Gender and translation into Ancient Greek: a conundrum

Lately I have been listening to Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel The Left Hand of Darkness, which portrays the world of Gethen, populated by a version of humans that are androgynous most of the time, except for a period once a month (kemmer) where they become male or female. It’s a good novel, and it’s a concept that is explored with rich texture and thought. However, one of the criticisms that Le Guin always endured was the choice to use the pronoun ‘he’ throughout for these androgynous humans. In a follow-up story in the same world in 1975, “Winter’s King”, she choose to instead use ‘she’ throughout. The choice of “they”, I understand, Le Guin felt was too confusing.

Of course, being who I am I wondered what would happen if you were translating this text into ancient Greek, and this strikes me as offering up a particular conundrum. I’m of the view that Ancient Greek’s gender system basically breaks down to:

Masculine = positively marks a person (a sentient animate being)

Feminine = positively marks a person as female

Neuter = categorises something as a person or non-person

That needs a lot more exploration and explanation, especially I don’t mean that the grammatical gender that nouns have, implies the above. But when you use modifiers, articles and adjectives, and you select a grammatical gender for them, this is the kind of implication. You can read a much smarter discussion of this here: Mussies 1971 on Grammatical Gender.

Now, if we were to translate LHoD into Ancient Greek, what would we do, what should we do? Here’s the question- I think that by Ancient Greek’s own patterns, you would default to masculine pronouns, articles, adjectives throughout for discussing the humans of Gethen, because they are marked as persons. I think you’d only use feminine modifiers and determiners to refer to a Gethen human during kemmer when they took on female biological traits.

Except, and here’s the conundrum part, most contemporary readers of Ancient Greek have been habituated to think of gender in several modern languages (including English), and in their reading of Ancient Greek, so as to treat masculine as marked for maleness, the way English ‘he’ has come to be marked for exclusivity rather than inclusivity, and so a contemporary reader of an Ancient Greek translation of this sort is probably going to read it in the same way that contemporary readers of Le Guin’s English novel read the “he” choice as unsatisfactorily gendering the androgynous humans of Gethen. Which, if you were going to cater to the sensitivities of contemporary readers of AG fiction (small group that they are), you would be left with a set of translation questions similar to Le Guin – do you then choose to use feminine modifiers as a reverse of standard practice, do you use neuter ones and risk the de-personalising effect that tends to have by turning persons into non-persons, or do you attempt some creative reimagining of the language to create a 4th gender category (the way some Latin speakers use a non-binary set of endings in contemporary Latin)? Or, do you just translate it with masculine modifiers and tell modern readers to learn to read them as marking personhood not maleness exclusively?

One response

  1. Is there evidence that students of Biblical or Ancient Greek fall into that trap of thinking masculine always marks male? Being from a slightly older generation, perhaps I am out of touch, but intuitively, it does seem obvious that the shift in English of how the word “man” is understood in English might impact how the language of textbooks is received by students. If true, perhaps the English textbooks need some minor revision to cater for this shift in English. (I can’t imagine the same problem occurs for speakers of other languages such as Spanish. I don’t know about German though?)

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