Wednesday, 22 February 2023

Translating gender

It’ll be no surprise that modern translations can give a slanted impression of ancient texts. This goes for gender too. (Yes, the ancient world had transgender people, non-binary people, non-gendered people, and more.)

Many people take care to use appropriate pronouns these days, but as far as I know that care hasn’t yet become a major concern in published translations. If you don’t know the languages it can be hard to see what the questions are. Here we’ll look at some relatively familiar test cases.

Athena’s pronouns in Odyssey book 1

Recently, I had a decision to make. I was writing an introduction to Odyssey book 1, one of the bits of the Odyssey where the goddess Athena appears to people as a mortal.

Specifically, as a mortal man. What are the correct pronouns to use?

Marc Chagall, ‘Athena and Telemachus’ (1975)

Is this similar to the binary gender situation that Tolkien envisages for divinities in his fictional mythology?

[T]he Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion (1977)

Tolkien’s phrasing doesn’t inevitably treat gender, phenotype, and sex organs as the same thing, but it does regard gender as an essential reality, something intrinsic. Manwë is always male, no matter what he’s doing, whether he’s using a physical body or not.

On one level the Odyssey would agree. The narrator consistently uses grammatically feminine vocabulary for Athena. Here’s part of the episode. Grammatically gendered vocabulary for Athena is in bold.

ὣς εἰποῦσ’ ὑπὸ ποσσὶν ἐδήσατο καλὰ πέδιλα . . .
βῆ δὲ κατ’ Οὐλύμποιο καρήνων ἀΐξασα,
στῆ δ’ Ἰθάκης ἐνὶ δήμωι ἐπὶ προθύροις Ὀδυσῆος,
οὐδοῦ ἔπ’ αὐλείου, παλάμηι δ’ ἔχε χάλκεον ἔγχος,
εἰδομένη ξείνωι, Ταφίων ἡγήτορι Μέντηι. . . .
τὴν δὲ πολὺ πρῶτος ἴδε Τηλέμαχος θεοειδής ...
So she spoke, and bound beautiful sandals beneath her feet . . .
she sped down the peaks of Olympos
and stood in the city of Ithaki, at Odysseus’ doorstep
on the threshold of the court, holding a bronze spear in hand;
she appeared like a male visitor, Mentes, leader of the Taphians. . . .
By far the first to see her was godlike Telemachos ...
Odyssey 1.96–113 (tr. Peter Gainsford)

The participles (εἰποῦσα, ἀΐξασα, εἰδομένη) and the pronoun in line 113 (τήν ‘her’) are all feminine. There’s one clash in line 105 where we’re told that she appeared (εἰδομένη, feminine) like a male visitor (ξείνωι, masculine). Overall, though, it looks like there’s an intrinsic femininity to the character.

But on another level, Athena isn’t a woman wearing drag. When Athena puts on male sexual organs, Athena intends to pass as male. Athena does pass as male. Other characters consistently identify Athena as male, and they aren’t making a mistake.

Just to give you an idea of the gulf separating a translation from Homer’s Greek, in this passage —

... καί μιν φωνήσας ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·
‘χαῖρε, ξεῖνε, παρ’ ἄμμι φιλήσεαι· αὐτὰρ ἔπειτα
δείπνου πασσάμενος μυθήσεαι ὅττεό σε χρή.’
... and addressing them, [Telemachos] spoke winged words:
‘Greetings, male visitor, you are welcome among us. And later,
after malely eating a meal, you can discuss whatever you want.’
Odyssey 1.122–124 (tr. Peter Gainsford)

— modern translators do the exact opposite of what Homer does. They can’t resist using gendered vocabulary in line 122, and non-gendered vocabulary in 123–124.

... and let his words fly out to her.
                    ‘Good evening,
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.’
Odyssey 1.122–124 (tr. Emily Wilson)

In line 122 the narrator uses the gender-neutral μιν ‘them’; in 123–124 Telemachos uses masculine language. If the narrator had used a feminine τήν ‘her’ in 122 instead of μιν (which would be metrically equivalent), the mismatch would be more jarring: it’d be telegraphing that Telemachos is misgendering Athena. But Homer doesn’t do that. Telemachos isn’t making a mistake.

What to do? The important thing, I take it, is to avoid cisnormativity. When talking about the scene, I decided to use the non-binary singular pronouns that English has now adopted as standard — ‘they, their, them’ — and when translating, to use gendered language where Homer does.

It’s especially important to think about gender here, because in recent years Odyssey book 1 has become iconic for its portrayal of ancient Greek misogyny. The scene where Telemachos berates his mother Penelope for speaking isn’t just about depriving women of their voice: it’s also shocking for the way it ogles feminine distress. Penelope has guests in her home throw her grief in her face, she gets silenced by Telemachos, is sexually harassed by the suitors yelling about how they’d like to rape her, and finally she’s stalked by the narrator as she leaves and cries her eyes out in her room.

If we’re going to be honest and treat that scene as — to put it mildly — problematic, then we’d best be honest about Athena too.

