Translating Gender: Ancillary Justice in Five Languages

Alex Dally MacFarlane

In Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice (Orbit Books: 2013), the imperial Radch rules over much of human-inhabited space. Its culture – and its language – does not identify people on the basis of their gender: it is irrelevant to them. In the novel, written in English, Leckie represents this linguistic reality by using the female pronoun ‘she’ throughout, regardless of any information supplied about a Radchaai (and, often, a non-Radchaai) person’s perceived gender. This pronoun choice has two effects. Firstly, it successfully erases grammatical difference in the novel and makes moot the question of the characters’ genders. But secondly, it exists in a context of continuing discussions around the gendering of science fiction, the place of men and women and people of other genders within the genre, as characters in fiction and as professional/fans, and beyond the pages of the book it is profoundly political. It is a female pronoun.

When translating Ancillary Justice into other languages, the relationship between those two effects is vital to the work.

After reading a comment by the Hungarian translator, Csilla Kleinheincz, posted on Cheryl Morgan’s blog, we wanted to know more about this. We invited the translators of the novel into Bulgarian, German, Hebrew, Hungarian and Japanese to discuss the process, with particular interest in the translation of gender. What emerges is an insight into the work of translators and the rigidity and versatility of grammatical gender in the face of non-standard demands. Where necessary, translators turned to innovative and even inventive ways to write their languages.

The five languages under discussion vary greatly in how they write gender, which presented specific issues for translating Ancillary Justice. Milena Ilieva, the Bulgarian translator, writes:

“Well, it’s a huge situation since we have gender for almost everything – nouns, the definite article, gender inflections for verbs, participles, adjectives. But the greatest problem with regards to my translation were the feminine forms for professions and military positions. As for non-military professions we have an active tool to make any profession grammatically feminine by adding the suffix – ka – to the masculine form (profesor – profesorka), but lately the feminine forms are increasingly felt to be depreciative and the masculine form is used even for women. Why they are felt as depreciative is a complex question, the short answer to which is a combination of English influence plus the fact that the suffix for the feminine in professions coincides with the feminine suffix for the diminutive. As for positions in the military they have never had feminine forms, maybe because until recently women were not allowed in the armed forces. So you can see how I found myself in an almost impossible situation – I couldn’t use oficerka instead of oficer because it sounded ridiculous (I’ll try to use foreign words for examples, so that it’s easier for you to understand, though some of these words entered our language long ago and are felt as native). I couldn’t even use the feminine for common professions (inspektor – inspektorka) since their depreciative connotation would be at odds with the book. But I couldn’t keep the masculine either because it just wouldn’t match with the feminine pronouns when used extensively.”

For Bernhard Kempen, the German translator, the grammatical gender of German initially worked in his favour: “The German pronouns are basically the same as in English, so ‘she’ and ‘her’ became ‘sie’ and ‘ihr’ or ‘ihre’.” However, he too realised that translating nouns raised questions: “When I translate ‘a friend’ I have to decide for the male ‘ein Freund’ or the female ‘eine Freundin’; correspondingly, ‘the doctor’ is either ‘der Arzt’ or ‘die Ärztin’.”

Hebrew presented considerable challenges, as Emanuel Lottem explains in shared correspondence with Ann Leckie: “All verbs and adjectives vary according to gender. An exception is the pronoun ‘I’, which is the same for both females and males, but when a woman says ‘I sit’ it’s ‘ani yoshevet’, whereas a man would say ‘ani yoshev’. Moreover, all objects, concrete or abstract, are either feminine or masculine, so that in a sentence like ‘a large room (m.) with a large door (f.)’, the word ‘large’ would be ‘gadol’ in the former case, ‘gdola’ in the latter. This is not much of a problem when Breq tells her story, but it is when non-Radchaai are talking.”

This even presented a problem for the novel’s title: “The word for ‘justice’ – tzedeq – is unfortunately masculine, and I’d hate to use it in the title because of that.”

Japanese, too, is grammatically gendered, but in different ways. Hideko Akao, the Japanese translator, explains: “It is in colloquial speech that I had to make a particular effort in the Japanese translation. Most common English personal pronouns aren’t gender-specific but third-person singular is. On the other hand, Japanese has a great many first- and second-person pronouns and they may often differ depending on natural gender. In addition, Japanese has many different tones between male and female in conversational sentence, in particular in sentence-final expressions: if a character speaks in an ‘unfeminine’ manner, Japanese readers often tend to assume it is ‘him’ automatically.”

Hungarian is quite different. Indeed, Csilla Kleinheincz feels that it “stands much closer to the fictional Radchaai language” than English.

“Hungarian language doesn’t have grammatical gender, and uses a neutral pronoun when referring to a person – ő – so, by default, unless gender is clearly indicated in the text, the characters are existing in a kind of dual state much like Schrödinger’s cat – unless stated, the character can be either gender. Normally translation from a language that uses gendered pronouns means that in the Hungarian version we have to indicate early on the gender of the character, referring to him or her as ‘the man’ or ‘the woman’ to establish the same mental image a reader of the original work would have. When referring to characters in a scene with many people in it, this may make the text clunky, because instead of simply saying ‘she did a somersault, he did a cartwheel’ we have to make it clear who ‘she’ or ‘he’ is in a sentence, because they can’t be both referred to by the same neutral pronoun – it might lead to confusion.”

Each translator took their own approach.

Aside from the novel’s title – which became Ancillary IntegrityEmanuel Lottem had to tackle the choice of other words based on their gender in Hebrew: “For other objects, I’ll have to play it by ear: use feminine synonyms wherever possible, avoid using adjectives where they’re not essential, or use them in the feminine form where there’s no choice, hoping it won’t look absurd. I’ll have to ease the readers into this very gently.”

