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How are personifications that change the gender correctly handled if the target language is English?

The question arised when a colleague wanted to translate the following (German) sentence:

"Die Sonne zeigt uns ihr freundliches Gesicht", which literally word-by-word translated means "The sun is showing us her friendly face", as "Sonne" is female in German.

We discussed three options:

  1. This is not a personification of the sun, so it should be "The sun is showing us its friendly face".
  2. This is a personification, and if I recall correctly, a personification of the sun is male in English**: "The sun is showing us his friendly face"
  3. This is a personification, but we should stay as close as possible to the source language: "The sun is showing us her friendly face"

We are sure all three would be understood, but what is correct?

** This might not be the case, it's something I believe to be true as Sting things "You'll forget the sun in his jealous sky" in "Fields of Gold"

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    Incidentally, the closest English phrase to yours is "The sun has got his hat on" with a masculine pronoun, but this doesn't address the general issue of translation.
    – Tevildo
    Oct 27, 2023 at 6:59
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    I don't think there is a 'right' or 'wrong' way - it's your choice as translator. You are right in saying that in English, traditionally, the sun is 'he' and the moon 'she'. Oct 27, 2023 at 7:24
  • You can personify most things as a man or a woman. In some cases it'll feel more natural to use one than the other, but it will depend on your precise imagery and symbolism. That said, "its" is fine in the given example.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 27, 2023 at 8:00
  • It's very common to speak of inanimate things as having faces (clocks, flowers, geometric shapes, etc), so I'm not sure it really counts as a personification (although friendly is perhaps a personification, it is often used of weather, atmosphere, environment, etc).
    – Stuart F
    Oct 27, 2023 at 8:57
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    If the gender in German makes a difference to the story, use it. Otherwise, forget it.
    – Lambie
    Oct 27, 2023 at 16:49

3 Answers 3

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You ask which is correct. There is no single “correct” translation—indeed there cannot be one. “Perfect” translation is impossible because every human language is immersed in and deeply influences the culture of its speakers. Translators can seldom get firm footing when navigating the resulting differences.

As just one example of such cross-cultural quagmires—even between two cultures that share a language (pace Churchill)—consider Douglas Hofstadter’s discussion in his “Metamagical Themas” column in the September 1981 edition of Scientific American, in which he explores the question Who is the First Lady of Britain? Would it have been Margaret Thatcher? But she’s the one in power. Her husband, Dennis? But he’s a man. And so on.

The challenges of translating are magnificently summarized in the Italian expression Tradutore, traditore. Its denotation is that a translator is a traitor. But that English-language rendition is nearly lifeless. The French can do much better with their Traduire, c’est trahir; at least theirs rhymes. But to accomplish the rhyme they must switch from the agent to the action (from nouns to verbs), which softens the accusatory tone. And besides, the Italian original manages to consist of two words that differ by only a single (unstressed) vowel. You can see that trying to translate it ruins it. It’s nearly an act of treason against that beautiful utterance. And that’s precisely the utterance’s point. We have a masterpiece of self-reference. Or we might think of it as a self-proving proposition.

As to your example having to do with handling the genders of nouns in translating, check out the work of psychologist Lera Boroditsky, who found for instance that native speakers of German associated with the concept of bridges ideas like grace and beauty, while for Spanish speakers ideas like strength and size came more easily to mind. She links this difference to the respective genders of the word for bridge in the two languages: German’s feminine die Brücke and Spanish’s masculine el puente.

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    In Bible translation in particular, there's a whole theory of translation methods. Different versions are more literal (heading towards word-for-word) while others contextualise more freely, ending up in paraphrases. It helps understanding to have different versions available (if one hasn't mastered the original languages). Oct 27, 2023 at 15:57
  • There is no correct translation because it depends on the writer and what he/she/they want to say. The he/she thing for the sun may be totally irrelevant in fact, or, it may make a big difference but that could apply to contexts where there is no translation...
    – Lambie
    Oct 27, 2023 at 16:10
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    Douglas Hofstadter also has a book about the perils of translation much like this: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Le_Ton_beau_de_Marot
    – Vicky
    Oct 27, 2023 at 18:56
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  • The sun is showing us [possessive determiner] friendly face

is necessarily a personification. Firstly, the word 'face' came into the English language with the sense 'countenance'. However, the original sense has been largely bleached in many modern usages, so 'the north face of the Eiger' say would rarely trigger the human association.

But secondly, including the word 'friendly' certainly invokes the human association. (Although I can only guess at the intended meaning; was there welcome cloud cover? I'm assuming 'friendly' is classifying here, opposed to '[its] stern [face]'.)

So, in English,

  • The sun is showing us his friendly face

is accurate and consistent. Changing to 'her' to reflect the German original would need an explanatory note, as the female personification is non-standard in English. Using 'its' is grammatically acceptable but suboptimal in the register (poetic / whimsical) obviously being used. With translations, translators' notes explaining their methodologies can be appended, and many readers would find this useful here.

Obviously, outside such registers, only 'its' is available:

  • The clock sold for less than the estimate; close examination turned up some faint scratching on its face.
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https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/sun#:~:text=quotations%20%E2%96%BC-,Usage%20notes,originally%20feminine%20in%20grammatical%20gender.

Wiktionary

Alternative forms

sonne, sunne (obsolete spelling)

Usage notes While the sun by tradition is typically regarded as masculine, the noun itself was originally feminine in grammatical gender.

Here are two Stack Exchange posts that speak of sun/moon gender in interesting detail.

  1. Sun and moon: male or female? (2nd answer)

...If the genders were reversed, I am sure that it would be much less disconcerting to English speakers than if they were reversed in German or French, where they actually have grammatical gender. When this poem is translated into German – Das Walroß und der Zimmermann – the moon and sun switch genders; whereas I would be surprised if their genders were switched in anything translated from German to English.

And in fact, it seems that Tolkien, in The Lord of the Rings, makes the moon male and the sun female. See this question. And most readers aren't greatly disconcerted by this shift. One wonders what genders are assigned in the French translation le Seigneur des anneaux. -- Peter Shor

Comment: And in fact, Hans Christian Anderson's fairy tale What the Moon Saw (translated from Danish) has a male moon. So while the moon is traditionally female in English literature, it clearly isn't very strongly associated with either gender. – Peter Shor

  1. https://scifi.stackexchange.com/questions/90153/why-did-tolkien-reverse-the-more-common-traditional-genders-assigned-to-the-sun

Comment: Tolkien in the Lord of the Rings took a lot of inspiration from his work on philology in the Germanic languages, specifically Old English. In Old English, sunne is a feminine noun and mōna is a masculine noun. So in fact, there is no reversal: Tolkien is using the more traditional Germanic gender for the sun and moon. I would guess that this is the reason he assigns them these genders in the Silmarillion. It is (some) modern English speakers that have reversed gender associations with the sun and moon, probably under the influence of Romance languages and Greek and Latin mythology. – wyvern

I vote Option 3 - "This is a personification, but we should stay as close as possible to the source language: "The sun is showing us her friendly face."

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