My chapter is coming out later this year in the Oxford critical guide to the Odyssey edited by Joel Christensen.

Teiresias’ genders and phenotypes

Athena’s gender in Odyssey 1 isn’t an isolated situation. Ancient myths are full of figures and scenarios that translate into modern terms as transgender or non-binary.

In another myth, the seer Teiresias is changed from male to female by divine intervention, then from female to male. It’s quite clear that the idea is that changing phenotypes is the same thing as changing gender. When Teiresias is biologically male he’s a ‘he’, when she’s biologically female she’s a ‘she’.

For Teiresias gender isn’t a choice, it’s force majeure, as it is for most modern trans people. Note where the force majeure comes from: it isn’t Teiresias’ biology that imposes their gender changes, it’s the gods.

Literary treatments of Teiresias’ story vary a great deal in how they deal with gender. Tennyson basically ignores the gender changing: he essentially pretends it never happened. Ovid and Eliot explore the gender changes but are narrowly focused on the act of sex. Ovid equates Teiresias’ femininity with sexual pleasure; Eliot, with rape.

Note. Tennyson, Tiresias (1885); Ovid, Metamorphoses 3.316–338 (8 CE); Eliot, The waste land part 3 (1922).

Another kind of treatment, which focuses on the force majeure involved in the story, is the 2003 film Tiresia (dir. Bertrand Bonello). Tiresia (Clara Choveaux) is a MTF prostitute who gets imprisoned by a stalker, and deprived of access to her hormone therapy. As a result she develops a more masculine phenotype (played by Thiago Telès). The stalker rejects her, blinds her, and abandons her, as she begins to realise she has a gift of premonition.

Teiresias changes gender, yet in a sense they’re always cis. Their phenotype at any given moment is cis for how they identify, but from time to time the gods change both the phenotype and the gender identity. Something similar goes for Caeneus, who is FTM (again by divine intervention) and who identifies and presents as male. In supernatural scenarios like these it can be challenging to find an adequate way to talk about the relationship between sexual organs, sexual phenotype, and gender identity, in ways that are also sensitive to what the story is going to mean to modern people. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Attis’ pronouns in Catullus 63

The Latin language tends to be sparser in its grammatical representation of gender. It has even fewer pronouns than ancient Greek — far fewer than modern English. Latin relies almost exclusively on participles and adjectives.

Beginners often read Catullus as their first Latin author. Poem 63 — one of his ‘long’ poems (not all that long: 93 lines) — tells the story of the semi-divine Attis, a mortal who becomes the consort of the Phrygian goddess Cybele.

Cybele and Attis (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Venezia)

The name ‘Attis’ has a feminine ring to it: compare Ovid’s feminine Caenis, masculine Caeneus. In Greek the name varies between Áttis (sounding feminine) and Áttēs (decidedly masculine). A late poem refers to ‘half-female Attis’ using a masculine article: τὸν ἡμίθηλυν Ἄττιν (Anakreontea 11.2). Occasionally modern readers have confused Áttis with Atthís, meaning ‘Athenian woman’, and also the name of one of Sappho’s lovers.

In Catullus, Attis starts out as Greek, mortal, and male, with grammatically masculine language. He travels across the sea to Phrygia. There they castrate themself, and subsequently Attis is grammatically feminine. As the poem continues her grammatical gender switches every now and then, apparently erratically, between masculine and feminine.

But these expressions of gender aren’t omnipresent, and modern translations have difficulty representing Catullus’ usage. They often have drastic mismatches in where the gendering appears.

Here are the opening lines, along with three published translations. Grammatically gendered language for Attis is in bold type.

Super alta vectus Attis celeri rate maria,
Phrygium ut nemus citato cupide pede tetigit
adiitque opaca silvis redimita loca deae,
stimulatus ibi furenti rabie, vagus animis,
devellit ili acuto sibi pondera silice,
itaque ut relicta sensit sibi membra sine viro,
etiam recente terrae sola sanguine maculans,
niveis citata cepit manibus leve typanum,
typanum tuum, Cybebe, tua, mater, initia,
quatiensque terga tauri teneris cava digitis
canere haec suis adorta est tremebunda comitibus.
Catullus 63.1–11
5 devellit Kokoszkiewicz CQ 61.2 (2011): devolvit MS, devolsit Haupt
Over deep seas Attis, carried on a rapid catamaran,
eagerly with hurrying footsteps sought that forest in Phrygia,
penetrated the tree-thick coverts, the goddess’ shadowy habitat,
and there, by furious madness driven, wits adrift in insanity,
seized a keen flint, slashed away the weight of his groin’s double complement;
and when she felt the members left her shorn of all their virility
dropping still a spatter of fresh-shed blood on the ground as she sped along,
quickly with snow white hand she seized the lightweight rat-a-tat tympanum —
yours the tympanum, o Cybebe, yours, great Mother, the mysteries —
and on the hollow drum-skin beat a tattoo with delicate fingertips,
making this passionate invocation, body convulsed, to her followers.
(tr. Peter Green, 2005)
Attis had hastened across towering seas on a raft.
Eagerly setting his swift foot in the Phrygian grove,
he entered the goddess’s dark, forest-encircled domain
and there was attacked by insanity’s goad. Blinded by passion,
he lightened the weight of his loins with a sharp fragment of flint.
When she ascertained what was left of her limbs, lacking the male,
trickling blood on the ground from her wound, freshly inflicted,
she excitedly took in her white hands a petite tambourine,
Cybele’s horn, tool of your sacrosanct rituals, mother.
Striking the tight hide of the bull with her delicate fingers,
she shivered and started to sing words such as these to her friends.
(tr. David Mulroy, 2002)
Borne in his swift bark over deep seas, Attis, when eagerly with speedy foot he reached the Phrygian woodland, and entered the goddess’s abodes, shadowy, forest-crowned; there, goaded by raging madness, bewildered in mind, he cast down from him with sharp flint-stone the burden of his members. So when she felt her limbs to have lost their manhood, still with fresh blood dabbling the face of the ground, swiftly with snowy hands she seized the light timbrel, timbrel, trumpet of Cybele, thy mysteries, Mother, and shaking with soft fingers the hollow ox-hide thus began she to sing to her companions tremulously.
(tr. Francis Warre Cornish, 1913)

