On Translating Japanese and LGBT Terminology

When writing about LGBT related topics, it can be difficult to select the correct words. Having only started writing about such things in recent years, I have often found myself struggling to choose the best words to write for our audience. 

For example, writing “LGBT” gets the point across the clearest, and “LGBT Japan” makes a great keyword that helps in connecting people quickly to the information that they are seeking. However, I’ve warmed up to using “queer”, which in some cases reads smoother and feels more inclusive.

On the other hand, there may be those that don’t know the word queer or still consider it a slur, as the Huffington Post controversy earlier this year has proven.

And then there comes the difficulty of translating Japanese. Japanese, for those of you who don’t know, consists of two “alphabets”, hiragana and katakana, and a few thousand Chinese characters, called kanji.

Japanese has some of its own words describing homosexuality and transsexuality, but most related terms are loanwords from English, which are written in katakana and pronounced according to Japanese phonetics. Translating these terms one-to-one is easy enough, but in some cases, it can be difficult to figure out what a person is talking about.

If someone says ゲイ (gei, gay), do they mean gay as in homosexual, gay as in just homosexual men, or gay as an all encompassing term for LGBT people? It’s even harder to deduce when gei and LGBT are used within in the same article. Is the speaker using both terms interchangeably to refer to everyone, or are they deliberately referring to different groups? In recent days, クイア (kuia, queer) has begun to pop up more often as well.

Then there’s the Japanese 性的少数者 (seiteki shousuusha) which means sexual minority. But wait! It can also be written in katakana as セクシャルマイノリティ (sekusharu mainoriti) and is commonly abbreviated as セクマイ (sekumai).

I’ve also found myself in situations where everything is crystal clear in Japanese, but I feel obliged to alter or “update” the language used to suit the way English speakers talk about LGBT topics. This method works in creating a translation that makes sense, but in doing so, it feels like there is a certain aspect that is lost in translation…

Perhaps this is just due to my own inexperience (I’ve never had any formal training in translation), or perhaps translators always feel this way. Or maybe I’m just a perfectionist. Any actual translators care to weigh in?

Katakana and “hybrid” terms

When I started searching for words when writing what became the “Glossary of Japanese Gay Terminology”, I came across many that I wanted to to include, such as those referring to the lesbian scene and gender identity, that didn’t make the cut.

It turns out that there are many terms that are “gay specific”, or common words that take on a new meaning in the context of the gay scene. To list every possible LGBT related word I could find, including those common enough to be searchable on sites like jisho.org, would only serve to clutter things. Therefore, the book became more of a “Japanese gay slang glossary” instead of the all-inclusive work I had envisioned.

On the bright side, many of the terms I chose not to include are borrowed from English, so save for the change in pronunciation, you can usually use these words the same way you already do. For example, シスジェンダー (shisugenda-, cisgender), ジェンダークィア (jenda-kuia, genderqueer), and so on.

English and Japanese terms can also be combined to make phrases like ジェンダー研究 (jenda- kenkyuu, gender studies).

And finally, there are also new terms being coined in Japan, such as Xジェンダー (ekkusu jenda-, X-gender), which is a non-binary term similar to genderqueer.

While I didn’t include such words in our glossary, please allow me to direct you to some resources that do.

Japanese gender and sex terminology resources

I’d like to share some resources I’ve found to be of interest to those looking to learn more words to describe gender and sexuality in Japanese. First is the Glossary of Japanese gender and sex terminology from Nonbinary.org. This is a list of terms in English alphabetical order written in Japanese and English and with English definitions.

For those of you with advanced Japanese, check out Bravvisima.com’s glossary, a list of terms related to the LGBT community and LGBT movement, completely in Japanese and including Japanese definitions.

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