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 »  Articles Overview  »  Art of Translation and Interpreting  »  Gender-sensitive writing in Hindi

Gender-sensitive writing in Hindi

By Balasubramaniam L. | Published  05/16/2006 | Art of Translation and Interpreting | Recommendation:
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Balasubramaniam L.
անգլերենից հինդի translator
Անդամ է դարձել՝ Feb 4, 2006-ին։
View all articles by Balasubramaniam L.

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In modern times, the equality of man and woman in all spheres of life is a precept that is unanimously accepted. However, this is a very recent development, a couple of centuries old, according to my estimate. In earlier times, there was a clear male dominance in most things human, which is reflected in the male preference in many of the human developed systems, the most important of which is language. The most arduous and unrewarding battles that feminists have had to fight has been to make language gender-sensitive, that is, to weed out the subtle male biases in usages, words, concepts and at deeper levels of the language.

This article intends to examine the situation of gender-bias in Hindi.

I faced this issue when I was translating a patient survey form into Hindi. The patients could be of both genders and therefore the translation had to be particularly careful not to show any bias towards any particular gender.

This was more difficult to do in Hindi for three reasons. First, Hindi has no neutral gender like Sanskrit or English. It has only two genders, masculine and feminine. Further, the default gender is masculine, that is, when the gender of the subject of a sentence is not known, its gender is taken to be masculine. Thirdly, in Hindi, the verb takes the form of the gender of the subject, that is, the feminine form of the verb is different from the masculine form.

The only redeeming factor is that pronouns in Hindi are gender-neutral, unlike in English where separate pronouns exist for the masculine and feminine nouns. Probably this is so because Hindi expresses the gender of its sentences through verbs and not through nouns or the subjects of the verb.

Because of these crucial characteristics of the Hindi language, managing gender-sensitive writing in Hindi is difficult. Another difficulty is that feminist activism has not had that level of penetration into Hindi intelligentsia as to have compelled them to experiment with gender-sensitive writing. So there are very few precedents to go by and it is almost unchartered territory for Hindi translators. Also most of the top-level feminism leaders of India are English-oriented and express their thoughts in English, so their writings too cannot serve as a workable model for Hindi translators. This is an area which needs the attention of international feminists.

In the case of the medical questionnaire I had mentioned, I finally had to resort to the slash technique, that is, give two alternative structures of each sentence, one a masculine structure and the other a feminine structure. Example:

Sentence to be translated: I am confined to the bed.
Translation: मैं बस बिस्तर पर पड़ा / पड़ी हूं।

Here, on either side of the slash (/) are respectively the masculine and feminine forms of the verb.

Apart from this being an inelegant solution, it still has a subtle male bias in that the male verb has been placed first. However, if the two verbs had been switched, it would have made awkward reading due to the fact that the default gender in Hindi is masculine. Most readers would expect the masculine verb first in such combinations.

A second case where we (this was a collective project) adopted an interesting solution to the gender issue was in the translation of an educational material meant for school children. Some statements about correct environmental behaviour had to be translated into Hindi. The same problem outlined above was encountered and after careful consideration, we decided to use the masculine and feminine gender for alternate sentences. Some examples:

I always turn off dripping taps.
I always switch off fans and lights on leaving the room.
I always write on both sides of the paper.
I always carry a cloth bag while going to the market place.

This set of sentences was translated in the following way:

मैं हमेशा टपकते नलों को बंद करता हूं। (The sentence has a masculine structure.)
कमरे से निकलने पर मैं हमेशा पंखे और लाइटों को बंद करती हूं। (The sentence has a feminine structure.)
मैं कागज के दोनों ओर लिखता हूं। (The sentence has a masculine structure.)
बाजार जाते समय मैं हमेशा कपड़े का थैला अपने साथ रखती हूं। (The sentence has a feminine structure.)

Here we could manage a semblance of gender-sensitivity by taking the whole translation as a unit, but this may not be always possible. Here it was possible because gender was not inherently important to the meaning of any of the sentences. In a way, these sentences were gender-neutral in their semantic structure. This may not always be the case.

In most cases maintaining gender-sensitivity is very difficult in Hindi, unless convoluted techniques like the above are adopted. Even these become impossible in cases where there are severe limitations of space such as in software strings or sub titles.

The most difficult problem is the default nature of the masculine gender in Hindi. This is embedded so deeply in the grammatical structure of Hindi that there is very little that can be done. As an example, consider this simple line:

Someone is standing behind the wall.

In Hindi it would be translated as follows:

दीवार के पीछे कोई खड़ा है।

The indefinite pronoun कोई will take a masculine verb as the gender of the noun for which it is being used is not known from the context of the sentence. This is because the verb must take some gender and Hindi language has decided that the default gender will be masculine. There can be very little argument with this decision of the language!

There are more problems too. In Hindi all nouns are classified as either male or female. This is quite arbitrary but some broad principles are adopted nevertheless and this is where the problem lies, for these principles can be perceived to be gender-biased. Nouns that signify things that are large, strong or important are masculine, whereas nouns that signify things that are small, beautiful, delicate and comparatively less important are feminine. Obviously there is a male preference here in selecting the gender of nouns. However, this is a relatively less serious issue and only diehard feminists of the extremist camp would find this offensive. But true gender-neutrality cannot be achieved in Hindi at the level of nouns, for the language determines the gender of nouns and writers and translators have little leeway to correct any gender bias at the word level.

Thus, achieving gender-neutral writing or translation in Hindi is a challenging and often impossible task. Having said that it is also true that all languages have an infinite capacity of expression. If Hindi writers and intellectuals apply their mind to this problem of gender-sensitive writing, they are sure to arrive at some creative way of tackling this issue. Till then we translators will have to muddle along as best as we can.

Feminist leaders can help by organizing workshops on the issue of gender-sensitive writing in Hindi in which feminist leaders and Hindi experts can get together to devise ways of tackling the inherent male bias in Hindi language.

That such creative solutions are possible is evidenced by the high level of gender-neutrality that exists in Hindu religion, which is again a human-generated system just like language. In Hindu religion, almost all deities also have their female counterparts. There we also have concepts of deities like the ardhanarishwar, where half the deity is male and the other half is female. Also there are deities like durga which are feminine and immensely powerful. In fact, durga comes in different shades of power, the highest and the most ferocious being kali, the goddess worshipped by such great saints as Ramkrishna Paramhans and Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth guru of the Sikhs.

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