Gender in Translation (1): Gender and Translation Theory

After writing my undergrad dissertation on postcolonial feminism, and centering many of my essays on feminist texts in translation and gender in writing, it quickly started to become clear that my academic interests were centering around two particular topics: feminism and gender. Continuing to combine these topics with ideas from my current MA in Literary Translation, it seems only appropriate to begin a series of posts on this blog entitled: ‘Gender in Translation’. Throughout this series of posts, I intend to explore issues surrounding gender in translation and hope to discuss topics such as the translation of feminist texts and working with gendered languages.

To begin the series I want to start with the topic of gender in translation theory. In her essay entitled Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation, Lori Chamberlain explores the many ways in which translation theory has been gendered over the years. In a striking number of different translation theories, the source text author and translator are considered or described as male, with the source text and the translation itself being described as female. These theories consider the male as active and the female as passive. This consideration of a translated piece as feminine, a passive object that is manipulated by the active male, is described in a number of different ways, using a variety of metaphors. 

One theory that uses gender to discuss translation, considers the author/translator as father, and the text/translation, as daughter. Roscommon suggests that the source text is considered as a daughter whose virginity is protected by her father, the author. The translator then usurps the father’s or author’s role and takes the daughter’s, or text’s virginity, whilst still presenting her/it as ‘chaste’, or as loyal and faithful to the original text. As the translator becomes author (or father), he incurs certain paternal duties in relation to the text (or the daughter), protecting, instructing and potentially even structuring it. The active translator (male) guides, protects and manipulates the passive translation (female). The text and the translation are both passive objects – female, whilst the author and the translator are active – male. Another theory that genders translation as female is that which considers the author and translator as owner or captor, with the source text and translated text as the (willingly) seduced or captive. Francklin represents the translator as a male who takes over the role of the also male author, with the source text considered as a ‘mistress’, the male translator is then seen as the seducer, with the text being a willing female participant in her ‘beautification’ through translation. Once again, the active male roles are given to the translator and the author, with the passive source text and translation being described using female metaphors. Francklin’s theory opens the door to sexual connotation in translation theory, taking the idea of the male (author/translator) as active, and the female (source text/translation) as passive even further.

Not only are these incredibly sexist theories, but they are also, in today’s world, quite flawed. Roscommon’s theory suggests that the translator and his translated text are deceptive, as the translator ‘tears’ the source text from the author, rids it of it’s ‘pureness’, yet still presents it as ‘pure’ and ‘chaste’. With the vast majority of translation as we know it today, this is not the case, in fact, in some cases, both author and translator can actually work together to create the translated text, a text that is presented as exactly what it is: a translation. The fact that a text is a translation is rarely hidden and translations are not presented as ‘pure’ or ‘original’ works. Similarly, Francklin’s theory suggests that the source text is manipulated and ‘seduced’ by the translator in order to create a ‘beautified’ translation. Again, in today’s translation age, this theory is easily dismissed. The idea that a translator, ‘seduces’ and ‘beautifies’ a text is tricky, it is rare that a translator will elaborate on a translated piece so much so that it is seen as ‘more beautiful’. Literary translators work in order to transport an already beautiful source text, into a new, equally beautiful text, in another language. 

In always describing a translated text as the ‘inactive’ or passive part of a theory, Roscommon and Francklin almost dismiss translation as a piece of art or literature that is not powerful enough to hold its own space. A translated piece is, in fact, an active, living and evolving organism, as times change, it changes, words in the text can develop new meanings or connotations, and peoples perceptions of it change. A translated piece is also incredibly active in the fact that it crosses borders, languages, and cultures in order to reach others. In defining the source text and the translated text as ‘passive’ Roscommon and Francklin have dismissed texts and translations of text that have left incredible and profound marks on history as passive, as just the result of a ‘males’ work, the fact that these ‘passive’ pieces are being described as feminine only adds to the problem more.  

