Global Feminist Translators Unite!: “The Routledge Handbook of Translation, Feminism, and Gender,” edited by Luise von Flotow and Hala Kamal

By D. P. Snyder

As a translator outside the university setting, my work is solitary. Like many translators, I do not have an academic background in translation theory but rather declare myself as a  proud and impassioned autodidact who came to this field through my work as a Spanish teacher and writer. I learned what I know of this art by doing it, first in the non-profit cultural sphere, then as a freelance translator of a variety of materials (medical forms, brochures for Hispanic parents of schoolchildren, songs for children’s television, etc.), finally defining myself as a literary translator of Hispanic women’s texts. I am praxis-heavy. So, when I have a chance to be in community with those who are more versed in theory than I am, whether it’s through my work on the PEN America Translation Committee or at the annual ALTA conference,  it is an informative, clarifying, and nutritive experience.

Reading the new Routledge Handbook of Translation, Feminism and Gender edited by Louise von Flotow and Hala Kamal feels like being in community. Normally at Reading in Translation, we focus on literature in translation published by small, independent presses and The Routledge Handbook, the fruit of two brilliant editors and fifty-five contributors representing universities in twenty countries, is not that. Nevertheless, it deserves our attention. It is a gold mine of inspiration and well-structured to help the working translator navigate the highly intersectional territory that its title proclaims; plus, it is a remarkably good read. At 572 pages and with print approximately the size of the average footnote, it’s not the most eye-friendly volume — I felt obliged to purchase an illuminated optical magnifying glass — and naturally, publishers seek to lower costs. Still, bigger type would have been nice.

Why? Because this volume is not a footnote and its importance does not stop at the gates of the academy. It is an enlightening collection of chapters by women translators, authorities in their field, that demands to be read, studied and discussed, not only by those in classrooms, but also by freelance translators and interpreters in the commercial sphere, writers, publishers, editors, philanthropists, media executives, librarians, activists, policy wonks, and more. In five parts that build logically, theoretically and historically on each other, the Handbook tells a story about the dynamic art of translation and its central role in our international and intersectional feminist and gender discourses; the ways it has been and continues to be manipulated to oppress, invisibilize, silence, and otherwise harm more than half the people on the planet; the role it can play in fueling social and political movements; the current research that is being done to examine the “manhandling” of texts by women and non-cisgender people and do the reparative “womanhandling” of them. What could be more important, impactful, or worthy of our attention?

Dense with data, research and analysis on translation in relation to feminism, gender studies, in the areas of philosophy, politics, interpretation, media studies, electronic and print media, literature, and graphic novels, the handbook is the brainchild of Flotow and Kamal who set out:

1. To provide an overview of the history, theorizing, and current critical contributions at the intersections of translation, feminism, and gender already established in mostly North America and Western Europe.

2. To encourage the development of scholarly interest in other parts of the world both among colleagues already working in the area of translation studies, urging them to adopt feminist approaches and gender tools, and among feminist literary and social critics, whom we invited to address questions of translation. (1)

In these pages, I found resources for many of the theoretical and practical concerns that I have been working out for myself in relative solitude. Indeed, as a self-declared feminist translator, I would have been hard-pressed to enunciate what “feminist translation” actually was prior to reading the Handbook: now I can. Flotow and Kamal have achieved their goal, at least with me.

The Handbook begins its narrative with the rise of feminism and the translation of core feminist texts and moves on into gender studies, every chapter suggesting directions for continued research. Part 1 takes on translating and publishing women. Part 2 looks at translating feminist writers, such as Wollstonecraft, Woolf, and de Beauvoir and we get to see the fascinating journey of these foundational feminists into languages where their message is modified and diluted but nevertheless effective in inspiring women in non-Western countries to develop their own feminist path. Part 3 reveals work being done at the intersection of feminism, gender, and queer in translation, addressing “issues related to political history, social structures, and in relation to concepts — largely developed in the “West” — such as transfeminism, gender, subversion, and decolonization” (2). Part 4 analyses the role of gender in grammar, and is rich with examinations of areas of high social impact like audiovisual translation, subtitling, UN documents, and video and machine translation. Finally, Part 5 dedicates itself to discourses in translation: texts related to religion, women’s health, children’s lit, and adaptations.

An excellent prologue, the result of a roundtable discussion between seven translators and entitled “Women (re)writing authority,” discusses “how translation can subvert, rewrite, or question hegemonic definitions of authorship, as well as how it can disrupt or dismantle intersecting regimes of power” (5). The epilogue by Beverley Curran, “Recognition, risk, and relationships: Feminism and translation as modes of embodied engagement” leaves us appropriately in Curran’s classroom with her students. Two main ideas emerge: First, that engaging with the body of a text is a corporeal experience and that through translation we can “imagine new relationships with memory and history; language and meanings; and each other” (543). Second, she asserts that translation is fundamentally a collaborative art that requires a patient approach: “Translation takes time, requiring us to slow down and spend time with a text to explore meaning and relationships; to swim with the words, as Nicole Brossard has described it, allowing sensation to be translated into emotion, and to get a sense of circulating currents.” Needless to say, the efficiency ethic of the capitalist marketplace (“time is money”) works against a profession in which speed can be destructive to more carefully imagined work. How shall translators address this conundrum going forward? I propose that one way is to collaborate more than we currently do, though publishers who balk at even one translator’s name on the cover may dislike that idea. And how can we split what is already too little money two or three ways? More investigation is needed into the dynamics of translation collaborations, both between authors and translators and translators and their peers.

