Elena Ferrante: How and why does gender matter in translation?

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With Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend now adapted for TV, we take a look at what translation means for the writer and for her texts, and in a book about women, how does gender matter?

Gender (its function and impact) is exciting for translation because the two areas of inquiry share illuminating affinities. Repeatedly speaking to or about each other, the field of translation studies and that of gender and sexuality studies share what Christopher Larkosh calls “points of contact” (2011). This article explores key examples of these points of contact, giving a brief overview of how the (limited and limiting) binaries often applied to conceptions of gender are also often applied to translation, and to what end. We will then interrogate the limits of these binaries as applied to translation, exploring key instances where translation can be seen to subvert and complicate them, or even reveal their irrelevance. We will consider how language, its production and reproduction, exists in a continuum of utterance, rather than any simple hierarchical exchange between two endpoints, and how the act of translation participates in (and can be seen to exemplify) this. Then, against this theoretical grounding, we will consider our key case study: the works and the identity of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante, and how these speak pertinently to the discussion of identity (especially, but not in the end limited to, that of gender identity) in translation.

Ferrante proves a particularly apposite case study for this discussion. Through the figure of Ferrante and in her works, as Buonanno observes, “a deep focus on fragmented identity, recovery, and reshaping of the self” (2008, p. v) emerges. In her characters, narratives and themes, in her very positioning as a woman writer under pseudonym, in her choice of a woman to translate her works into English, we see an author occupied with the idea of identity and notions of gender within that, looking to assert her work’s liberation from any externally imposed, reductive version of these. Ferrante wrote recently of her admiration for the idea of the ‘unknown artist’ in her weekly column for The Guardian: “It would not be a pseudonym, that is, a false name; it would be the only true name used to identify her imaginative power, her ability.” (2018) Ferrante resists the imposition of any facile identity bound to reductive notions of gender and its supposed binaries, to which women writers are so commonly subject. In a defiant privileging of the female experience, Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series at once centres the experiences and voices of women, while freeing them from their typical reductive pigeonholing. The works’ translation into English by a woman, Goldstein, hand-selected by Ferrante, participates in this simultaneous centering of and liberation from gender.

Finally, it is worth concluding this introductory section with an acknowledgement of the tangible realities of gender inequality in translation. As Alison Anderson notes in the digital magazine Words Without Borders, in 2013, the preceding 20 years of the PEN translation Prize had seen just three women winners, making 15% of the total. Likewise, for the Best Translated Book Award organised by Open Letter, over the previous three years, just 17% of the books on the longlist were by women. While translation offers an illuminating instance of the potential to interrogate and dismantle reductive binaries that regulate and restrict both itself and gender, it is important to bear in mind that while we can (and, I argue, should) deconstruct these on theoretical and ideological levels, this does not neutralise the tangible real world impact that these binaries have had in the past, and enduringly create. Deconstruction of the binaries is helpful, but that is not to say that there is not much more work to be done to redress the damage these ideas have fostered in the representation of women in translation: women authors being underrepresented in translated works, women translators being underrepresented in the profession and as recipients of its prizes and accolades, and the many and varied ways that the voices and experiences of women are marginalised, minimised and distorted in both ‘original’ and translated works.

Gender and translation: shared binaries

We see a core affinity between gender and translation in the figuring of the binaries that attempt to police them both. Gender binary has been a lens or device that has been used to denigrate the the role, function and impact of translation over its history. This is explored by critic Lori Chamberlain in her seminal essay ‘Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation’. Chamberlain speaks of “the distinction between writing and translating – marking, that is, one to be original and ‘masculine’, the other to be derivative and ‘feminine’.” (1988, p. 455) Offering numerous convincing (and often uncomfortable in their evident abusiveness) examples of this figuring of translation, she notes: “this metaphorics of translation reveals both an anxiety about the myths of paternity (or authorship and authority) and a profound ambivalence about the role of maternity” (p. 461). This gender binary as applied to translation is particularly relevant, almost ironic, though, as translation can so thoroughly undermine them. Translation’s potential for a subversive and dissident impact during its production and reproduction of texts, as we will now explore, reveals the ultimate inadequacy of those binaries to describe or constrain it. For this, we will consider intertextuality, retranslation, and the reader.

One key instance where translation can be seen to subvert and complicate the masculine/feminine binary is seen in the intertextuality of translation. Language is constantly refracted through creativity and recreativity, speaking forever on through repetition and rearticulation. This is a core facet of semiotics and intertextuality. Rather than a simple exchange between two endpoints, with one of these endpoints often conceived of as being dominant to the other, translation can be seen to exemplify the idea that language and texts exist in an spectrum of reference. Umberto Eco describes: “Thus I rediscovered what writers have always known (and have told us again and again): books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told.” (2004, p. 549). Translation offers a particularly unambiguous articulation of this. Venuti observes: “The translator’s agency centers on the construction of various intertextual relations.” (2004, p. 101). A translated text is a clear instance of intertextuality, a condition that precludes any simple binary.

