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Emboldening Queer Characters: On Translating Gender

By Victoria Caudle

Personal pronouns are just that: personal. They are intimately tied to how we present ourselves, or assert ourselves, in a heteronormative binary world. Many of us don't question the identity assigned to us through the words of others, but to some, a misgendered pronoun is a grating reminder that their true self, their personhood, is being overlooked or ignored. There is a growing movement among both queer people and allies to introduce themselves by not only supplying a name, but a preferred pronoun set to help prevent incidences of misgendering. In English, there exist binary sets of pronouns for those identified or identifying as male or female, but the pronoun to use for those who don't subscribe to the binary, whose gender is spectral or transcendent, has been subject to much debate and experimentation.  Nonbinary or epicene pronouns start with the use of they/them, but there are a multitude of alternative choices within the English language that have been developed over the years by the queer community and authors including ze/zer/zemself,  per/per/perself, and e/eir/emself. I believe that when faced with a queer subject in a text, the translator must make an effort to reinforce the queerness of the source language in the target language by researching and experimenting with existing nonbinary pronoun options used in both literature and both the source and target language queer communities. 

When I first approached Customer as a translator, one of the most exciting challenges the text presented was how to write the character Ahn in English. Ahn is the second-lead character and love interest for the main character/narrator, Suni, which means that Ahn is being interacted with or thought about for most of the book. This created a problem for me as a translator.  Ahn is described as being a jungseongin (중성인) or “middle-gender-person.”  In the world of Customer, jungseongin refers specifically to a person who has both male and female genetics, a blend of both genders—with more potent hormones and pheromones than a binary-gendered person, and heavily gossiped about.

Compounding the issue is the fact that gendered pronouns are a literary construct in Korean brought about through the consumption of translated European literature. In order to accommodate the abundance of “he”s and “she”s in English, an equivalent gendered pronoun system was propagated by translators either directly from the English source texts or through intermediary translation by way of Japanese. These gendered pronouns are almost exclusively used in literary works, found only occasionally in newspapers and almost never used in colloquial speech. 

Since gendered pronouns in Korean are a recent construct, it was simple for Lee Jong San to avoid them entirely when writing about Ahn in the Korean source text. Korean is a language less sensitive to repetition than English, so avoiding pronouns by repeating Ahn's name creates no problems for the Korean reader. Pronouns feel required for a fluid English translation, but both the author and I felt that to use a binary male or female pronoun for Ahn would be unacceptable, erasing the queerness of the character.  

Lee Jong San mentioned to me that even as she was writing Customer she had worried about how Ahn would be dealt with in translation. For authors who are not as familiar with the language that their work will be translated into, the prospect of translation is both exciting and nerve-wracking. I feel that it is important for the translator to include the author in their process as much as possible, particularly since choices such as which pronouns to use for a character can make an impact on both the way that descriptions of the character are translated and the overall cohesiveness of the language and tone of the resulting translation.

Before approaching the pronoun, I worked to create a term for this new gender, jungseongin, that was separate from its medical definition as "intersex," because I didn't want to correlate the fantastical elements of this new gender with an actual clinical term.  I felt that the term should rely on Greek or Latin roots to mirror the Chinese-derived technical term of jungseongin, and to give a sense of being as scientifically grounded as the binary system of male and female. I discovered the word I would go on to use when reading Angela Carter’s short story "Reflections," from the collection Fireworks, which features a character with both male and female genitalia called "The Androgyne." This word felt right in the futuristic setting of Customer and through its construction mirrored the concept of the jungseongin being a combination of male and female genetics.

This theme of the jungseongin or androgyne having a mix of male and female genes is something that I ultimately decided to carry over into my choice of pronouns for Ahn and subsequent androgyne characters. After testing out a variety of different pronouns, I decided I liked the "z" sound of Ze/Zir and Xe/Xem pronouns, which feel neutral and slightly futuristic. I believe that when translating a queer text, the queer elements, be it speech patterns, pronouns, or descriptions, must be even more prevalent to keep the queerness of the characters and the language from being lost in a more subtle translation. Therefore, in order to add even more emphasis to the concept of an Androgyne gender, I took inspiration from the chromosomes which determine sex, XX for female, XY for male, and chose to use a modified form of the Xe/Xem pronoun set, Xe/Xyr/Xymself.  In the world of Customer, where a change in genitals is only a shopping trip away, the themes of identity, androgyny, and pansexuality can only be further reinforced for the readers through careful curation of the description of nonbinary and gender fluid characters.

Queer characters and queer themes in translation rely on an intimate knowledge of both the queer source culture and the queer culture of the target language. If a translator is ignorant of the concerns and opinions of the queer audience, then a work of queer fiction can quickly alienate its readers. As translators of queer literature, it is our responsibility to prevent queer erasure and to make a point of presenting bold, embodied queer translations which challenge readers and create a space for future queer translations to come through.


Published Jul 4, 2019   Copyright 2019 Victoria Caudle

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