‘Intersex’ is being translated into Icelandic as ‘freak’ in a biological terminology, used in local schools. Disturbing says head of Intersex Iceland, who wants the glossary reviewed and republished, as this kind of foul language should never be used to describe minorities and is likely to foster prejudice.
“I think it’s disturbing that this is being used as a teaching material in schools. By doing so we are telling a new generation that it is okay to use degrading words about a minority,” says Kitty Anderson, chair of Intersex Iceland, about the fact that the word ‘intersex’ is translated as ‘freak’ (i. ‘viðrini’), in a biology terminology (titled “Ensk-íslenskur orðalisti fyrir líffræði”) used in local colleges, including Reykjavik Junior College (i. Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík), Garðabaer College (i. Fjölbrautaskólinn í Garðabær) and Borgarfjorður College (i. Menntaskóli Borgarfjarðar).
According to a preface, written in 2010, it seems the glossary hasn’t been updated since at least 2006.
“It is just not acceptable for schools to be using a glossary which hasn’t regularly been fact-checked and updated,” says Kitty. “It just makes you wonder, is this the only misstatement in this terminology? Therefore I think that it should be removed from the schools, reviewed and republished this minute. We can’t afford to be teaching these kinds of misstatements anymore.”
How do you feel, as an intersex person, when you come across words like this in public glossaries?
“Honestly I can’t say I’m hurt. Because it doesn’t surprise me. People that don’t fit into the norm have had to take foul language and degrading speech about themselves. Intersex people are no exception. It is a constant battle for minority groups to be freed from this discourse. It’s something one expects and has to deal with on regular basis.”
On that note Kitty says this is not the first time she sees the word intersex translated this way. Not too long ago she contacted two different Icelandic public dictionaries because both used this exact same translation in their online glossaries. However the reactions she got from the two companies were very different.
“The first one I contacted was ‘Orðabanki Íslenskrar málstöðvar’(e. ‘The Icelandic Word Bank’). I e-mailed them on behalf of Intersex Iceland, in May 19th 2014, pointing out that: ‘… on the webpage of Orðabanki íslenskrar málstöðvar the word intersex is translated as ‘freak‘. This translation is both wrong and extremely prejudiced. We call on Íslensk málstöð to remove this translation as soon as possible.’ The same day I got a reply saying that: ‘The translation in question, in genetics from 1997, has been removed.’
Subsequently I sent the same e-mail to the other dictionary, ‘Ordabók.is’. Their reply was: ‘Could you explain to me exactly what intersex means, that makes the registration of the word easier.’ So I sent the explanation and then they replied: ‘I now see that the translation ‘freak’, that you’re referring to, is a part of the biological terminology at Ordabok.is. Therefore you have to contact Hálfdán Ó. Hálfdánarson [the biological terminology manager at The Translation Centre of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs] and discuss with him if he is willing to review his definition.’
Then my correspondent wrote: ‘But I want to point out to you that ‘a freak’ is not only a negative word in Icelandic language. When you look the word up in a dictionary, this is the definition: ‘1. A hermaphroditic creature, asexual being. 2. a paltry person or a creature, something that’s neither fish nor fowl, something measly, ridiculous.’
That was when I contacted Hálfdán, the afore-mentioned biological terminology manager, and told him about the discussion I had with Ordabok.is. So Hálfdán contacted the head of Ordabok.is – he both wrote him and called him – and requested that the translation ‘freak’ be removed from the online glossary. Which the guy then finally did.
And Hálfdán wrote to me that he sincerely regretted the matter and that he understood my disagreement of this translation. He was also sorry that the translations could not be changed in previously published books.”
So is it possible that the terminology from Menntaskólinn in Reykjavík and the two online glossaries are then based on the same source?
“Yes, they are all based on Hálfdán’s biological terminology [in a preface in the school’s glossary his terminology is cited as a source]. But that doesn’t change the fact that people who are writing or publishing educational material should definitely look to other countries for reference. See what context this word is being used in abroad. Then, ‘freak’ would never have been chosen as a translation of ‘intersex’. It’s not a word that belongs to the academic community.
How does Intersex Iceland translate the word ‘intersex’?
“In ‘proper’ Icelandic we simply use the description: ‘People with atypical sex characteristics’ (i. ‘fólk fætt með ódæmigerð kyneinkenni’), when referring to intersex people. It’s a difficult word to translate, since the meaning of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ merge with one another in Icelandic. That is not the case in English, where sex is a biological term but gender is a psychological term.
“…it is not okay to talk about…minority groups however you want.”
That is why we stick to the English word ‘intersex’. An umbrella term originally invented abroad because doctors’ discourse about the subject was very degrading and simply wrong. It’s a word that should be used here, not only about intersex people but in general [for animals and plants as well], or at least until we come up with a suitable word in Icelandic.
Because it is simply not okay to talk about minority groups however you want. It perpetuates certain groups being alienated from society. That people take permission to use bad names for a group of people who are a part of the society, only fosters prejudice. And we should not be teaching prejudice.”
In short: Intersex people are people born with atypical sex characteristics.
- The most cautious numbers, taken from a Dutch research, claim that 0,5% of people have atypical sex characteristics. Broader numbers go up to 1,7%.
- Research shows that sex characteristics can be atypical in more various ways than thought before. As a result more people can be defined as intersex.
- For some, intersex is visible at birth; for others at early childhood, some experience unusual puberty and for others this comes to light when people have trouble having children.
Sometimes it has had no effect on people’s lives and is only realized during autopsy.
- The discussion about intersex officially started in Iceland in 2014.
- Intersex Iceland was officially formed in 2014 with the express purpose of raising awareness of the existence of intersex individuals.
- Intersex Iceland has its own website.
- You can also follow the association on Facebook.
Main photo shows Reykjavik Junior College (i. Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík), one of the colleges where the terminology is used. Photo was taken by Helgi Halldórsson/Freddi.