Chapter 8: Gender Studies
8.1 Gender studies, a major force in the humanities today, have critiqued the sexist bias in various domains of language use and in society at large. Not only the study but also the practice of translation has felt the impact of these concerns. In addition, gender-oriented researchers have done historical archive work, revealing the contribution made by women to the production of translations through the ages and, in the process, highlighting the social position of women.
8.2 The work has extended to what could be called the ‘cultural construction’ of translation. Just as ‘gender’ is thought of as a social construct (in contrast to ‘sex’, which is biological), so ‘translation’ can be viewed not as a natural given but as socially and culturally constructed. The construction becomes apparent not only in the roles assigned to women translators in various cultural traditions but also in the way historical perceptions of and discourses about translation have been slanted to reflect prevailing hierarchies of power. Moreover, since the current discourse of Anglophone translation studies is merely a continuation of the Western historical discourse on translation, it is easy to see that gender studies also involve a questioning of the very terms on which research into translation is being conducted in the academy.
8.3 The Western tradition has been fond of describing the relation between originals and translations in matrimonial terms, with translation being cast in the role of the obedient, doting, deferential wife. Translations are traditionally valued for their loyalty and fidelity, as long as they remain subservient to the master of the house. Translations, like women, have consistently found themselves in the lower half of the hierarchies of power expressed in such oppositions as those between creative and reproductive work, original and derivative, art and craft, primary and secondary, free and constrained, active and passive, dominant and obedient, leading the way and following, speaking for oneself and speaking through someone else. And just as married men keep their own name but a married woman is expected to adopt her husband’s, so translators are supposed to disappear – name, voice, personality and all – behind their authors. Socially, too, the connection is there. Women were often thought to be better suited to a reproductive task like translation not only because their bodies were equipped with reproductive organs but also because they were deemed incapable of original, critical thought or expression, confined to the home and banned from participating in public discourse.
8.4 In terms of approach, gender studies often adopt aspects of the poststructuralist critique of essences and foundations. Sometimes also they align themselves with postcolonial theory, particularly when the position of women in different parts of the world is concerned, but more generally because both gender studies and postcolonial theory focus on questions of domination, submission and resistance.
8.5 Another feature which gender-based research shares with postcolonial studies is the fact that the researcher’s own agenda is often made explicit. Just as feminist translators may declare their allegiance in public, gender-inspired translation scholars more often than not announce their particular angle of approach, openly acknowledge their ideological sympathies and want their work to contribute to social and political change. These are activist, interventionist positions. Underpinning them is the claim that to pretend to be objective or unbiased, or to have no particular axe to grind, amounts only to adopting the prevailing – and that means: a male-dominated, patriarchal – viewpoint and acquiescing in the status quo.
8.6 In this way gender-based research raises fundamental ethical, political and institutional issues that affect all research activity, including the study of translation. It obliges the researcher to think about his or her own identity, position and ideology, and their relevance to the research project and its context.
For a more detailed exposition of gender issues and translation, see Unit 3 in the present Module.
Further reading (see Chapter 11): Chamberlain 1992; Von Flotow 1996; Simon 1996.