Translation and Gender

The interest of cultural studies in translation inevitably took translation studies away from purely linguistic analysis and brought it into contact with other disciplines. Yet this ‘process of disciplinary hybridization’ (Simon 1996: ix) has not always been straightforward. Sherry Simon, in her Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission (1996), criticizes translation studies for often using the term culture ‘as if it referred to an obvious and unproblematic reality’ (p. ix). Lefevere (1985: 226), for example, had defined it as simply ‘the environment of a literary system’.

Simon approaches translation from a gender-studies angle. She sees (p. 1) a language of sexism in translation studies, with its images of dominance, fidelity, faithfulness and betrayal. Typical is the seventeenth-century image of les belles infidèles, translations into French that were artistically beautiful but unfaithful (Mounin 1955), or George Steiner’s male-oriented image of translation as penetration in After Babel. The feminist theorists see a parallel between the status of translation, which is often considered to be derivative and inferior to original writing, and that of women, so often repressed in society and literature. This is the core of feminist translation theory, which seeks to ‘identify and critique the tangle of concepts which relegates both women and translation to the bottom of the social and literary ladder’ (p. 1). But Simon takes this further in the concept of the committed translation project:

For feminist translation, fidelity is to be directed toward neither the author nor the reader, but toward the writing project – a project in which both writer and translator participate. (Simon 1996: 2)

Simon gives examples of Canadian feminist translators from Quebec who seek to emphasize their identity and ideological stance in the translation project. One of these, Barbara Godard, theorist and translator, is openly assertive about the manipulation this involves:

The feminist translator, affirming her critical difference, her delight in interminable rereading and re-writing, flaunts the signs of her manipulation of the text. (Godard 1990: 91)

Simon also quotes the introduction to a translation of Lise Gauvin’s Lettres d’une autre by another committed feminist translator, Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood. The latter explains her translation strategy in political terms:

My translation practice is a political activity aimed at making language speak for women. So my signature on a translation means: this translation has used every translation strategy to make the feminine visible in language. (de Lotbinière-Harwood, quoted in Gauvin 1989: 9; also cited in Simon 1996: 15)

One such strategy discussed by Simon is the treatment of linguistic markers of gender. Examples quoted from de Lotbinière-Harwood’s translations include using a bold ‘e’ in the word one to emphasize the feminine, capitalization of M in HuMan Rights to show the implicit sexism, the neologism auther (as opposed to author) to translate the French auteure, and the female personification of nouns such as aube (dawn) with the English pronoun she (Simon p. 21).

Other chapters in Simon’s book revalue the contribution women translators have made to translation throughout history, discuss the distortion in the translation of French feminist theory and look at feminist translations of the Bible. Among the case studies are summaries of the key literary translation work carried out by women in the first half of the twentieth century. Simon (pp. 68–71) points out that the great classics of Russian literature were initially made available in English in translations produced mainly by one woman, Constance Garnett. Her sixty volumes of translation include almost the entire work of Turgenev, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekov and Gogol. Similarly, key works of literature in German were translated by women translators: Jean Starr Untermeyer, Willa Muir (in conjunction with her husband Edwin) and Helen Lowe-Porter.

The important role played by women translators up to the present is emphasized by Simon’s reference to the feminist Suzanne Jill Levine, the translator of Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s Tres tristes tigres. In contrast to the self-effacing work of some of the earlier translators mentioned above, Levine collaborated closely with Infante in creating a ‘new’ work. From the feminist perspective, however, it is not only Levine’s self-confidence but also her awareness of a certain ‘betrayal’ – translating a male discourse that speaks of the woman betrayed – that fascinates Simon. She hints (p. 82) at the possible ways Levine may have rewritten, manipulated and ‘betrayed’ Infante’s work in her own feminist project.

The Translation of Gay Texts

More recent research in translation and gender has increasingly problematized the issue of language and identity. One example is Keith Harvey’s study Translating Camp Talk (Harvey 1998/2004), which involved combining linguistic methods of analysis of literature with a cultural-theory angle, enabling study of the social and ideological environment that conditions the exchange. Harvey draws on the theory of contact in language practice and on politeness to examine the homosexual discourse of camp in English and French texts and in translations. Contact theoryis used by Harvey to examine the way ‘gay men and lesbians work within appropriate prevailing straight (and homophobic) discourses’ (p. 404), often appropriating language patterns from a range of communities. Thus, he describes (pp. 405–7) the use of girl talk and Southern Belle accents (Oh, my!, adorable, etc.), French expressions (ma bébé, comme ça) and a mix of formal and informal register by gay characters in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. Such characteristics are typical of camp talk in English. Harvey points out (p. 451) that French camp interestingly tends to use English words and phrases in a similar language ‘game’. Importantly, Harvey links the linguistic characteristics of camp to cultural identity via queer theory (pp. 409–12). Camp is then seen not only as exposing the hostile values and thinking of ‘straight’ institutions, but also, by its performative aspect, as making the gay community visible and manifesting its identity.

imagesHarvey brings together the various linguistic and cultural strands in his analysis of the translation of camp talk in extracts from two novels. The first (pp. 412–17) is the French translation of Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar. There are significant lexical and textual changes in the French translation:

  • The same pejorative word, tante/s (‘aunt/s’), is used for both the pejorative pansies and the more positive queen.
  • The phrase to be gay is translated by the pejorative en être (‘to be of it/them’), concealing the gay identity.
  • Hyperbolic gay camp collocations such as perfect weakness and screaming pansies are either not translated (faible, = ‘weakness’) or else rendered by a negative collocation (voyantes, = ‘showy’).

In general, therefore, markers of gay identity either disappear or are made pejorative in the TT. Harvey links these findings to issues of the target culture, discussing how, for instance, the suppression of the label gay in the translation ‘reflects a more general reluctance in France to recognize the usefulness of identity categories as the springboard for political action’ (p. 415) and a ‘relative absence of radical gay (male) theorizing in contemporary France’ (p. 416).

The second extract analysed by Harvey is from the translation into American English of a novel by the Frenchman Tony Duvert. Here, he shows (pp. 417–21) how the translator’s additions and lexical choices have intensified and made more visible some of the camp and turned a playful scene into one of seduction. Harvey suggests that the reason for such a translation strategy may be due to commercial pressures from the US publishers, who were supporting gay writing, and the general (sub)cultural environment in the USA which assured the book a better reception than it had enjoyed in France.


See M. L. Pratt (1987), ‘Linguistic utopias’, in N. Fabb, D. Attridge, A. Durant and C. McCabe (eds) The Linguistics of Writing: Arguments between Language and Literature, Manchester: Manchester University Press. Harvey discusses how contact theory is used in Rusty Barrett (1997) ‘The homo-genius speech community’, in A. Livia and K. Hall (eds) Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender and Sexuality, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Categories: Gender Studies

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