Paragon's Grecia Garcia Masson Talks About Getting Pronouns Right in Translation

While gender-neutral and nonbinary pronouns are still evolving, finding the right terms in languages other than English can be challenging. Community-informed translation, which considers local and cultural nuances, is critical to getting these terms right. In English, the pronouns they and them have come to be commonly used, however, alternatives such as ze and zir are emerging and finding their way into popular culture via audiovisual productions, such as TV and film. The ways in which these nonbinary pronouns are being translated into other, non-English, languages is an important topic for translators and translation companies alike.

In the Netflix remake of the American sitcom One Day at a Time, two nonbinary characters, Syd (they/them) and Margaux (ze/zir), are featured. The use of their nonbinary pronouns makes this TV series an interesting case study for the translation field. Remy Attig, a researcher from Bowling Green State University, analyzed the Spanish and French subtitled and dubbed versions in one particular episode of One Day at a Time in a paper called, “A Call for Community-Informed Translation: Respecting Queer Self-Determination across Linguistic Lines” (2022).

The paper investigates how the show’s translators conveyed these identities from the source language to the target languages in one particular episode by comparing the source text with six parallel translations, and utilizing two translation strategies. The first strategy relied on calque (word-for-word) translations from English, the results of which showed a “misunderstanding of the source text.” The second strategy used “active engagement on the part of translators with Hispanic and Francophone Queer communities, replicating authentic Queer language practices” (p. 1).

Attig found that in the Latin American Spanish subtitled version of the episode, they and them were translated as ellos (masculine form of they) and suyos (masculine form of their), respectively. On the contrary, the Spain Spanish subtitled versions used elle and le, both singular nonbinary pronouns. The Latin American dubbed version kept the same English pronouns for the pronouns ze and zir, while the Spain Spanish dubbing used elli and li, both alternative nonbinary pronouns. Finally, the French dubbed version includes on (one or we) and tout le monde (everybody) as the translations for they and them, respectively, and zi and zu for the English pronouns ze and zir.

Attig states that translations such as ellos and suyos (Spanish) as well as on and tout le monde (French) do not reflect gender-nonconforming identities. And although adapted, the use of French pronouns zi and zu has not been reported in French Queer communities. However, the pronouns elleleelli and li do match nonbinary identities as Javier Pérez Alarcón, the Spain Spanish translator, made sure to add pronouns that are used in Hispanic Queer communities by contacting Trans Spaniards.

The study concludes that, regardless of the written, oral or audiovisual nature of a project, “translators of Queer-oriented texts and identities should be embedded within Queer communities, and at very least, should be allies who actively defer to the expertise that such communities have about their own experiences” (p. 17). Providing literal translations for nonbinary pronouns does not convey the true identities of members of the LGBTQ community in a target language and culture, therefore, translators need to conduct research in the specific context required. This research is not exclusive to TV shows or movies, either; awareness of Queer identities is evident in fields such as medicine and education, as well, increasing the need for community-informed translation across industries.

– Written by Grecia Garcia Masson (she/her), Paragon Project Coordinator and Professor of Research Methodology, Text Analysis in Translation, and Writing Techniques for Translators at Universidad Peruana de Ciencias Aplicadas (UPC)

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