Translating Gender

Olga Castro

Research output: Contribution to journalBook/Film/Article reviewpeer-review


BOOK REVIEW: Translating Gender, ed. Eleonora Federici (in collaboration with Manuela Coppola, Michael Cronin and Renata Oggero), Berne, Peter Lang, 2011, 274 pp., t65.10 (paperback), ISBN 978-3-0343-0405-4

The field of gender and translation has been experiencing a remarkable growth in recent years, with numerous conferences and many publications devoted to exploring the multifaceted nature of translation theory and practice when approached from a gender perspective. Besides the long-awaited Translating Women (von Flotow 2011 von Flotow , Luise 2011 . Translating women . Ottawa : University of Ottawa Press .) and other edited volumes (Larkosh 2011 Larkosh , Christopher 2011 . Re-engendering translation: Transcultural practice, gender/sexuality and the politics of alterity . Manchester : St Jerome .), in Europe there have been several special issues of translation studies journals (such as Raguet 2008 Raguet , Christina 2008 . Traduire le genre grammatical . Special issue of Palimpsestes 21 .; Sardin 2009 Sardin , Pascale 2009 . Traduire le genre: femmes en traduction . Special issue of Palimpsestes 22 .; Santaemilia and von Flotow 2011 Santaemilia , José , and Luise von Flotow 2011 . Woman and translation: Geographies, voices and identities . Special issue of MonTI 3 .) or women's studies journals (such as Phoenix and Slavova 2011 Phoenix , Ann , and Kornelia Slavova 2011 . Living in translation. Voicing and inscribing women's lives and practices . Special issue of European Journal of Women's Studies 18 , no. 4 .). And the future looks promising, with new special issues on translation coming out in journals such as Gender and Language (Castro Castro , Olga Forthcoming . Gender, language and translation. Special issue of Gender and Language ., forthcoming).

Translating Gender must be placed and understood in this dynamic and flourishing context. Bringing together a selection of 16 papers from an international conference held at the Università della Calabria, Italy, in September 2009, the volume “seeks to further investigate some of the recent scientific results in TS focusing on gender” and “offer new insights on the subject” (p. 10). To do so, it explores the convergences between gender and translation from diverse approaches, through various methodologies and with different aims, thus clearly reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of research in the field of gender and translation. This multidisciplinarity is emphasized in the introduction, where Eleonora Federici and Vita Fortunati argue that “Gender Studies and Translation Studies certainly are two interdisciplinary fields in themselves”, so that cross-pollination and exchange occurs both within them and with other disciplines (p. 9). True; but such is the plurality in scope and objectives, and such are the intertextual references that travel between the papers, that at times it is difficult to trace a cohesive thread when reading the book as a whole (admittedly something that most readers of an essay collection will probably not be doing). Seeking to organize this rich variety of perspectives, the editor has deployed four sections: “Translation and Gender: Travelling Concepts”, “Translating Gender and Language”, “Translatresses and Practices of Translation” and “Crossing/Performing Gender”. These are well chosen, though the headings are perhaps a little vague, particularly as the link to translation remains unclear in some chapters (such as that on “Gender and Politeness” by Anna de Marco, investigating the use of diminutives by Italian men and women).

To better evaluate this volume, however, I will adopt an alternative structure, gathering the chapters into three groups according to the type of contribution they make to the field of gender and translation. The first group is composed of the two initial “overview” chapters authored by scholars well known in the field, José Santaemilia and the late Barbara Godard, to whom the volume is dedicated. Both authors present interesting maps of the debate on gender and translation and, more specifically, on feminist translation in the Canadian context in the 1980s and early 1990s. Yet when assessing this group, one wonders what “new insights on the subject” the two chapters offer, especially since Godard's essay was already published in 1997 (p. 23) and Santaemilia's consists of a thorough but descriptive account of Canadian practices. These chapters' evident relevance could have been underlined by noting that Santaemilia's contribution was the keynote address at the conference and that Godard's is a tribute to her “innovative and pioneering work in gender and translation”, as acknowledged in the dedication.

