Hermaphrodite vs. intersex in Mandarin

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[This is a guest post by Charles Belov.  To show what a dedicated, eclectic listener of Asian popular media Charles is, I've left his signature block intact.]

As a frequent, essentially monolingual consumer of Asian popular media, one of the issues for me has always been how translations succeed or fail at communicating both the particular Asian culture and how it can be expressed meaningfully in English. ¿Where does the translation reflect current or past Asian culture and where does it reflect American or British culture of the audience?

A term of concern for me at the moment is "cíxióngtóngtǐ 雌雄同體" (lit. "male female same body"), which Wiktionary translates as "hermaphrodite." However, Wiktionary also notes in the English entry for "hermaphrodite" that this term is now considered offensive and that "intersex" is the preferred term.

This came up for me as the song 雌雄同體 by Taiwan* rock/pop group Mayday seems to be one of the songs regularly earworming me, and I ran the lyrics through Google Translate. Rather than intersex, the song's narrator seems to me to be what in my lingo is "genderqueer" and what today's young people call "non-binary." But I don't know whether "雌雄同體" is now considered offensive in Taiwan intersex culture. The Wiktionary entry for non-binary gives fēièryuán 非二元 (lit., "not two prime") as the translation. So that might have been a better title for the song were it released today; however, the song came out (so to speak) in 2003, long before the term "non-binary" was coined.

I've decided to call the song "Gender Queer" rather than "雌雄同體" when referring to the song in social media.



雌雄同體 audio with copyable lyrics (click Lyrics link for lyrics)

雌雄同體 lyric music video (content warning for flashing images)


* – I've adjectived Taiwan in my idiolect; the group sings mostly in Mandarin and I want to avoid confusion with the Taiwanese language

Chas Belov

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Selected readings


  1. SusanC said,

    May 27, 2024 @ 9:50 am

    My understanding of current English language usage…

    hermaphrodite (a) biologist's term, only used in the case of non-human animals (b) acceptable translation from e.g. the Ancient Greek of an entirely mythical concept

    intersex -> the term to be used for human beings with some biological condition such as Androgen Insensivity Syndrome. Slightly wider in usage than the biologists "hermaphrodite" would be if it were applied to human animals, Specifically not to be used for transgender people who dont have a diagnosed medical condition

    non=binary -> refers to social non-binary gender without necessarily implying any medical condition. Some people are indeed both intersex (diagnosed medical condition) and non-binary (what their California driver's license says their gender is)

  2. SusanC said,

    May 27, 2024 @ 9:56 am

    So, "non-binary" or "gender queer" is probably the English for what the author meant.

    (This kind of translation issue can be a nightmare when interpreting traditional Buddhist texts.)

  3. Violet Zhu said,

    May 27, 2024 @ 11:10 am

    This remind me of Virginia Woolf's novel Orlando in 1928. Woolf believes that there are both feminine and masculine forces inside the individuals.

  4. katarina said,

    May 27, 2024 @ 6:15 pm

    Yesterday I found the word "binary" useful. I had attended a long, 2 1/2 hour final (graduating) performance of the Alonzo King Lines Ballet Training Program in San Francisco. Alonzo King is a celebrated choreographer. This was billed as contemporary ballet. Except for one brief solo dance, the dancers did not wear pointe shoes but only ballet slippers. The trainees were highly trained dancers from all over the world.

    Afterwards I was casting about for words to describe how this contemporary ballet was different from classical ballet. Finally I settled on the word "binary". Classical ballet is completely binary, with distinctive male and female roles, whereas this ballet was completely non-binary. Classical ballet features females as sylph-like nymph-like beauteous creatures. This
    ballet featured females as athletes. Except in one number, where a male wore a very short plain mini-skirt, none of the other dancers, almost all female, wore skirts. Pants were worn throughout the 2 1/2 hour concert. There was no attempt by the female dancers at beauteousness or traditional femininity. Strong, energetic athleticism was the main thing. Almost none of the dancers were that slim. A few were chunky. All were terrific dancers and above all, athletes. There was one pas de deux where the male dancer lifted the female off the ground and swung her around, as in classical ballet.
    The same female dancer then danced a pas de deux with another female dancer and they each took turns lifting the other off the ground–with one hand– and swinging her around–with great ease. They were strong.

  5. Chas Belov said,

    May 27, 2024 @ 6:34 pm

    Thank you for posting this (including my shameless self-promotion)!

    A few points I missed in my original message:

    While Google Translate translates the title standalone as "Hermaphrodite," when the phrase occurs in the lyrics, it gets translated as "androgynous." So maybe "androgynous" is a good choice for the English song title. That doesn't show up in Wiktionary, which gives 不男不女 as the translation for androgynous.

