Translating Gender Pronouns

Deconstructing Gender Identity, Pieter Bruegel the Younger

This is a tough topic, mostly because languages are currently in a great deal of flux as they figure out how to deal with the preferences of individuals with regard to expressions of gender and gender identity. The issue is complicated by the myriad different ways that languages mark gender. In some, all nouns have gender and verbs match up with them, so that one can tell (in Modern Hebrew or Serbian, for instance) when the narrator telling you the story who says “I saw X” was male or female. In others, one indicates possession by means of a pronoun that agrees with the noun it accompanies, so that (in most Romance languages, for instance), “her,” “his,” or “their books” are all expressed using the same pronoun, since it just has to agree with the number of the word “books,” whose gender tends to disappear in the plural.

Then there are the “marked” and “unmarked” aspects of words that function a little like brand names in English (Kleenex for tissues), so that, in Spanish, for instance, sus padres might mean “her parents,” “their parents,” or “his parents,” or really any combination of “her,” “his,” “their,” and “parents,” not to mention “fathers,” if, for instance, a person has more than one. Some languages have gendered numbers as well, and not just in the case of the ordinal ones that are used as adjectives (first, second, third, etc.), so that the number “two” might be masculine or feminine, depending on the noun it modifies, and “twelve” might be masculine or feminine depending on whether all members in a group are of masculine gender. There are many more such examples, and I have to note that this aspect of language has always fascinated me, at least when I was learning about it. Trying to produce the proper form in the midst of a conversation is another story. English has tended to use agreement of pronouns with the subject, so “my” goes with “I,” “her” goes with “she,” “their” goes with “they” (or anything plural and animate, e.g., “they all lost their way”). This is likely one of the aspects of the language that has tended to make it easier for those who didn’t grow up with it to learn it.

These gender aspects of language are not fixed but have changed over time, and many of them have only been codified by grammars and dictionaries in the relatively recent past. It’s not quite as fast as the frog-DNA-infused dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, but there is change over time, and if you dip back into the history of languages, it’s not at all uncommon to find a word that was gendered one way in the past now being gendered in another. Into this flux comes the relatively recent phenomenon of preferred pronouns, in which people indicate whether they would like to be referred to as she/her/hers, he/him/his, or they/their/theirs, the last category being generally, though not always, considered a non-binary set of pronouns. (These are all usages presumably for when people are not in the same room with the person referring to them. Otherwise it would be impolite and even insulting, as my Russian instructors taught me in college, like referring to someone as if they were not even there.)

Translators translating especially contemporary works (but not only contemporary works) are doing their best to reflect the changing norms, which often clash with long-standing editing conventions, the sorts of grammatical agreement they were taught to stick to as students of their beloved subjects, and the relative acceptance or resistance of readers. Does using a publisher’s Chicago-Manual-of-Style-based house style serve to re-inscribe power relations that ought to be questioned? Will a pronoun choice that a translator makes risk turning off readers, thereby harming the reception of an author’s work? Might a work that has universal appeal be better served by neutralizing strictly gendered male pronouns in its translated version? (On this last one, see below.) These and other questions are on the minds of translators these days, as they grapple with how best to do justice to the works they take on and make them as effective as possible in their receiving culture.

The issue is easier for authors, who can start over from scratch, eliminating what was leading them to a choice they weren’t happy about so that, in effect, the choice never materializes. I’m reminded of my first writing teacher, the feminist author Lillian Faderman, who explained in her most practical writing instructor mode, that if the text you were composing was leading you into an inevitable impasse — let’s say, grammatically forcing you to make a choice between using “him” or “one” or the (then ungrammatical and incorrect) “them” as the complement to a singular subject — you could just start over and come at it in a different way, use a plural subject, for instance, or rephrase the whole thing.

To a great extent, this option is available to translators as well: one can change a singular subject (e.g., the author) to a plural one (e.g., authors) so as to allow for a “their” in the complement, e.g., “authors must know their limits” (instead of “the author must know her/his/their (bad grammar!) limits”); or one can move pieces of the sentence around to read something like “knowing one’s limits is necessary for an author.” But once in a while, this sort of editing as you go is not possible for translators, who have a source that is generally pretty inflexible and that needs to be dealt with in its entirety. Hold this thought.

It is a bit like how it’s easier to tell if a prose text has been written by a non-native speaker of English than it is to tell if a poetry text has been written by a non-native speaker of English. The norms for prose are simply more numerous and tend to be stricter, while for poetry it’s possible, and maybe even expected, to play around with the norms. So the idiom that’s written wrong in the prose sentence tends to leap off the page as a mistake, while the idiom that’s wrong in the poetry line might be seen as an inventive intervention in the language. There are obviously exceptions to this phenomenon, but unusual pronoun combinations can work a lot like this — errors to be corrected in prose; fascinating inventions in poetry. I’m reminded of how a grad student classmate of mine who was a native speaker of French, a language I had studied extensively, liked to make deliberate mistakes when she spoke her native language as a way of joking around, often reminding me, “I can speak like this, but you cannot!” I tested her theory out, and she was absolutely right: the moment I tried it, listeners assumed my deliberate mistakes were not deliberate at all. In other words, they always assumed I was speaking in prose.

Some of the challenges associated with the new norms are highlighted in a fine short translation that a colleague brought to my attention recently, which was published in July (2021) at Another Chicago Magazine and which can be accessed here. The story “The Death of the Translator,” is by Magnús Sigurðsson and is translated from the Icelandic by Mark Ioli. The story’s premise is perfect for translators, a mysterious and supposedly untranslateable poem that the translator of the title is in the process of translating. Ioli’s preface, moreover, highlights a common issue that translators face, a word that means more than one thing in the source culture, which in this case is the word for “translation,” which can also mean “meaning.” Facing this little bit of unstranslateabililty, the translator finds himself in a sort of mise-en-abime, swimming in the action of translating an “impossible” passage in a text about a translator translating an untranslateable text.

