Fruit, vegetable, boy, girl…

Aug 24, 2011 by

It may appear from the previous post that gender is “lost in translation” only when a literary text is translated from a language with no grammatical gender system into a language that does have one, but this is far from the truth. In fact, things get “curiouser and curiouser”, as Alice would say, if we consider texts translated from one language with a gender system into another language with a (different) gender system. And this applies to translating not only names of animal characters (which, at least in principle, have biological sex), but names of personified sexless objects, like fruit and vegetables too. To illustrate, I will examine here one such literary text: Le avventure di Cipollino (“The Adventures of the Little Onion”) by the Italian writer Gianni Rodari.

It was originally published (in Italian) in 1951 under the title Il romanzo di Cipollino and was republished under the new title in 1959. Perhaps because it was considered to be a great piece of pro-Communist propaganda, the book gained even greater popularity in the Soviet Union, where it was first published in 1953 (the year of Stalin’s death and one year after Rodari’s first visit to the USSR), in Russian translation, of course. The popularity of this book has been such that already in 1961 an animation adaptation has been produced and twelve years later, a full-length feature film (in which the writer, Gianni Rodari played a cameo role). Furthermore, the Soviet composer Karen Khachaturian wrote a ballet music based on the Russian rendition of the book; this ballet was first produced at the Kiev Opera Theater in 1974 and three years later at the Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre. Pratically every Soviet child has been exposed to the story in some medium or another.

Most of the characters in The adventures of Cipollino are, like Cipollino himself, vegetables or fruit. Cipollino is a type of onion; the cast includes a tomato, leek, peas and beans, orange, lemon, tangerine, strawberry and cherries, and many others. Some of the minor characters are animals (a mole, a spider, etc.). Since Italian is a language with a grammatical gender system, one would expect Gianni Rodari to be inspired by the grammatical gender of the nouns in selecting his characters. And indeed this is the case: some masculine nouns became names of male characters (mirtillo ‘blueberry’, prezzemolo ‘parsley’, pisello ‘peas’, carciofo ‘artichoke’ and others). Similarly, some feminine nouns became names of female characters, including: fragola ‘strawberry’ and ciliegia ‘cherry’ (there are two sisters-countesses Cherries, joined by their branches, like cherries often are; see the picture above, on bottom left).

But not all feminine nouns that were used for the story’s characters were used for females. At least three male characters have names that are grammatically feminine: 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 a violin teacher (think about the similarity in shape between a pear and a violin!). The only other characters referred to by title and name are “nobles”, to whom it is quite natural to refer in such a format: il Principe Limone (‘the Prince Lemon’), il Cavalier Pomodoro (‘the Cavalier Tomato’) and others.

Let’s now turn to the Russian translation. Here, all characters retain their “social gender” from the Italian original. In some cases, this causes no linguistic problems, as their “social gender” corresponds to the grammatical gender of the Russian nouns, as with Prints Limon (‘Prince Lemon’), Kavaler Pomidor (‘Cavalier Tomato’), the lawyer Zeljonyj Goroshek (‘Green Pea’) and the doctor Artishok (‘Artichoke’) — all masculine nouns in Russian used as names for male characters. Similarly, countesses Cherries are grafini Vishni (the Russian word for ‘cherry’ is the feminine vishnja) and ‘Strawberry’ (a girl) is Zemljanichka, another feminine noun.

But some of the character names had to change grammatical gender in translation: for example, in Italian ‘blueberry’ is mirtillo, a masculine noun, whereas in Russian the corresponding berry is chernika, a feminine noun. (There is some disagreement as to whether a better translation of ‘blueberry’ might be golubika, but it’s beside the point as the latter is also a feminine noun.) Also, the Russian word for ‘parsley’ is petrushka, a feminine noun. In order to avoid the discord between the grammatical gender (feminine) and the “social gender” (male) of these character, the translator chose the “title plus name” strategy that the Italian author already used for some other characters, as discussed above. Thus, in the Russian translation we encounter sinjor Petrushka (‘Sir Parsley’) and kum Chernika (‘Godfather Blueberry’), the latter in parallel with kum Tykva (‘Godfather Zucchini’, which, as you will recall, in Italian 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 Grusha (‘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 real translation of the Italian zucchina into Russian is kabachok, which is grammatically masculine, rather than tykva, which actually means zuccha in Italian (cf. English ‘gourd, pumpkin, vegetable marrow’), but the translator selected the “incorrect” vegetable in order to keep the feminine grammatical gender of the original. (Apparently, 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.) Similarly, the “proper” translation of the Italian uvetta is the Russian izjum ‘raisin’ rather than vinogradinka ‘grape’ that the translator chose, once again to keep the grammatical gender of the original.

Master Vinogradinka (‘Master Grape’) and Kum Tykva (‘Godfather Pumpkin’) from the Russian animation film

The name of the shoe-maker Master Uvetta and its Russian translation also brings me to another linguistic issue that a translator must be aware of, in addition to the grammatical gender: the mass/count noun distinction. While many languages do not use any special morphology to mark this distinction, other languages do. Russian marginally uses diminutive morphology (the main function of which is to denote “smallness” or “cuteness”) for the so-called singulative function, that is to turn mass nouns into count nouns. For example, shokolad is ‘chocolate’, a mass noun (e.g., it is impossible to say tri shokolada ‘three chocolates’, other than to mean three kinds of chocolate), but with the diminutive suffix –k this word becomes a count noun shokoladka ‘chocolate bar’. Note that the diminutive used for the singulative function also imposes the feminine gender on the noun stem that is masculine by itself.

Since the characters of the Cipollino story are individuals rather than substances, where available the diminutive/singulative form is used in the Russian translation (the relevant morpheme is boldfaced): Rediska (‘Radish’) and Zemljanichka (‘Strawberry’), Fasolinka ‘Bean’) and Vishenka (‘Cherry’), and of course Master Vinogradinka (‘Master Grape’), whom we’ve already met before. As with the word for ‘chocolate bar’ above, the diminutive/singulative morpheme imposes feminine gender. This is not a problem for Rediska (‘Radish’) and Zemljanichka (‘Strawberry’), both girls. It is also not too much of a problem for the two boys — Fasolinka ‘Bean’) and Vishenka (‘Cherry’) — because of the existence in Russian of contracted forms of male given names that contain the same diminutive morpheme, as in Sashka and Pet’ka, or at any rate end in –a, as with Sasha and Petja, for Alexander and Peter, repectively. Thus, the only feminine diminutive/singulative form that is difficult to associate with a male character is Vinogradinka (‘Grape’), but as we have already seen, this name is always used in conjunction with the title Master (in both Italian and Russian versions).

Perhaps, the one character whose name illustrates best both the challenges that the Russian translator faced and his genius is the detective Mr. Carrot.

The Italian word for ‘carrot’ — carota — is feminine, but the character is conceived as a male (recall that in 1951, when the book was first published, 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 very appropriate as a name for our character because it is both feminine and a mass noun. The latter is only marginally better (because it’s a count noun): it is still feminine but the diminutive/singulative suffix –k deprives it of the social weight needed for a real, 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 (notice also the appropriate title Mr.), which makes perfect sense since it is England that gave the world such great detectives as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Hercule Poirot (even though the latter is of course Belgian!).

Speaking of Hercule Poirot, 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. It would have been such a tongue-in-cheek joke!

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