Monday, March 12, 2007

Translating Homosexuality

To continue with the gender theme from the last post…

If you didn’t know it already, translation is everywhere. While reading Vice Versa: Bisexuality and the Eroticism of Everyday Life by Dr. Marjorie Garber (yes, it’s shocking, but I do actually read books on topics other than translation!), a fascinating book that I didn’t expect to relate to translation, I noticed a brief discussion of how translators and editors changed Plato’s Symposium and Shakespeare’s sonnets when they found the genders or sexual identities inappropriate or discomfiting, i.e. when they were not explicitly heterosexual.

Dr. Garber writes: “Thus the Greek word eromenos, meaning “male beloved,” became “mistress,” and the “army of lovers” that would have its historical counterpart in the famous Theban Band of warrior-companions becomes, by implication, a bevy of knights and ladies. The word “boy” in Greek was simply translated as “maiden” or “woman,” thus making same-sex love invisible to the non-Greek reading eye.” On the next page, Dr. Garber mentions Lord Byron who “like the timid translators of Greek…often chose the path of gender bowdlerization in his writing” and she creates the term “textual heterosexual” to refer to those who pass as heterosexual through this “gender bowdlerization” in their writing, or by implication, in translation.

She also points out that correct, non-bowdlerized translations of this sort of material later helped make homosexuals and bisexuals more visible and more accepted.

To be blunt about it, translators have a lot of power, and abusing it by significantly changing texts, including by deleting anything not “appropriate,” is, in my opinion, wrong.


chicksinger said...

Hi Brett,
This post reminds me a segment broadcast on this week's "This American Life" program on NPR, which you might be able to download if you're interested. The subject was "Lost in Translation," and although the show dealt with the topic very broadly, there was one interview with an Iraqui who worked as a translator for the U.S. Army. The translator related a couple of incidents when what he decided to translate and how had a direct influence on events.
I just checked, and it doesn't appear to be listed yet. But it was just broadcast over the weekend.
Take care,
MK '93

Brett Jocelyn Epstein said...

Thank you for your comment and for telling me about the segment on "This American Life". I will try to find it online soon. It sounds interesting!

Best wishes,