Gender in language poses problems — but different problems in different languages require different, sometimes creative solutions.
I coordinated the translation team for the anthology Castles in Spain, published in 2016. Its ten stories represent the work of Spain’s most important authors as the genre consolidated around the turn of the millennium and took a leap into vibrant, world-class writing.
One challenge came with “The Star” by Elia Barceló, an award-winning, dream-like story. Its characters include some ethereal beings who have no fixed gender. Elia achieved that indeterminancy using certain grammatical aspects of Spanish. For example, possessive pronouns agree with the thing being possessed, not with the possessor. So “her house” and “his house” would both be su casa. Other kinds of pronoun use likewise doesn’t necessarily identify the gender of the person involved.
Here’s the opening paragraph of the story in Spanish and then an over-literal translation. I’ve used “he,” “him,” and “his” to emphasize the pronouns’ presence, although in Spanish those pronouns do not reveal the gender of the characters.
Estábamos todos allí. Lana, como una muñeca rubia colgada de sus cuerdas, con una incongruente faldita roja y el hilo de saliva brillando en su cara pálida; Lon, sus ojos inmensos y oscuros en un rostro casi inexistente; Sadie, moviendo vertiginosamente sus alas, lo que le hacía oscilar a unos centímetros del suelo, mientras masticaba en un gesto de robótica eficiencia esa sustancia verde que tanto le gusta; Tras, encogiendo hasta casi la desaparición su frágil cuerpecillo, su deseo clavado en el cielo, y yo, número cinco, el cierre de la estrella, temblando como un carámbano de luz, focalizando el anhelo. Todos allí, esperando.
We were all there. Lana, like a blond doll hanging from his strings, with an inconsistent little red skirt and a thread of saliva shining on his pale face; Lon, his immense and dark eyes in a nearly non-existent face; Sadie, dizzily moving his wings, which made him oscillate a few centimeters from the ground, while he chewed in a robot motion that green substance he likes so much; Tras, shrinking almost to disappearance his fragile little body, his desire fixed on the sky; and I, number five, like the close of the star, trembling like an icicle of light, focusing the longing. All of us there, waiting.
Among the problems to solve: how to make it gender-neutral while keeping the beauty of the original prose. (Its beauty is lost in the over-literal translation.) I worked closely with translator Nur-Huda El Masri and copy-editor Charlie Sangster, and this is what we came up with:
We were all there. Lana, like a blond doll hanging from puppet’s strings, with a ridiculous red skirt and a thread of saliva glistening on a pale face; Lon, with eyes huge and dark in a nearly non-existent face; Sadie, fluttering a pair of wings dizzily, hovering a few centimetres off the ground while chewing that beloved green stuff with robotic efficiency; Tras, reduced to a tiny, almost vanishing fragile frame and desire fixed on the sky; and I, the fifth, the brooch that binds the star, atremble like an icicle of light, there to illuminate yearning. All of us, waiting.
Any work can be translated in a wide variety of ways, all of them correct. Often something is lost — but often something is found, too. This was our solution to this gender-free problem, and I think it worked.