First, note that Catullus’ Latin has no gendered pronouns at all in this passage. Gender is conveyed by participles (vectus, stimulatus, citata, adorta) and adjectives (vagus, tremebunda). Line 6 sine viro (‘shorn of virility’, ‘lacking the male’, ‘lost their manhood’) is explicit gendering, rather than grammatical gender.

In the translations, not many of the gendered pronouns correspond to gendered language in Catullus’ Latin. The most striking mismatch is the lines when Attis castrates themself, in lines 5 and 6. The translations all pack these lines with gendered pronouns — but the Latin has no grammatical gendering at all!

Here’s my own effort, with gendered pronouns confined to places where Catullus uses gendered language.

He sailed over the deep — Attis, over the seas in a swift skiff —
touched the Phrygian grove, touched it eagerly with swiftened foot,
and entered the dark places of the woods, property of the goddess.
He was driven by raging ecstasy there, he was changeful in spirit;
tore off the weight from the groin using a sharp stone;
then felt what parts were left, without the male,
while staining the soil of mother earth with fresh blood.
She swiftly took the light drum in snow-white hands —
your drum, Cybebe, your sacred mysteries, mother —
and pulsing the hollow bull’s hide with tender fingers
she trembled as she began this song to the entourage.
(tr. Peter Gainsford)

1 vectus. Catullus introduces gendered language very early on, in the third word of the poem. Among the published translations above, only the oldest, Cornish, tries to reproduce this.

2 Phrygium ... nemus; 7 terrae sola. It strikes me that Catullus is playing with mismatches in grammatical gender, so it seems important to convey them in translation where feasible. In line 2 ‘Phrygian grove’ is neuter, but nemus has a masculine-looking ending: so my translation adds ‘it’ to make it more marked. In line 7 ‘soil of mother earth’, terrae (‘of earth’) is feminine and sola (‘soil’) is neuter: I add ‘mother’ as an indirect hint at the mismatch.

3 adiitque. Green has Attis ‘penetrating’ the grove. I find that tendentious: there’s nothing especially sexual about the Latin here.

4 vagus animis. The published translations all think this suggests impaired mental function (‘wits adrift in insanity’, ‘blinded by passion’, ‘bewildered in mind’). I disagree. vagus appears again at lines 13 and 25: it’s thematic. It indicates mobility, something shifting, without an anchor. Attis’ gender is about to change, and vagus is surely a piece of framing for that event. Later, in lines 13 and 25, vaga refers to groups who are congregating and moving towards a specific place: 13 vaga pecora (‘shifting cattle’), 25 vaga cohors (‘shifting company’). It may be significant that the word has a different grammatical gender each time: vagus Attis = masculine, 13 vaga pecora (‘cattle’) = neuter, 25 vaga cohors (‘company’) = feminine.


  1. Replies
    1. Actually no! Both variants of the name existed, and Catullus uses both of them in the same poem.

    2. Thanks! My apologies.

    3. No need for an apology -- rather, I owe you thanks! If it had been a mistake, I'd want to know,

    4. How common is vagus animis, rather than animo? ‘Flitting from one thought to another’ perhaps, rather than ‘wandering in his mind’ as translators suggest.

    5. I like 'from one thought to another'. As it happens, animis is an emendation: the manuscript reads amnis 'river'. Parthenius suggested animi in the 1400s (and that's the text in the PHI database), but as far as I can make out it's been standardly animis for some time.

      Vergil uses furens animis in Aeneid 8.228, for Hercules boiling with anger as he searches for his cattle. That's apparently the closest we get. We do have Iarbas being amens animi at Aeneid 4.203. It may be that expressions with the singular form have influenced how translators have tackled the Catullus line.

  2. This is a very interesting topic! And I really like your translation of Catullus!