Generic masculine nouns and pronouns in English (das generische Maskulinum)von , veröffentlicht am 01.12.2020
A translation is greater than the sum of its parts. And a helpful generalization is this: what matters is not that individual words find individual renderings in the target language; what matters is that a translation reads as if it itself had been composed in the target language. Ideally, this generalization entails that, where the source language and the target language have identical devices, these devices should find their way into the target text, provided and to the extent that they have found their way into the source text. By “devices,” I mean, roughly speaking, rhetorical, stylistic, grammatical devices: metonymy should be translated with corresponding metonymy, syllogisms with corresponding syllogisms, grammatical moods with corresponding grammatical moods.
But sometimes it is necessary to break with this generalization in order to adhere to it. While both German and English have the generic masculine – das generische Maskulinum – one cannot simply use generic masculine nouns and pronouns in English. As a rule, one must forgo this grammatical device in order to ensure that the translation reads as if it itself had been composed in the target language. For translators, and their readers, cases involving the generic masculine should be reason to pause, to pose the question at the threshold: should one translate these nouns and pronouns with their generic masculine counterparts in English? In cases of exception, the answer is yes, if literal translation is indicated by the circumstances. As a rule, the answer is no, if generic masculine nouns and pronouns would contravene a generally accepted rule of English composition.
That rule is this: do not use masculine-specific nouns and pronouns when the noun or pronoun stands specifically either for a female person or for a person of indeterminate gender. In English, the generic masculine can be, and often is, perceived as biased language. And biased language distracts from the purpose of the writing, when it is not central to that writing. That’s what The Chicago Manual of Style says anyway. For this reason, careful writers avoid it when reasonable differences of opinion may arise, which will prove unhelpful to the writing at hand.
As for nouns, one should use gender-neutral nouns. Where the noun itself is not gender-neutral such as “attorney,” “translator,” “employee,” one should use a gender-neutral version of the noun – not “chairman,” but “chairperson”; not “policeman,” but “police officer”; not “fireman,” but “firefighter.” As for pronouns, one should avoid masculine-specific pronouns, when the noun is not masculine-specific:
Some personal pronouns have special uses. […] He, him, and his have traditionally been used as pronouns of indeterminate gender equally applicable to a male or female person […]. Because these pronouns are also masculine-specific, they have long been regarded as sexist when used generically, and their indeterminate-gender use is declining.
Put simply, to use masculine-specific nouns and pronouns is to run the risk of being regarded, at worst, as sexist and, at best, as using distracting biased language. This risk does not necessarily exist in German. Das generische Maskulinum is acceptable, deemed so, in certain cases, by the German Federal Court of Justice. So, what to do in these cases?
In keeping with the generalization at the outset and in keeping with the generally accepted rule of English composition above and on pain of being regarded as sexist – one should ignore the precedent set by the German Federal Court of Justice, when one translates into English. But to ignore it is not to violate it. Nothing in that precedent establishes that one cannot refer to a female person with feminine nouns and pronouns in German. It merely establishes that, in certain cases, one need not, as a matter of law, refer to a female person with feminine nouns and pronouns in German. (A ruling that never quite sat well with me, regardless of whether it is right as a matter of law.)
How, then, should one proceed in such cases? That depends. Let’s take the case of German employment agreements. They are often drafted using das generische Maskulinum, regardless of whether they are for male or female employees. They are very likely covered by the abovementioned precedent. And they offer a kind of paradigm example, which provides sufficient guidance for all other comparable cases.
When a German employment agreement is for a male employee, a translation into English can contain masculine-specific pronouns without reservation. The same is not true of a German employment agreement for a female employee, which uses das generische Maskulinum. Because the English noun “employee” is itself gender-neutral, the German term “der Arbeitnehmer” can be translated as “employee.” However, all the masculine-specific pronouns used in the German will have to be replaced with feminine-specific ones: “he” will have to be translated as “she,” “him” as “her,” “his” as “hers.” In both cases, one translates in keeping with a main tenant of professional translation: one must needs translate in keeping with the facts – masculine-specific pronouns for male persons, feminine-specific pronouns for female persons.
