Are women human?

Une longue diatribe contre un ami qui a osé critiquer ma traduction anglaise d’une citation de Térence.

The other day, Dr Dave at unknowngenius passionately disputed something I had said earlier. My crime? Having suggested that in Terence’s line

Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto.

the word homo should be translated as human being.

I should, of course, know better than to reply to a post in which the term “PC” is uttered. On this matter, I wholeheartedly agree with how the Guardian style guide puts it:

political correctness
a term to be avoided on the grounds that it is, in Polly Toynbee’s words, “an empty rightwing smear designed only to elevate its user”

But I know Dave as an all in all great guy who is only sometimes misguided. So I am making an exception.

Now Dave obviously still believes in that old hat, the gender-neutral Man. I’m at a bit of a loss what to say to that. This horse is so dead it will fall apart if we beat it any further. At the beginning of the 21st century, Man, capital or not, just isn’t gender-neutral, and hasn’t been for a few hundred years.

I could claim, of course, that my suggestion to use human being and not Man had nothing whatsoever to do with gender issues but relied entirely on good translating practice. If you can find an appropriate word in the target language that derives from the same stem as the one in the source language, use it; even more compellingly, if the original passage contains two cognates (words that derive from the same stem), and in particular if the passage plays on the morphological relationship between the two words, try to find an equivalent pair in the target language. Dave didn’t go so far as to suggest to translate the citation as “I am a Man and nothing manly is strange to me” — which would indeed have sounded strange to us all. Or so I hope.

But I’m not stopping here. This is because Dave’s blog entry contains, as far as I can see, two related errors of reasoning:

  1. He asks, rhetorically “What would Cicero do,” and then answers his own question: “Cicero would most likely use Man and laugh at the mere suggestion that a woman might have a valid opinion on such a matter.”
  2. He claims that what I was doing was an attempt to “rectify their [the Romans’] speech in the name of modern enlightened ideas”.

These two points are related because in the second one he accuses me of anachronism while happily committing one in the first. His accusation is a straw man anyway. Terence’s quotation is in no need whatsoever of being rectified, even if I were delusional enough to attempt it.

As far as point number one is concerned, I am, unfortunately, not a specialist on gender in classical Latin. There is an apparently very interesting book on the question. Still, I think Dave has it all backwards when he writes, “To the patrician authors of such Latin quote, a rough 99% of their fellow humanoid bipeds were barely bestowed with a mind of their own… let alone entitled to voice it outside of domestic issues.” To the Romans, vir was not only the “hairy-chested” bloke defined by the presence of the required bodily appendices. Man, as referred to by vir, immediately connoted public agency and a voice in the community. But this neither presupposes nor derives from the idea that women were mindless, subhuman creatures. The particular brand of Roman sexism might just have been able to conceive of the former without implying the latter. There is indeed ample evidence in even thoroughly non-scholarly sources. In the Wikipedia entry devoted to her, Cornelia Africana doesn’t really appear as if she was considered as anything but a full human — even though not gifted with the undisputed public visibility a man would have enjoyed. And even my old Latin dictionary has an example of homo employed to refer explicitly to a woman, in an otherwise unspecified citation by Cicero, which translates roughly as “this woman is so stupid that we can hardly call her a human being”. Sexist? Probably (I don’t know the context). But Cicero clearly supposes that the bog-standard woman is, indeed, a human being, ie homo.

I fear that in Dave’s vision of Roman life, general male opinion on women agreed with this late 16th-century pamphlet titled, “Of women, that they are not human beings”. But where is the evidence?

The treatise is a spoof, by the way: a satirical essay directed at the Anabaptist sect. Its underlying reasoning goes roughly like this: “The Anabaptists’ arguments (denying the divinity of Christ) are so shakey that, using the same reasoning, I could as well prove that women are not human.” Unfortunately, the author of this pamphlet was taken seriously by some. But that’s another story.

1 comment(s) for 'Are women human?'

  1. (Comment, 2006-03-16 01:46 )

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove here, but perhaps its simply your own observations and questioning of literal meaning of the Roman language. ‘Vir’ in general would specifically translate as man, as in, the male version of our species. ‘Homo’ for sure would mean the human species as a collective term for anything humanoid, with humanlike thoughts, looks, instincts, etc. This is why when using ‘homo’ as an adjective, it isn’t changed depending on he, she, it, you, I, we, or they. It remains the same, because all humans simply are.