Translation question: balancing use of gendered pronouns and historical fidelity

When I was a new Sanskrit student, one of my first teachers, a female Sanskritist, told me that she didn’t agree with the idea of introducing female pronouns while translating Sanskrit texts (excepting, of course, when the original Sanskrit is in the feminine case or contextually about women). To paraphrase her remarks “when our authors are clearly speaking about men, or about activities that were performed only by men, it is mere political correctness and historically inaccurate to use ‘she’ or ‘her’.”

Her point seemed strong to me, and still does in many ways. We wouldn’t use “she” when translating a passage about the duties of kings for example, or of the duties of male Brahmins. But what about cases where our authors would likely use masculine examples yet the situation is in fact gender neutral? In these cases, our classical authors may have naturally used men for their generic examples owing to their own habits and biases. As translators, are we supposed to represent their own practices by using masculine pronouns as well, trusting that our reader understand that this is the most faithful way to translate their work (among other things, not blaming us for sexist language)? Or, in the act of translation, do we introduce more balanced language, understanding that translation into “our” language means respecting our own, less sexist conventions?

An example, pulled almost at random from what I have in front of me, of something I am tinkering with.

Why would one want to inquire about something that is not properly known? Because she thinks “I will avoid, pursue, or remain indifferent toward an object that is known in truth.”  (Nyāya-bhāṣya 1.1.32)

I here use “she” given the context of the passage, which describes anyone who is interested in systematic inquiry into something. Curiosity is gender-neutral! This may depart from the sensibility of the original authors, but not–I would hope–in a way that violates the historical integrity of the translation.

In short, then, when faced with introducing pronouns in English to translate Sanskrit, my current attitude is to stick with masculine when the activities in question would in fact only have been performed by men, but otherwise, blend masculine and feminine pronouns as I would in my other writing.

How do you approach this issue? Any suggestions or reflections on navigating it?

(Note: personally, I find hybrid “s/he” stylistically cumbersome, and ungendered pronouns distracting, but I’d rather not debate the issue of using them vs. my current practice of blending “he” and “she” as much as the basic point above regarding historical fidelity vs. avoiding sexist use of pronouns.)

About Matthew Dasti

Matthew R. Dasti is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Bridgewater State University.

23 thoughts on “Translation question: balancing use of gendered pronouns and historical fidelity

  1. In such cases I would probably stick with “he” when translating, to better reflect the author’s own way of thinking – but use “she” or other neutral pronouns when paraphrasing, especially when constructively applying the author’s thought to our present-day hermeneutical situation.

  2. Vātsyāyana meant “every conscious being” and it is a historical accident that ‘every conscious being’ at his time meant ‘every male dvija‘. I would specify it (only) if discussing the sociology of Vātsyāyana’s philosophy.

      • exactly. I agree with Jayarava in all other cases and would use (according to the style of the text) “one”, “they”, “s/he” or even alternate “she” and “he”.
        The point is: Vātsyāyana surely did not want to further particularise his claim (“every rational being”), whereas nowadays using only the masculine does sound like making an explicit claim about who is in and who is out.

        • “Vātsyāyana surely did not want to further particularise his claim (“every rational being”), whereas nowadays using only the masculine does sound like making an explicit claim about who is in and who is out.”

          Well said.

  3. When we translate a text we go from one grammatical domain to another. Sanskrit grammar is highly gendered and uses masculine pronouns when it means all genders. But English is far less gendered and the universal masculine has largely fallen out of use. There is absolutely no requirement to reproduce the grammatical conventions of Sanskrit when writing in English. Indeed the practice is widely criticised. In my field it is known satirically as “Buddhist Hybrid English”.

    I opt for the third person they/them/their when the meaning is clearly universal as opposed to gender specific. So in your example:

    Why would one want to inquire about something that is not properly known? Because s̶h̶e̶ one thinks “I will avoid, pursue, or remain indifferent toward an object that is known in truth.”

    (Changing gender mid-paragraph just looks like bad grammar).


    Why would [some]one want to inquire about something that is not properly known? Because s̶h̶e̶ they think “I will avoid, pursue, or remain indifferent toward an object that is known in truth.”

    These conventions, which already exist in English, are becoming more common and are far less jarring than transgender sentences.

    • I did both of these for a while, Jayarava, but I found that stylistically, repeating “one” is unappealing, as is moving from the singular “one” to the plural “they”. A matter of personal sensibility to be sure.

      I agree that shifting between “he” and “she” should not be done in the same paragraph, but where one can see that different individuals are being spoken of.

      • Once one starts using the indefinite pronoun “one”, one must be prepared to follow through, as the language one speaks has this as a firm convention. Though this idiom is confined to one social class in the UK and sounds weird unless one is a member of that class.

        When used as a indefinite pronoun “they” is not plural, it is a collective singular. And it is used in spoken language this way. Language Log (the go to blog for grammar enthusiasts) have discussed this on a number of occasions under the label “singular ‘they'”:

        As far as I can see singular “they” is the only solution with some claim to legitimacy.

        • You are right, it is conversationally common.

          “Look, if somebody doesn’t like it, they can speak up.”

          “When a person begins graduate school, they must work hard.”

  4. I think this problem is more important for American and British scholars than for others. I’m really sorry for the politically correct readers, but I do not really see any reason to even think about this topic, I will go on translating masculine pronouns as masculine etc., regardless of the target language (in my case, English, German or Italian). Without having to discuss the finer points of translation theory, I think that if a language provides the author with the possibility of choosing between genders, and the author chooses one over the other, well, why should I disregard this choice? I think and proceed differently, of course, when I am translating texts composed in languages without grammatical genders.

    P.S. I’ve been heavily criticized by the editor of a volume to which I submitted an article for using the masculine pronoun “he” when in a sentence I was referring to the supposed reader of my article. Well, I have to say that I found the critique ridiculous, even more because I felt that if I’d used “she,” she wouldn’t have complained. Next time, I will use “it,” after all it is neuter.

    • Clarification: I am not necessarily talking about going from a masculine pronoun in the original to feminine in English, but cases like translating “hAsyAmi. . .iti” above for example, when there is no specified gender in the original, and English may use a gendered pronoun “she thinks, ‘I will avoid…'”.

  5. As a scholar you have to be faithful to the text political correctness notwithstanding. What can we do if in the past the masculine pronoun was in vogue. My suggestion is that stick to the original, but while giving your commentary you can use your poetic licence. Or in the notes to the reader you can say that ‘he’ is used as ‘upalakshana’ and thus it includes the females. I know feminists will not be satisfied. The truth is, we cannot judge what was written hundred of years go by our present thinking, which might change again. I would stick to the original, if someone does not want to read it, let it be so.

  6. Since someone brought up “The Lost Age of Reason” in the context of a different post: Ganeri mentions that Raghunātha Śiromaṇi interpreted “jagat” at the beginning of the Tattvacintāmaṇi to mean all of the varṇas, including women. This is an explicit claim about the inclusivity and accessibility of philosophy. The use of masculine pronouns isn’t, although we might extrapolate certain sociological conditions from their very unmarkedness (I myself don’t feel entitled to this kind of extrapolation—we barely know anything about Vātsyāyana, and yet we feel we can make sweeping judgments about the society in which he lived?). I don’t feel compelled to introduce feminine pronouns, even when the Sanskrit is gender-neutral, any more than I feel compelled to change “Devadatta” to “Jane Smith.” In case it needs to be said: I think that one can translate “paśyati” as “he sees” and still be a feminist in word and deed, because the battle of the pronouns (especially in translations of Sanskrit philosophical texts…) is probably of much less strategic importance in the struggle for feminism than it once seemed.

    • Yes, and Vātsyāyana himself makes the point of noting that all living beings (prāṇabhṛt) rely on pramāṇas (NBh. 1.1.1), ordinary life (for all people) depends on basic understanding of how knowledge sources and their objects relate (2.1.20), etc., which allows for some space here too.

  7. Pingback: Translating from Sanskrit: Methodological issues | elisa freschi

  8. Not to take things too far afield, but I’m dismayed by the use of the (pejorative, to my ear) term “political correctness.” Language use is not morally neutral. (See Vrinda Dalmiya’s article about this, for example: “Linguistic Erasures.”) While people may genuinely differ about whether certain gendered pronouns have a psychological impact, reflect social biases, and what the correct thing is to do in response, dismissing the concerns as people simply being “PC” is unfair.

    In case anyone is interested, I surveyed some of the literature on this in a couple blog posts a few years ago. (I don’t claim to be an expert in this topic, so if anyone has newer/better references I’d be very interested in them.)

    As for the initial question, I think Jayarava’s absolutely right to point out that the third person plural is an option. It also has the benefit of breaking us outside of the gender binary of he/she (though I would hesitate to call sentences “transgender” and reserve that adjective for people). Still, for reasons of style and inclusivity, I tend to default to using “she/her” for generic pronouns myself, and would likely use that same default in translations when translating something used as a generic for all persons.

  9. Hi Malcolm. Thanks for this.

    If “PC” is inappropriate we can easily substitute something else, like “over-scrupulous sensitivity” for the concern in play. The idea is that there is something like an Aristotelian scale with excess and deficiency on either side and virtue is hitting the right spot. Such virtue may be pluralistic in nature. But minimally, sexist language is on one extreme side, a deficiency. Something is on the other extreme side, and whatever term we wish to use to signify it, that’s what is meant here.

    This is not to say that the concerns you voice are PC, or over-scrupulous or anything like that at all. Your reminder about the seriousness of the problem of exclusionary use of language is apt. This post is indeed driven by such concerns. The question is how do we do justice to them while being historical faithful.

    But yes, the bigger question of sexist language in our culture is a bit far afield. A worthy discussion, but not exactly what I’m asking here.

    Like I said to Jayarava, I used to use “one” and then “they” but somehow, don’t feel entirely comfortable going from singular to plural like that. Again, it’s a matter of personal taste.

    • Hey Matt, I agree with your point about a mean between what you call “over-scrupulous sensitivity” and a cavalier disregard. My point is just that using the term “PC” and its attendant connotations closes down the question of whether a standpoint is a matter of such sensitivity or a matter of legitimate moral concern.

      As a philosopher of language and a translator I’m aware that these issues are thorny, and I have no love for simplistic arguments on either side of the debate to which this this term alludes (what counts as a slur and why is really hard to give an account of). My point is merely that in discussing the important question that you raise, I think it is important to keep in mind that those who espouse a viewpoint in favor of, say, using feminine pronouns as a generic, are usually doing for with reasons, even if those reasons are ones with which one might disagree. And those reasons are not (again, in my opinion) charitably glossed with the term “politically correct,” so I really wish philosophers and scholars would refrain from its use for clarity’s sake (not political correctness!).

      I’ll leave this be now, just wanted to make sure my point was clear. I will mull this point over a bit more, especially in connection to Elisa Freschi’s recent blog post about general methodological issues in translation.

  10. I agree that the language we use is political and that the point about gender neutrality in modern English is not a trivial one. But if it really is a matter of style and individual choice, then that makes it very difficult for us ever to adopt a convention, start using it, and become familiar enough with it for it to seem natural.

    Let me cite from the Oxford Guide to English Usage (2nd Ed. 1994, p188). In place of the gendered pronouns in indefinite sentences… “popular usage… has for *at least five centuries* favoured the plural pronoun they.” [Emphasis added].

    While singular “they” is not universally accepted as the alternative to gendered pronouns in indefinite sentences, it is the obvious choice on the basis of usage.

  11. This issue came up two weeks ago in one of the Latin reading groups I’m in, where we’re discussing a new edition/translation of Wyclif’s logic. The question was whether ‘homo’ should be translated as ‘human’ rather than ‘man’, to indicate both sexes. My gut feeling is that unless you are positively sure that making gender changes such as this will not affect anything else in the text, then you shouldn’t do it. Had I adopted the suggested that was being considered for a treatise I was working on a few years ago (Paul of Venice’s chapter on syllogisms), then I would have been caught out later on in the text when the validity or invalidity of a syllogism turned crucially on this ambiguity in the Latin.

    My general feeling is, these historical authors were _not_ politically correct, and it is a misrepresentation of them to make them so.

    • Sara, thanks for the comment and the different perspective. However, does not translating homo ‘human being’ as if it were vir ‘man’ mean being “more royalist than the king”? In other words, should not the burden of the proof be on the shoulders of the ones who want to interpret a non-marked term like homo in a marked way?
      (I know, vir was no longer used as the common term for ‘man’ by the time of Wyclif, but still, homo was —as far as I can judge— commonly used to refer to both men and human beings in general. Was not it?)

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