astray in worlds and words.

Translation Troubles: Gender

For everybody interested in the process of translating fiction, I’m going to post some snippets about specific problems that can cause distortions between the source and the translated text. Please keep in mind that I address mostly English to German. These two are closely related, but they’re also surprisingly different. They occupy just one tiny area of the whole field – different languages, different problems. Also: different genres, different problems, and apart from the odd outlier, I’m firmly rooted in speculative fiction and related genres. So: YMMV, greatly (and I’d love to hear about it!)

Gender is one aspect often forcing my translations to be more specific than the source text – and I have to make decisions (after asking the author, if possible) for things that were (deliberately) left undecided.

Every noun is gendered in German (and a lot of other languages). This is especially interesting when it comes to job titles and other personal nouns. I have to clarify the gender of every guard, cook, pilot, soldier, visitor, stranger, and so on. In the source text, these people are sometimes not important enough to know their gender, and sometimes it’s convenient to keep this information ambiguous. This option is nonexistent in translation, and neither am I able to refer to a “doctor” with a female pronoun – I would have needed to call her a “doctress” in the first place. So imagine the blast of translatorial joy, after a leader’s aide has been popping up on the pages now and then, when discovering in volume three of the series that she has been female all along!

Male forms are default in German; female forms are an extra effort. So female visibility is lowered in a lot of contexts. And stereotypes are prone to lingering in translations: the translator might not “see” a woman in a group of guards or officers, even if the writer imagined women among them.

A side-effect of these unavoidably gendered nouns is the fact that animals, artificial beings, and just about anything else is gendered, too: a robot, a dog, or a ghost are always “he”, an AI is “she”. There’s a neutral form, “it”, mostly used for certain objects. You don’t want to use it for persons (which are gendered as “he” or “she” anyway, unless they are girls. Yep, girls are “it” in German …)

And here’s the last bummer: All available options are of course not applicable to non-binary people. There are some proposals for non-binary pronouns which are either awkward (like she_he), or most people have never heard of them. The nice, practical option to use “they/them” is not working in German, I guess (you can adapt to innovations in language pretty fast, so I’m not 100% sure).

Frankly, I don’t know what I would do with “they” at the moment. It never came up till now, unfortunately (about time some new books with non-binary characters get translated). Ask my publisher, I guess. Try out a few things and strive to establish a solution that readers could get used to. And face a shitstorm, probably.


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  1. All of this is very true and especially obvious when I compare translating from English to translating from French. While dissimilar to German in other respects, French contains both the mandatory gendering of people and the formal/informal you distinction, which makes the language a tad more precise. English is often open to interpretations and therefore makes some narrative tricks – such as revealing a character’s gender only very late, or leaving the level of closeness between people addressing each other ambiguous – much easier to pull off.

  2. Miss Navigator

    Ha, that’s the kind of input I was looking for! I was thinking a lot about French, Spanish and Italian while writing this (the languages I know best apart from English). One of the next posts in this context will surely be about forms of address …

    Apart from the problems we encounter as translators, it’s super interesting to examine how the intricacies of a specific language reflect on the narrative options available to writers. I wonder to what extent this is forming narratives (consciously and unconsciously).

  3. I am looking forward to your thoughts about specific languages influencing narrative options.

    Admittedly, the “forms of address” bit jumped to mind because I know it does shape my writing in German. I have tried to translate chunks of my novels into English for English-speaking friends, and that detail is one of the greatest obstacles. In both stories, more than one switch from “Ihr”/ formal “you” to “Du”/ informal “you” (or the other way round) is significant, and in one particular scene, it is an explicit plot point that two characters have used the formal “you” form of address until then, but suddenly find themselves talking to each other in a language that does not offer this option (Latin). Conveying those nuances in English seems challenging to me.

  4. Miss Navigator

    It is an important layer of conversation and relationships, which makes it excellent story material.
    In English, formality is established in other ways and not as set in stone because it’s able to shift and adapt to situations more easily (ha, next article already coming up here …). Difficult to convey in both ways.

    Telling stories for me is walking the thin line between vagueness and concreteness, so I find it very attractive to have these narrative options at my disposal. But every so often I know just the right way to say something … and discover it only works in German.

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