    Google Translate mangles the opening words of the song:



    PM yourself in front of the mirror at seven o'clock

    where I would have expected something like:

    Yourself in front of the mirror at seven P.M.

  6. CCH said,

    May 27, 2024 @ 7:24 pm

    The term "intersex" is not always liked by people who actually have these disorders; they tend to prefer "disorders of sexual development (DSD)", as there are multiple different disorders and the people who have them are not "between the sexes". There are some disorders that can only affect females, some that can only affect males, and some that can affect either but doesn't mean that they are lesser females or males. It's the equivalent of someone being born sans legs and calling them "interspecies" because humans typically have two legs and snakes have none. A "hermaphrodite" is an animal which has both male and female genitalia. A person who has some kind of DSD is not a hermaphrodite. People with DSDs are not "queer" or "genderfluid" or whatever, they have medical disorders that can affect their lives greatly from fertility to facial characteristics to learning disabilities. They may identify as such, but that does not mean that the fact that a person who has some kind of medical disorder inherently has that identity or wants to be a part of it.

    This doesn't have much to do with the topic, but it is something that very few people actually know about or even think about. I don't have any DSDs, but I am multiply disabled and chronically ill so I do have something of a stake in the massive misunderstandings and confusion people have about medical issues. What has been said about these things has been clouded by activism and purposeful misinformation, not just throughout the ages out of shame and such, but also to do with trying to "prove" gender roles are innate. People with DSDs have really been used as a political football for completely different groups, for completely different reasons, while also still being considered shameful and wrong, and I would like to try to address that even a tiny bit. I know that some of my diagnoses, while less "shameful", are still considered controversial and something that a lot of people have many opinions on while not understanding what it's like to actually *have* those issues. I would rather keep my own health record private on the internet, so forgive the vagueness there. But it is possibly what you're thinking about, but also maybe not.

    Anyway, I don't know how much this added to this particular discussion, but I just felt the need to add it regardless, in hopes someone else can share it further and wider.

  7. Stellar Corvid said,

    May 29, 2024 @ 1:04 pm

    @CCH I don't necessarily think what you said is true. I have known many several people in my personal life who use the term 'intersex' to describe themselves, and at least one who prefers 'herm' in part due to its shock value, or otherwise as part of hir presentation goals (being simultaneously nonbinary). The latter usage is clearly unusual, however.

    Many prominent advocacy groups also use and prefer the term 'intersex'–see here for instance: https://thisisintersex.org/advanced/intersex-is-not-dsd/.

    According to this paper, 'intersex' is preferred by a fairly larger number of people than 'DSD'. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19419899.2018.1453862

    As I understand, this usage has become politicized by the 'gender critical' or TERF community in order to push their view that sex is binary, immutable, and determined at birth–and as such is directly opposed to the goals of the trans and nonbinary community.

  8. ohwilleke said,

    May 30, 2024 @ 3:39 pm

    Are there any good general sources for homing in on the connotations of similar words that have roughly the same literal meaning?

    Translation apps will generally make a choice without telling you why it did so. And, many one language to another language dictionaries will give you the meaning of a word or phrase in a more or less literal sense, but won't go into connotations or shades of meaning unless something is very archaic or is very intensely derogatory.

    For example, I recently saw a Japanese word translated as "Baby sitter" when the relationship being described was quite clearly more accurately translated as "Nanny", which is close enough, but just not quite right, and is the sort of thing that even a pretty basic translation dictionary might not distinguish very well.

    I'm wondering if there is a standard "go to" resource for answering these sort of questions, or if this is just something that has to be teased out from the experience and understanding of people who are at a high level of fluency in both languages.

  9. Chas Belov said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 2:13 pm

    English is lacking in a number of non-binary words.

    While we have:
    he; she; they (and its variations)
    Mr.; Miss, Mrs., Ms.; and M.
    father; mother; parent
    son; daughter; offspring
    grandfather; grandmother; grandparent
    grandson; granddaughter; grandchild

    we are lacking when it comes to:
    Sir; Madame, Miss; [doesn't exist]
    Uncle; Aunt; [doesn't exist]

    The Sir/Madame/Miss/? lack is particularly awkward for me. I was recently sirred at a business which has a sign posted requesting that customers use non-gendered speech if they don't know a staff member's pronouns. What's good for the goose is good for the gander (oops), so I'm not sure why the staff member gendered me, but they did. I'm egalitarian enough to want to respond in kind. But English would then require me to gender them. "Your honor" would be entirely too formal.

    When I was taking Cantonese, an (apparently single) non-binary student objected to being called Siuje (Miss). The instructor suggested using Tongji (Comrade) as was done in the PRC and they seemed to like that idea.

