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.