A particularly illustrative instance of this, the function and articulation of retranslations can be seen to query the idea of binaries in translation. This is especially the case in retranslations that speak in the awareness of those translations of the same source text that precede them. Chamberlain suggests this can be considered through a lens that shares an affinity with Harold Bloom’s notion of ‘anxiety of influence’ (p. 467). Indeed, as Venuti articulates: “Because retranslations are designed to challenge a previous version of the source text, they are likely to construct a more dense and complex intertextuality so as to signify and call attention to their competing interpretation.” (2004, p.104). There is a multiplicitous character to retranslations, in what they articulate and in the contexts to which they speak. As Theo Hermans observes, when considered as a form of communication akin to reported discourse and ironic speech, “at least two simultaneous utterances reach the audience [through translation].” (2014, p. 9) Translations speak to multiple contexts at once: the source text and its contemporary context, any preceding translations and their contexts, the current context into which the translation is being communicated, and its potential future contexts.

Finally, the reader is a crucial party necessarily omitted from traditional conceptions of the creative process belonging to the masculine ‘original’ author. The reader, as Hermans puts it, acts as “the receiver as the agent construing meaning” (p. 12). They have an active role to play in the communication of the translated text, and are a further (and foundational) element in the process. The reader’s agency complicates any potential idea of a simple binary transaction between the dominant, masculine ‘original’ and the derivative, feminine translation.

With this theoretical rejection of the use of gender binaries to police translation established, we turn briefly to some concrete examples of how, where and why feminist translators have begun writing women into the cannon, or voicing uncomfortable elements in their translation in order to offer them up to scrutiny. Louise von Flotow offers several instructive examples where feminist translation has acted to write women back into the canon in various ways. These include ‘gender neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ translations of the bible, the translation and presentation of thus-far untranslated women authors, and articles which examine existing translations of important authors in light of new feminist research and approaches (pp. 95 – 97). This is a reality that continues: we saw in the past year, for example, Emily Wilson become the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey into English, and in doing so, according to reviewer Charlotte Higgins in The Guardian, she “produced a translation that exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem” (2017). Those gender binaries that once policed translation and diminished the place and voice of women can be seen to be breaking down. The theory and practice of translation offers an excellent arena in which to explore a liberation from limited conceptions of identity and self, and an embracing of intersectional, interdisciplinary understanding of these. Translation’s potential to interrogate, subvert and dismantle gendered binaries is obvious.

Ferrante: forging a space between authenticity and artifice

We turn now to an author rejecting ‘authority’ bound up in any notion of the supposed dominance of a masculine creativity. Here, I offer an exploration of the notion of gender identity’s impact onto translation through lens of Elena Ferrante and English language translator Ann Goldstein. The resistance Ferrante displays against the imposition of any identity from external social narratives speaks compellingly of an author unwilling to assume typical authority bestowed by notions of the dominance of the act of writing, traditionally figured as masculine. Yet she does not forgo the implications of a gendered figuring: rather she asserts her own expression thereof. In a deliberate and so defiant interplay, while dismantling gender’s traditional implications for herself as a woman author, she offers a concerted focus on women’s experience and the championing of a voice and place for women and their narratives. Ferrante has asserted: “I wouldn’t recognize myself without women’s struggles, women’s nonfiction writing, women’s literature.” (qtd. by Goldstein, 2016, Reading in Translation). She at once embodies and disowns her gendered identity. It is an ambivalence that creates a space for the work’s creativity to breathe, without rejecting the debt owed to women. Her works enact an implicit imperative to claim and redefine notions of women’s creativity.

Critics have spoken of the “sense of authenticity conveyed by the narrative” (Segnini 2017, 112) of Ferrante’s Neapolitan novel series. Yet it is deliberately and explicitly an artifice. Ferrante plays with the notion of an authentic, authorial self: in assigning the protagonist of the novels the same first name as her pseudonym, Ferrante coaxes the reader to engage with the artifice of the first person narration, while simultaneously emphasising its constructedness. In her article about the affinities between Ferrante and author Muriel Dimens, critic Velleda Ceccoli suggests they both participate in an articulation of “the necessity of holding ambivalence as an essential element of identity – an internal space that allows us to be.” (2017, p. 110) In Ferrante’s play between construct and authenticity, she creates a space for an autonomous expression of self. Ferrante herself has voiced her explicit admiration of this condition of ambivalence, for its creation of a space for the creative value of a work to take precedence over any other social, political or ideological concern. In her aforementioned column for The Guardian, she writes that keeping works separate from the identities of their authors allows the works to “stay afloat in the great river of forms.” (2018) This condition is both created and explored in her Neapolitan novel series, and furthered by the intervention of Goldstein as English language translator.