The Handbook is peppered with memorable and sometimes painful sentences, way too many to cite here, but I offer a few examples. In her essay on “translation of women-centred literature in Iran,” Simi Sharifi describes how existent women-centered literature can be erased by restricting public access to books in libraries and even obliterating a text before it is written: “translators, editors, and publishers experience the constant, omnipresent scrutiny and surveillance of the censor which creates ‘scissors in the head’ of both the writer and the translator” (41). (Wisdom argues against complacency in the West: according to PEN America, in the U.S. at this writing there are 2,532 instances of individual books being banned, affecting 1,648 unique titles.) In her essay “The Wollstonecraft meme: translations, appropriations, and receptions of Mary Wollstonecraft’s feminism,” Elisabeth Gibbels reminds us that “the fact of translation alone may not suffice to guarantee the transfer of content or the impact of a book in translation” (173), noting that contextualization is crucial in determining the influence of feminist texts. Then, I raced off to find J.L. Borges’s translation of A Room of One’s Own after Garima Sharma informed me in her chapter that his was one of a “series of distorted translations” (184) of that seminal feminist work. (I have never trusted Borges as a translator, especially of women, and upon reading this, I experienced a small thrill of vindication.) Julia Bullock informs us that Ikushima’s translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe “gave Japanese readers the impression that Beauvoir believed women could only be ‘free’ by denying female corporeality and refusing motherhood entirely” (197). Maria Laura Spoterno’s essay on two renderings (Mexican and Spanish) of Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands is an exciting and illuminating comparative study that elucidates two approaches to translating a multilingual text without condemning either version or choosing a “winner.”

The structure of the Handbook graphically demonstrates how a feminist translation focus is foundational to the now-expanding research in LGBTQIA+ translation studies. It tells the stories not only of the translation of women’s texts and women who translate, but also analyzes patterns and trends in interpretation in business and politics; subtitling of films and television; gender in video games and AI translation; countering sexist language and representations; and many other dynamic, fast-evolving spaces. It becomes manifestly clear how the quality of translation both reflects the lived realities of women and LGBTQ+ people living under the patriarchy and in turn impacts, sometimes for worse but often for the better, the lived lives of half of humanity in material and dramatic ways, even when the translations are arguably flawed. For example, despite the deficiencies of Ikushima’s translation of Beauvoir, the timing of its release in a post-WWII Japan in reconstruction allowed the text to be an effective tool for women who faced the dilemma of adhering to traditional roles as wives and mothers or assuming greater roles in society, many opting for the latter. Translation can be imperfect and still have a liberating impact.

The Handbook shows a global community of women linguists at work and reveals what a young and fast-developing field of translation studies truly is. It demonstrates that it’s a fool’s errand to talk about “accurate” translation, though “good” or “beautiful” translation is possible, as well as translation that dares to pursue a socially progressive agenda. As translators, we are called to develop feminist techniques and criticism, not only of the words on the page, but also when considering who gets to translate, edit, and publish our books, as well as how our words are illustrated, printed, and marketed.

The Handbook elucidates the context in which we are pursuing our feminist impulse to translate and shepherd more women’s texts to publication and it provides tools to bring to bear on future projects. It suggests that we are better together, that after centuries of manhandling, we are  “womanhandling” our texts in greater numbers, rescuing our history and lived experiences, and starting to apply our feminist consciousness as translators in many realms beyond the traditional printed book. The Handbook shows me that I have much to learn — and that I am not alone.

Luise von Flotow has taught translation studies at the University of Ottawa in Canada since 1996, publishing widely in the field of feminism, gender, and translation. She most recently co-edited Translating Women. Different Voice and New Horizons with Farzaneh Farhazad (Routledge 2016) and co-translated Tout le monde parle de la pluie ey de beau temps. Pas nous, a book about Ulrike Neinhod (Editions Remue-ménage 2018) with Isabelle Totikaev.

Hala Kamal is a Professor of English and Gender Studies in the Department of English, Faculty of Arts, Cairo University. Her research interests and publications in both Arabic and English are in the areas of feminist literary criticism, translation studies, and the history of the Egyptian feminist movement. She has translated several books on Feminism and gender into Arabic.

D.P. Snyder is a bilingual writer and translator from Spanish. Her translations have appeared in Two Lines Journal, Review: Literature and Art of the Americas, World Literature Today, and Latin American Literature Today, among others. Books: Meaty Pleasures (Katakana Editores 2021), short fiction by Mexican writer Mónica Lavín; Arrhythmias (Literal Publishing & Hablemos, escritoras 2022) by Mexican Jewish writer Angelina Muñiz-Huberman. She serves on the Editorial Board at Reading in Translation.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: