German grammar: it’s good for something… Or: the difficulties of gender in translation

German grammar has a bad press, but its complexity actually lends itself to a lot of flexibility in expression – particularly when you want to indicate gender. Using the definite articles die/der, noun suffixes (like -in) or gendered adjective endings are all rather simple ways to add the information that the person or thing in question is male or female. All of these are possible in German, but very hard to replicate in English translation. 

I was reminded of this yesterday when I got an email telling me that a story I translated by Irmtraud Morgner has just been published* – as it’s been a while since I translated it, at first I didn’t recognise the name of the story again, Harlequin in Tübingen. The title was chosen by the editors in part, I now see, to fit the alphabetical contents page of the magazine it’s featured in, but also because the full effect of German original was impossible to replicate in English.

The German original is ‘Der Schöne und das Tier’: literally, Beauty and the Beast – but the twist is, it’s der Schöne, a male Beauty. (And the Beast is a woman, though she happens to be in the body of an owl. It’s a long story…) How on earth could we recreate that in English, while keeping the allusion to the famous fairytale?

The short answer is, I couldn’t: I had the choice of sticking with the well-known title (option 1) – which would keep the sex-change a surprise for the reader, but lose Morgner’s typical, elegant role reversal in the title. Or (option 2) finding a new title which indicated a male protagonist but which played on the original – Beau and the Beast? except his name is not Beau, it’s Desiré (that’s another long story…). Beauty and Beatriz? (the owl is Morgner’s picaresque protagonist, the medieval Provençal female troubadour Beatriz de Dia). Now it strikes me that we could also have chosen a different allusion, to another slightly unlikely pairing: how about the Owl and the Pussycat Harlequin? (option 3: choose another appropriate well-known phrase to play on).

Everything else I came up with was a cringeworthy attempt to shoehorn gender into a language that doesn’t have German’s grammatical options (think himbos and she-beasts) and lost the Beauty and the Beast allusion entirely. So on balance, I preferred to keep the fairytale alive, as it were, until the editors came up with the final option (go for something completely different: see also some of Herta Müller’s titles). I like Harlequin in Tübingen, it has a nice, Morgneresque ring to it with the repeated three syllables and half-rhyme – and if the name change was simply making virtue out of necessity to fit a contents page scheme, that’s no different to the other decisions that a translator is faced with when trying to fit word-play in one language into the grammatical structures of another.

* Irmtraud Morgner, Harlequin in Tübingen (Der Schöne und das Tier), trans. Lyn Marven, in The Drawbridge, issue 20 (Voice). Available as an iPad app.


One thought on “German grammar: it’s good for something… Or: the difficulties of gender in translation

  1. How interesting. You never think about such things, if you don’t have to. But I understand how puzzling this must have been for you and the editing team.

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