  10. Chas Belov said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 2:20 pm

    Oh, and I recently learned of a B'nai Mitzvah taking place for a non-binary Jewish teen (as opposed to a Bar Mitzvah for a male teen or Bat Mitzvah for a female teen).

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    May 31, 2024 @ 5:10 pm

    Chas — "Sir/Madame/Miss" — Is that not more commonly "Sir/Madam/Miss", with no final "e" in "Madam" ?

  12. Chas Belov said,

    June 1, 2024 @ 12:17 am

    @Philip Taylor: Indeed "madam" is likely more common than "madame." I became confused because in a play I wrote (no, you've never heard of it), one of the characters consistently used "madame" to her supposed boss as if she were speaking French. In real life, I typically use "Ma'am" with people who I believe to be women who have sirred me.

  13. Philip Taylor said,

    June 1, 2024 @ 3:47 am

    Interesting, because for me (who often needs to interact with clients in his wife's hotel), I would always use the unabbreviated /ˈmæd əm/, never "Ma'am". And I now realise that I do not know how to correctly represent the latter in IPA: does the apostrophe represent a pause, or just an abbreviation ?

  14. Chas Belov said,

    June 1, 2024 @ 7:00 pm

    Nope, "ma'am" (/ma:m/, I think, IPA is not my strong suit, but it's approximately the same vowel as in madam but perhaps drawn out a bit longer) is a one-syllable contraction of "madam," not an abbreviation. Both "madam" and "madame" would seem hopelessly old-fashioned to me. Right for my play, but not for day-to-day use.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    June 2, 2024 @ 4:23 am

    Thank you for your guidance on both the pronunciation and the terminology, Chas. But when you say « Both "madam" and "madame" would seem hopelessly old-fashioned to me », what alternative would you recommend when (for example) an unaccompanied woman presents herself at the hotel front desk, or at the bar, and I need to find out how I may be of assistance ? For me, "Good evening madam, how may I help you" feels natural and unforced, while our local staff would probably use the Cornish idiom "My lovely", as in "Yes, my lovely, what can I get you ?" (for the bar) or "Hallo, my lovely, are you checking in ?". I could not use those, because as an outsider "my lovely" is simply not in my idiolect.

  16. Andrew Usher said,

    June 2, 2024 @ 9:20 am

    If it was unclear, he meant /mæm/, rhymes with 'ham', and not /mɑːm/ with the broad A, which is obsolete. The fact that that pronunciation did exist, though, shows that it must have originated in England by the 18th century – when lengthened /æ/ could still become modern /ɑː/ – that the British have now abandoned it for the full form, is strange. When the late Queen lived, the papers would occasionally mention that she preferred /mæm/.

    As for your example sentence _ma'am_ would be fine, or omitting the term, as the sentence is already phrased in a polite manner. We don't feel constrained by it any more than you feel constrained by having only _madam_.

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    June 3, 2024 @ 4:50 am

    Andrew — "As for your example sentence _ma'am_ would be fine" — with the greatest respect, I beg to differ — we are discussing British expectations, not American. With the exception of Her Late Gracious Majesty, almost no woman born and bred in the United Kingdom would expect to be addresses as /mæm/ (or /mɑːm/, for that matter, although there may well still be a few retired schoolmistresses who would respond to such address) — a woman born and bred in Britain would expect to be addressed as "Madam" by a complete stranger in a quasi-formal situation such as checking into an multi-star hotel, but would adjust her expectations on (for example) checking into a B&B or shopping in a greengrocer's ("Yes love, what can I do for you ?"). I would agree that it could be omitted, but if she had heard me checking in a man while she was waiting, and had heard me address the man as "Sir" (as I invariably would), then she would have every right to expect to be similarly addressed as "Madam".

  18. Andrew Usher said,

    June 4, 2024 @ 7:33 am

    It seems I misunderstood; I thought you were asking about American use. Then there's nothing more to say about it, I think, it just is a national difference that the contraction has prevailed in America, the two-syllable form in Britain, as a term of address. I can't say why.

  19. Chas Belov said,

    June 7, 2024 @ 4:32 pm

    @Andrew Usher: Thank you for the correction; my IPA is very powderful. That said, I believe the corrected version of what I actually say is likely not /mæm/ but rather /mæ:m/, as I say the vowel in ma'am for a longer time than I would for ham, probably 1.5 to 2 times as long.

    @Philip Taylor: For your example sentence, I would say "Good evening ma'am, how may I help you." For the record, I am American.

  20. Ingrid said,

    June 24, 2024 @ 3:48 pm

    I've had good luck googling "x vs. y" for words that can be translated the same. I usually find an answer, often on italki where a native speaker explains the difference. This also often works for counting particles and other words that have a grammatical function I'm not very familiar with and need more guidance.

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