Man, person, people, or none of the above

While editing a translation recently, I came up against the following challenge. In a passage in which two men are talking about art, one says to the other something to this effect: “The artist must develop his technique to the point that he does not think about it anymore.” The source language in this case is one that has the possessive pronoun agree with the noun (like French), so if the word “technique” were actually the French feminine-gendered noun technique in the source, then the possessive pronoun would be the feminine sa. In effect, the French says “her technique” because technique is a she, even if the person who might have the technique in question is a he. English, by contrast, tends to like its pronouns, wherever they might occur, to agree with the subject of the phrase, and this raises the issue of the changing use of “their” and “theirs” as a gender pronoun preference and a possible way around this sort of gender specificity of English.

If it had been just one instance, it probably would not have been a difficult problem to solve, but this was a piece about art, and there were multiple occasions where a character held forth, beginning with “the artist must” or “the artist should,” and then listed a string of clauses and nouns that often used possessive pronouns. The translator in this case had a preference for using “their” in all these cases, but my old ears and my Chicago Manual of Style were hesitant.

The speaker in all instances was a man, apparently hetero-normative, and he was speaking with another man, also hetero-normative. The author was also a man, and he did not express a preference. In my opinion, he may not have quite seen the subtleties of what we were discussing, so it was the translator and me thinking through this together.

Like my last post on the U-Man’s possible use of “like,” which will surely grate on old ears, especially those who know the book well in previous translations, I wonder about how the possessive pronoun “his,” even in such clear circumstances, might affect people’s reading at an almost unconscious level, especially that of college students who have grown used to the gender-neutral singular they/their/theirs.

My inclination in the end was to very carefully edit the two longer passages where this sort of construction occurs, such that the issue never appears to come up. This involved a few shifts of “the artist” to “artists” and some other very minor changes that I believe only the translator and I will ever notice. This, however, is a recent book that is being offered in English for the first time. Changing something like this in an older one with many translations in print, not to mention in the regular college curriculum, for a text moreover that has seen dozens if not hundreds of scholarly treatments in books and articles, often with minute attention to issues of language based on the existing English translations—well, this is bound to elicit strong opinions.

I believe this concern, namely, how college-age readers might respond to these books when they first read them is behind much of Gary Saul Morson’s objections to the translations of Richard Pevear and Larisa Volokhonskaya, which he expresses quite sharply, calling them “awkward and unsightly muddles” among other things, in his 2010 “The Pevearsion of Russian Literature.”

It might appear ironic, but it is for a similar reason, namely, this interaction with readers at a key stage in their reading life, that I am tempted by a translation strategy that reduces the gender dichotomies of the U-man’s speech, enabling readings, especially readings aloud of the performative sort that I have suggested this text affords, that are broader, more inclusive, and in the end, more engaging for students encountering the text today.

This sort of specificity announces itself from the beginning, and as far back as two years ago when I posted the first in this series of reflections on translating Notes from Underground, I have wondered about it. What would it be like to edit along the lines of what I did for the book I mentioned above about the artist? What if the opening lines of this Notes from Underground were not, “I am a sick man… I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man,” (each phrase of which interprets chelovek as “man,” though it could also be person all three times) but something more like this:

“I’m malevolent…. I’m bad. I am not an attractive person.”

Now before we pronounce this collectively as awful, or anything at all for that matter, I ask you to read it aloud, with pauses in between each phrase as appropriate for an opening monologue. The first phrase is an announcement. The dots are there because he’s trying to shock and is waiting for it to sink in. The second one is taunting: baaaad. The third is insinuating, as if “an attractive person” were in quotes—put your fingers up in the air and say it with a Trump voice.

I’m going through my version now, version two, with this principle in mind.

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