More on sex, gender and translation

Aug 23, 2011 by

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, the grammatical gender system of one’s language has a strong effect on how one personifies non-human characters. For example, whether an enchanted frog you kiss will turn into Prince Charming or a Frog-Princess (Tsarevna-Ljagushka) depends at least in part on whether the word for ‘frog’ is masculine or feminine in your language. But the bewitched frog is not the only literary character whose sex depends on grammatical gender.

For example, what do A.A. Milne’s Owl, Rudyard Kipling’s Bagheera and Lewis Carroll’s Dormouse have in common? 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 has a somewhat disorienting effect because not only the characters themselves no longer make sense but their interactions with other characters don’t jibe either (this is discussed in detail in an excellent Russian article by Maria Eliferova).

For instance, take A.A. Milne’s Owl. This character is a caricature of a public school (e.g., Eton) graduate, a type that was a target of much literary mockery in the late 19th-early 20th century. Ignorance masked by his quasi-learned vocabulary, arrogance towards others and the penchant for sentimental memories all describe him as such. But in the classical Russian translation by Boris Zakhoder, Owl became a female. Owl’s sex-change was completed in the Russian animation film by F. Khitruk, where “he” (oops, now “she”) was crowned by an old-fashioned cap with ribbons and provided with speech mannerisms of a school matron. Yet, the only reason for this feminization is the Russian language itself: the character’s name Owl was translated into Russian as Sova, using a feminine noun. But this is not the only possible translation of the English owl; in fact, a different word, filin — which denotes a similar species and is masculine in Russian — could have been used. Using a masculine name for Owl would allow the translator to preserve the all-male nature of the cast of characters, before the arrival of Kenga. Indeed, according to Milne’s story, Kenga is the first female to appear in the Forest (and not just a female but a mother as well!), so the rest of the all-boy cast simply don’t know how to interact with her. Hence, their confused animosity and the plan to drive Kenga out. But making Owl a school-matronly character destroys this social dynamics completely.

The same problem arises in connection with (most) translations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, where the all-male Mad Tea Party interrupted by Alice is turned into a co-ed event because Dormouse, originally a male character (although Alice herself refers to Dormouse as “it”), became a female. Most Russian translations (including those by Demurova, Nabokov, Zakhoder, Scherbakov and Yakhnin) use a variation on Sonja, a feminine noun. As with Owl-Sova, this was the most obvious, yet not the only choice: one could opt for Surok (this is indeed the choice of another translator, A. Kononenko).

It should be noted that two other Wonderland characters likewise underwent a feminization in most Russian translations of Alice: Mock-Turtle, who in most translations retained the “turtle” part but not the “mock” part or the masculine gender, and Caterpillar, who became a feminine Gusenica in most Russian translations (including those by Demurova and Nabokov). Only a few translators found alternative solutions that allowed to preserve the masculinity of these characters: for instance, Boris Zakhoder renders Mock-Turtle as Rybnyj Delikates (‘fish delicacy’) and A. Kononenko — as Mintakrab, a nonse compound word based on mintaj (a type of fish) and krab ‘crab’, both grammatically masculine terms referring to imitation crabmeat, another “mock delicacy” (in English, “mock turtle soup” is a soup made from calf’s head or a calf’s foot). Better translations of Caterpillar, which preserve its masculinity, are Chervjak (‘Worm’) by Zakhoder and Shelkoprjad (‘Silkworm’) by Scherbakov.

Finally, a really travesty has been made of the translation of Bagheera’s name in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. In the original, it is a male character; witness the following:

Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody dared to cross his path; for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the wounded elephant. But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down. [boldface mine]

In Disney’s adaptation, Bagheera is a male too, voiced by Sebastian Cabot. But a major blooper in Russian translation sent Bagheera down the path of sex change into a female, turning “him” into “her”, a warrior into a motherly figure. As in the other cases described above, Bagheera’s gender is “lost in translation” because a grammatically feminine word pantera (‘panther’) is chosen to describe Bagheera’s species. Was it also because the name itself, ending in [a], sounds like a female name in Russian? Perhaps… One way or another, the choice of pantera was not the necessary one; actually, Bagheera’s is a black-colored Indian leopard, in Russian, leopard, a grammatically masculine noun. Thus, the feminization of Bagheera cannot be fully justified on linguistic grounds either.

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