     As we have seen, the author and translator are conventionally figured in masculine terms, whilst texts and their translations are conventionally figured in feminine terms. Language itself is also often conventionally figured in female terms, for example, ‘mother tongue’. Schleiermacher uses this term, ‘mother tongue’, in his theory that discusses the idea that the father (translator) must be true to the mother (language, or text) in order to produce legitimate offspring (translation). He states that natural law requires a monogamous, or loyal relationship to produce beautiful offspring (translations), the translator must be loyal to the source text and language in order to create what is considered a good translation. This comparison of the act of translation to the act of monogamy opens up a whole new can of worms as it brings up the discussion of fidelity, a word that is no stranger to gender in translation theory. When thinking about this word, fidelity, in relation to translation theory, one can not help but think of the infamous Les Belles Infidèles quote, this ludicrous quote manages to form two stereotypes in one sentence, suggesting that women, like translation, cannot be both beautiful and faithful, they have to be one or the other. This quote suggests that if a translation is faithful to the source text (much like Schleiermacher considers it has to be) then it cannot be a beautiful translation. However, if it is not faithful to the source text, it can become a beautiful translation. First of all, one must consider, what is fidelity? What makes a translated piece ‘faithful’ or ‘un-faithful’? It is of my opinion that it is harmful to discuss translation in terms of faithfulness, as the question of what faithfulness is, is so open to interpretation, however, this goes beyond the scope of the discussion of translation theory and gender, thus, for the purposes of this essay, it could be said that Schleiermacher considers faithfulness as a close rendering of each word from the source text. This is something that Les Belles Infidèles quote believes then renders the translation ‘ugly’. Of course, it is widely considered that a translation can, in fact, be beautiful and ‘faithful’ to the meaning of the source text. Beautiful translated prose, that does justice in bringing the source text to life in a new language is appearing on bookshelves around the world every day. 

     Another theorist whose translation theories are centered around gender is Gavronsky, who discusses translation theory in relation to the oedipal complex. His theory is divided into two, with the translator choosing one route or the other in regards to his translation methods. According to Gavronsky, some translators are pietistic, pledging fidelity to the ‘unravished lady’, or the source text. The translator takes vows of ‘humility, poverty, and chastity’, rendering a ‘close’ and ‘loyal’ translation. He argues that the ‘master/slave’ schema underlying this metaphoric is the foundation of the oedipal triangle, as the translator considers himself the ‘child’ of the ‘father-creator’ (source text author) with the mother (the source text), becoming the ‘object of desire’ that has been completely defined by the paternal figure, or the source text author, the ‘phallus pen’. The translator feels that to tamper with the text would be to eliminate the father’s author(ity)’, and in order to remain faithful (there’s that word again) to the source text author and the source text, the translator writes a ‘pietistic’ translation. On the other hand, the child, or the translator is cannibalistic, holding a desire to kill the symbolic father text or author. Gavronsky states that this ‘liberates the translator from servility to cultural and ideological restrictions and allows him to take and manipulate the source text and translation in whichever way he wishes’, in other words, he is ‘unfaithful’ to the text. This is quite an extreme idea, the idea that in translating a text more freely, the translator is cannibalistic, and in attempting to ‘kill’ the source text author, taking the source text, whilst on the other hand, in offering a close translation, the translator is succumbing to his mother and father, the source text and the source author. 

All of these gendered translation theories are closely linked to the discussion of fidelity and faithfulness towards a text. This begs the question, what is fidelity in translation? How ‘faithful’ a translator chooses to be towards the source text, how closely they choose to translate it is completely dependent on a huge number of factors, perhaps the most significant factor is the content of the text. The translator chooses which elements of the text are most important, the elements that they the translator will then be ‘faithful’ to. Therefore, it is backward to define a translation as passive, as simply a daughter or a mother, a source text and its translation contain multiplicities, they are active pieces containing a whole host of different elements, some that the translator chooses to transfer, and some that they choose to leave behind. A text cannot be considered as one thing, but a nebulous of many different organisms. A translator may be ‘faithful’ to some of the organisms but may choose to leave others in the source text. The translator still renders a beautiful translation that does justice to the meaning of the original text. These sexist and outdated analogies of translation are therefore flawed. 

Other than the obvious problems behind labeling the active parts of a theory as male, and the passive ideas of a theory as female, we also need to change our ideas surrounding the idea of ‘faithfulness’. The idea of fidelity is problematic, as discussed above, it is possible for translation to be ‘faithful’ to certain elements of the source text, whilst also making the decision to leave others behind. All too often, translations are reviewed on how ‘faithful’ they are to the original, according to Schleiermacher, how monogamous they are. Translations are also discussed on how ‘fluent’ they appear, according to Roscommon, how chaste or pure. Instead of considering translations in this way, we should be discussing each of the unique elements that that translator has bought from the source text, the prose, the writing style, the story, and its messages and metaphors, and not getting lost behind how much it matches the book that already exists in another language. Jacques Derrida says:

“Translation is writing; that is, not translation only in the sense of transcription. It is a productive writing called forth by the original text.” 

Here, Derrida makes the progressive point, that translation itself is an active piece of prose, a translation is activated by the translators reading of the source text, and how they choose to render this in the new language. Chamberlain concludes that what is required for a feminist theory of translation is a practice governed by what Derrida calls the double bind. Such a theory might rely, not on the family model of oedipal struggle, or the idea of father-daughter or husband-wife relationships, but on the double-edged sword of translation as a collaboration where author and translator are seen working together in both the co-operative and the subversive. As well as this, we need to eliminate the idea that the author and translator are always ‘he’, and the text and translation are always ‘she’, to eliminate the sexist language. 

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