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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.

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.


Glycon the Muppet God

May I introduce myself? My name is Glycon and I'm a god. Or so it was said about me. Once I've dwelt in a fishing village at the Black Sea; Abonuteichos it was called at that time, under the Romans. And it turned into a veritable tourist attraction when my prophet, Alexandros, and I set up our abodes there. After all, we have issued oracles pretty much like our mates over in Delphi - that name is known to you, I take it? In such a business you could really make a fortune at that time, because, you see, everybody wants to know what the future will bring, yes, everyone from the Emperor down to the kitchen-slave.
   In pharmacy we were engaged as well. That's because my father is Asclepios, the god of healing, therefore it seemed reasonable that we would get into the drug business. Alexandros has always claimed, by the way, that he was the son of Podalirios, my brother. He should have called me Uncle then, wouldn't you agree? But he always addressed me as his Sweetie - well, Glycon, he said, because he was talking Ancient Greek, of course.
   It was some hell of a business that we've been running at that time. Until this smartarse came along, Lucian of Samosata. Now here was a really innovative mate, one who wanted to be "scientific". He didn't believe at all in gods and miracles and prophecies, and he claimed that I was a Muppet - a kind of Miss Piggy for ancient Romans, can you imagine! Yes, a doll with threads attached, he claimed, that my prophet were using to make fools out of his devout believers, even including provincial governors and commanders of the legions whom we advised in the best strategy against the Parthians or the Marcomanni!
   I say, I should expect a little more trust, shouldn't I? Are you still surprised that my Alexandros planned to drown this rascal in the deepest sea? Already when he first received that mate quite well-mannered and granted him a kiss on the hand, this fellow Lucian bit him right into the palm so that you could count the impressions of his teeth! Really! You don't believe me? But Lucian is confessing to that in his own report in which he designated my friend Alexandros the greatest villain since Alexander the Great! Read it yourself, you will find many a conjurer's trick described that your ... "gurus", is that the proper word? ... use even today to entice superstitious idiots. By which I don't want to suggest that you be one of them; not at all, you are rather thinking like this Lucian who always wanted to counter everything with reason and logical deduction, aren't you? And that he did 1850 years ago!
   Fortunately, you see, hardly anyone listened to him back them. Those who want to be cheated will be cheated, as the saying goes, and people have still been praying to me when Lucian had already descended into the Hades in which he didn't believe, either. But how he has uncovered the business which my Alexandros and me have set up together, that's really a comedy worth reading.
   The annotated new translation of "The Serpent and Its Priest" is available in print from CreateSpace/Amazon or as ebook from XinXii, tolino-media and other major ebook platforms. But which one of the two was the actual liar - Alexandros or Lucian -is a decision that I will gladly leave to you.
Visit me once in Ankara, Turkey! You will find me in the Museum for Anatolian Cultures just as I am posing in the image above for you. I am looking forward to meeting you!
Kind regards,

your sweetie Glycon


Glykon, der Muppetgott

Darf ich mich vorstellen? Mein Name ist Glykon, und ich bin ein Gott. Oder so hat man von mir gesagt. Früher habe ich am Schwarzen Meer in einem Fischerdorf gewohnt; Abonuteichos hieß es damals, unter den Römern. Das wurde ein richtiger Touristenmagnet, als mein Prophet Alexandros und ich dort einzogen. Wir beide haben damals nämlich Orakel gestellt wie die Kollegen drüben in Delphi - der Name sagt Ihnen doch etwas? Mit sowas konnte man damals richtig Kohle machen, denn was die Zukunft bringt, ja, das will doch jeder wissen vom Kaiser bis zum Küchensklaven. 
   In der Pharmaindustrie waren wir auch tätig. Mein Vater ist nämlich Asklepios, der Gott der Heilkunst, und da lag es doch nahe, ins Medikamentengeschäft einzusteigen. Alexandros meinte übrigens immer, er sei der Sohn von Podalirios, meinem Bruder. Also hätte er eigentlich Onkel zu mir sagen sollen. Aber er nannte mich immer nur seinen Süßen - Glykon halt, denn er redete ja Altgriechisch.
   Das war ein Mordsgeschäft, das wir beide damals hatten. Bis dieser Witzbold vorbeikam, Lukian von Samosata. Der war nun so ein ganz Moderner, einer, der richtig "wissenschaftlich" sein wollte. Er glaubte nämlich überhaupt nicht an Götter und an Wunder und Prophezeiungen, und er behauptete von mir, ich sei ein Muppet - eine Miss Piggy für olle Römer, unglaublich! ein Gliederpüppchen mit Fäden dran, mit denen mein Prophet seine ganzen Gläubigen zum Narren hielte, auch die Statthalter und die Legionskommandeure. 
   Ich meine, ein bisschen Vertrauen darf ich doch wohl erwarten, oder? Wundert es Sie da noch, dass mein Alexandros diesen Frechdachs im Meer versenken wollte? Schon, als er jenen ganz gesittet empfangen hatte und ihm den Handkuss gewähren wollte, da hat dieser Lukian ihn doch glatt in die Pratze gebissen, dass man die Zähne sah. Wirklich! Glauben Sie mir etwa nicht? Das erzählt Lukian selbst in seiner Reportage, in der er meinen Alexandros als den größten Gauner seit Alexander dem Großen bezeichnete! Lesen Sie es selbst nach, bei ihm finden Sie viele Taschenspielertricks beschrieben, die Ihre ... Gurus sagt man doch? ... noch heute benutzen, um die abergläubischen Trottel zu verführen. Womit ich nicht sagen will, dass Sie einer sind; Sie denken doch eher wie dieser Lukian, der immer alles mit Vernunft hinterfragen und logisch deduzieren wollte, oder? Und das vor 1850 Jahren! 
   Wissen Sie, zugehört hat ihm ja kaum einer damals. Wer betrogen sein will, der wird halt betrogen, und mich hat man noch angebetet, als er schon lange im Hades herumsaß, an den er auch nicht geglaubt hat. Aber wie er das alles aufdeckte, was mein Alexandros und ich zusammen aufgezogen haben, das ist schon eine Komödie, die seine Leser zum Lachen bringt. 
   Die kommentierte Neuübersetzung von Die Schlange und ihr Priester kommt diese Woche bei XinXii und CreateSpace in den Onlinehandel, da können Sie sich selber überzeugen. Wer von beiden aber mehr gelogen hat, Alexandros oder Lukian, diese Entscheidung überlasse ich lieber Ihnen.

Besuchen Sie mich doch mal in Ankara! Dort finden Sie mich im Museum für Anatolische Zivilisationen, so, wie ich hier oben auf dem Bild vor Ihnen sitze. Ich freue mich auf Sie!


Ihr Süßer Glykon