By Dr. Remy Attig and Ártemis López

Gender-inclusive language has, in an Anglophone context, been around for ages but has received increased attention outside LGBTQ+ circles in recent years. With this increased attention has come an increase in representation of characters who use non-binary pronouns in audiovisual media. While there are many non-binary pronouns available in English, Queer activists’ goal isn’t to prescribe a single pronoun that works for all, but rather to carve out a societal awareness that we each have the agency to determine which pronouns best reflect us when we’re spoken about in the third person (Baron, 2020, Zimman, 2019). Of course, non-binary language also includes neologisms for nouns and adjectives that are gendered implicitly or explicitly, such as “joyfriend,” an alternative for “boyfriend” or “girlfriend,” or “entle,” a portmanteau of “aunt” and “uncle.” Consequently, fostering respect for each person’s self-identification is the goal, and in social-justice-oriented shows like One Day at a Time that goal is explicitly stated and the language use is modelled to normalize this shift for viewers… of the English version. The translations, on the other hand, range in their approaches.

Translation has long been a way for new ideas to enter into a language, but Queer communities have embraced non-binary gender identities long enough to have established their own ways of discussing them. Consequently, Queer translation is specialized translation in that it requires translators to have intimate cultural and linguistic knowledge that is specific to these communities, both in the source and target cultures.

Given the transnational nature of Netflix and other streaming media platforms’ business model, new shows are often translated almost instantly into other languages, many of which are having similar societal conversations about how to use language more inclusively. Such was the case with Netflix sitcom One Day at a Time, featuring gender non-binary characters. So, how did translators approach translating gender-inclusive language in this show and what, if any, influence might LGBTQ+ communities have had in the process?

In the English source, Syd is first introduced in S2E3 in a go-round style introduction where each person states their name and the third-person pronouns that should be used in reference to them by others. In this episode Syd—a recurring character—identifies with the pronouns they and them. A second character, Margaux, identifies as ze and zir. Though both options for epicene pronouns are common in English—with they/them being the older and more widespread of the two—they present significant challenges when translating into languages with binary grammatical gender like Spanish and French (Beemyn, 2019; Huddleston, 2002, pp. 493-494).

For historical and political motives, film and TV are frequently translated into Spanish for two separate markets: Latin America and Spain. These two markets further split into subtitling and, depending on the genre, dubbing or voiceover, resulting in four distinct translations. In Latin America, Syd and Margaux’s introductions transition from a lighthearted joke about learning new words to one at the expense of the non-binary characters. Syd says their pronouns are “ellos y suyos” in the dubbing and “las dos y ellas” in the subtitles, both versions presenting unequivocally plural and binary pronouns. Margaux, meanwhile, uses the words “ze” and “hir” in Spanish in completely ungrammatical ways, such as translating “ze takes zir team to the parking lot” as “ze, con los zir al estacionamiento” with both “los” and “zir” expressing conflicting genders for Margaux’s team as the same referent, not for Margaux hirself. Both approaches, Syd calling themself “both girls” and Margaux’s gender being projected onto other entities rather than onto hir, shift the tenor of the episode. Where the English version is an opportunity to learn about others, the Latin American versions become a joke about young queers’ profound misunderstanding of grammar.

The European Spanish subtitles for this episode are based on the dubbing translation, for which the translator consulted with, and followed the lead of, members of Spain’s Trans community. This community-informed translation uses two grammatical genders that are used by non-binary Spanish speakers. Thus, Syd expresses their gender through the more common morpheme {-e} (Saint-Exupéry & Stavans), and Margaux through a less common but still real {-i}. The European dubbing adds further depth to the series by incorporating an indefinite (Saint-Exupéry & Stavans) into another character’s idiolect when she speaks about groups or undefined referents, which makes for an accurate depiction of current Queer sociolects. However, although the European dubbing refers to Syd properly through the rest of the series, currently translated through the end of season 3, the European subs join the Latin American translations in misgendering Syd and obfuscating their gender altogether. To the viewer at home, depending on the episode and modality, Syd either uses ungrammatical constructions or is simply a cisgender lesbian.

The French translation is also manifest in two modalities, subtitles and dubbing, which vary greatly one from the other. Syd identifies as “on” and “on et tout le monde” in each respectively. Here, we see “on,” as a formal impersonal pronoun that refers to an unknown “one” or colloquially to refer to the first person plural. “Tout le monde” best translates as “everyone.” Both are conjugated in the third-person singular, but in a conversational context both imply a plural subject. Neither are used by the Queer Francophone community.  

On the other hand, Margaux states that ze uses the pronouns “ielle” in the subtitles, but “zi et zu” in the dubbing. “Ielle” is an uncommon spelling of the non-binary pronoun “iel,” which has been gaining traction in Francophone communities. While phonetically nearly identical to “iel,” “ielle” also visually references “ille” another common non-binary pronoun (Alterhéros, 2020; Ashley, 2019). Conversely, in a 2017 study on diverse pronoun use among French non-binary individuals, none identified with either the pronoun “zi” or “zu,” which may suggest an example of the translator’s creativity in the absence of community awareness (La Vie en Queer, 2018). 

Whereas in the Spanish cases we see a clear distinction between translations that incorporated Queer communities’ linguistic practices and those that were entirely ignorant of them, in French the line is less clear. On the one hand, some representative pronouns have been adopted for the subtitles, but on the other hand there is clear English influence which renders the exchange more ridiculous than credible.

Non-binary identities exist around the world and languages are evolving to address this reality. Furthermore, transnational media is providing a forum to showcase these populations in new ways. However, it is fundamental that translators engage with local communities, both in the source and target cultures, to ensure that visibility is more than just a token. We would not accept translations that demonstrate an ignorance of the source or target cultures, that result in misplaced humor, or that translate important conversations into nonsensical utterances. Why should the bar be any lower for those translating Queer identities?



Authors

Remy Attig

Assistant Professor, Dept of World Languages & Cultures

Bowling Green State University - Bowling Green, OH

Ártemis López

PhD Candidate, Linguistics

Universidade de Vigo - Vigo, SPAIN

Works Cited

Alterhéros. (2020). Comment traduire les pronoms et les accords non-binaires en français? Retrieved from http://www.alterheros.com/experts/2020/01/comment-traduire-les-pronoms-et-les-accords-non-binaires-en-francais/?fbclid=IwAR1wU8DOVql3w3-uXP2yqOZxB-B4Sb-lGnwTIHumVOCMVWlPaiVK22tINsk

Ashley, F. (2019). Les personnes non-binaires en français : une perspective concernée et militante. H-France Salon, 11(14), 1-15.

Baron, D. (2020). What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He & She: Penguin Random House.

Beemyn, G. (2019). They Are Coming to Get You: Efforts to Institutionalize Pronouns in Higher Education. In: UMass Amherst.

Huddleston, R. D. (2002). The Cambridge grammar of the English language. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

La Vie en Queer. (2018). Le langage dans la communauté non-binaire 2017. Retrieved from https://lavieenqueer.wordpress.com/2018/07/26/le-langage-dans-la-communaute-non-binaire-2017/

Saint-Exupéry, A. d., & Stavans, I. (2016). El Little Príncipe. Neckarsteinach, Germany: Edition Tintenfaß.

Zimman, Lal. (2019). Trans self-identification and the language of neoliberal selfhood: Agency, power, and the limits of monologic discourse, International Journal of the Sociology of Language, 2019(256), 147–175. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/ijsl-2018-2016