Originally published in the Swedenborg Foundation’s newsletter Logos, in the winter of 2009.
By Lisa Hyatt Cooper
One of the principles of the New Century Edition is to make the English translation of Swedenborg’s Latin as gender-inclusive as the original. For the most part, this is not too difficult. The simplest solution is usually to use plurals; “they” has no gender, and “we” is often even more satisfactory.
Still, there are times when it is difficult or even impossible to preserve the inclusiveness of the original. The stickiest problems tend to be sentences about individuals whose actions or roles are specified but whose gender is not, such as those that start, “There was a certain spirit who . . .” New Testament parables can pose the same problem. Take the following words of Jesus in Luke 13:18, 19: “What is the kingdom of God like? It is like a mustard seed that a person took and threw into”—into what? “Into his or her garden”? It is hard to imagine Jesus speaking so stiffly. “That people threw into their garden?” Definitely not! “That we threw into our garden”? “That you threw into your garden”? “That one threw into one’s garden”? None of them works.
What is more, I have come to feel that sometimes there is not a good answer to the question of whether Swedenborg is speaking inclusively in a given passage. These are places where he is not so much including or excluding women as not even asking in the first place whether the statement applies to women. Among today’s readers the question can hardly be avoided, but in Swedenborg’s time and culture it could. And where the question is avoided by Swedenborg, it is a distortion to translate either inclusively or noninclusively. What the translator has to decide, then, is whether or not to err on the side of inclusiveness.
One of the places where I had to make that decision while translating Secrets of Heaven was in a discussion of the angels and spirits that accompany people on earth. Section 5986 of that work is about “proxy” spirits—spirits delegated by their communities to act more or less as spokespersons for the whole community. While working on it I came upon the following statement: “I have heard spirits saying that a proxy was thinking and saying nothing on his/her own, although s/he fancied s/he was operating completely on his/her own.” Surely, I thought, as I often think, Swedenborg would have said something about gender if any of these were female. Why don’t I just give up and use masculine pronouns?
I proceeded to the next few sections:
The more spirits there are focusing on a single proxy, the stronger the proxy’s power of thinking and speaking. The power increases with the number of compatible spirits focusing on the proxy. This rule was once demonstrated for me by the removal of several influencing spirits, which left the proxy with less power to think and speak. . . .
Some terribly dishonest spirits above my head once selected some proxies and sent them to me in order to subject me to their dirty tricks. They were greatly disappointed, though. One spirit, on being made a proxy, recoiled, closed up, and curled into a ball in order to cast off the other spirits’ influence. That is how this spirit escaped their entanglements.
They then selected another, but this one too they could not force into speaking. The spirit was cleverer than they and evinced the fact by rolling up in a spiral shape, by which they were fooled. (Secrets of Heaven 5987, 5989)
Here I received confirmation that it was indeed worthwhile to work at gender inclusion despite the difficulties. As it happens, Swedenborg originally recorded these stories in Spiritual Experiences 3909 and 4097–4098, which shed interesting light on the gender of the proxy spirits. The gender of the proxy in the first paragraph of the Secrets of Heaven passage is not specified. The spirits targeted as proxies in the next two paragraphs are referred to by masculine pronouns, but that is presumably because the Latin word for a spirit is a masculine noun. (The grammatical gender of a pronoun does not need to match the biological gender of the being it refers to.) But all three spirits are identified in the parallel Spiritual Experiences passages as female. Here are those passages:
I observed a certain female spirit who was the proxy of evil spirits. . . . There were many [other] spirits whose focus and thoughts were on the one who was the proxy, which increased her powers of thought. This was because the more focus there is on one spirit by a large number of spirits, the more powerfully she acts. . . . I told the spirits that their actions were increasing the power of the proxy. As a consequence, they were removed and she was left to the evil spirits alone. She then had no perceptible power. . . .
Some dishonest spirits above my head knew how to acquire proxies for themselves from among some female spirits over my head. . . . Today they took two proxies. One of them, as soon as they started to manipulate her, recoiled and, so to speak, closed up, effectively rejecting [their attempt] immediately and absolutely. Afterward she practically curled into a ball.
There was another who quietly or secretly stayed above my head. . . . The dishonest spirits above my head observed her and acquired her as a proxy, but she went so completely silent that they could not move her at all or speak through her; and she descended a little. The proxy was more dishonest than they. . . . She did not reveal herself there but in another place, forward and to the left, in a long spiral shape. Once the trick was discovered, though, she appeared in her own place, as a long, solid spiral, which showed that she was among the more dishonest. (Spiritual Experiences 3903, 4097, 4098)
We can assume that there are other passages that mention female spirits without identifying their gender, passages for which we do not have enlightening parallels. I conclude, then, that no matter how hard it can sometimes be for a translator to find appropriate gender-neutral language, faithfulness to the original requires that she (or he) try.