There was also the question of the non-Radchaai characters’ genders and how Breq ought to refer to them, as the singular pronoun ‘you’ is gendered male or female in Hebrew. For this, correspondence with Ann Leckie provided valuable pointers on her preferences.

Milena Ilieva had to alter her language to suit the text: “I invented a third form for professions and military positions by adding just – a – instead of – ka – to the masculine form (– a – is the common ending for feminine with nouns; it is also the ending which turns a masculine adjective into a feminine one). In this way I had oficera instead of oficerka and inspektora instead of inspektorka, which are definitely felt as feminine but without the depreciative nuance.”

For Bernhard Kempen, the solution to the gendered nouns of German was a choice: “I used the female forms, so the narrator’s voice in the German translation sounds even more ‘feminine’ than in the English original.” Though not quite an invention, this was an innovating approach.

“In the end I wrote a preface for the German edition Die Maschinen, explaining the unique problems of this translation, also referring to feminist issues. Gender neutral language is quite difficult to realize in German, because gender plays a much stronger role than in English. Feminists especially criticize the ‘generic masculine’ form, when a plural like „Liebe Leser“ („Dear readers“) is grammatically masculine but meant to include the „Leserinnen“, the female readers, as well. Occasionally it was proposed to use the ‘generic feminine’ instead, i.e. using female forms only, meant to include all male persons as well.

As far as I know, my translation is the first German language novel written in the generic feminine – with a few exceptions when the characters don’t speak Radchaai. In some of these cases I even had to be more specific than the author, using the ‘right’ gender forms for persons that weren’t marked in the English text. Luckily I had e-mail contact with the author, so we could clarify some ambiguities.”

In Japanese, Hideko Akao had to take a different approach: “Therefore, contrary to Breq, who often took a conscious effort to express grammatical gender clearly in her conversation outside of the Radch space, I had to take care to make them ambiguous as much as I could.”

Regarding the conversational tones, she adds: “And then, the Japanese equivalent of the third-person pronoun ‘she’ certainly means female in Japanese. So then, our readers may be bewildered when a character is referred to as ‘she’ since it is understandable that they have assumed ‘him’ as a male because of his ‘unfeminine’ language – which may often be considered synonymous with ‘masculine’ for us, as I said. However, now I hope that such a little feeling of strangeness will end up rather stimulating and expanding their imagination about the universe of the story.”

Milena Ilieva, too, remarks on the need for the reader to adapt: “It sounds a bit odd for the first couple of pages, but you get used to it pretty fast.”

The situation in Hungarian put Csilla Kleinheincz in the position of balancing the neutral and feminine effects of ‘she’ in the novel:

“When translating Ancillary Justice I could skip the stablishing of gender and could stick to the neutral pronoun that is natural to our language. Of course, this also meant that I had to let go of the default ‘she’ and I tried to make up for it by using the female versions of the words describing relationships when a gender-neutral version wasn’t applicable. This removes the shock an English reader feels when absolutely everyone is a ‘she’ but I wanted to keep the text flowing and natural while retaining the mentality behind using ‘she’ as the default pronoun.

The way Breq describes Radchaai language, it seems closer to Hungarian than to English – therefore some Hungarian readers didn’t ‘get it’ why Breq worries so much about choosing the right gender when referring to a person in another language (many Hungarians make accidental mistakes like mistaking ‘he’ and ‘she’ and don’t think too much of it). It felt natural to use gender-neutral pronouns and in many cases it was even easier than an English translation usually is. I hope that the flow of the text justifies my choice in staying on neutral ground.”

What is clear in all of these responses is that by examining the notions of ‘neutral’ and ‘feminine’ in grammar and gender through the lens of translation, we reveal their complexity – and some of their possible futures in languages, in both literature and speech.

Thank you to all five translators for their time and responses, and to Ann Leckie and Will Roberts for putting us in touch with them.


Milena Ilieva has been a freelance translator for twenty years, working on around sixty books in all genres, but predominantly science fiction and fantasy, among them a large proportion of Bujold at her best (including the last six books of the Vorkosigan saga), the Mark Lawrence Thorns trilogy, Andy Weir’s The Martian and many more. Apart from translating, Milena teaches English at the Sofia University.

Bernhard Kempen was born in 1961 in Hamburg and has lived in Berlin since 1984. He studied Comparative Literature, finishing his M.A. in 1987 at UEA in Norwich and his Ph.D. in 1994 at FU Berlin. Since 1993 he has translated more than 130 science fiction novels from English to German. He has also written stories and novels, ranging from erotic to science fiction, and appeared in several erotic cabaret performances, some of them featuring his transgender identity Barbara.

Emanuel Lottem, Ph.D. (Econ.), was born in 1944 in Israel. He has been translating science fiction and fantasy (among other genres) since 1976. He served as the head of the editorial board of the relatively short-lived but highly influential magazine Fantasia 2000, in 1983-1985, and played a central role in the evolution of Israeli fandom, including the establishment of the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy (1996), for which he served as its first Chairman until 2001. He has translated more than 100 SFF titles so far.

Csilla Kleinheincz is a Hungarian-Vietnamese writer, editor and translator. She has three published novels and a short story collection. She translates SFF into Hungarian, including the works of Peter S. Beagle, Kelly Link, Catherynne M. Valente, Ursula K. Le Guin, Scott Westerfeld and Ann Leckie, and she is currently working as the editor of the Hungarian publishing house Gabo.

Hideko Akao graduated from the Department of Mathematics, Tsuda College. She has translated science ficttion, mystery, and scientific nonfiction books, with translated authors including Seth Grahame-Smith, Vernor S. Vinge, Robert A. Heinlein, and Anne McCaffrey.