Clara Ng’s “Meteors” is a deceptively simple tale of a sweet relationship between an alien and an earthling. Set in a distant galaxy, it plays with the dimensions of space and time. However, reading it in Indonesian likely provides a different experience than reading its English translation. This difference is due to another element that the author is consciously toying with—that of gender. The gender fluidity that exists in the Indonesian is almost impossible to translate satisfactorily for English readers.
I contacted Clara Ng after having difficulty ascertaining the gender of the characters in my initial draft of “Meteors.” The characters’ names were unidentifiable as either male or female, which exacerbated an issue that regularly arises when translating Indonesian—the lack of a gender-specific, third-person pronoun. Dia means both “he” and “she,” and the sex intended by the author in any text is generally understood from the context and recognizable by the male or female names of the characters. But at times an author might deliberately make use of this peculiarity of Indonesian grammar to confuse the issue.
For example, in a story I translated a few years ago, “The Lighthouse” by Linda Christanty, it is not until near the end that a relationship that began during a chance meeting on a beach is revealed to be a lesbian relationship—prior to the end, only the main character is identified as “she.” In the English translation, because of the pronoun “she,” this aspect of the story had to be revealed much earlier. And in another story, “The Seventh Baby” by Lan Fang, where it was easy not to specify the newborn’s gender in the Indonesian, in the translation I had to refer to the baby as “it” throughout, until the punch line revealed that this unwelcome baby was, in fact, a seventh daughter. In English, “it” is fine to use for an unborn child whose sex is not yet known, but we tend not to use “it” once the baby is actually born.
As it turned out, my request for clarification regarding which English pronouns to use for the characters in my translation of Clara Ng’s “Meteors” led to an astonishing (for me) correspondence in which Clara said she was deliberately creating a story with gender fluidity. She said she was happy to leave it up to the reader to decide on the gender of the characters, as this is something that the Indonesian language allows her to do:
First of all, as an Indonesian native-language speaker, I never thought specifically about a gender pronoun. When I say “dia,” in my mind, I never specifically refer to a particular gender. Gender, in Indonesian, is not a binary. “Dia” can be understood as a man, a woman, a neither-male-nor-female, or a between-male-and-female, without referring to someone who is transgender or queer. For Indonesian speakers, this is common, and this “grammar privilege” is often used to deliberately hide gender.
But personally I think gender-neutral pronouns are great because they allow me to speak to and about individuals without making what might be incorrect assumptions about their gender.
I found this same fluidity difficult to achieve when rendering the story in English. Clara offered me various alternatives:
1. To maintain the use of the pronoun “he” for the character Tiansun, as I had in my draft translation, and allow the reader to reconsider the understanding of him as “a man” when they reached the end of the story. However, Clara added:
I am afraid the English speakers will have difficulty doing this. “He” has a clear narrative meaning. “He” is traditionally masculine. Using “he/she” will exclude others who are agender or nonbinary.
2. To use “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as is done in everyday English speech to avoid using “he or she.” “They” would disguise Tiansun’s gender.
3. To use one of the gender-neutral pronouns that Clara found in various other languages—for example, ey, em, nem, nirs, Xe, and hir—though she rightly questioned whether English readers would be familiar with them.
As all translators must ultimately do, I had to make a decision myself. I abandoned the possibility of using one of the foreign gender-neutral pronouns because I felt that, for English readers, it may not make sense, particularly as readers are already taking on board a host of other dimensions, including the details of alien life. I rejected the use of “they” to replace “he” and “she” throughout the text, as it would give a strange impression of plurality. I also didn’t want to use the characters’ names over and over, avoiding pronouns altogether, which would sound clumsy.
In the end, I went with Option 1: to assign a pronoun to each character, as had been my initial response in tackling the gender issue, and to leave the story’s surprise ending to deliver the author’s message. Clara agreed to this solution and pronounced herself happy with my translation.