3

I’m translating Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “The Past” (into Russian). The text is a bit confusing because of this quatrain:

I will betake me to the Past,
And she shall make my love at last;
I will find my home in her tarrying-place —
I will gaze all day on her deathly face!

For the right translation I need to know the gender of the word “Past” as a noun. Can it be feminine?

  • 2
    Hello, Ksenia. Apart from words describing referents with obvious gender, words 'do not have (masculine or feminine) gender' in English, so 'box', 'soil', 'knife', 'atmosphere', 'skirt', 'bow tie' are all neuter. So we'd say 'Here is a box. It is heavy.' // However, gender (often feminine) is quite often ascribed sentimentally to certain objects / concepts, and appropriate pronouns are then used. 'The Hood – she was a sleek ship.' 'Mother nature'. This gets even more confusing with 'The Duke of Sutherland – now she was a beautiful locomotive'. And as for Thomas the Tank Engine ...'. – Edwin Ashworth Sep 16 '17 at 15:57
  • 3
    There is no grammatical gender in English aside from possibly some pronouns. So it is just 'the past' (presumably both e and she are in this 'past'. It's not 'his past' or 'her past', because presumably they were together beforehand. Since you are transalting to Russian, use the Russian grammatical gender for whichever word for 'past' in Russian that is appropriate. – Mitch Sep 16 '17 at 16:19
  • 1
    I would guess that a poet would generally consider "the past" to be feminine if being regarded with warmth or fondness, masculine if regarded as mean or evil-spirited. – Hot Licks Sep 17 '17 at 18:26
5

The confusion referred to by OP is, I think, about who or what "she" and "her" refer to in the poem. Can "the Past" be referred to by feminine pronouns? If not then "she" must refer either to "the mother of woes" in the previous verse, or else to an unidentified lady.

There is a poetic and literary technique, as tchrist mentions, called personification, in which an abstract concept is treated as if a person, and as such either masculine or feminine.

Reading such a poem in English we cannot be certain what "she" means. Ambiguity in a legal document is bad. Ambiguity in a poem is not necessarily bad, but may add depth and breadth. One reader may interpret it one way and another another, and some perhaps interpret it both ways at once. The best translation from one language to another will aim to preserve any ambiguity, but in practice this may not be possible.

It is perfectly reasonable to interpret "she" and "her" in the poem to refer to "the Past".

  • One need look no further than the line immediately previous to the cited quatrain to find an obvious feminine antecedent: "May turn the mother of woe to thee." – tchrist Sep 16 '17 at 22:34
  • 1
    What does "the mother of woe" refer to in turn? – LjL Sep 17 '17 at 2:51
  • The mother of woe seems to refer to the present, which can turn to a woeful future. The rest of the poem is talking about memories of the past. For this reason I don't think "she" is referring to the mother of woe, the present, but rather I think "she" is referring to "the past". When I first read it as a school boy the "she" made me think of a girl I missed - she was not dead but had moved to Birkenhead. Poetry is in the mind of the reader. But I can't see how the mother of woe can be the subject of the rest of the poem - it doesn't seem to make sense. – davidlol Sep 17 '17 at 18:11
3

If you’re looking for an antecedent for all the she and her instances, consider the quatrain just previous to the one you cited yourself, especially its last line:

And so it is in this life of ours,
A calm may be on the present hours.
But the calmest hour of festive glee
May turn the mother of woe to thee.

Since a mother is always a woman, or at least, always female, you might consider whether it’s the mother of woe who’s spoken of afterwards to figure out who all those shes and hers may be referring to.


I don’t believe your assertion that for a correct translation you need to know the English gender of the noun “the past” is correct. For one thing, you never retain the grammatical genders of words from a source language when translating into a different target language. That wouldn’t make any sense, and it would end up being terribly confusing to read. Everything would “come out wrong”.

So even if English did have grammatical gender (it doesn’t), you would still ignore that in a translation. Because you are translating into Russian—a language which, unlike English, actually does have grammatical gender—you should for your translation choose whichever inherent grammatical gender your noun for “the past” would naturally have in your own language.

