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2015-05-21

Gained in translation - the curious fate of genderless novel characters

"I looked up from the fire and turned to my neighbour to the right. 'Have you heard anything new about the advance of the orc-host?'
I was rewarded with a nod. 'From what I've heard they have been stopped about 15 leagues from the River.'"

I often wonder how you native English readers manage to handle a scene as awkward as this one. It is annoying when you read it but it is a nightmare when you have to translate it - and I have seen examples like this in my translating profession.
Now you may ask what it is that I find so awkward about the example above. Well, I am one of those readers who visualise the scene in their minds like I was watching a film that only I can see. But I cannot do that with the scene above because it is lacking vital information. We are neither told whether the first-person narrator is a man or a woman (and believe me: There are authors who can ramble on for half a chapter without telling us) nor of which sex is the unnamed neighbour at the fireplace. What shall my poor brain insert here to visualise that neighbour?
In such cases, I incline to randomly cast someone, say, in above case I assumed the neighbour were a man. But three pages later the author drops a "she" and my brain stumbles. Wait a moment - when did a woman enter the dialogue? Then I realise that she must be identical with the neighbour to the right, and I am forced to turn back and read the scene all over again, with a different cast acting on the inner screen. Sloppy writing, that's what I call that. But if I had been translating this scene I would have filled several pages already with male nouns - since German grammar absolutely genders them all - and I would have to go back and exchange them against their female counterparts. Good look with detecting them all!
There are even cases when such sloppy writing prevents us from making sound decisions. In "A Wizard of Earthsea", Ursula K. LeGuin introduces us to a minor character referred to as "the Mayor". To my surprise I discovered that the Mayor is a man in the German translation but a woman in the Slovenian translation of the same book. How was this discrepancy possible? Checking the original I realised that LeGuin does not once attribute the character with either "he" or "she"! But by default the Mayor has to gain some sex in the translations, and not all translators have made the same decision. The author (authoress, I should say) probably never realised her oversight. After all, she knew what the Mayor looks like when she was proofreading the text. And so she left her readers and especially her poor translators in the dark about this character's nature.
That's why I beg you, dear authors and self-publishers: When you proofread your manuscript, make sure that all characters are correctly identified by their sex, even the minor ones. You will make the work of us translators so much easier. Thank you.

NOTE
Sometimes it cannot be avoided that the intricacies of translating a story may lead to odd results. Remember how, again in "A Wizard of Earthsea", Ged is pursued by a demonic creature known to him as the Shadow? LeGuin attributes that thing with "it", which is fair enough. Alas, that does not work in German whose word for shadow is male (der Schatten) and requires male attributes. That is all right with us and does not leave any questions. But the Slovenian standard word for a shadow is female (Senca), so in this translation of "A Wizard", Ged is hunted by a girl (or in fact his own feminine half). As a consequence, all this business about "eating his body" assumes weird connotations that certainly have not been in the author's intention.