Translating Puns in Feminist Writing

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Translating Puns in Feminist Writing

MA Thesis English Language and Culture, Utrecht University

Krista Schutte 0222879

Supervisors: dr. C. Koster and dr. R.G.J.L. Supheert

January 2007


1. Introduction ............................................................................................................ p. 3

2 Feminism and Language ………………………………………………………… p. 5

2.1 Feminism and Translation ………………………………………………………. p. 6

2.2 Mary Daly and Gyn-Ecology ……………………………………………………. p. 10
3 Translational Difficulties ………………………………………………………… p. 14

3.1 Puns ……………………………………………………………………………… p. 14

3.2 Neologisms ………………………………………………………………………. p. 21
4 Translating Gyn/Ecology ……………………………………………………….... p. 23

4.1 The Translation …………………………………………………………………... p. 28

4.2 Footnotes to the (Process of) Translation ……………………………………….. p. 40
Appendix ………………………………………………………………………………… p. 46

Sources …………………………………………………………………………………... p. 59

1 Introduction
Gender has long been an important theme in the discussions concerning the quality of a translation. In these discussions, gender is used in a metaphorical sense, as they have often taken place in terms of the fidelity of the translation to its source text. The relationship between these two is likened to the “contract” of marriage. The act of translating itself has been compared to sex, or even rape. The translation, as well as the translator, is seen as the female, and the source text (ST) as male, making the translation the adulterous wife or the mistress, and the ST the husband (Chamberlain 93-69).

Gender can be an issue within a translation itself too. The translation of feminist texts and the translation of texts by feminist translators have become the subject of discussions as well. How should feminist texts be translated, and how do feminist translators treat their source texts?

Mary Daly’s 1978 book Gyn/Ecology is such a feminist text that, apart from the issue of gender, deals with another topic as well, namely that of language. Because of the fact that it was published almost thirty years ago, one may ask whether it is at all relevant to look at such a work, and to translate it, or look at how it could be translated. Daly, like many other feminists, believes that language is sexist, and that this has even caused women to be in the social position that they are in, in which they do not always receive the same rights as so men, or are discriminated against, as in the case of women who do not get a job because they are, for example, mothers. As such situations still occur nowadays, I feel that indeed it is relevant to examine a text like Daly’s. Daly used language in such a way that it exposes the patriarchal nature of language. She uses many new words or uses old words in new contexts or with new meanings to achieve this. This often involves the use of wordplay. A clear example in Daly’s work in which she exposes this patriarchal nature, is “stag-nation,” (6) in which she connects the concept of stagnation (of female development) to men (“stags”). An example of an existing word that she uses in a new sense, is “hag” (3), which is normally seen and used as an insult to women, but which Daly “reclaims” and uses in a proud and positive manner. Puns such as the above form a challenge to translators, as they are the product of characteristics of a language which may not be present in the target language and may cause the translator to have to look for another solution or to abandon the playful element of the pun altogether.

In the following chapters, I will discuss the attitude of feminists towards language and the views of feminism on translation, followed by an analysis of a specific feminist work in which wordplay plays an important role, Mary Daly’s 1978 Gyn/Ecology, together with an existing translation of this work (the German translation by Erika Wisselinck). I will then proceed to discuss the problematic translational challenges that a translator can encounter in such works, namely wordplay and neologisms. The final chapter will focus on the translation of Daly’s Gyn/Ecology itself. It sets out with an analysis of the book in terms of its translational difficulties, and is followed by an attempt to translate a few passages from the book myself. This translation will involve comments upon the translation process (i.e. the decisions that were made), to further examine the difficulties that a translator can come across when translating wordplay in feminist literature.

2 Feminism and Language
The feminist movement has been making a case for equal treatment of women in all spheres of life, and continues to do so. One of those areas is language. Anne Pauwes, in her book on feminism and language, informs us that some (more radical) feminists think that language is sexist, as men are often seen as the creators of meaning and of language rules (as a result of their dominant role in for example literature) and as such impose their own world view on language. Language, therefore, is gender-biased according to these feminists. The fact that the masculine form is the norm in many structures, while the feminine form is a marked form, is an example of such male-biased characteristics. For instance, the words “waiter” versus “waitress” and the use of “man” and “he” as a generic form to refer to all people, including women, show how masculine forms are often preferred. Sometimes, language is even seen as the cause of women’s oppression. This view of language and gender is based on the strong version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which states that the way one thinks is influenced, or determined, by the language one speaks.

In this view, patriarchal language (i.e. language from a male perspective) is incapable of expressing a woman’s point of view and that is the reason that the feminists who support this view have advocated language change. The goal they strive for is gender-neutral language or the feminisation of language. They draw attention to the sexist nature of language and show their rejection of it, while providing women with the (linguistic) means to express themselves. Several techniques are used to achieve this. For instance, they make use of neologisms, which are often derived from existing words, such as the well-known example of “herstory” instead of “history”. The word “history” is analysed as being a compound noun consisting of the words “his” and “story”. Other techniques involve wordplay (e.g. “malestream” for “mainstream”) or graphemic experiments (e.g. italicising the element that refers to the masculine in “herrlich”), or the hyphenation of words such as “stag-nation”, giving existing words additional meanings. These are all examples of changes that occur at word level only. Feminists who do not believe that changes at word level only are sufficient, argue that, in order to create a language that is completely women-centred, changes at the syntactic level should also take place.

Mary Daly is one of the feminists who believe that patriarchal language is the cause that “women are silenced/split by the babble of grammatical use” (18) She advocates what she calls “gynocentric writing”, as she believes that “the language and style of patriarchal writing simply cannot contain or carry the energy of women’s exorcism and ecstasy” (24).Wordplay has an important role in her gynocentric writing. The puns that are used in Gyn/Ecology, amongst other techniques that she uses, serve to unmask the patriarchal nature of language.