Writing and self are presented as in interplay throughout the novels, with an emphasis on the potential transcendental nature of this. This is particularly embodied in the excelling of the character Lila. Despite being possessed of enormous talent and intuitive intellect, she is beset by those limitations ascribed to her position as a woman: she is pursued, she is married, she is reduced by the externally imposed socially-determined gendered role. All the while, her writing transcends this. “Lila was able to speak through writing; but – further – she left no trace of effort, you weren’t aware of artifice of the written word.” (2012, p. 226) Lila creates written works that speak with an authentic self and alive with unburdened creative value. Free in her written works, she is constrained in reality by her gendered situation. “I had the impression that she was making a painful effort to free from some corner of herself the old Lila, the one who read, wrote, drew, made plans spontaneously – the naturalness of an instinctive reaction.” (p. 300) Ferrante depicts in her work the very situation she resists for herself as a woman and author.

Reviews left by readers on bookselling websites articulate the ambivalence upon which Ferrante’s reclamation of self depends. Recurrently, readers describe themselves as puzzled by the ambiguity of identity presented in her works: “From the beginning I was completely confused as to whose voice I was reading.” (Amazon review, 2017) While looking to unburden her works from the identity of the individual author, Ferrante nonetheless centres the role and voices of women. Indeed, one story arch sees the protagonists resisting the traditional motherhood role, often – perhaps particularly in Italian culture – figured as the ultimate identity for women. Ferrante’s works question “the sacred certainties – such as motherhood, female solidarity, and the philosophical, spirit and psychological rights and priorities of female subjectivity.” (Bullaro and Love, 2016, p. 5) Ferrante’s choice of Goldstein as translator for her novels (and now newspaper columns) into English means we have a thoroughly visible translator, and a woman at that. This contributes to the idea of an ambivalence of authorial identity: as Chloe Cushman writes for The National Post, “Goldstein has become a sort of Ferrante stand-in.” (2016) The externally imposed social narratives of gender, reductive and limiting, are resisted. In the same action, a deliberate championing of the voices and experiences of women plays out.

Disidentification: queerness and its affinity with translation

One interesting question to consider as we move into our conclusion is: why is translation so subject to those same methods of policing as gender? What need for power and control, what fear is fuelling the application of gendered binaries to it? Chamberlain asserts: “what is consistently at issue is power.” (p. 465) Translation’s potential to threaten established social orders and power structures seems clear. With queer studies now increasingly visible on academic curricula, we are coming to recognise the limits and abuse of impositions of binaries in the areas of gender and sexuality identity. So too, in a testament to their interconnectedness, is translation and its studies asserting an increasingly vocal rejection of the binaries of control and simplistic hierarchical power exchanges that have previously defined, in order to denigrate and so control, the act and function of translation.

But that is not to champion dismissing gender completely: those tangible, and woeful, realities of gender-driven inequalities for women in/and translation, considered in this article’s introduction, remain. Seeking to merely dismiss gender from the discussion entirely is disingenuous and reductive in a world where gender enduringly creates and regulates specific conditions for women in the creative sphere (among other social, political and personal spheres). It risks a return to notions of the sublimated self that allowed for the denigration of the role of the translator and of translations that we have begun to dismantle in translation studies, begun in earnest by Venuti in his work on the translator’s invisibility. It is an unhelpfully utopian notion of dissolved and irrelevant identity; a fallacy engendered by the facile conceptions of the translator’s passivity and invisibility that so tightly hold popular imagination (or at least, certainly in the West).

Rather, we must look to create a space for the unimpeded creativity of women and of translation. When we see authors and translators, as in the case of Ferrante and Goldstein, able to speak simultaneously to and against the limits of gender, we have a powerful shift beginning. Von Flotow splits the discussion of the interplay between gender and translation into two ‘paradigms’: the first wherein gender is an impacting and abusive reality which needs addressing and redressing in the canon, the second wherein gender is entirely performative and baseless, an imposition that needs transcending. We can, I suggest, see gender and translation existing across both of these realities in a more unified situation. As Ferrante’s efforts in this area helpfully illustrate, the ambivalence between these paradigms is exactly the space wherein women can be free to create and recreate, producing creative value free from impositions of reductive gendered ideas, while simultaneously asserting and privileging women’s specific voices and experiences. Here we see an keen affinity with queer theory, where ‘disidentification’ – the resistance of externally imposed notions of identity, instead asserting a self that is autonomous from broader social narratives – is a core tenet. As Larkosh describes, through both queer and translation theory, we are to participate in “setting aside one’s own understanding of self, and in doing so, creating an institutional space for others to speak and trace out divergent understandings of identity and alterity” (p. 4). Free from the imposition of and the reduction inherent to socially prescribed conceptions of identity, we begin to move towards a reality of women creating and recreating unhindered by notions and narratives attached to gender. We begin to enjoy unimpeded creative output from women in translation, women as translators, and so, more broadly, translation itself.

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