Thursday, 21 November 2013

The surgeon, il chirurgo and la cirujana: gender in translation

I have to admit that when it comes to “gender” and “translation”, I get extremely suspicious towards my own ideas on the topic. I had never come across the issue before starting the MA in Literary Translation and I found out that for me dealing with gender and translation is more complicated than I thought. Mainly because my native language is Italian, I’ve always taken for granted the linguistic binary system (masculine-feminine) Italian is based upon. What I had never considered is how much this affects the way I think.
As a teenager I was really into riddles and I remember being told a very clever one which in English would sound more or less like this:

A man is driving his son to school, when a terrible car accident happens. The father dies, while the boy is in very critical conditions and needs surgery. An ambulance takes the boy to the hospital, where an astonished surgeon claims: “I can’t operate: he’s my son.” How is this possible?

The answer: “The surgeon is the boy’s mother”.

But when I was told that riddle that answer didn’t even cross my mind. My first attempts at resolving the riddle included miraculous resurrections on the ambulance and soap-opera finales, and it took me years until I finally got it right. Presuming that the original version of the riddle is in English, the ambiguity of the language (genderless, with few exceptions) makes the riddle work very well, but in Italian it works even better.

Because the Italian word for “surgeon”, chirurgo, is masculine and breaks the rules.

The general rule that helps you distinguish a masculine noun from a feminine one is that nouns ending with  –o are masculine and nouns ending with –a are feminine. For nouns belonging to the field of “jobs and crafts”, there are other matching desinences like –tore/–trice and –iere/-iera, that perform the same duties.  

Therefore we have operaio and operaia (worker), but also direttore/direttrice (director) and cassiere/cassiera (cashier).
Sometimes the noun doesn’t tell us anything about the gender. It’s the case of preside (headmaster), cantante (singer) and stilista (fashion designer), that don’t vary according to gender. However, we can easily understand whether we are talking about a man or a woman by looking at the accompanying article. Is it il cantante or la cantante? Un preside or una preside? And so on.

Then what happens with a noun like chirurgo? According to the general rule, the boy’s mother would be a *chirurga. Or, at least, *una chirurgo. For historical and social reasons, though, there are some nouns that don’t have a feminine equivalent: chirurgo, avvocato and ministro, for example. There have been some attempts to introduce some feminine equivalents like ministra and avvocatessa, and though in both cases you can actually find those terms in the dictionary, you will also find a “derog.” after them. Feminist translation theorists will please excuse me if I don’t delve deeper into the matter of sexism in Italian jobs and crafts; the only consideration that I’ll make is: no wonder the riddle worked great in Italian, at least ten years ago. Obviously, the more the years go by, the less effective it will be.  

As a translator, I consider this to be one of the rare cases where the genderless ambiguity given by the source text (which was written in English, presumably) is enhanced by gender in the Italian language.

As a final consideration, I wondered whether this riddle could work in Spanish as it does in Italian. It doesn’t. It’s almost impossible to translate. The Spanish feminine word for “surgeon” is cirujana, as opposed to cirujano. Using the masculine to preserve the surprise effect in a Spanish translation of the riddle not only would be stretched and démodé, but also grammatically incorrect.  

I’m Elena Traina, and I translate English and Spanish into Italian, and Italian into English. I’m currently studying Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia. My main literary interest is children’s literature, but I’m a great fan of sci-fi, drama and poetry, too. I can be reached at