All chapters focusing on the Italian context might be grouped together in a second section. Despite the disparate academic value of these essays (some of them presented more as conference papers than as scholarly articles as such), it is this second group which most powerfully contributes to the stated objective of offering new insights on gender and translation. In fact, one of Translating Gender's key contributions is to provide mainstream anglophone debates on gender and translation with access to ideas emerging from the Italian scene – an area not sufficiently explored in scholarly works in English. Although an insistence on the English language in the academic discourse of translation studies poses many ethical dilemmas (see Snell-Hornby 2010 Snell-Hornby, Mary. 2010. “Is translation studies going Anglo-Saxon? Critical comments on the globalization of a discipline”. In Why translation studies matters, Edited by: Gile, Daniel, Hansen, Gyde and Pokorn, Nike K. 97–104. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. , 97), in today's academic world publishing in English means reaching a wider audience. Hence the greatest potential of this volume is its presentation to international audiences of previously unknown case studies from the Italian context, whether on linguistic practices, historiography or literary translations. Surprisingly enough, this welcome and innovative focus on the Italian sphere does not become apparent to the casual reader, as almost none of the titles refer to their geopolitical location. The only two exceptions are Michael Cronin's chapter, devoted to the prolific Italian translator and translation theorist Barbarina Dacre (1768–1854), and Claudia Capancioni's essay on the crucial role of the translator Joyce Lussu (1912–1998) in opening up selected anglophone texts to an Italian readership.

Still in this second group, Renata Oggero reflects on the political dimension of her own translation practice when rendering into Italian the works of seventeenth-century British author Elizabeth Joscelin. Another reflection, on her professional practice when translating film subtitles into Italian, is offered by Gabriella Catalini, incorporating new genres (other than the purely literary) to the discussion on gender and translation. A further interesting genre examined in this volume is advertising, introduced by Valeria Nardi in her qualitative analysis of gender stereotypes in two advertisements in English and Italian, unfortunately lacking in methodological justification in some respects. The conscious role of translators into Italian and the consequences of their cultural/linguistic choices is a topic developed both in Eleonora Federici's article on translations of Kate Clanchy's poetry and in Sandra Plastina's revealing discussion of the translation of Judith Butler into Italian. A more distinct emphasis on the linguistic constraints and potentials of feminist translation is offered in Mirko Casagranda's and Oriana Palusci's chapters, addressing the political dimension of linguistic choices when translating English neuter nouns into Italian gender-marked ones. Unlike most similar analyses carried out so far in other language pairs, these papers do not prioritize discussion of linguistic sexism, but instead successfully incorporate the innovative perspectives of queer studies in order to scrutinize the impact of linguistic decisions on transgendered identities in literary translation.

Vanessa Leonardi's chapter also revolves around linguistic choices in translation, in this case exploring translations of Susanna Tamaro from Italian into British and American English, by a female and male translator respectively. She compares the two translations with a view to elucidating whether there is a distinctively feminine and masculine way of translating. In this regard, her essay engages with general debates on the sex of the translator, a thorny topic that more often than not falls prey to essentialism and fails to take into account the multiple layers of identity which coexist in a person's construction as a sociocultural being – for while gender is certainly an omnipresent category, it is not necessarily the most relevant one in all situations. Or, as the introduction points out, one should never forget the “differences among women, their diverse ‘positionality’ in terms of race, class, ethnic group, and social and cultural context” (p. 18).

My third grouping collects all the remaining topics, from Gabriela Macedo's reflection on her own translation practices when rendering Sylvia Plath from English into Portuguese to contributions that work with an understanding of translation in its broader sense. One of these is Adelina Sánchez Espinosa and Elisa Costa Villaverde's article on the intralinguistic translation/adaptation of the nineteenth-century novel The Portrait of a Lady into a contemporary film; the other is a brilliantly argued chapter by Manuela Coppola examining Jean Rhys's resistance to Western domestication through the use of Creole as a foreignizing element with which to preserve her irreducible alterity in her writing in English – writing that is, in itself, a sort of cultural translation.

A further welcome feature of this volume is its bibliography, presented not as “a mere list of work cited but the out come [sic] of intensive research on Translation and Gender which is offered as a research tool in its own right” (p. 245). The section has great encyclopaedic value, though it would have benefited from a more engaged perspective by the compilers and an explicit presentation of the criteria for selecting some works (and in some languages) while disregarding others.

All in all, it could be argued that one of the main assets of Translating Gender is precisely its new “translations” of what “gender” means from and within the Italian context – and by offering these in English, the volume attempts to encourage mainstream debates in translation studies to start broadening their horizons by considering case studies on gender from linguistic realities that are traditionally downplayed. That said, most examples discussed in this book make English part of the object of discussion: they explore translations from English into Italian or vice versa. While this may be among the most frequent language combinations in Italy, the absence of examples in other important language pairs seems to suggest that academic research on gender and translation takes place exclusively within English departments, which are, after all, the ones most directly exposed to those general debates in the field.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)376-379
Number of pages4
JournalTranslation Studies
Issue number3
Early online date14 Aug 2012
Publication statusPublished - 1 Sept 2012


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