She was brought up by an accountant and an artist

What appears to be a perfectly simple sentence in English turns out to be an insurmountable task and a huge headache for some of us translators.

The translator’s dilemma with gender stereotypes and how much easier it all is in English.

What appears to be a perfectly simple sentence in English turns out to be an insurmountable task and a huge headache for some of us translators. Right now, we are translating a zoom discussion with various panellists. One of them is introduced as having been brought up by an accountant and an artist. Sounds simple enough. But saying this in German turns into a quagmire. Am I going to do a google search or a Linked-in investigation about this person trying to find out if the accountant was the mother and therefore female (Buchhalterin as opposed to Buchhalter), and the artist the father and therefore male (Künstler vs. Künstlerin)? Or am I just going to follow my instincts, i.e. my inbuilt prejudices, assuming that it is more likely for the father to be the accountant and for the mother to be the artist?

And what if instead of “accountant” it was a “finance director” – am I then even more likely to assign that role to the father? And then be accused of reinforcing stereotypes? And while as a translator at least you have the chance to perhaps ask for clarification, as an interpreter you wouldn’t be given that chance. You would be forced to decide in a split second!

There just isn’t a way is there? Short of asking all our clients to mark such instances with a bracket indicating gender (f, m, d – or similar).

Of course, this m/f issue is not a new problem, it’s always existed in languages where professions or titles are gender-specific. We know that French has been accused of being biased towards the male sex (typically “le médecin”, “le juge”, “le maire”, “le professeur” etc.), and if there is a group of people as in “les étudiantes et les étudiants sont paresseux”, the adjective remains in the masculine form. In fact if you let DeepL translate from German “Die Studentinnen und Studenten sind faul” (the female and male students are lazy), French comes out with: “Les étudiants sont paresseux” (reducing the mixed group to males only, thereby allowing women to be “tacitly included” but not given an explicit mention).

Language makes a difference in everyday life, and shapes our behaviour and our picture of the world. It’s hard to deny that. A study of the Freie Universität Berlin has shown that if job descriptions include both the male and the female form, girls and boys are more likely to respond. Television news typically mention their “Reporter*innen” to make sure we understand they behave inclusively. An article published on Deutschlandfunk (kindly sent to me by Ulrich from our Berlin office) points out that in some situations it is essential to point out that there were both males and female present, for example in a report about Sudan, where protests led to the fall of the military dictatorship – and the majority of the protesters were women, a fact that obviously merited highlighting.

Another interesting case that’s mentioned in the article is that of “apprentice”, for which German has no specific feminine form. So, “Sybille ist Lehrling in einer Bäckerei” simply uses the masculine form, because there is no feminine form (“Lehrlingin” it would have to be, but it isn’t). When I was at school (many decades ago), nobody thought the worse of this. My friend’s sister was a “kaufmännischer Lehrling”, it did not bother any of us. But then, Swiss women did not have the right to vote either. Anyway, the way they found round this one was to create the term ‘Auszubildende/r’.

Among the many other things that have become more irksome in in modern life, the desperate attempts for gender-neutrality in languages that are not is now driving some of us to desperation, and (German) translators are feeling the strain.

I would therefore like to appeal to everyone, colleagues and clients and consumers/readers of our translations: Please let’s take a sensible approach and not pursue this with too much rigour. Let’s keep a sense of proportion and a bit of flexibility. After all, we are trying to remove hurdles and promote diversity, inclusiveness and tolerance. I am convinced that a more relaxed approach will serve that goal best.

Tanja Köhler from Deutschlandfunk reports in a blog ( that gender-neutral language has been a hot topic for a while in the newsrooms. They have decided to (sometimes) speak of “Politikerinnen und Politiker”, “Sportler und Sportlerinnen”, “Mieter und Mieterinnen”, or to use neutral forms when they exist (Menschen, Personen). They will also opt for Demonstrierende, Studierende (but note that if you refer to these in the singular, you still give away their gender, as you have to use ‘der’ or ‘die’ – so the benefit is marginal.

The approach at Deutschlandfunk seems down-to-earth and not too doctrinary: “… even if we do try, we often end up with the masculine form. Especially when speed is of the essence … we use the masculine form. Because that is quicker, you don’t need to think hard, because after all, gender-neutral language is still rather unusual”.

She cites one case where a colleague was reporting about a headline in connection with the elections in Sudan and was keen to use gender-neutral language. However, there was no information available as to whether there were any female candidates. So the headline “Somalia wählt einen neuen Regierungschef oder eine neue Regierungsschefin” might have been misleading!

Die Zeit published a hilarious article (shared by Robert, German language specialist at our Cambridge office) on gender-neutral German by that funniest of language aficionados, Zé do Rock, writer and comedian, whose work I would recommend to anyone even vaguely interested in writing good contemporary German (I cannot remember ever laughing as much as when I first read his ‘fom winde ferfeelt’ (1995) about the new German orthography. In his view the asterisk is actually a bit of an insult: Why do men get a word, women a suffix and the diverse population a meagre asterisk or other symbol (and in the spoken language a kind of gluttal stop, or belch?). And he points out that while Germans distinguish Brasilianer und Brasilianerinnen, and even Eskimos and Eskimösen (!) for their own countryfolk they have no such distinction available. ‘Deutsche’ has to cover both males and females, since there is no word ‘Deutschinnen’. Let’s wait for the next edition of the DUDEN… you never know, it might make up for this lacuna.

I leave you with Zé do Rock’s inimitable conclusion for the German equivalent for what in English is “Dear mayors (and perhaps mayoresses), in French “Chers maires” and Spanish “Caros alcaldes”:

Sehr geehrte Bürgerinnen-, Bürgeronnen- und Bürgerunnenmeisterinnen, Bürgerinnen-, Bürgeronnen- und Bürgerunnenmeisteronnen und Bürgerinnen-, Bürgeronnen- und Bürgerunnenmeisterunnen!

If the evolution of the German language goes that way there is every chance it won’t survive 2030, and they’ll all be writing English. It is just so much easier.

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