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The Second Sex (in ITI Bulletin May-June 2019)

The gender agenda – The Second Sex in words

French, like many other languages, is gendered. Isabelle Meurville addresses the issue of translating ‘le deuxiėme sexe’.

The second sex

Simone de Beauvoir wrote Le deuxième sexe

In February this year, the Académie française finally voted a report in favour of using gender-appropriate job titles for women. ‘In principle’, it will now be possible to refer to sapeuses-pompières (female fire-fighters) Madame la Maire, and so on. To some people this might look trivial, but will be highly significant for women who want their roles and occupations taken seriously. It’s also part of a wider drive towards gender-neutral or equal gender language, after nearly 400 years in which the masculine has been used to refer to mixed groups of people. The change currently triggered in France to reflect the reality of a mixed-sex population marks a significant shift (vous avez dit Révolution ?); and it is of particular relevance and importance for translators.


Cardinal revisions

To fully understand the reach of this change, let me take you back to meet Cardinal Richelieu, King Louis XIII’s chief minister, who created the Académie française in 1635. Richelieu wished to establish the nobles’ French language as the official language throughout the territory of the kingdom (then patchy with regional dialects), and framed the Académie’s mission as such.


Before this period, women were referred to in the feminine and men in the masculine, mixed groups were referred to by both pronouns, and the adjectives would agree with the closer substantive noun, following the grammar rule of proximity (règle de proximité); so for example ‘the men and women are happy’ would use ‘happy’ in the feminine form because the word ‘women’ came closer to ‘happy’. However, the new Académie ruled that the masculine was to dominate the feminine in grammar, because, as Richelieu’s contemporary Claude Favre de Vaugelas put it in his grammar book ‘males are worthier than females’.


Women thinkers, philosophers and writers strongly objected the new rule to use the masculine for mixed groups. It was not before 200 years later that the use of the former rule of proximity actually disappeared. In the 20th century, the rise of the women’s movement in the 20th century started to overturn at least some of this; from the 1980s onward, government authorities in French-speaking countries have ruled that communication departments of regional and local authorities had to use both the masculine and the feminine versions of job titles, functions and grades in official documents, job advertising, and so on (for instance, les directeurs et directrices d’EHPAD, les greffiers et greffières, les vigneronnes et vignerons.)


A number of people and institutions have explicitly chosen to opt for a more gender-fair style of writing. However, this has been quite difficult to do. Some adopt a dot, an ‘interpunct’ (·) or a hyphen for text that is not intended to be read: for example des écrivain·e·s or boulangère-er. This is quick and easy, but has not become common use. Others add the feminine form ‘e’ to the masculine between parentheses – used for elements of secondary importance, as in procureur(e), or use a fraction bar as in nageur/euse; but for one thing this makes the ‘feminine’ a separate, optional add-on to the ‘real’ male form.


Still, a raucous sobering controversy erupted at the end of 2017 in France when the well-known publisher Hatier decided to print a primary school book using a form of gender-fair writing in order to give women an equal visibility in different occupations throughout history. The style (using a dot at the end of the masculine and before the feminine ending) shocked some parents so much that at one point the Éducation nationale (French education authorities) considered retracting the book.


Perhaps using another alternative grammar rule might have resulted in less criticism at the time…but perhaps not. It is not simply a matter of occupations but, going back to Richelieu and his contemporaries, about the custom of using the masculine gender (that is, either to refer to a mixed group composed of women and men, to women only, or even to one woman in particular). The language itself is gendered: the practice, many people argue, is sexist, because it makes women invisible. Opponents to the change argue instead that the use of the masculine grammatical gender includes women, and has become some kind of neutral


 The embedded translation chip

English has had its own controversies over the use of pronouns and it has broadly shifted away from the assumption that ‘man’ refers to ‘woman’ and that ‘he’ implies ‘she’. There is a whole raft of gender-neutral job titles today (such as Chair), while some of the ‘feminised’ terms like ‘actress’ or ‘authoress’ have fallen into abeyance. Whatever one thinks of this, it poses a particular challenge for translators.


For over 20 years now, as a freelance translator working from English into French, I have been reading source texts from my clients using they; he/she; s/he, and so on, to show their wish to include women in the message they convey. How do I respectfully and yet accurately translate this willingness into French? To add to this, whereas as in English, giving women visibility in writing boils down to using non-gendered or bi-gendered pronouns, such as they; he/she; s/he, in French the nouns, adjectives, pronouns, past participles, and articles are all gendered.


Taking the ‘correct’ masculine-only path soon came to feel like a double betrayal – that of my client’s will, and that of my self-esteem as a woman. Instead I started developing what I call an ‘embedded feminine chip’ in the way I approach it.


