Islamic Fatwas, Grammatical Gender, and Translation—Or Beware of Those Sexualized Vegetables!

Oct 26, 2014 by

[This post was originally posted in December 2013]


A recent report in India Today mentions a fatwa (Muslim religious decree) issued by a cleric associated with the Muslim Brotherhood to prohibit women from swimming in the sea. The declared reason is that the word for ‘sea’ is grammatically masculine in Arabic, and so when a woman goes swimming and “the water touches the woman’s private parts, she becomes an ‘adulteress’ and should be punished”. This logic, of course, begs the question of what happens if a man goes swimming in the sea: should it be considered a punishable homosexual experience? It is also worth noting that this fatwa presupposes the primacy of (Classical) Arabic in Islam. While Arabic distinguishes masculine and feminine genders—and so do several other languages spoken by Muslims, such as Pashto, Urdu, and Tuareg—most other languages spoken natively by sizeable numbers of Muslims have no sex-based grammatical gender. Turkish and other Turkic languages in Central Asia and the central Volga region of Russia have no grammatical gender at all, and neither does Persian (Indo-Iranian) or Indonesian (Austronesian). Fulfulde (aka Fula or Fulani), the language of many Muslims in Mali and Niger, like most other Niger-Congo languages, has a non-sex based noun class system; in fact, it has one of the richest attested classification systems, with 25 “genders” or noun classes, none of which are ‘male’ or ‘female’. Thus, for many Muslims around the world, the prohibition makes no intuitive sense from the perspective of their native languages. Of course, even most Arabic-speaking Muslims would regard this particular ruling as an absurd pronouncement from an extreme, if not deranged, religious scholar. But extremist clerics are relatively common in some parts of the Muslim world, and they do have their followers.

While this fatwa may not be genuine, the linguistic and cultural aspects of gender are interesting to consider. It should be remembered that even in languages that have grammatical gender, the same nouns need not be assigned to the same gender. This issue has been explored in detail in connection with country names in my previous post, but the arbitrariness of grammatical gender applies not only to toponyms but to all nouns. For example, the word for ‘sea’ is neuter in Russian, and feminine in French—but it would probably make no difference for the fatwa authors if women went swimming in the Black Sea or at the French Riviera. Nor is the “swimming fatwa” the only such decree that takes grammatical gender all too literally. An earlier fatwa issued in Iraq in 2007 “warned street vendors not to place tomatoes beside cucumbers because the vegetables are different genders” (yet another fatwa deemed cucumbers, along with bananas, to be too sexually dangerous, “leading women down the wrong path” due to their “phallic imagery”).

While such literal interpretation of grammatical gender may seem absurd, psycholinguistic experiments show that speakers of “gendered” languages do indeed associate grammatically masculine words with more “masculine” properties and grammatically feminine words with more “feminine” attributes. One experimental study, conducted in the early 1960s with Italian speakers, asked subjects to assess men and women according to the following criteria: good, pretty, strong, and large. To the chagrin of many feminists, Italian speakers (both male and female) rated women on average as prettier, weaker, smaller, and better. The same speakers were then presented with made-up words that ended either in -o (the typical masculine ending in Italian) or in -a (the typical feminine ending). Since the stimuli were not actual words of Italian, subjects could not have been influenced by their meanings. And yet they rated nouns that appeared to be grammatically feminine as prettier, weaker, smaller, and better than the apparently masculine nouns. Another experiment, conducted some 20 years later, asked English speakers and those of Arabic to evaluate objects along a masculine-feminine scale. The two groups gave very different responses: English speakers, who had no grammatical gender to affect their responses, relied exclusively on the customary use of the items denoted by the stimuli, whereas responses from Arabic speakers were affected by the grammatical gender of the nouns in their language. For example, words for ‘necklace’ and ‘perfume’ (both grammatically masculine in Arabic, but used predominantly by women) were rated as more masculine by Arabic speakers than by English speakers. Yet another study from the early 1980s showed that children learning Hebrew (which has grammatical gender) come to recognize their own gender identity as males or females earlier than those learning English (where grammatical gender barely exists) or Finnish (which has no gender at all).

