How to Improve Inclusivity with People-Friendly Translation

I was fascinated by a LinkedIn post I saw recently from a Polish translator named Aleksandra Domke-Jarre on the topic of language inclusivity. When I saw her words, “people-friendly translator that customers love,” I knew I had to reach out to her. I was impressed by her focus on customers as human beings, who sit on the other side of the language divide. 

This is what I care about too. In fact, this is what most localization leaders at buy-side companies care about. Translating messages, not words. Localizing experiences, not content. Treating our customers as people we interact with. Not as audiences who passively receive information from us. Fortunately, many professional translators care about these things too. They are more closely linked to the human beings our companies want to create lasting relationships with, after all.

So, what follows are some highlights from my conversation with Aleksandra, and some things I learned from her that I hope will help others working in localization to make sure that the messages (translation) and experiences (localization) we put forth in other markets are truly “people-friendly” and inclusive too.

Make Gender Invisible In the Source Language When Possible

Aleksandra talked about the importance of making gender invisible in language, unless it’s absolutely relevant for communication. I asked her to share some examples, and she offered the following four common techniques that source authors can use to make their text more inclusive from the start.

1. Replace a personal pronoun with the relative pronoun “who.”

Imagine there is a bullet on an FAQ page for an online payment system. 

Before:

If a customer is unhappy with the product, he can ask for a refund.

After: 

A customer who is unhappy with the product can ask for a refund.

By removing the personal pronoun, she made the gender a non-essential, making the source language neutral. “Who” is simply more inclusive.

2. Replace a personal pronoun with the pronoun “one.”

Before:

An entrepreneur in France pays more tax than he would in the Seychelles.

After:

An entrepreneur in France pays more tax than one in the Seychelles.

Gender is not relevant here either, so it’s better to remove the bias from the source sentence, because it implies that gender is relevant to becoming an entrepreneur.

3. Use gender-neutral words.

Another way to avoid using gendered language in English is to replace words that include “man” or “woman” in them with more gender-inclusive alternatives.

Before:

Policeman/policewoman

After:

Police officer

Another example of this would be with phrases like “all men are equal,” which you could recast as “all people are equal.”

4. Use the plural form.

Another efficient way to ensure gender inclusiveness is to change to the plural form.

Before:

The Polish translator did a great job. He deserves a pat on the back.

After:

The Polish translator did a great job. They deserve a pat on the back.

Think Outside the Binary Box When Translating

Another topic I asked Aleksandra about was how to prevent using gendered language in languages that are more gendered than English is, because even if you clean up the source language and make it better, you might still have to deal with the language you’re going into on the other side. 

In English for example, we have a pronoun “they” which can be used to avoid speaking in binary terms about language. But, our verbs don’t have to reflect gender. Our tenses don’t have to reflect gender. Our adjectives don’t have to reflect gender. We have it pretty easy in English actually!

But what do you do when you’re translating into languages that are extremely gendered?

As Aleksandra explained, “Polish is a very gendered language, and adding items like ‘his’ and ‘her’ are the first ideas that come to mind. However, these solutions are not effective for two reasons. Firstly, they enforce binary identification. Secondly, they clutter the text, thus affecting the readability and distracting the user. The best workaround in Polish is to ditch the idea of adding the “his/her” items and think outside of the box.”

She went on to add, “I know this is easier said than done, especially if a translator is new to the non-binary concept. The best way to achieve the ultimate inclusivity in Polish, would be to either use the plural form or remove any references to the gender altogether. From what I see, Polish translators struggle most with past verb forms which are gendered and seem impossible to rephrase at first glance. But even this can be done.”

Aleksandra shared a great example of the English UI string “Forgot your password?” This common phrase can be translated into Polish in several ways. She offered some different options translators can choose from, ranging from least to most inclusive:

  1. A common version you’ll find in many software programs is: “Zapomniałeś hasła?”. Unfortunately, this translation is not inclusive because the ending “-eś” assumes that the reader is male.
  2. Adding both male and female grammatical forms: “Zapomniałeś/Zapomniałaś hasła?”. Even though this translation is more inclusive, it still imposes binary identification. Furthermore, the readability is impacted by the two long verbs separated by a slash. There is also the issue of practicality–UI string translations are often limited when it comes to their length and the number of characters. It is likely that this translation would violate the UI string limitations.
  3. Adding both male and female grammatical endings: “Zapomniałeś/-aś hasła?”. While this UI string is shorter, the issue of readability and binary gender identification remain unsolved.
  4. The thinking-outside-of-the-box solution: “Nie pamiętasz hasła?” (back-translation: Cannot remember your password?). The translation is slightly rephrased, but it checks all the boxes—the source meaning is conveyed (the user forgot the password), it is gender-inclusive, and importantly, it allows for non-binary identification because it takes gender out of the picture altogether. Moreover, it is easy to read and short enough to fit UI string length limits.

