Jacek Krankowski, a professional translator, has a very interesting discussion of problems involved in translating between languages with grammatical gender marking and those without. Some samples:

The Russian painter Repin was baffled as to why Sin had been depicted as a woman by German artists; he did not realize that “sin” is feminine in German (die Sünde), but masculine in Russian (grekh). Likewise a Russian child, while reading a translation of German tales, was astounded to find that Death, obviously a woman (Russian smert, fem.) was pictured as an old man (German der Tod, masc.). My sister Life, the title of a book of poems by Boris Pasternak, is quite natural in Russian, where ‘life’ is feminine (zhizn), but was enough to reduce to despair the Czech poet Josef Hora in his attempt to translate these poems, since in Czech this noun is masculine (zivot). (1959: 237)
Similarly, the German painter Stuck personified the gruesome war as a man (der Krieg, masc.) while, in contrast, the Polish painter Grotger represented a similar war-like figure as a woman (wojna, fem.) (de Courtenay, 1929: 246)….
In Daphne du Maurier’s gothic-like novel Rebecca, the protagonists, Maxim and his wife, have invited some relatives to their once-deserted manor in the English countryside. After dinner, Maxim’s brother-in-law expresses his admiration for the meal by saying:
Same cook I suppose, Maxim?
There is no later reference in the book to the cook and the sex of this chef de cuisine is never revealed. How does a translator, whose task it is to translate the sentence into a language that shows grammatical gender, cope with this problem? How does he/she know whether the cook is male or female? There seems to be no one agreed solution as five different translations into grammatical gender languages show:
French: la meme cuisinière
Italian : lo stesso cuoco
Spanish: el mismo cocinero
Portuguese: a mesma cozinheira
German: dieselbe Köchin
(Wandruszka 1969: 173)
The example demonstrates that three translators assigned ‘generally female’ and two ‘generally male’ as the social gender of cook. Whether this is due to the translators’ lack of knowledge as to what type of cook is more likely to be in a noble English manor or whether this is due to their ideological expectations as to what is likely in their own community, is an open question.

He gives several other examples of different translators coping with the same text; I love this sort of thing, and would happily read an entire book of it. [Via Enigmatic Mermaid.]


  1. And then, of course, there are cases where the gender is later revealed, but the original author wanted to keep this information from readers for a little while.

Speak Your Mind