While these studies are instructive, it is difficult to distinguish how much of the association between a noun and male/female gender attributes is due directly to language and how much is due to cultural conventions. Consider, for example, the fairy tale about a bewitched frog, waiting to be kissed in order to turn back into a human. In the English version of this tale, widely known from a Disney animated film, a princess kisses a frog who turns into Prince Charming. In this case, the masculinity of the frog cannot come from grammatical gender of the noun that denotes the amphibian, as English has no grammatical gender except in third person singular pronouns. And while the words for ‘frog’ are masculine in some other European languages, such as German der Frosch, as well as in Hebrew (tsfarde’a), this is not the case in Romance languages. In both Italian and Spanish, ‘frog’ is la rana, a feminine noun. Localization experts who translated the Disney film into these languages used a different word in each case in order to preserve the gender roles: in the Italian rendition, a masculine diminutive il ranocchio ‘the froggy’ is used, whereas the Spaniards translated the tale as the Princess and el sapo, a different, grammatically masculine type of amphibian (‘toad’). In French, the same problem arises since the word for ‘frog’ is also feminine: la grenouille. In most French renditions of the fairy tale the character is typically referred to as le Roi Grenouille (‘the King Frog’), using a grammatically masculine noun for ‘king’. However, the Disney film title was translated as La Princesse et la Grenouille, ‘the Princess and the [feminine] Frog’, apparently causing little if any bewilderment among French viewers. The situation was quite different, however, with Russian viewers. In their language, the word for ‘frog’, ljaguška, is also feminine, as is the word for ‘toad’, žaba, making the Spanish strategy of substituting a related species impossible. The Russian diminutive ljagušonok is appropriately masculine, but it has a strong negative connotation, inappropriate for an enchanted princely character. Thus, the Russian version of the Disney film was titled Printsessa i ljaguška ‘Princess and [feminine] frog’. But unlike the French, some Russian viewers were rather baffled—yet their befuddlement was mostly due to the fact that in the Russian version of the fairy tale, the enchanted frog is really a princess, not a prince! Traditionally, she is referred to as Tsarevna-ljaguška ‘Princess-frog’ and is kissed by a male character, Ivan-tsarevich, Ivan the Prince. This version also seems to suit the established gender roles in Russia, where it is the man who seeks out his bride, not the other way around.


Just how persistent such traditional gender stereotypes are is revealed by a simple experiment involving Google Translate, originally conducted by David Pesetsky of MIT. Pesetsky took some simple sentences in English with verbs in the past tense and attempted to translate them (using Google Translate) into Russian, where past tense verbs, which are historically participles, show agreement with the subject in gender. Since the actions in those sentences (see the image on the left) presuppose a human agent, we expect them to apply either to males or females, and the form of the verb in Russian can in principle be either masculine or feminine, depending on the intended referent. But which gender did Google Translate pick in each case? Because Google Translate uses statistical methods rather than linguistic analysis, whether a masculine or feminine form of the verb is chosen depends on the stereotypical gender roles. For example, I worked in the factory is translated using a masculine verb, whereas I worked in the school shows up with a feminine verb. Similarly, I built a house appears in the masculine, whereas I sewed a dress in the feminine. Such gender stereotypes concern not just most typical occupations, but also preferred hobbies, typical house chores, and even food consumption patterns. The sentence I studied mathematics gets a masculine verb, whereas I studied art is translated with a feminine verb. Similarly, Google Translate views ‘cleaning the garage’ as a mostly male activity and ‘cleaning the house’ as a female activity. Women who own dogs may disagree with the assertion that ‘wash the dog’ is something done predominantly by men, but would you expect Google Translate to choose a masculine verb when translating I washed the children? As difficult as it is for feminists to swallow, Google Translate renders I ate meat with the masculine form of the verb and I ate a salad with the feminine form. If Google Translate’s choices of verb forms are to be taken seriously, men are workaholics who worry about their “smarts”, while women like to spend their time on more light-hearted activities while worrying about their looks; hence, I loved to work and I was stupid are translated in the masculine and I loved to dance and I was ugly in the feminine. In this stereotypical world, men have more gravitas: they ‘laugh’, while women ‘giggle’.*