Then, and more to the point of this post, he turns to the issue of the gender of the translator in the story.

Another decision had to do with the portrayal of the translator, who in the story is male. I saw the story as likely autobiographical to some extent, as the author himself is a translator of poetry, but didn’t think the detail was integral to the storyline. As the experiences and emotions described are so common and universal, I wanted any literary translator to be able to see themself in it, and decided to make the translator’s gender unspecified. I approached Magnús with the idea, which he was receptive to, leaving the decision to me.

Now, the transformation of gender in translated texts is not a new thing. Leah Leone has a fascinating dissertation that explores this topic in Borges’ translations of English-language works into Spanish (I believe a book based on the dissertation is in the works). The Turgenev classic Fathers and Sons actually doesn’t have the word “sons” in the Russian title; it has “children” and doesn’t specify their gender. And there are doubtless many more such examples. These kinds of shifts are clearly among the choices that translators, and sometimes editors of translations, make.

What I find most interesting in this case is two-fold: first, the rather quick dismissal of the autobiographical aspect of the text, which the translator acknowledges but then decides is not “integral to the storyline.” This is one of those places where I would have doubts if it were me. I mean, I don’t know everything about the text or the author. I’m doing my best with this one, and maybe there’s an autobiographical aspect that is latent in the work that I’m just not seeing. Compounding this doubt, I also wonder: don’t some gendered texts speak to everyone? Is it necessary to change a text with a gendered narrator in order to make it more universally appealing? As I say, these are questions, the sorts of questions typical to the practice, and it is the practice that interests me most.

This is one of those places where the constraints of translating allow for far less writing freedom than the constraints of authorship, where one can cross it all out and start over. In other words, I think the case points to a distinctive aspect of translation practice.

In this paragraph, it’s just “the translator” all the way through:

The translator paid no mind to such talk. Sitting instead, year after year, preparing and burning the midnight oil. Reading exhaustively all that had ever been written about the extinct language and its inscrutable poem. Becoming completely familiarized with its etymology, down to the tiniest cedilla, wielding to this end both the precision of a scientist and the intuition of a poet. The translator so thoroughly researched the poem’s rhythm that both thought and speech began to rise and fall according to its meter. At some point their consciousness became so enmeshed with its rhyme scheme that even dreams took on its complex internal pattern.

The “their” of the final line is unobtrusive in my reading, and if a their pronoun was slipped in as here occasionally throughout the rest of the text, I might not even notice. Repeating “the translator,” moreover, has a distinctive quality that adds, it seems to me, to the somewhat eerie tone of the story, a sense that we are floating above the surface of the words without a secure connection to anything of the world they supposedly are part of. (I love the Carlo Michelstaedter phrase that describes this floating above phenomenon as “ornaments of the darkness.”) Up to this point, three paragraphs in, I am thinking that the translator (of the story) is going to stick with this method, which strikes me as rather subtle. But the textual constraints grow, and the translator (of the story) changes tack:

So after years of tireless preparation – preparation best described as having lasted a lifetime – the translator finally sat down at their desk one morning with paper and pencil and got to work.

This is in the fifth paragraph, and this “at their desk” marks a change that is consistent with the use of a neutral “they/their/theirs” as the preferred pronoun to the end, so in quick succession we get “The translator was armed with all the dictionaries, reference materials, and explanatory notes at their disposal”; and “Their heart beating in time with the meter of each verse”; and “Self-assured and full of confidence, they translated word for word, not losing sight of the poem’s greater significance….”

Somewhere in here the choice begins to feel a bit forced to me, and I can’t help feeling that the style loses some of its ethereality, probably because I find myself stumbling over the mixture of singulars and plurals — these are my old ears and eyes taking in the text, of course, and I recognize that the language I live in is changing so my reading patterns (which some might call my reading hang-ups) might not be around in another twenty years, who knows.

More interesting, I hope, than this perception of style is the fact that I start to wonder — and this is because I’m now pretty used to “they” as a preferred gender pronoun — whether there isn’t an embedded claim in the use of the pronoun about the non-binary gender identity of the translator (of the poem). This isn’t the stated intended effect, which, according to Ioli’s headnote, is to universalize the experience of the character by removing the obvious gender markers. But now that they/their/theirs can also function as a gender identity marker, might this fact not also affect the strategy, in effect rendering the former universality of “they” less universal and more specific?


  1. Actually, I read the first “their” as relating not to the translator, but to “both thought and speech”. That’s probably an incorrect interpretation, but it’s an almost instinctive reaction to match plural with plural.

    The second “their” does feel forced and could simply have been avoided by saying “the translator finally sat down one morning.” (With the “desk” being implicit.) Similarly, in the first instance the “translator’s consciousness” could have been used rather than “their consciousness” with the triple repetition doing no damage to the flow.

    So, imho, the singular they here is a translator’s interjection that intrudes and makes its own extraneous statement. Especially jarring to a text that’s all about listening to, rather than imposing an agenda on language.

    1. Yes, I think I read that first their in the same way and only changed my mind as I read further. In several places it would indeed be a fairly simple edit to make the text gender neutral without drawing attention to what one has done. I do love that sort of subtle editing. It’s what I strive for when I translate and when I edit other people’s translations. But it does take more time.

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