Long-time readers of this blog will remember how I solved a sticky gender stereotype problem, with the help of my friends, by replacing the “Actress” character in the dialogues in the chapters entitled “How to Explain Number Theory at a Dinner Party” with a “Performing Artist.” The problem has now resurfaced during the preparation of the French version of the book, to be published by Éditions Cassini, whose director is a retired former colleague of mine at Paris 7.
The French translator has done an outstanding job. I started writing in English upon moving to France in 1994, and I saw this as an emergency measure to protect my ability to express thoughts that I believed could not be captured in French. I was still convinced that my English prose was untranslatable when I wrote MWA, and it is partly to guarantee that this would be the case that the syntax is often so convoluted. But the translator — you’ll discover her name when the book is in print – managed to convey my intentions brilliantly.
Gender neutrality, however, is a challenge in French. The translator initially used the word Actrice for “Performing Artist,” but I explained the issue and the dialogue is now between an Artiste and a Théoricien des Nombres. This doesn’t completely solve the problem, however, and I’m not sure the problem, evident in the above excerpt, can be solved.
Non-binary gender grammar does exist in French, though you will not be surprised to learn that “L’utilisation de ces néologismes et de toute autre forme de langage inclusif est rejetée par l’Académie française32.” Most of the stereotypes you have heard about the fustiness of the Académie française are true, but I don’t know how a thorough reform of the French dictionary would solve the problems indicated above. A French number theorist is either a (male) théoricien or a (female) théoricienne. Reactionaries (including some of my colleagues, I suspect) are still arguing that théoricien is adequate for all genders. Progressives have for some years been addressing their exhortations to a gender-diverse community of théoricien(ne)s, or sometimes théoricien.ne.s. But an individual is one or the other — or a self-identified non-binary individual might be a théoricæn (top choice, followed by théoriciem and theorician), if I am extrapolating correctly from the results of a survey published on the blog lavieenqueer. But French doesn’t offer a genuinely gender-neutral translation of Number Theorist; non-binary is another box, alongside male and female. The same goes for the adjective that specifies the Performing Artist’s gender; French Artistes can be patiente or patient or (again copying from the survey) patientæ, patienx, or patiens but they have to be one of those.
I found exactly two tell-tale adjectives in feminine form, applied to the Artiste in the dialogues — and many more in agreement with the number theorist’s designation as théoricien and not théoricienne nor théoricæn. I don’t know how to fix this issue in French, but I don’t even know how to begin to address it in Greek or Chinese, which are the other languages in which you can read the book — if you can read those languages, which I can’t.
This is the cover of the translation by Βερονα Πετρου, published by Ροπή, in which the Performing Artist is called a ΕΡΜΗΝΕΥΤΡΙΑ ΗΘΟΠΟΙΟΣ. Although this seems to be a literal translation, and Google translate is of no help in determining whether or not this expression is gendered, when I type ΕΡΜΗΝΕΥΤΡΙΑ on Google, practically all the images that come up are of women. Moreover, the text is unequivocal. Here is the Greek version of the French text reproduced above, with the feminine ending circled.
Greeks must have come up with non-binary rules for adjectives, but I will leave it to Greek readers to help us figure them out. Meanwhile, there seems to be no way to root out “problematic gendered stereotypes” worldwide, unless we want to imagine the dialogue taking place in the “theater of androids” which — as is recalled at the end of Chapter δ of MWA — was Maurice Maeterlinck’s emergency measure for preserving “the symbol,” “the dream,” and “art.”