Empower Communities of Color in Translation

I also noticed Aleksandra mentioned in her post that translators need to be careful about translating terms that might take on a new meaning over time. I wondered if she had any examples, and she kindly explained the following:

“Shortly after the killing of George Floyd, I saw this incredible picture—a student walking in a Black Lives Matter protest in Warsaw and holding this huge self-made banner that read, ‘Stop calling me Murzyn.’ When I saw this, I thought to myself that this brave student finally vocalized what needed to be said for a very long time.

Rafal Milach / Archive of Public Protests
www.rafalmilach.com

You see, the word Murzyn has been used in Polish to describe a Black person, and for a long time, it was considered colloquial. The official dictionaries still qualify it as colloquial. From a linguist standpoint I must say that we live in exciting times because the fog is lifting, and we can see with our own eyes how the connotation of this term is changing from neutral to negative.

To make a long story short, the offensive word Murzyn has always been there, but a lot of Polish speakers never considered it offensive because the community it offended was scarce. The community of people of color in Poland has always been small and humble, and their voices have never been heard. Now that community is bigger and more vocal. If our black community in Poland finds the word Murzyn offensive, then the decent thing to do is to accept the fact and replace the word with alternatives that are acceptable.

Since Poland does not have a colonial past, some people question how can we even consider the word a racist slur. Lack of a colonial past has nothing to do with it. The problem is that the word Murzyn has always been used in pejorative fixed phrases that refer to poverty and abuse. 

I will provide some examples here, but before I do, I want to clarify that in my opinion the word Murzyn is offensive and closer in meaning to “negro” than “a black person.” However, for the sake of the readers, I am going to use the word “Black” in my back-translations of Polish expressions into English to make them less offensive than they really sound in Polish.

  1. Być sto lat za Murzynami” (back-translation: To be a hundred years behind the Blacks. The English equivalent: Ass-backwards) = a fixed phrase which highlights that someone’s opinion is backward.
  2. Murzyn zrobił swoje, murzyn może odejść” (back-translation: The Blackman did what he had to do, the Blackman can leave now. The English equivalent: Once you have served your purpose, you are no longer needed.) = a fixed phrase which means that someone has been used to accomplish something and has not received any gratitude for their input/actions.
  3. The word “Murzyn” can also stand for “an abused worker”.
  4. There is a children’s poem “Murzynek Bambo” (“Bambo, the black boy”) that every child knows. The poem hints at the inferiority of the black student who is said to be afraid of taking baths because he might become white.

To rub salt in the wound, there are no positive fixed phrases in Polish that would highlight the qualities of people of color. The Black community in Poland also points out that the word is not neutral to them because they hear it being used as a slur by people in the street. It is time to face the music. Murzyn is offensive and more speakers of Polish need to start to realize this. In my opinion, it is only a matter of time until it will be officially requalified from “colloquial” to “offensive” in the dictionaries.”

Translate Reclaimed Terms with Utmost Care

Language changes rapidly, and in many cases, there are no perfect equivalents in the target language. I noticed that Aleksandra mentioned reclaimed words, which is where communities bring terms back into the language in a way that is more empowering, such as the term Black with a capital B. I asked her how we can all ensure that these communities and their identities come across when there is literally no cultural equivalent in the target language or country. She advised:

“Context is crucial when it comes to reclaimed slurs because even people within those communities have mixed feelings towards this phenomenon. Translating such terms is like stepping on thin ice. If there are no cultural equivalents in the target language, there is a risk of mistranslating the reclaimed slur as just a slur, which consequently can impact the overall understanding of the target audience. If there is a way to include a brief explanation for the target audience (such as a footnote or parenthetical explanation), then it would be a good idea for the translator to alert the client to the situation, and see what their take on this may be.

However, sometimes there is no means to provide additional context to the audience, which is a common issue when translating subtitles. If there is no way to replicate the reclaimed slur in the target language, the source language context should be closely examined. Once we understand the mood of the scene and the speakers’ intent (banter, joke, familiarity, fraternizing, etc.), we can translate the reclaimed slur into the target language using an item that reflects the vibe of the scene but does not carry the slur undertone. 

Some may argue that this would result in an inaccurate translation. Well, it is better to use an item in the target language that conveys the overall vibe of the scene than to unintentionally introduce offensive language into the target translation. Otherwise, we may end up introducing offensive language, offending the community that the reclaimed slur was meant to empower, and compromising the author’s original vision.

