Gender in Translation (3): Translating Gendered Constraints

A few posts back, in Gender in Translation (2): Translating Grammatical Gender, I discussed the difficulties of translating between different languages with different grammatical rules concerning gender. Translating grammatical gender is something that a translator normally doesn’t have to think twice about, as in most cases, the straightforward translation of ‘la’ and ‘le’ into ‘the’ for example, is all that is required. However, as explored in the aforementioned post, sometimes these definite articles mean much more. This is definitely the case in translating texts with gendered constraints, such as the Oulipo text Sphinx, written in 1986 by Anne Garréta.

The Oulipo is a group of French writers who wrote works according to constrictive rules or techniques, its most notable members include Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. Garréta’s rule when creating Sphinx was to write without assigning either the protagonist or antagonist a gender, giving the translator of the novel into the English, Emma Ramadan, a great task.

The opening passages of the book describe the first encounters the narrator has with a romantic interest, A***, exploring the beginning of the relationship, whilst not assigning the main characters a gender. As Jakobson states:

“Grammatical gender colours a speaker’s perception of objects and idea.”

Roman Jakobson, On Linguistic Aspects of Translation

In avoiding assigning the two main characters a gender, Garréta removes the possibility of the readers’ assumptions or biases towards a character based on their gender. In her translator’s note, Ramadan considers Garréta’s reasons behind placing a constraint on gender:

“By omitting the supposedly ever-present phenomenon of gender, Garréta both reveals and undermines sex-based oppression, demonstrating that gender difference is not an important or necessary determinant of our amorous relationships or our identities, but it is rather something constructed purely in the realm of the social.”

Emma Ramadan’s translator’s note in, Sphinx, Anne Garréta

In not allowing either of the characters’ genders to be revealed, Garréta omits the possibility of bias and gendered perceptions and proves that the question of gender in romantic relationships should not matter.

The French and English languages use gender very differently therefore, translation for Ramadan would have been challenging. French uses grammatical gender, meaning that nouns are assigned either a masculine or feminine gender, with pronouns and adjectives then agreeing with the gender of the noun. Garréta used this to her advantage. French possessive adjectives refer to the gender of the noun described, using ‘sa’ or ‘son’, depending on whether the noun described is masculine or feminine, therefore, Garréta was able to describe a character’s body, appearance or possessions without ever revealing their gender. On the other hand, English has semantic gender, meaning that inanimate objects are not gendered, but people are referred to as masculine or feminine. This means that in English possessive adjectives agree with the gender of the person. This would be an issue in translation as where Garréta used the possessive adjective to avoid gender, in English translation, this would have the opposite effect, revealing gender. For example, on page twelve of Sphinx, Garréta begins a sentence: ‘Ses bras, douceur intense […]’, here she avoids assigning A*** a gender, as the possessive adjective refers to the gender of the masculine plural noun ‘arms’. In English, this is not possible as in translation it would have to be ‘her/his arms’ depending on the gender of the person described. To tackle this problem, Ramadan translated it as: ‘Those arms, the intense sweetness […]’. Whilst it is still clear that Ramadan is referring to A***’s arms, the gender of the character is avoided. 

Garréta’s use of the French possessive adjective would have consistently caused problems in Ramadan’s translation, another example is on page twenty-one of the source text: ‘J’entrai dans sa loge […], once again, Garréta uses the possessive adjective in order to avoid gendering this character. Here, Ramadan uses the character’s name to avoid gender: ‘I would follow A*** into the dressing room […]’. Another example appears on page twenty-two of Sphinx: “[…] j’écoutais les détails de sa journée, les anecdotes de son dîner.” Here Garréta uses the possessive adjective twice, once to describe the character’s day, a feminine noun, therefore using the feminine possessive adjective ‘sa’, and a second time to describe the character’s dinner, a masculine noun, therefore using the masculine possessive adjective, ‘son’. To retain the Oulipo constraint in translation Ramadan rendered this sentence into English as: ‘I would listen to the details of A***’s day’, she has used A***’s name once again in place of a possessive adjective, however, to avoid gender when describing the characters dinner, she has simply omitted this part of the text.

In her translator’s note, Emma Ramadan discusses her techniques for avoiding gender as follows: 

“Using a demonstrative, dropping the article altogether, pluralising, or repeating A***’s name, [re-writing] certain [passages] to avoid personal pronouns, or [applying] adjectives directly to the subject rather than to something possessed by the subject.”

Emma Ramadan’s translator’s note in, Sphinx, Anne Garréta

These methods are all great solutions to avoiding the use of gender in the text.

Translating this text with a restriction on gender would have been extremely challenging, but this is not a new concept, and gender in translation has long been a discussion:

“The focus on gender, and more recently, on its diversification or pluralization, may be attractive and stimulating for some; for others, it threatens unity, tradition, belief systems, and power structures. Predict­ably, there are attempts to control the contexts in which certain texts are translated.”

Luise von Flotow, Tracing the Context of Translation

In this article, Flotow discusses the restrictions that the Vatican imposed on the translation of the Bible. Unlike Garréta’s restrictions that aimed to eliminate gender bias, these restrictions were an attempt to control translation and avoid ‘gender-neutral, inclusive liturgy’. According to Flotow:

“[In recognising] the fact that gender has become an important cat­egory according to which people identify and live [the Vatican has imposed many rules on translating gendered language. This includes the condemnation of] translations that might have Jesus telling his disciples to become ‘fishers of people’ rather than ‘fishers of men’.” 

Luise von Flotow, Tracing the Context of Translation

Modern translators of the Bible, wishing to render passages gender-neutral, promoting equality, had a vast number of restraints posed on them in order to stop them from doing so. Garréta’s text enforces a gender constraint on the translator that is very different from the norm.

In translating a text with gendered restraints such as Sphinx, it becomes clear that a translator’s decision can have huge effects on the target text, for example, any translator could have made the bold decision to ignore the restraint, although this would of course completely miss the point entirely. In deviating from the norm when it comes to gendered constraints, Sphinx invites the reader to narrate the romantic text without even considering gender, not only does each reader then write their ‘own’ reading of this text, but they also encounter an approach to writing that welcomes gender positive discussions, a text that does not feel the need to place a gender on love.


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