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Main  |  A Passion for Translation   |  Inside Translation  |  Native Languages
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Inside Translation
When Rocks Are Alive But Words Are Not
by Ruth Spielmann, CBS Translations

Gender-inclusive language debates in recent years illustrate the challenges and difficulties that participant reference can cause in translation. One of the issues involved in correctly translating participant reference is how a language categorizes nouns. A look at the pronouns we use in English tells us the categories into which English nouns are divided: we use “he” for a male living being, “she” for a female living being, “it” for a non-living object. This set of pronouns indicates that English has three different categories of nouns, each category requiring a different pronoun.

Languages have different ways of categorizing nouns and of referring to them. Many languages, such as French and Spanish, categorize all nouns as masculine or feminine, whether the nouns refer to living beings or not.

Other languages, including those in the Algonquian language family, spoken by many First Nations communities in Canada, categorize all nouns as either living (animate) or not living (inanimate). There is no debate in these languages about gender-inclusive language, since there is no masculine/feminine distinction made in the grammar. The same pronoun is used to refer to any animate noun, male or female or (in our English minds) non-living. However, other complications need to be resolved in translation into these languages.

In the Algonquin language spoken in Quebec, part of the Algonquian language family, people and animals are animate, as are rocks and raspberries. But cars, houses, canoes, and strawberries are inanimate, as well as love, peace, words, wisdom, and any other abstract concept. The two categories of nouns require different endings on verbs or in some cases completely different verbs.

How does this affect translation? Let’s look at an example. Because words are inanimate in Algonquian languages, translators have to find ways to accurately communicate verses like John 1.1 “In the beginning the Word already existed; the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (TEV). Inanimate verbs won’t do here! One solution is to make explicit that the “word” refers to a living being. In Algonquin this was translated: “Long ago, before God created the earth, already there was a person, called ‘God’s Word.’ He was with God and he was God.” This solution allows animate verbs to be used throughout the verse.

A similar translation problem arises in translating “wisdom” in some passages of the Old Testament. For example, in Proverbs 8.1 “Wisdom is calling out,” and in Proverbs 9.1 “Wisdom has built her house.” Here wisdom is not only spoken of as having human qualities, but also is referred to as being female.

Every language has categories or structures that make translation challenging. Pray for wisdom for every person involved in translating God’s Word, that God’s eternal truths might be communicated clearly and accurately in every language.

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