Gender in Translation (2): Translating Grammatical Gender

Translating grammatical gender is something that a translator normally doesn’t have to think twice about. In most cases, the straightforward translation of ‘la’ and ‘le’ into ‘the’ is all that is required. But what about when these definite articles mean something much more?

In his essay, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation, Roman Jakobson discusses the idea of the ‘signifier’ and the ‘signified’. In brief, Jakobson believes that meaning lies in the signifier (the word) and not in the signified (what the word presents). According to Jakobson, interpretation of the signifier can occur in three ways, intralingual translation (translation within the same language), interlingual translation (translation between different languages), and intersemiotic translation (translation between different media). So what about signifiers as trivial as ‘la’ and ‘le’ in French? Is it simply a question of translating them into ‘the’? Or as Jakobson suggests, do they signify something more? According to Jakobson, interlingual translation is ‘translation proper’, however, he also discusses that there are many problems in interlingual translation as some languages have grammatical categories that are not found in other languages, for example, gendered definite articles. Here the translator has to make a choice, and sometimes translating from another language into English requires supplementary information surrounding gender. It is a fact that grammatical gender colours a speaker’s perception of objects and ideas, so how can we render this perception into English, where grammatical gender does not exist? Some solutions would be to gender nouns in English that are otherwise not, or to ‘give’ nouns ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ features.

In many cases, it is straightforward enough to translate a ‘la’ or ‘le’ into a ‘the’, as most of the time, these signifiers do mean simply ‘the’. However, in particular cases, the signifier can mean a whole lot more. For example, in one of my classes, I translated an extract from Garçon Manqué, an auto-fiction novel by Nina Bouraoui. In translating this passage, I realised that the ‘elle’ signified much more than simply ‘it’. Although in French the pronoun ‘elle’ can mean either ‘it’ or ‘she’, throughout the text Bouraoui gives the sea human-like qualities, often describing it as violent or angry, and as able to negotiate and pacify Nina’s conflicting identities (French and Algerian). The sea is almost like another character in the novel that Nina can share her problems with, the sea is the ‘person’ that keeps Nina connected with both of her cultures at the same time.

“La mer me porte. Elle prend tout. Elle m’obsède. Elle est avant le rêve de la France. Elle est avant le voyage. Elle est avant la peur.”

Garçon Manqué, Nina Bouraoui

I decided that the descriptions and the personification of the sea made extremely important significations within the novel and therefore, should remain as important and as prominent in the target text. Bouraoui uses this personification to represent the sea as an entity that Nina trusts and considers human-like, the sea makes her feel peaceful and cares for her.  As a result, in the target text, I decided to refer to the sea as ‘she’ rather than ‘it’.

“The sea carries me. She takes everything. She possesses me. She lies before the dream of France. She is before the journey. She is before fear.”

My translation

This translation carries the personification of the sea, through to the English translation, and the metaphor of the signifier is retained. When translating signifiers, one has to consider whether their “metaphor is a purely linguistic or even an ‘ornamental’ figure, or whether it constitutes thought on a much deeper level, [and how this effects] translation. If [the translator translates] with a different metaphor, the way the speaker thinks [is changed] and therefore the cognitive domains which the reader will relate to one and other [are changed].” (Roman Jakobson in, Stylistic Approaches to Translation, by Jean Boase-Beier, 2006, p.33) It is important to carry the signifier over both with regards to its meaning, and with regards to the level of interaction that the reader has with its metaphor. In this case, the signifier is a metonym, the sea is not overtly pronounced as being human-like, or a ‘friend’ of Nina’s, this is simply suggested through the use of pronouns and adjectives. Therefore, it is important to keep the subject of this metaphor (the sea) the same, and its cognitive values (as a metonym) the same. To change the source of the signifier to something else, or to change the type of metaphor, for example to a simile, means that the stylistic feature would lose both its signification and its cognitive qualities.

In many cases, a signifier such as ‘la’ or ‘le’, means simply ‘the’, however, as a translator, it is essential to be aware when these words hold so much more signifcance and to work closely with the text to carry the significations across language.

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