What about the case of a form of employment agreement drafted in German, which is intended to be used for both male and female persons and which uses das generische Maskulinum – that is, the employee is referred to only as “der Arbeitnehmer,” with all the generic masculine-specific pronouns? In this case, there are at least four conceivable courses of action.
First, one could translate the agreement for male persons and then modify a second version for female persons. In other words, one can deliver not one, but two translations, a form of employment agreement for male persons and a form for female persons. Second, one could translate each gender-specific pronoun with a placeholder, in square brackets, such as “[he/she],” “[him/her],” “[his/her],” which is to be exchanged for the proper pronoun when the agreement is prepared for use in a specific case. Third, one could use the plural form of certain nouns, with all the plural forms of the pronouns, at relevant junctures, that is: wherever such use does not distort the sense or meaning. Fourth, one can spell out who exactly is meant; one writes not “he,” “him,” or “his,” but rather “he or she,” “him or her,” “his or her” or – in cases involving, say, a legal person – “he, she, or it”; “him, her, or it”; or “his, her, or its.” (One should never, under any circumstance, use “s/he/it” as shorthand for “he, she, or it”; it stinks, it sounds just as bad as it looks.)
Both the third and fourth courses of action can prove tricky. They will require a thorough command of the subject matter. Consequently, they should be used with the level of care appropriate to the translation and the circumstances at hand. Otherwise, the prose of the translation can become unwieldy, sound clumsy, and/or become imprecise, by including too many, or simply unintended, grammatical subjects or objects. —Whatever the case, the course of action will depend, largely, on the purpose of the translation and will require, frequently, coordination with the client and/or end user of the translation.
However, there exists at least one important exception to the rule discussed above. One should use generic masculine nouns and pronouns whenever the need for literal translation is indicated by the general circumstances that occasioned the translation in the first place. In my experience, these cases are few and far between.
So, let us assume for the sake of argument such general circumstances. Let us assume the employee is a woman. She discovers that she was snubbed for a promotion: a generally less qualified man was promoted instead. She discovers, too, that the conditions of her employment are less favorable than those of her male counterpart: equal work, unequal pay; equal advancement opportunities on paper, unequal advancement opportunities in practice; etc. She reviews her employment agreement and realizes that she was referred to not as “die Arbeitnehmerin,” but as “der Arbeitnehmer” and that all the corresponding generic masculine pronouns were used, “er,” “ihn,” “sein.” She speaks to an attorney. And she files suit against her employer alleging gender-based discrimination.
In the case assumed here, the attorney goes on to determine that one, not the main, avenue of attack, will be to show how the employer insists on its rights, but disregards his client’s. The employer insists on its right to refer to a woman as a man on paper, in keeping with the precedent set by the German Federal Court of Justice. It disregards her rights, not to be discriminated against, when it suits the employer. If such an avenue is pursued in a complaint and if one is commissioned to translate the complaint, together with the employment agreement, then it will make sense to translate the employment agreement literally, at least in one respect. It will make sense to translate all the generic masculine pronouns with their English counterparts. It will make sense to so translate, because it mirrors the argument alleged in the complaint.
In cases in which literal translation along the lines sketched here are indicated, the guiding precept – if there is one to be riddle out here – is this: one must ignore the generally accepted rule of English composition and heed the general circumstances, in order to do justice to the source text. Such cases of translation will often benefit from a translator note, which sets out in a clear, concise, and coherent manner the reason(s) for the choice of translation and for the disregard of the generally accepted rule of English composition.
But literal translation is the exception. In general, one should proceed in English according to the rule: avoid masculine-specific nouns and pronouns when the noun or pronoun stands specifically either for a female person or for a person of indeterminate gender.
2 Compare The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, page 301.
3 The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2010, page 215. My understanding is that a similar rule applies in Great Britain. Compare, for instance, the discussion in Anne Waddingham, ed. New Hart’s Rules: The Oxford Style Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014, page 29.