Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Trans lives retold

By Emily Rose

Can the subversion of grammatical gender in the works of transgender authors be rendered in English? Emily Rose considers experimental solutions

When I say ‘I am happy’ in French (je suis contente), I immediately give my interlocutor more information about myself than simply my mood: that little ‘e’ on the end of contente indicates that I identify as female. French marks gender on adjectives, nouns and past participles, as well as third person subject pronouns, while English only marks gender on third person pronouns (‘he/she’) and possessive adjectives (‘his/hers’).

The general rule is that those assigned male at birth use masculine grammatical gender and those assigned female use the feminine. Rules, however, can be broken and there are many examples of books written by people who do just that. They use the linguistic system of grammatical gender to subvert society’s expectations that the gender you are assigned at birth should match your gender presentation (the clothes you wear, the way you walk, the language you use).

One such author is Charles d’Eon de Beaumont, better known as the Chevalier/ Chevalière d’Eon. Written in 1785, D’Eon’s memoir is the fictional story of a woman who dresses as a man, is discovered and forced to return to her ‘natural’ state of womanhood. In reality, d’Eon lived the first half of their life as a man and the second half as a woman.1

D’Eon’s contemporaries believed they were a cross-dressing woman until their death. The text throws up myriad issues revolving around gender, transvestism, being transgender, translation and language because d’Eon uses both feminine and masculine grammatical gender, sometimes in the same sentence.2 Here, d’Eon is speaking to the late King’s daughter about how they were raised a girl and used as a spy in Russia (both fabrications):

J’ai été elevée ainsi, votre Auguste père le savoit et s’est servi de moi. Mais maintenant qu’il est mort, je suis devenu une servante inutile.

I was raised this way, your august father knew it and used me. But now that he is dead, I have become a useless servant.

The words in red are feminine and in green are masculine. How do you show these changes in linguistic gender when translating into English? Should you even bother? Such writers have voices which are not traditionally represented in literature and many translators of their work have written out this representation in translation.

One such translator is RHF Scott, who translated François-Timoléon de Choisy’s Mémoires de l’abbé de Choisy habillé en femme (Memoirs of the abbot de Choisy dressed as a woman) into English in 1973. In their 17th-century text, which was published posthumously in several parts, only coming together in 1862, Choisy takes on two female personas. Before each episode, they write using masculine grammatical gender and then adopt a female voice.

Jeremy Reed, who wrote an afterword for the 1994 re-publication of the translation, comments: “Choisy tells us nothing of his voice; we don’t know if his tone was masculine or feminine.” This analysis is based on an English translation that silences Choisy’s playful use of French grammar.

An insurmountable challenge?

Another transgender writer who is silenced by their translation is Catalina de Erauso. Even though the concept ‘transgender’ didn’t exist in the 17th century, I see Erauso’s 1646 memoir as the story of an early ‘transgender warrior’. It is written in Spanish and Erauso constantly shifts between using masculine and feminine gender markers.

In the introduction to the translation, published in 1996, translator Michele Stepto writes that Erauso’s switches are an insurmountable challenge: “There is no English equivalent for the gender inflections of the Spanish adjective, which make a primary, grammatical notation of gender with practically every sentence, thus setting up a drumbeat of sexual self-identification that reverberates from one end of the text to the other. The fact that Catalina almost invariably uses masculine endings to describe herself is lost in English, as are those rare moments when she chooses a feminine ending.”

Translation is often discussed in terms of loss because people get stuck on the idea that the translation must be a replica of the source. Translation always involves loss of

 some sort but it also involves gains elsewhere. It is always something creative and it can never portray the ‘true’ meaning of the source text because the source itself has no ‘true’ meaning. However, in this case, I do not believe that Erauso’s switches have to or should be lost.

Showing grammatical switches in translation is important because Erauso, d’Eon and Choisy used their writing as an outlet to express their constantly shifting gender at a time when they had to outwardly present themselves as one sex or another and appear to make a definitive choice.

Experimental solutions

The next question is how to represent grammatical gender in English on a practical level. The translators of d’Eon’s text have managed to do this. Published in 1995, the translation indicates d’Eon’s switches by using an ‘m’ or an ‘f’ in superscript after the gendered word. This works very well and echoes an idea I had when coming up with solutions for translating Choisy’s text:

Je n’étais donc contraint de personne, et je m’abandonnai à mon penchant. Il arriva même que madame de La Fayette, que je voyais fort souvent, me voyant toujours fort ajusté avec des pendants d’oreilles et des mouches, me dit en bonne amie que ce n’était point la mode pour les hommes, et que je ferais bien mieux de m’habiller en femme. Sur une si grande autorité, je me fis couper les cheveux pour être mieux coiffée.

I was therefore constrained(m) by no one and I abandoned myself to my inclination. It just so happened that Madame de La Fayette, who I saw fairly regularly, seeing me often accessorised(m) with earrings and beauty spots, told me as a friend that this was not the fashion for men and that I would do better to dress as a woman. On such authority I had my hair cut to be better coiffed(f).

My solutions became more and more experimental as I tried to replicate the carnivalesque atmosphere of Choisy’s text. (Choisy, dressed as Madame de Sancy, marries the neighbour’s daughter Charlotte, who is dressed as Monsieur de Maulny.) I inserted words which do carry gender into words which do not carry gender in English:

They recognised me first, because they had often seen my robe de chambre; so I was obligHEd to take off my mask and to sit amongst the ladies of the ball.

I think something of our little friendship has been discovered; you, on your loneSONe are the cause: why do you whisper in my ear? […] In truth, Monsieur, I’m luckLASS to have loved you.

And I tried to replicate the French language with a double ‘e’ for feminine and a single ‘e’ for masculine:

Am I not luckee, I said to them, to have such an attractive and gentle husband? As he never contradicts me and I love him with all my heart.

Eventually, in order to combine the creative and the practical, and to use my translation as a way of propelling these early-modern texts into the 21st century, I designed a font using the symbols of Mars and Venus, which a professional typographer then created for me:

This allows me to easily show when a word is feminine or masculine in the original:

Translation, no matter how old the source, is a rewriting of the past: the source text is not a historical artefact but a living body of words. It is important to treat transgender writers or characters (or those who might have identified as trans if they could) with sensitivity; to use translation – the best method of disseminating texts and allowing readers to live the life of someone from another time and place – to celebrate their voices, not to write them out.

What it means to be human has been a struggle for many people for centuries. While there has recently been an explosion of interest in trans issues, people have long questioned the gender they were assigned at birth and the rules of binary gender. Through translation, source texts written 400 years ago can still teach us a lot about what it means and has meant to be transgender.


1 I have avoided using gendered pronouns to honour d’Eon’s uncertain gender identification.

2 The terms ‘transvestism’ and ‘transgender’ did not exist while d’Eon was alive. I am reimagining d’Eon’s text in a different context and bringing it into the 21st century for my own investigation into gender and translation.


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