While Google Translate clearly struggles with gender issues, so do human translators: in some cases they fail abysmally and in others show extreme creativity. The abovementioned bewitched amphibian is not the only literary character that underwent a transgender transformation in literary translation. For example, if A.A. Milne’s Owl, Rudyard Kipling’s Bagheera, and Lewis Carroll’s Dormouse have one thing in common, it is that all three were intended by their authors as male characters, but in Russian translations they turned into females, due to the grammatical gender of the words chosen as the translations of their names. This sort of sex change has a somewhat disorienting effect on the readers. Not only do the characters themselves fail to make sense as the authors intended, but their interactions with the other characters do not jibe either, as discussed in an excellent Russian article by Maria Eliferova. Consider, for instance, A.A. Milne’s Owl. Owl is a caricature of a public school (e.g., Eton) graduate, a type that was a target of much mockery in late 19th-early 20th century British literature. Ignorance masked by a quasi-learned vocabulary, arrogance towards others, and a penchant for sentimental memories all describe him as such. But in the Russian translation by Boris Zakhoder, which became a classic, Owl is a female. Owl’s sex-change was completed in the Russian animated film by Fyodor Khitruk, where the now-female Owl was crowned with an old-fashioned cap with ribbons and provided with speech mannerisms of a school matron (see image on the left). The reason for this feminization lies with the Russian language: the name Owl was translated into Russian as Sova, which is grammatically feminine. As subtle as Zakhoder’s translation is, this is a serious yet easily avoidable gaffe: the grammatically masculine word filin—denoting a similar species—could have been used to preserve the all-male cast of characters that existed prior to Kenga’s arrival, with whom the others do not know how to interact at first, leading to confused animosity. Yet, the word choice and the grammar-driven personification in Zakhoder’s translation which made Owl a school-matronly character, destroyed such social dynamics completely. How similar gender mistranslations affect the characters and the stories in the Russian versions of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book is discussed in detail in my earlier post.

Here, I will bring up one additional example that takes us back to the “cucumber-tomato fatwa” mentioned in the beginning of this post—the Russian translation of Gianni Rodari’s Le avventure di Cipollino (“The Adventures of the Little Onion”), originally in Italian. While one might think that gender translation problems arise only when a text in a non-gendered language is translated into a language that uses grammatical gender, this is not the case. As mentioned above, nouns in languages with grammatical gender need not be assigned to the same category, so gender mismatches arise even when a text is translated from a language with a gender system into another language with a (different) gender system.

Perhaps because it was considered to be a great piece of Communist propaganda, Le avventure di Cipollino gained greater popularity in the Soviet Union than it did in Italy. The first Russian translation was published in 1953, one year after Rodari’s first visit to the USSR. In 1961, an animated film adaptation was produced and twelve years later, a full-length feature film appeared (in which the writer, Gianni Rodari, played a cameo role). Furthermore, the Soviet composer Karen Khachaturian wrote ballet music based on the Russian rendition of the book; this ballet was staged in 1977 at the Moscow’s famed Bolshoi Theatre. Practically every Soviet child has been exposed to the story in some medium or another.

grafini vishenki

Cipollino (Italian for ‘little onion’) along with most other characters in the book are vegetables or fruits. The cast of characters includes a tomato, a leek, a pea, a bean, an orange, a lemon, a tangerine, a strawberry, and others (only a couple of the minor characters are animals: a mole and a spider). As Italian has a grammatical gender system, Gianni Rodari was inspired by the gender of the nouns in selecting the sex of his characters. Masculine nouns, such as mirtillo ‘blueberry’, prezzemolo ‘parsley’, pisello ‘pea’, carciofo ‘artichoke’ and so on, became names of male characters. Similarly, feminine nouns became names of his female characters, including fragola ‘strawberry’ and ciliegia ‘cherry’ (there are two twin sisters-countess Cherries, joined by their branches, like cherries often are). But not all feminine nouns that were used as the names of the story’s characters denoted females. At least three male characters have grammatically feminine names : Zucchina ‘zucchini, courgette’, Uvetta ‘raisin’, and Pera ‘pear’ (generally, feminine nouns in Italian tend to denote fruit, whereas the corresponding masculine nouns denote the tree that the fruit comes from, as in castagna ‘chestnut’ vs. castagno ‘chestnut tree’, mela ‘apple’ vs. melo ‘apple tree’, arancia ‘orange’ vs. arancio ‘orange tree’). In order to avoid the discord between the grammatical gender of the noun (feminine) and the “social gender” of the character (male), these three characters are always referred to by a combination of title and name: Sor Zucchina (‘Mr. Zucchini’), Mastro Uvetta (‘Master Raisin’), and Professore Pera (‘Professor Pear’). All three are rather poor, and the latter character is not even an academic “professor”, but rather a violin teacher (inspired, no doubt, by the similarity in shape between a pear and a violin). The only other characters referred to by title and name are “nobles”, for whom such a format is customary: il Principe Limone (‘the Prince Lemon’), il Cavalier Pomodoro (‘the Cavalier Tomato’), and so on.

