While many U.S. citizens were gobbling down an animal who may have not even been present at the pilgrims’ 1621 feast, and then run around and probably flaunt all coronavirus restrictions on the day after, I’ve plopped myself down in front of my laptop to do some personal computer programming.
I’ve been working on the “i18n” (internationalization) of my personal website, janestrut.com. In other words, hoping to add multi-lingual support in at least the four languages that I can manage. But this has me going to Google Translate a lot. Mostly to get the accents and all for Spanish and such. I’m using Linux, which doesn’t have Windows’s handy alt-codes (alt+0225 for “á”), or a Mac’s nifty Option key (Option+e, then “a” for “á”). The best way that I’ve found to add accents to my Spanish and Portuguese sections is to copy and paste them from elsewhere, such as Google Translate. (It’s only mildly problematic because the “cut” short keys in Emacs are Ctrl+W, the exact shortcode for “close tab” in Firefox. Yes, I’ve accidentally closed my browser’s tabs several times!)
Well, this has me using Google Translate a lot. I use it to generate accents, and also to look up words I don’t know in Portuguese and Russian – languages I don’t speak very well but want to include on my website anyway. And I’ve noticed something I haven’t seen before now. I’m not sure how long this has been the case, but now, when you look up a single word in Google Translate in some languages (Spanish and Portuguese, for example) you get this:
In other words, it seems like Google Translate no longer just assumes you’re a guy. For people who aren’t guys (such as yours truly, the author) this is a definite step forward!
Yes, many languages, such as Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian, have gender-specific distinctions that aren’t part of English. (I’ve written another post about this.) And these distinctions vary from language to language. In Spanish, both women and men say “thank you” in the same way – but not in Portuguese!
It used to be that Google simply assumed that you were a man. If I translated “unsatisfied” into Spanish, it used to just give me “insatisfecho”. I had to know enough of the laguage to know that, because I’m a woman, for me it would be “insatisfecha”.
However, this improvement to the internet’s top, free translation service is far, far from flawless! Even in just a few hours of playing around with this feature, I’ve already noticed a couple of issues. Inconsistency one: this neat little feature only appears if you’re using the program to translate from English. When you translate “thank you” from English to Portuguese, it tells you that the masculine form is “obrigado” and the feminine is “obrigada”. However, translating “gracias” to Portuguese – from Spanish – just gives “obrigado”. IF I SPEAK SPANISH, APPARENTLY GOOGLE ASSUMES I’M A GUY!
Inconsistency two: it totally fails if I’m trying to get things in Russian! Whatever you translate, it just assumes you’re a guy. I disliked, but accepted this, because it’s what the service used to do for Spanish and Portuguese too. However, I wondered, what happens if you translate from a language that already has a gendered distinction? In other words, if I wrote something in Spanish that had a gender-specific marker (such as “estoy segura”; “I’m sure” in the feminine form), and translated it into Russian, it had to know that I was a woman and give me the Russian feminine form, right?
NOPE! Somehow, going from Spanish to Russian, I’VE TURNED INTO A GUY! Now, I’m sorry Google, but this makes so little sense that maybe – instead of piddling around with my personal website – I ought to come in and review Google’s code :p
I only found one way to make Google keep the feminine form in translation from Spanish to Russian. I used the sentence “Estoy embarazada” (“I’m pregnant”; feminine). And, sure enough, I got “Я беременна”, “беременна” being the feminine form for “pregnant”. However, with this sentence, it’s not that Google is preserving the feminine ending from Spanish. Curious, I tried “yo estoy embarazado” – or what a man would say if he were pregnant. And I still got “я беременна”. In other words, if you’re saying “I’m pregnant”, Google just assumes you’re a woman.
THIS IS MUCH MORE PROBLEMATIC THAN YOU MIGHT THINK! Why? Because men – not just people born with male reproductive organs, but any people who identify as a “men” – can sometimes become pregnant. And the correct thing for a pregnant man to say, in Spanish, would be “Estoy embarazado”, and in Russian, “Я беременный” – not “Я беременна”. Bottom line? Google Translate is furthering the spread of not just the patriarchy but cis-sexism as well 😮
What can we do about it? If you consider yourself a “good man” – or just a good human being, whatever your gender – then the least you can do is make people aware of the assumptions they’re making. It’s possible that a man, translating something into Spanish, Portuguese, or Russian, might not even notice Google’s underlying assumptions. As a woman – and logged into my Google account, no less, which does have my gender listed as a woman – I notice these problems.
But probably very few people would have noticed the problem with the sentence “I’m pregnant”. This has to do with a misunderstanding of sex and gender that runs deep in the undercurrents of our society. So take it away, piece by piece. Help me to dismantle not just the patriarchy, but the assumptions of cis-sexism.
Let’s work together for a more understanding, more inclusive world – where the first thing that a doctor shouts out won’t be “It’s a girl” if they see that the baby has a vagina.