A great example to illustrate this is the use of n-word which is sometimes reclaimed as a chummy colloquialism. If this cannot be replicated in the target language, and the word has only the meaning of derogatory racial slur, then it is best to replace it with a target colloquial item that reflects the friendly vibe of the scene.”

Keep Up with Evolving Language and Social Usage

I also asked Aleksandra about how translators can stay on top of cultural and social movements in multiple countries and language simultaneously, and whether she has any suggestions for other translators who might not be as focused on inclusivity. She shared:

“Today languages are changing so dynamically, that in some cases there are very scarce resources that deal with certain linguistic phenomena. For example, there is little information on how the non-binary community modifies the Polish language to express their accurately their identity. This is all very new, and it will take years before some things get confirmed by the official bodies.

The thing is that we do not have the luxury of time here. Non-binary characters have started to emerge in animated movies and sitcoms. So, as we subtitle these, we need to think of solutions that reflect the creative intent of the authors. My advice to translators is: stay curious and listen. Listen to what such communities have to say, observe, and analyze how they use the language. We are extremely lucky because thanks to the Internet we can become a part of various communities and groups in a matter of minutes. 

One more thing—do not be afraid to ask questions. If anything is unclear or you have doubts, just ask the speakers of that certain community about their preferred pronouns, words they find offensive, etc. Remember the word Murzyn I just mentioned? Some white people consider it neutral because they do not understand how painful racial slurs are to the community of people of color. Only by getting to know those communities and their preferences, can we do them justice and represent them accurately in our next translation.”

Prioritize Inclusive Language By Starting with Source Authors

I also asked Aleksandra where she sees the focus on inclusive language emerging the most in the localization industry, and whether translation agencies are advocating for the importance of this, or any other folks in the translation space. She shared:

“There are clients who wholeheartedly encourage the use of inclusive language as a means of respecting the target audience. And that is a great approach which I would like to see more often. Ultimately, this all boils down to one thing—client awareness. If the client does not realize that the target language is gendered, then it will not cross their minds to advocate for using inclusive language. On top of that, not many clients have the comfort of having an in-house linguist to consult on each language they translate into.

The typical workflow looks like this: clients prepare their copy, contact a translator/an agency, and expect a translation to be done by a certain deadline. Sometimes they provide style guides or a brief, but that is not a general rule. If the translator lacks linguistic sensitivity and does not ask about the target audience, we end up with non-inclusive user guides, software, newsletters, or email templates that are oftentimes prepared only with one gender in mind.

It is important to ask the right questions and open a dialog with clients on gender inclusivity because not only men receive newsletters and consult user manuals. On the other hand, if clients would like to know more about the concept of language inclusiveness they can reach out to linguistic consultants or their translators for advice on the matter.”

Lessons Learned on Localization Inclusivity for Buy-Side Organizations

I don’t know about you, but I was really impressed to see Aleksandra’s forward-thinking perspective on this. Have you thought about whether your commitment to using inclusive language extends all the way through your localization supply chain? Do you know if you have gendered language in places where it might be hurting you today and alienating you from many of your customers?

Here are some tips for those of you who working at buy-side organizations where you have the ability to influence the level of inclusivity your company communicates in other languages:

  1. Update your style guides to cover guidelines on using inclusive language. 
  2. Add inclusive language to your localizability checklist.
  3. Search translation memory for less-than-inclusive source language.
  4. Make sure your glossaries reflect inclusive language too.
  5. Ask your vendors if they have expertise in language inclusivity.
  6. Request translators with specific experience in adapting for purposes of inclusion.
  7. Create automated checks for inclusive language within your authoring tools.
  8. Get some training for your localizers and source authors on inclusive language.
  9. Give feedback to source authors when language is not inclusive.
  10. Ask vendors to submit queries whenever they find language that isn’t inclusive.
  11. When selecting new vendors, make sure you ask them about their experience with inclusivity and ask them to provide examples of past work.
  12. Do a QA/audit to try to uncover instances of non-inclusive language on your past localized UI strings, web content, and other content areas.

These are just a few tips for now on things that might be helpful for folks working at buyer companies where inclusive language really matters.

We all have a lot of work to do on this topic, industry-wide, to make things better. There is a lot to learn here, but we are very lucky to have professionals like Aleksandra doing great work on this topic, raising awareness, and helping to shine a light on the right path forward.

Nataly Kelly

Nataly leads localization at HubSpot and has previously held diverse roles in marketing, international operations and strategy, research, product development, and localization. She writes for Harvard Business Review on topics of international marketing and business. Nataly grew up in rural Illinois, lived in Ecuador, and resides in Boston (for now).

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