Let’s now consider the Russian translation. Here, all characters retain their “social gender” from the Italian original. In some cases, this causes no linguistic problems, as the two genders match, as with Prints Limon (‘Prince Lemon’), Kavaler Pomidor (‘Cavalier Tomato’), the lawyer Zeljonyj Gorošek (‘Green Pea’), and the doctor Artišok (‘Artichoke’)—all masculine nouns in Russian used as names for male characters. Similarly, the countess Cherries are grafini Višni (the Russian word for ‘cherry’ is the feminine vishnja), and ‘Strawberry’ (a girl) is Zemljanička, another feminine noun. But some of the character names switched grammatical gender in translation: for example, the Italian word for ‘blueberry’, mirtillo, is masculine, whereas the Russian counterpart is černika, a feminine noun. (A better translation of ‘blueberry’ might be golubika, another species of a berry, but it is besides the point as the latter word is also feminine.) Also, the Russian word for ‘parsley’ is petruška, a feminine noun. In order to avoid the discord between the grammatical gender (feminine) and the “social gender” (male) of these characters, the translator chose the “title plus name” strategy that the Italian author used for several other characters, as mentioned above. Thus, in the Russian translation we encounter sinjor Petruška (‘Mr. Parsley’) and kum Černika (‘Godfather Blueberry’), the latter in parallel with kum Tykva (‘Godfather Zucchini’), which, as you will recall, in the Italian original is always Sor Zucchina (‘Mr. Zucchini’). Similarly, the names for the Pear and the Raisin characters are grammatically feminine in Russian and therefore they are always referred to by title and name: professor Gruša (‘Professor Pear’) and master Vinogradinka (‘Master Grape’). The desire to maintain the parallelism with the grammatical gender of the original must have been so strong that the translator departed from the literal translation of some of the names. For example, the best translation of the Italian zucchina into Russian is kabačok, which is grammatically masculine, rather than tykva, which actually means zuccha in Italian (cf. English ‘gourd, pumpkin, vegetable marrow’); the translator evidently selected the “wrong” vegetable in order to keep the feminine grammatical gender of the original.** Similarly, the “proper” translation of the Italian uvetta is the Russian izjum ‘raisin’ rather than vinogradinka ‘grape’, which the translator chose, once again to keep the grammatical gender of the original.***


Perhaps, the one character whose name best illustrates both the challenges that the Russian translator faced and his genius is the detective Mr. Carrot. The Italian carota ‘carrot’ is feminine, but the character is conceived as a male (recall that in 1951, when the book was written, being a detective was still “an unsuitable job for a woman”). In Russian there are two words for ‘carrot’: morkov’ and morkovka. The former is not appropriate as a name for this character because it is both feminine and a mass noun. The latter, being a count noun, is only marginally better: it is still feminine but the diminutive/singulative suffix –k deprives it of the social weight needed for a serious detective. The solution chosen by the Russian translator is brilliant: the (palatalized) labio-dental fricative /v’/ at the end of morkov’ has been replaced by the approximant /w/ (which is not normally a part of the Russian phonemic inventory, and is rendered in writing by the vowel letter “u”). This gives the resulting name Mister Morkow an English-sounding feel, further emphasized by the use of the title Mr., which is an inspired choice, as England gave the world such great detectives as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Hercule Poirot (though the latter is technically a Belgian).****

As this exploration of language and gender issues amply shows, while the grammatical gender system of one’s language nudges one to perceive inanimate and genderless objects as more masculine or more feminine, it is cultural stereotypes more than the linguistic gender that make us see the world a certain way. Thus, the seemingly grammar-based fatwas mentioned in the beginning of the post reflect more the misogynistic natures of their authors than the grammatical peculiarities of the language of the Koran.


* After the original discussion of David Pesetsky’s experiment on, Google Translate must have addressed the issue, as more recently it has been translating all the sentences—except I sewed a dress, I loved to dance, and I giggled—with the masculine form of the verb.

** In Italian, both forms are found: the feminine zucchina and the masculine zucchino, the plural from which—zucchini—became the American English term for this vegetable, whereas the Brits use the French word courgette instead.

*** The name of the shoe-maker Master Uvetta and its Russian translation also bring up the issue of the mass/count noun distinction: the Italian uvetta is a count noun, whereas the Russian izjum is a mass noun. This issue is discussed in more detail here.

**** Speaking of Hercule Poirot and vegetables, I could never quite figure out why Agatha Christie made him grow vegetable marrows (Russian: tykva; Italian: zuccha) in retirement rather than leeks, which is what his name means in French. What a missed opportunity for a pun!

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