Gender poses several issues in translation, and not in terms of remembering whether ‘table’ is feminine or masculine in French. There are times when grammatical gender needs to be transferred to the target text. For example, die Patientin in a German medical text is best translated as “female patient” in English because the gender of the patient may be medically relevant. However, even though the sex of the treating physician would be obvious in the German source, we wouldn’t usually translate the gender since it’s very unlikely to be relevant in this kind of text.
Gender in the professional world
Translating into English, which doesn’t have any grammatic genders, gives translators a lot of freedom. A quick online German job search, for example, immediately yields Fachberater (m/w), literally “expert consultant [masculine] (male/female)”. English escapes the issue since “expert consultant” could be either female or male.
However, in many foreign languages, the masculine word for job titles takes precedence and this can have an effect on how native speakers think about certain professions. In much the same way as ‘doctor’ and ‘nurse’ elicit an immediate imagining of ‘male’ and ‘female’ respectively in an English speaker’s mind. Constantly referring to professionals as male for most professions (or female, as would be the case for ‘nurse’ and ‘secretary’ etc.) in many languages sends a subconscious message that certain professions are less open to women (or men) and those who do not identify as either male or female. English, with its grammatical neutrality, offers a neat solution for untangling these gender associations.
Gender in literary translation
There are occasions where grammatical gender is used as a literary device and literary translators have to develop specific strategies for conveying the meaning in another language, or otherwise lose the gender connotations altogether. An Italian author might, for example, describe a scene using only feminine nouns to indicate a motherly, natural or feminine theme but this effect would be entirely lost in an English translation. Unless, of course, the translator chooses to explicitly describe the objects as ‘feminine’ or similar, in which case the translation loses the subtlety of the source entirely.
And it works the other way, too. The grammatical neutrality of English is used to great effect in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, where gender stereotypes are a main theme. The narrator Scout is a tomboy and is described in typically masculine terms for much of the first half of the novel. English readers only find out much later that Scout is in fact female. The grammar of some languages, however, does not allow them to hide a character’s gender in the same way as English. Slavic languages such as Russian require all past tense verb forms to indicate gender, so a friend asking Scout where she went in Russian (Skaut, kuda poshla) must include the –a on the end of the verb, which indicates female gender, since Scout’s character is ultimately female. This means that the gender illusion in the English book is shattered on the first page of the Russian translation.
Doing our bit
Like anyone writing today, in a society which is increasingly aware of the inequality between female and male gender roles, translators can use language as a powerful tool to shape the way we think about gender and identity – for example, by not referring to an unknown person as ‘he’ by default, instead using ‘he or she’ or, the most inclusive of all genders, ‘they’. I recently translated a French medical leaflet aimed at pregnant people which mentioned their partners on several occasions, described as le partenaire (masculine) or il (“he”). However, I chose to refer to the partner as ‘they’ in English because we no longer live in a society where we should assume that a woman’s partner is necessarily male. This is an important distinction to make because neutralising language in terms of gender can help rewrite our assumptions about gender identity to be more balanced.