I’m surprised to realize I haven’t mentioned Ann Leckie in any LH posts (though I have in comments); her novel Ancillary Justice is the best science fiction I’ve read in years, and it has an obvious linguistic hook, which I’ll let Alex Dally MacFarlane explain at the beginning of her very interesting and informative essay “Translating Gender: Ancillary Justice in Five Languages“:
In Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice (Orbit Books: 2013), the imperial Radch rules over much of human-inhabited space. Its culture – and its language – does not identify people on the basis of their gender: it is irrelevant to them. In the novel, written in English, Leckie represents this linguistic reality by using the female pronoun ‘she’ throughout, regardless of any information supplied about a Radchaai (and, often, a non-Radchaai) person’s perceived gender. This pronoun choice has two effects. Firstly, it successfully erases grammatical difference in the novel and makes moot the question of the characters’ genders. But secondly, it exists in a context of continuing discussions around the gendering of science fiction, the place of men and women and people of other genders within the genre, as characters in fiction and as professional/fans, and beyond the pages of the book it is profoundly political. It is a female pronoun.
When translating Ancillary Justice into other languages, the relationship between those two effects is vital to the work.
After reading a comment by the Hungarian translator, Csilla Kleinheincz, posted on Cheryl Morgan’s blog, we wanted to know more about this. We invited the translators of the novel into Bulgarian, German, Hebrew, Hungarian and Japanese to discuss the process, with particular interest in the translation of gender. What emerges is an insight into the work of translators and the rigidity and versatility of grammatical gender in the face of non-standard demands. Where necessary, translators turned to innovative and even inventive ways to write their languages.
It’s fascinating stuff; I’ll quote this bit because of its resonance with yesterday’s post:
Hebrew presented considerable challenges, as Emanuel Lottem explains in shared correspondence with Ann Leckie: “All verbs and adjectives vary according to gender. An exception is the pronoun ‘I’, which is the same for both females and males, but when a woman says ‘I sit’ it’s ‘ani yoshevet’, whereas a man would say ‘ani yoshev’. Moreover, all objects, concrete or abstract, are either feminine or masculine, so that in a sentence like ‘a large room (m.) with a large door (f.)’, the word ‘large’ would be ‘gadol’ in the former case, ‘gdola’ in the latter. This is not much of a problem when Breq tells her story, but it is when non-Radchaai are talking.”
This even presented a problem for the novel’s title: “The word for ‘justice’ – tzedeq – is unfortunately masculine, and I’d hate to use it in the title because of that.”
(I once posted three times in a row using Latin titles, entirely without premeditation; now I’ve similarly done two in a row on gender. Blogging is almost as full of synchronicity as life itself.)