The noun “the past” has no grammatical gender in English because English does not have grammatical gender any longer. Old English, an unimaginably (and illegibly) distant language from the one we speak today, still had grammatical gender which it inherited from its ancestral Proto-Indo-European, but that has long ago been cast off from the modern language.

Therefore “the past” cannot ever be feminine in English. It also cannot ever be masculine or neuter, or common or generic.

That’s because those things are not grammatical categories of English words. For categories that might somehow matter, “the past” is not usually countable, and it is never human or animate outside of poetic personification, which is not what’s going on here in Browning’s poem.

It’s not enough for a language to have nouns/pronouns referring to things of a particular biological sex for that language’s words to have ‘grammatical gender’, because grammatical gender is something very different from biology. It’s about linguistic word classes, and here noun classes in particular.

English cannot indicate the gender of a word because words do not have grammatical gender in English the way they do in French or Spanish, German or Russian, Greek or Latin.

In a noun phrase like Spanish “el agua pura” (meaning “the pure water”), both article and adjective must match their noun in inherent gender. Each word in the same noun phrase there has the same matching feminine grammatical gender so that they all agree with each other grammatically. This type of grammatical concordance you see here in Spanish simply does not happen in English, which is precisely why English is held to lack grammatical gender.

In its article on grammatical gender Wikipedia states (with emphasis mine) that:

Although Old English had grammatical genders, modern English is not considered to have them”.

That article links to an article on noun classes with a broader discussion in which we read that:

When noun class is expressed on other parts of speech, besides nouns and pronouns, the language is said to have grammatical gender.”

  • 1
    Not all linguists agree that English lacks a grammatical gender system. See grammaticalfeatures.net/features/gender.html, which mentions that some people argue that pronoun gender by itself is sufficient to establish that a language has gender agreement. – sumelic Sep 16 '17 at 22:41
  • @sumelic Thanks for the reference; that was an interesting read. – tchrist Sep 17 '17 at 17:44
0

As Edwin Ashworth pointed out many words in the English language are neuter when we talk about abstract things. Only really straightforward cases like the gender of a specific animal or just a girl or boy are then used to classify the type of that word.

For more information I'd suggest the categroy By Language and then English in the following link. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_gender#English

  • 2
    No words in English have any grammatical gender left to them; no, not one. English does not have grammatical gender at all. – tchrist Sep 16 '17 at 18:15
  • What do you mean exactly? If I comprehend the answer you submitted I can think of counterexamples easily. Like all the personal pronouns and possessive pronouns in the 3rd person to indicate something of a person or animal that you know the gender of. E.g.: actress in contrary to actor. – Anonymous I Sep 16 '17 at 18:19
  • 2
    It’s not enough for a language to have nouns/pronouns referring to things of a particular sex for it to have ‘grammatical gender’. Your own WP article clearly states that “Although Old English had grammatical genders, modern English is not considered to have them” [emphasis mine]. That links to a broader discussion of noun classes including “When noun class is expressed on other parts of speech, besides nouns and pronouns, the language is said to have grammatical gender.” – tchrist Sep 16 '17 at 18:41
  • 3
    English cannot indicate the gender of a word because words don’t have grammatical gender in English the way they do in French or Spanish, German or Russian, Greek or Latin. In a noun phrase like Spanish “el agua pura” (meaning “the pure water”), both article and adjective must match their noun in inherent gender. Each word in the same noun phrase there has the same matching feminine grammatical gender so that they all agree with each other grammatically. This type of grammatical concordance simply does not happen in English, which is why English is held to lack grammatical gender. – tchrist Sep 16 '17 at 18:51
  • 3
    I always see this discussed in such confusing ways! @Anonymous, if by "indicating the gender of word" you mean their natural gender, then most languages do that in some more or less limited way, but that is not what grammatical gender is at all. Conversely, grammatical gender (in languages having it) can be used as one method to indicate natural gender (which I believe causes much of this confusion), but the two are still very separate: e.g., you can have grammatically neuter but naturally feminine (das Mädchen) or grammatically masculine but naturally feminine (il donnone) words. – LjL Sep 16 '17 at 21:07

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy