Reading Blog — “Dis-Unity and Diversity: Feminist Approaches to Translation Studies” by Luise Von Flotow — M.Paczkowski (11.28)

Von Flotow begins by saying “Feminist work in translation and translation studies is diversifying: it is not only extending in the bounds once posed by gender difference and confronting assumptions that derived from them, it is beginning to explore what theorist Alice Parker has tentatively termed polysexual and multigendered approaches to translation”. She focuses on the dis-unity of conventional feminist work being done in the translation studies field. The appreciation of diversity in the translation of feminist literature is seen as a survival strategy. Diversity and complexity develop or even mutate towards productive progress in response to criticism, however, it seems as though current feminist approaches in feminist translation has veered away from concerns of survival. “Critical responses in regard to feminist work are rarely neutral; factors of cultural or ideological conditioning, academic ambition, or institutional constraints are inevitably involved”. Von Flotow concerns herself thus with diversity and dis-unity and the factors underlying such within contemporary feminist work. The changes in essentialist feminist work has transitioned from viewing all women as sharing more or less a similar form of social, cultural, economic, and political oppression to a more differentiated approach in which cultural, ethnic, economic and many other differences between women are recognized and brought to bear in critical discourse. She details three factors in feminist work that are acknowledged in order to avoid gross generalizations and dissemination of culturally and politically questionable material: identity politics, positionality, and the historical dimension.

She desires to inspect three aspects of the current discourse on dis-unity and diversity in feminist literature: mainstream English translations of third world women’s texts for anglophone consumption; elitist and inaccessible work which has little to do with the socio-political concerns often ascribed to Anglo-American feminism; theoretical incoherence and hypocrisy in feminist translation and feminist critique of patriarchal theories. In regards to the translation of third world women’s literature, much of the translation constructs a largely misrepresentative view of the texts. It disregards the rhetoricity of the source text by focusing on making the women’s writing as possible available to the West/North. Mainstream anglophone translation obscures the differences between women of very different and differently empowered cultures, ostensibly in order to make the texts “accessible”. It can deprive texts of their individual style. The law of the strongest endorses translation into English as the easiest way of being “democratic with minorities”. These feminist attempts to understand and make available third world women’s experiences and writings turns out to be appropriation, misrepresentation, and the salving of guilty consciences. In regards to Elitist translation, Gillam criticizes the feminist approaches from the approach of  Canadian “feminist iconography”. She suggests that translations produced from a deliberate feminist perspective make the already difficult source material even more obscure by producing English texts that privilege sound associations and extend already complex wordplay. Criticism is based on the view that French and English speaking languages inherently have different respective political relationships. The distortion/deconstruction of the language in itself means something different in a text in Quebec than in English-Speaking Canada. It has different political value. In regards to hypocritical translation, Arrojo is concerned with what she deems the hypocritical, anxious, and theoretically not coherent work by mainly anglophone women and men who apply feminist activism in translation. These translators often assume the right to alter the text on a political level in order to sometimes mitigate an offensive form of machismo or misogyny. It is where they can consider it an applicable place to make an explicit feminist message that might have been previously implicit in the source text. Arrojo comments upon this in three manners. Some feminist translators’ claims that their work is faithful to the tenor of the source text as not congruent with their openly feminist politicals and therefore cannot let go of the fidelity ethic. Feminist criticism of male violence in translation as no less violent and therefore hypocritical. She also generalizes references to various post-structuralist theories with which some textual interventions are justified travesties of these theories. She might have overestimated the limited scope of feminist interventions in translation: “Their political rhetoric sometimes does outstrip the actual interventions carried out on translations”. She is correct that these translators are politically and personally invested in biased, seeking to undermine bias yet are conscious and acknowledge such. Yet, Arrojo may not do the same for herself and her own work. Thus, Von Flotow says, “I am led to ask who ‘we’ are and exactly how ‘we’ should go about simply accepting our infidelities”. Gilliam’s criticism is diametrically opposed to Spivak’s: She wants the feminist text to be made meaningful and accessible for the translating culture and its feminist activists of all kinds, while Spivak calls for translation practice that resists the homogenizing demands for “easy-reading” of the target culture feminist reader.

Gilliam expects feminist interaction to extend past simply just an academic level. Spivak is concerned with languages and cultures whose relationship is marked by glaring economic inequalities and a history of colonization, seeing translation to popularize womens’ literature by producing accessible texts as another form of imperialism. Von Flotow says that “the diversification of feminist discourses on the subject of translation is a noticeable recent development, visible not only in these critical writings but also in numerous papers and publications, which will hopefully lead to further dis-unity. Feminist work is largely produced by anglophones or in response to translations in English.

She enters into a discussion surrounding the factors motivating the responsible and desirable disunity. Jouve Ward demonstrates how a critic’s subjectivity and position of her particular historical context determines her perceptions and approaches. Like her, many others are aware of such relative nature of insight and value, understanding they come as specific individuals with specific historical moments. “Identity politics” acknowledges that the academic’s personal interests and needs are based on the initial premise that all persons have a material and outward identity that will influence and pass judgment upon others as well as receive. Therefore, it incorporates identity as a specific individual with certain identifiable cultural/political characteristics that determines her insights or opinions or prejudices. Lotbiniere-Harwood takes a similar approach in regards to the concept of “positionality” which relativizes the situation to a constantly shifting context, accounting for shifting contexts and elements of economic, cultural and political conditions and so on. Von Flotow says that “this concept not only allows researchers/academics to acknowledge and account for constantly shifting personal and intellectual settings and the effects of such shifts on scholarly knowledge and analyses, but it can also be used as a fluid location from which to construct meaning, a perspective from which values are interpreted and constructed — differently at different times”. Some believe that such conditions in countries of primary anglophones can be newly constructed under feminist “pressure”. It may aid in understanding the death of feminist scholarship in translation studies. “An interesting question in this regard might focus on the institutional and economic factors that are involved when hundreds of works of both mainstream and experimental feminist writing are translated from English into various European languages, yet virtually no theoretical or analytical work has been stimulated by this massive influx of translations”. The third factor is the historical dimension, used by Alcoff to articulate a concept of gendered subjectivity “without pinning it down one way or the other for all time”. It is the influence that causes gendered subjectivity to change with the times and with the political and institutional constellations that determine concrete options…etc. It’s powerful in identity and positionality. Von Flotow concludes elegantly with much hope of further dis-unity in feminist literature: “It would seem that feminist work in translation continues to expand and develop in the 1990s, fuelled on the one hard by institutionally sanctioned interests in gender difference in some parts of the world, and on the other by conflicts between scholars that may stem form cultural, ethnic, ideological and institutional affiliations. The complexities and dis-unities resulting from the interplay of these factors are more productive, however, than consensus on the sometimes sensitive issues they address”.

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