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.)