M1: Unit 3: Chapter 4 – Gender-related Metaphorics on Translation

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Chapter 1: Introduction Chapter 5: Gender Oriented Approaches
Chapter 2: Gender and Translation Text 1: Ensler
Chapter 3: Gender and Language Text 2: Sappho
Chapter 4: Gender-related Metaphorics on Translation

Chapter 4 – Gender-related Metaphorics on Translation

The metaphorics of translation is a symptom of the power relations within the family and the state (through the division between ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’), of the desire to equate language or language use with morality (pure ‘mother’ tongue), of a quest for originality or unity, and of an intolerance towards duplicity, of what cannot be decided.

According to Lori Chamberlain (1992), the opposition between productive and reproductive work organises the way a culture values work. Originality, writing, creativity and strength go together with paternity, authority, masculinity. Derivative, secondary, ‘weak’ work, which translation is often seen to be, is attributed to the feminine. Translators remain in the service of authors/ readers, and women in the service of men. As a result, the language used to describe the process and product of translation is often sexist, full of images of ‘domination’, ‘penetration’, ‘capturing’, etc. In the same vein, the original is seen as the ‘natural’, ‘truthful’, and ‘lawful’ entity, while the translation is at best a copy – something artificial, false and treasonous. This perceived threat coming from translations is then somewhat kept at bay through the translation contracts, which presumably ensures that the translations will be ‘faithful’ to their source texts.

Yet the indeterminacy of translation, threatening to erase the differences between production and reproduction, threatens to undermine the male authority, which secures the ‘paternity’ of the text and hence its ‘originality’ in a patri-lineal kinship system where paternity – not maternity – legitimises an offspring (think about our surnames for a second!). This may be one reason why translations have been over-coded and overregulated throughout the centuries.

These long-held notions have important consequences in the publishing sector affecting the royalties and copyrights, and in school and university curriculum design. ‘Musical performance’ and ‘translation’ appear under the same rubric as derivative works. For the same reason, history has not been very mindful of translators, whatever their gender, and translation remains a relatively marginalized profession.

When one looks at the self-perception of (female) translators, one often finds a humble acceptance of passivity and transitivity. Translators can depict themselves as ‘sherpas’ silently bearing the burden, following the master in his [sic] footsteps towards the peak. Translators are also portrayed as ‘ferrymen’ carrying goods across two different cultures and languages. Their work is one of transition, hence transitory. These raise issues of identity, in a socialisation process where women are confined into a private sphere where empathy, submissiveness and hard-work are valued. It is also a question of visibility for the translators. During the Renaissance, particularly in England, translation was the only intellectual activity considered appropriate for women. Publishing, i.e. appearing in press, was considered as aggressive or transgressive behaviour for females. In their translations, they had to claim modesty, ritually emphasising the difficulty of their task and the inadequacy of their means to face it. As authorship was an exclusively male activity, translations offered an involvement in literary culture without directly challenging the male control of that culture. For the same reason, several women in the course of history had recourse to pseudo-names – both for writing and for translating. They also came up with pseudo-translations, i.e. texts which pretend to be translations, by imitating the perceived qualities of a translation, plus by carrying a fictional author’s name.

Yet oral literature in many cultures has been a female domain. One might conjecture that the transition from oral to written literature – with the fixation of the words on a page, with the erasure of fluidity of narration, and with the advent of the press – rendered literature something to be ‘possessed of’. Literary texts became properties. Accordingly, translation today depends on and consolidates the fixed boundaries of authorship, language and text.

One may try and regard the apparent dichotomies original/ copy, author/ translator, male/ female as continuums, but even the continuums have only two poles. One may need to destroy the polarity altogether, bringing the indeterminate under focus. Translation, then, becomes a continuous and fluid (re)production of meaning. Intertextuality, fuzzy boundaries, and the indeterminacy of authorship and originality come into play.

The traditional ‘phallocentric’ order is reductionist – there is one (man) and its other (woman). Similarly, there is one original (ST) and its translation (TT). Yet instead of an ‘either/or’ approach, translation can be seen from a ‘both/and’ perspective. The differences between entities, such as man and woman or original and translation are based on the repression of the differences within the entities. Translations can be both original and secondary, both production and reproduction, as writing and translating are interdependent. Translation can then be described as a productive writing called forth by the original text. Each new translation can be an attempt to grasp one particular image of the original. There will always be retranslations, as there is no ultimate translation. Texts call for translations, not because they are not full or incomplete on their own, but because they rather have an excess.  

Further Reading: Chamberlain 1992; Littau 1995; Orloff 2005.

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