When I adopt the rédaction épicène, or gender-fair writing, I mentally visualise a group of both women and men. This may seem like a childish exercise, but it proves very efficient. After that, I think about three unavoidable criteria before starting to translate:


  1. the tone of the text: public/private
  2. the targeted readers
  3. whether the text will be read aloud or not.


After that, there’s a wealth of options, including:

  • typography (traductrice·teur; traductrice-teur)
  • doublets, or giving both options ( greffiers et greffières ; mécanicienne et mécanicien)
  • epicene, or gender neutral – linguiste originaire de; pilote spécialiste de; élève habile
  • function (le comité de rédaction ; la présidence ; les violons)
  • group (les familles réfugiées ; le voisinage)
  • alternating examples
  • shifting from the passive to the active voice …


If I am translating the sustainability report of a CAC40 group, I would probably opt for epicenes and few doublets, making the most of impersonal functions/groups and active voice. For a feminist event, at the moment I would opt for a typographic sign because it remains an activist stance, here and now. My favourite typographic sign is the interpunct or point milieu ‘·’ (alt+0183), and my second favourite, the bigger midpoint or point median ‘•’ (alt+7). On the other hand the translation of a CEO’s welcome address to new employees after a merge or takeover would require frequent doublets to make sure everyone feels warmly concerned.


 If in doubt, look it up

Helping my colleagues and clients to adopt a gender-fair writing led me to develop a much-needed tool. The Dictionnaire des synonymes et termes proches épicènes is a free online searchable resource to help find an epicene synonym which would be a pretty good fit, and replace a gendered noun or adjective (too long/heavy/tedious to repeat (masculine + feminine), for instance. When translators working into French wish to adopt a gender-fair language and come to a gendered sentence, the online resource helps find an epicene synonym if it exists.


The adventure started in the early weeks of 2018. Five colleagues helped fill in the word bank with the synonyms of the 2,000 epicene nouns in French, now fully online. First we identified those words, which was the easy step. Then we started a tedious analysis of those which applied to human beings and those which did not. As gender-fair language does not apply to the latter, we excluded them from our final list. Along the way we also ignored those which did not appear to have gendered synonyms like ostéopathe or kinésithérapeute since no user of the dictionary would eventually look for them. In searching for the gendered synonyms of our long list of epicene words and provide an enriched database, the fabulous work of the CNRTL – Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales proved very helpful


I should also confess that the dictionary includes the gender of the epicene words it includes. I do realise that this may seem rather contradictory, given that I have just explained at length that epicene words are non-gendered words that can be used for both women and men; so why now am I now suggesting that they are gendered? This is because that tricky beast the French language does also possess some gendered epicene words; they’re rare but there are enough. Examples: une victime (a victim) is a feminine epicene word referring to either a man or a woman. Same for un témoin which is a masculine epicene word. (Colleague translators in the law domain know about that strange feeling of dealing throughout a document of madame Rose Dupont, le témoin,…il a vu …)Therefore, the dictionary includes a column showing whether the result is bi-gendered, i.e. can be used with both feminine and masculine articles or whether it is a gendered epicene word.


And how does this affect the final product? I have found that learning to offer these alternatives to masculine-only writing represents an added value for translators’ services, and for their clients’ communication. The main opposition comes from people who believe the rédaction épicène produces a wordy result. When my rédaction-épicène-resistant client comments positively on the delivered translation, I know I have nailed it.



Imagine you need to translate the following sentence: ‘If s/he has zero income, your spouse/partner can still be covered for the duration of …’

CONTEXT The mention of s/he in the source text clearly states that the author of the text wishes to convey a universal message to both women and men. The introduction of the document explains that the word spouse is to be understood in its wider meaning of being married or living together. Hence the use of both spouse and partner becomes pleonastic.

IDENTIFICATION The gendered words to be careful about are ‘s/he’; ‘spouse/partner’ and ‘covered’, which can be respectively translated as il/elle; conjoint·e/partenaire; couvert·e.

MASCULINE GENDER TRANSLATION ‘S’il ne perçoit aucun revenu, votre conjoint/partenaire peut encore être couvert pendant…’

GENDER-FAIR TRANSLATION: ‘Si votre partenaire ne perçoit aucun revenu, sa couverture est prolongée pendant…’

Using an epicene noun in the first place allows 1/ to avoid the tricky pronoun, and 2/ to use the neutral possessive adjective ‘sa’ (neutral because agreed with the possessed object, and not the owner).


Plus d'infos ?

Vous êtes intéressés par l’actualité de l'égalité entre les femmes et les hommes, mais vous manquez de temps ? Translature vous propose de mettre en forme une veille thématique sous forme d’une Lettre d’information bimestrielle. Abonnez-vous, ici.