The Joys of Gendered Language

One day, I was translating a book set in 19th century England. The main character was a British nobleman who employed a cook. I ended up hating the cook.

You see, Italian is a gendered language, meaning that, unlike in English, most words have a different suffix that refer to a female or male designation — even inanimate objects. So, a male cook is a cuoco, while a female cook is a cuoca. When translating from English into Italian, the context provides clues about the right gender to use, unless an author avoids attaching any sort of personal pronoun to the character in question.

In my case, I had to wait until page 50 or so to know that the cook was female.

My issue with the cook was an easy one. As I mentioned, inanimate objects have gender in Italian. This includes animals, which are generally referred to as “it” in English. Without mentioning a name or being provided with gender information, good luck guessing whether a dog or cat is male or female. On the other hand, we Italians have an easy time with English; it gets complicated when we’re dealing with Arabic-Italian translations, for example, because while both languages are gendered, these are often switched. Cue reading a text where the moon is described with virile attributes, and the Italian reader is puzzled because luna, Italian for moon, is female. A translator’s notes might help, but the resulting effect is still quite puzzling.

Writers who work in English have it easy. Sure, your readers might wonder whether the cook or dog is male or female but, from a grammatical point of view, you can get away with not mentioning gender. The person translating your book into Italian, for example, cannot; they need to know the character’s or the animal’s gender. Otherwise, they simply can’t do their job.

A failsafe in such situations would be to keep gender-specific translations on standby (i.e. write them between brackets) in order to go back to them when you finally discover the word’s gender. Hilarity might ensue if you just go ahead, translate everything, and then discover halfway through a 500-page novel that you chose the wrong gender, and therefore need to backtrack every single instance of the word in question.

Things get even worse with neologisms — words referring to imaginary things — both of which are quite common in speculative fiction and videogames. For the following examples, let’s continue to use Italian as the focus language. If we take a brief tour through the Solar System, Earth is Terra (female), Mars is male (Marte), Venus (Venere) is male, despite carrying the name of a Greek goddess, and so the confusion continues. But more importantly, is Krypton, Superman’s home planet, male or female?

Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the original Man of Steel creators, likely never asked themselves this question. Both were born and raised in the United States, surrounded by a genderless language. The first Italian translators decided to make Krypton a male planet when the localized edition of Action Comics was published in Italy. As an added bonus, the planet’s name is rooted in the Greek word that has to do with hiding and being hidden, and it has the neutral Greek suffix, “–on” (like the Pantheon, for example). Talk about making the translator’s life easier!

When in doubt, it’s better to talk with the author or the client and find out what gender they would designate to a specific object or character. It might feel a bit like cheating, but it’s the best way to avoid embarrassing situations.

Although translating from a non-gendered language to a gendered can be tedious, challenges like these are what make the work fun. Still, I’ll likely never forget the “mysteriously gendered” cook.

About Ernesto Pavan

I’m a native Italian translator based in Italy. I have a degree in journalism, and my specialty areas are journalism translation, advertising translation, and literary translation.