Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Doctor! Doctor! An interpretess’s problems with grammatical gender in possessives . . .

A man and his son are in a car accident. The father dies. The son is rushed to hospital. The surgeon arrives, but says ‘I cannot operate on this boy because he is my son.’ Who is the surgeon?

Gender assumption unmasked?

As you’re probably aware, this conundrum has great currency in the bear pit of gender politics. It’s frequently quoted as an example of the pre-conditioning of the mind, which commonly perceives any person in authority in the medical profession as a commanding presence in a wholly male preserve.

Gender assumption unmasked.

The ‘trigger’ words ‘surgeon’ or ‘doctor’ can often lead to gender assumption’, since historically these were exclusively male professions . . . and, of course, the answer to the puzzle – if puzzle it is — reveals the unmasked surgeon to be the boy’s mother

(Even so, I believe this trick question also artfully baffles us by posing another parallel brainteaser: the question of the Hippocratic Ethics of Medicine, under whose precepts the provision of medical care by close relatives is interdicted by most representative bodies advising Physicians and Surgeons in the western world.)

However, it was NOT the ambivalences of gender pre-conditioning that led me to these musings but my chancing upon some recent observations on the pitfalls of French translation by one of modern French literature’s most distinguished English interpretesses, an award-winning Cantabrigian who thoughtfully demystifies the problem of Englishing an account of an unreliable narrator (in excelsis) whose gender is never disclosed. 

An unreliable narrator in excelsis.

Here the translator kindly provides a crib for a bemused English reader challenged by a perplexing French novel from 2003:  
I’m so glad you noticed [viz. the translated French author’s calculated smoke-screen as to the narrator’s sexual identity]! Yes, it is entirely deliberate; the narrator in the book has chosen as the name of a spouse one of the very few names that can be used by either sex in French. And because in that language grammatical gender in possessives is attached to the gender of the thing referred to, not the sex of the person possessing it, it is a lot easier to work that bit of mystification in French than in English (or indeed German, where grammatical gender is attached to the possessor; I remember meeting the German translator of the book). We have several bisexual first names in English: Evelyn, Hilary, and so on. In French, my half-French niece tells me, there are only three: Claude, Camille and Dominique. It was an interesting exercise to keep the pretence going, although of course it becomes clear quite early that the narrator is a gay man who has never before acknowledged his inclinations. 
Marlene Dietrich famously said of Greta Garbo‘She has sex, but no particular gender.’ Similarly, the English language more and more it seems to me is on a headlong course to neuter the distinctions that once elegantly defined the sexual identity of individuals in most fields of human endeavour or wilful enterprise:

            etc. etc.

Heroes and heroines of ludic wordcraft.

In the English legal profession, of course, Testator/Testatrix survive as a distinction recognised in testamentary law for the drawing up of Wills . . . but, as I have observed many times, this fact is hardly remarkable when you consider the survival of the ‘Fortune-Hunting’ novel of the 19th century (and is there any other kind in our own Age of Greed-is-Good?), wherein the hero and heroine in want of a fortune are invariably named Sterling and Libra.

Increasingly, though, the sustaining of precise definitions such as those cited when writing in English becomes a hard won tussle to overcome stuffiness without recourse to tiresome inelegances of construction.

Not that I am claiming the challenges of determining gender distinction with common nouns in English can compete with the magnitude of that supreme task of ludic wordcraft . . . the Lipogram (or, indeed the Palindrome).

Constrained Writing . . . Form is Function.

Recently, I took my cue from Gadsby by Ernest Vincent Wright (the 1939 novel  of 50,000 words written as a lipogram, which does not include words that contain the letter ‘e’), when invited to contribute to a Festschrift to celebrate the 80th birthday of the esteemed editor (and founder, in 1959) of the literary journal, Ambit, Dr. Martin Bax. The challenge was to write a fitting encomium to honour this fine novelist (and one of Britain’s foremost consultant paediatricians) . . . yet an encomium no longer than eighty words. 

As a confirmed completist, I chose to further elaborate the task by omitting the letter ‘i’, a task more formidable than I could ever have imagined but one that was devised to deliver up its constrained message by demonstrating that, in certain cases of ludic wordcraft, Form is Function. 
A True Eye Has No Ego . . . Often a false eye has more human warmth than a true one, a phenomenon some call Art. The same thought must have prompted our journal’s celebrated Founder whose agenda to suppress that thoroughly untrustworthy personal pronoun of the Ego reveals a demonstrable selflessness . . . the cut-ups of Burroughs and Ballard, for example; equally, Dr Bax’s own Ego-key when he types stays well strapped down, too. Text typed here also shares the Contra-Ego hobble for my warmest salute to a seer. 
Yes, Martin Bax, the I-suppressing seer who’s presided over more than five decades of the arts, has sustained his notable reputation as an avant-gardist. His journal has boasted not only the likes of rogue literary lions such as Burroughs and Ballard but distinguished artists such as Peter Blake, David Hockney and Eduardo Paolozzi, to name just a handful of the luminaries published in his pages.

He looked at the girl, and she looked at him, but not a word was said.

Nevertheless, on balance, I feel that practitioners of constrained writing (Hemingway included) could have learned much from a little book I found many, many years ago published as part of a series of  Abridgements in One Syllable. Particularly, Fairy Tales from Anderson and Grimm yields this gem (from The Tin Soldier) . . . 
They put him on the [toy] board. But what strange things there are in this world! It was the same board where he had stood some days since! He saw the same boys and girls and the same toys once more.                                   There was the same big [dolls’] house with the swans on the lake, and the same young girl [a doll] who still danced by the door.                                    The tin man was glad; he looked at the girl, and she looked at him, but not a word was said.                                                                                                       Then one of the boys threw him in the stove. He did not say why he did this. It might have been the fault of the Black Elf in the Snuff Box.              The tin man felt a great heat, for it was hot in the stove. He cast a look at the young girl, and she looked at him; he felt he should melt, but as he was brave he still held his gun in his hand.                                                                 Then all at once the door of the stove flew back and the draught of air caught up the young girl who danced. She flew like an elf in to the stove close to the tin man and flashed up in flame; then she was gone.                          Then the tin man did melt down to a lump, and when the maid came to light the fire next day she found him in the shape of a small tin heart on the hearth stone. No sign was seen of the young girl but the gilt rose, and that was burned as black as a piece of coal.
Well, as to constrained passion, I find this parable wonderfully unrestrained . . . after all, a banked fire burns the fiercest or, as Shakespeare reminds us, ‘Fire that’s closest kept burns most of all.’

Constrained writing . . .
a banked fire burns the fiercest.


Catherine Eisner believes passionately in plot-driven suspense fiction, a devotion to literary craft that draws on studies in psychoanalytical criminology and psychoactive pharmacology to explore the dark side of motivation, and ignite plot twists with unexpected outcomes. 
see Eisner’s Sister Morphine (2008)

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