societies categorize third and fourth genders, while the Bugis of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi recognize five genders (women, men, calabai, calalai and bissu).

The Sulawesi attitude to gender encapsulates the difficulties in translating gender identity from one culture to another. A bissu is, in essence, a blend of all genders. A bissu who is biologically male is believed to be female internally and vice versa. Bissudo have a meta-gender identity that includes their own distinct type of clothing. Consider that ‘bissu’ is most commonly translated as ‘transvestite priest’ and it’s easy to see how matters pertaining to gender identity can be lost in translation.

Gender sensitivity

Gender identity translation can be difficult based on more than just a lack of appropriate words in the target language. There are also issues around social and cultural acceptance of the matters being discussed. Just because a word exists, doesn’t mean that it should be used – some terms that are linguistically correct in terms of non-binary gender translation may be deemed offensive or unacceptable from a social perspective.

The LGBTQ+ community provides a treasure trove of rich and varied terminology for matters relating to gender and sexuality. Each term has its own intricate definition, but translating such terms to cultures where they are less accepted (or not accepted at all) can lead to reductive copy, in just the same way that the rich complexity of ‘bissu’ is reduced to ‘transvestite priest’ in English.

There is also the issue that gender identity itself is a taboo subject in some countries. Educational initiatives on gender identity and non-binary gender matters tend to falter in regimes where even basic principles of equality between men and women are yet to be achieved.

Gender neutrality in modern language

Binary definitions of gender are so intrinsic to many languages that to remove and replace them with non-binary terms can make for difficult reading. US series Billions broke new ground in 2017 with the inclusion of the non-binary character Taylor in one of the hit TV series’ key roles. Taylor’s introduction makes their non-binary status clear from the offset:

“Hello sir, my name is Taylor. My pronouns are ‘they, theirs, and them.”

It is the first time that a show of such magnitude has included a non-binary character in a leading role and the use of gender-neutral pronouns was essential to making Taylor a part of the team at the fictional firm, Axe Capital. Taylor is played by Asia Kate Dillon, who also uses gender-neutral pronouns off-screen, though this is not something that everyone who identifies as non-binary chooses to do.

Many feminists (and others) have campaigned against such gender-specific language – after all, why should a group of 19 women and one man be referred to as ‘them’ in the masculine form? Linguistic gender neutrality removes this issue, as well as being more inclusive for non-binary gender individuals.

Gender neutral language relates to far more than pronouns. In many countries, grammatical gender is an inherent part of the language. In languages such as Spanish and Portuguese, most nouns take either a masculine or a feminine form. In languages like Arabic, some verbs do too. This can be an important consideration in the translation of documents relating to non-binary gender matters – as well as a major challenge. Trying to stick to principles of gender neutrality when translating into a language that defines every fourth or fifth word based on binary gender is no easy task!

Translating non-binary gender matters

When it comes to translating non-binary gender matters, literal, word-for-word translation usually won’t suffice. The translator must have a detailed understanding of how such matters are viewed in the target country, as well as the language available for the translation. Cultural and social perspectives have to be considered and even legal matters need to be borne in mind for translations for certain audiences.

From a technical perspective, the first step is to understand the array of terms available in the target language and how they correspond with the terms available in the text’s source language. Where directly comparable words aren’t available, the translator must make a judgment call on which term to use in each case in order to ensure that the translated material conveys precisely the same message as the original, despite the mismatch of terminology.

At the same time, the translator needs to filter the translated terms for those that are (or may be) considered offensive to the target audience. This can be an incredibly fine line in some languages, particularly where the target country has strong views on the topic of gender identity and non-binary gender.

The next part of the process involves taking a step back and considering the copy from the perspective of the concepts presented. Is the concept being discussed in the source language one that is understood and/or recognised in the target country? If not, how can this be addressed within the translated material? How can cultural bias be accounted for without detracting from the message of the source document?

Gender sensitivity is such that even those who discuss it regularly can often have a slightly different understanding of the same term, with personal views and nuances meaning that a word or phrase means different things to different people. This further adds to the complexity of translating materials relating to non-binary gender identity, as a concept that is mispresented or misunderstood can cloud the overall message of a document.

For such sensitive materials, the translator must take on the role of mediator, balancing the source culture with that of the target country in an unbiased manner. Rigidly sticking with the source material and thus creating a document that is unacceptable to the target country is pointless. A translation that could lead to persecution of the publisher – or even the reader – will do nothing to spread the message that it contains.  Such a translation could even work against achieving an understanding of the message that it aims to deliver if it is presented in a form that singles it out as an offensive or explicit publication.

Overcoming issues of non-binary gender translation

Despite these issues, it is possible to translate documents relating to non-binary gender identity matters in a sensitive manner that renders them acceptable to the target audience. Doing so requires careful planning and detailed consultation with the provider of the information. The key is to understand the overall purpose of the message being delivered, to ensure that any changes to the copy don’t obscure that message.

Next it is a case of working out the key points behind the message and how the target audience is likely to respond to each. It’s then possible for the translator and the document creator to discuss a creative approach to translation that allows the points to be made, but in a way that will engender acceptance in the target country. Also key to the discussion will be agreeing the words and phrases that will be used to represent each term, where no equivalent exists in the target language, or where the equivalent exists but would be unacceptable to the intended audience.

This process will rely heavily on the translator’s, or translation company’s, knowledge of the target culture, as well as the linguistic resource available. It is a delicate process that can be seen as something of a negotiation between staying true to the message and converting it to a format that will be recognised and accepted by the new audience.

Is gender identity translation ever impossible?

Sadly, yes. There may be situations where the two cultures are so diametrically opposed that gender identity translation becomes impossible. This can be the case where the changes to the language and content of a document become so extensive that the original message is completely lost. This can create a real dilemma for a translation company – how can they produce a faithful translation when the message of the original document becomes so obscured in the process that the target audience will end up receiving an entirely different message.

Such cases are very rare, but ethical translation companies have come across them and had to address them. In such circumstances, the translation company will work with the client in question to look at alternative ways that the message can be delivered without losing its essence.

The future of non-binary gender translation

President Obama’s administration brought non-binary gender matters to the fore in the US by issuing federal guidance protecting the rights of students who choose to use a restroom based on their gender identity rather than their biological sex. The Trump administration has since rescinded that guidance. As a result of both moves, there is widespread confusion in the US regarding how educational establishments should accommodate transgender students. However, the fact that such matters are being publicly discussed and debated has done much to raise awareness of non-binary gender identity matters.

With this awareness comes an enhanced understanding of some of the many terms associated with gender identity – and this process of linguistic appreciation is often one that spreads from culture to culture as the issues remain in the media spotlight. This should help to spread an understanding of non-binary gender identity terms, which will, in turn, help those battling with the challenges associated with translating such terms.

It has taken a long time for many cultures to address issues of gender inequality in terms of gender binary, so it’s fair to say that equality in terms of non-binary gender individuals – in our society as well as our language – is still some way off. However, just as Emmeline Pankhurst’s dream of women in the UK being allowed to vote eventually became a reality, it is hoped that cultural acceptance of non-binary gender matters will grow around the world.

For further reading on this topic, we strongly recommend you take a look at Hannah Harris Green’s article over on

Translation can play a key role in this when tackled in the right way and with the right level of gender sensitivity. That’s why organisations seeking to translate documents relating to non-binary gender matters should always work closely with professional translation companies that can offer expert local knowledge of the target culture – doing so is key to the advancement of gender identity matters in translation.