Daly agrees with the feminists who object to the use of the pronoun “he” and the noun “man”. She even questions the use of the first person singular “I”, as it does not disclose the identity (i.e. gender) of the speaker or writer, and can even make women feel “deceptively […] at home in a male-controlled language” (18). Despite her objections against the use of this pronoun, however, she does use the words “we” and “our”, of which the same can be said be it that they are plural forms, to refer to women.

    1. Feminism and Translation

Throughout the history of translation, the act of translation has often been discussed in terms of fidelity. In many debates the quality of a translation is judged by its faithfulness to its source text. This marriage metaphor for translation has resulted in terms such as the one coined by Gilles Ménage, “les belles infidèles”. According to this metaphor, a translation is the unfaithful female, a derivative and inferior form of the male source text. Feminist translators seek to revise these sexist images that are sometimes associated with translation. They oppose to patriarchal language and to the idea that the “paternity” of the source text is in question, as translators have the ability to apply changes to their translation, thereby obscuring its origin, and creating a “bastard” as its “offspring”. The purpose of feminist translation is to draw attention to and to criticise this view of a translation and the act of translation. This view is reflected in the fact that under American copyright law, for example, translations are perceived to be a derivative work, and in the fact that book reviews hardly pay any attention to the translation, even when the review clearly is based on a translation rather than the original work itself. Feminist translators join the feminist writers in their innovative use of language that seeks to undermine everyday, patriarchal language. They, too, seek ways to give woman a voice, by inventing new words, spellings and grammatical constructions.

There are several ways to make language, or texts, more women-friendly. The processes of “neutralisation” and “desexisation”, as Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood, a Canadian feminist translator, calls them (117), rid the text of its patriarchal elements. These processes refer to the use of gender-neutral words and the use of less sexist forms (e.g. using “he/she” instead of the generic “he”) respectively. Many Germanic languages use suffixes such as “-man” to refer to human agent nouns. Often the male form is also the gender neutral form which can also be used to refer to women. In English, words such as chairman and stewardess are often rendered as “chairperson” and “flight attendant”. In Dutch, however, there are more feminine suffixes (“-a”, “-euse”, “-trice”, “-es”, “-in”, “-ster”) and they are also more commonly used than in English, where most of them have been replaced by the abovementioned gender-neutral forms, as a greater importance is attached to politically correct language. Pauwes reports that even in Dutch the use of suffixes seems to decline, as they are “seldom used in relation to new coinages” (47).

According to De Lotbinière-Harwood, neutralisation strategies in translation alone are not enough. She thinks that neutralisation and desexisation are suited in certain contexts only, such as translating non-fiction written by a man. She expresses her doubts about the effectiveness of these strategies as they do not draw enough attention to the feminine and thus preserve the current patriarchal language as well as ideas about the position of women in society. She therefore says that “we need to resex language” (117) and that feminisation of language and of texts/translations is needed for that. In order to do this, translators should use

strategies such as avoiding pejorative words designating women, encoding new meaning in existing words and coining new words, often using etymology as a resource. Words with the unhappy ending –ess and –ette are to be avoided when designating women. As diminutives, they are pejorative. (117)
Pauwes calls this “to cause linguistic disruption” (98). This disruptive strategy is necessary according to its supporters, as it shows their rejection of sexism. Luise von Flotow, a feminist translator herself, distinguishes three main strategies in feminist translation: supplementing, prefacing and footnoting, and what she describes as “hijacking”. Using footnotes or prefaces to explain translational choices, too, is a widely used strategy outside of the practice of feminist translation. Von Flotow sees this strategy, in which translators “have to turn the critique of one language into the critique of another” (74), i.e. to adapt and apply the message of the patriarchal nature of language (and the techniques to expose it) to the TL, as a way of compensation for the differences between languages. The strategy of hijacking, a term which von Flotow claims to have taken from a journalist who was critical of de Lotbinière-Harwood’s translation of Lettres d”une autre by Lise Gauvin because of her interventionist translation strategy, is a strategy which aims at the feminising of the target text. Within this strategy there are several more specific substrategies, which would perhaps be more aptly called “techniques.” These techniques involve the exploitation of for instance grammatical or graphological properties.

The same strategies/techniques that are available to feminist writers to feminise the text, of course, are available to feminist translators or translators of feminist writings as well. One of those strategies is to challenge grammatical gender. Although it can be argued that grammatical rules concerning gender are simply a matter of convention, they can also be used to draw attention to the unequal treatment of men and women. Because of the fact that grammatical gender-marking is conceived as a convention which is hardly ever questioned or criticised, they make for a perfect tool to show how in society, too, gender differences are not always questioned, as the challenging or even ungrammatical translations take on a symbolic meaning. One can challenge grammatical gender in a variety of ways, using different techniques and exploiting different grammatical features of a language.

Louky Bersianik challenges the “misogyny of our society and its languages” (Simon 17) in her novel L”Eugelionne. In a passage on abortion, for instance, she adds the feminine ending “-e” to the word “puni” in “Le ou la coupable doit être punie”. This technique emphasises that the woman is always the one that is perceived as being guilty of and should be punished for abortion. Howard Scott, who translated the novel into English, came up with the translation “The guilty one must be punished… whether she’s a man or a woman!” English is a language with “natural” gender, i.e. the gender of nouns depends on their meaning rather than their form. Scott was not able to use a feminine noun or adjective in his translation because of this, but he was able to use another grammatical feature which is able to indicate gender: the unexpected use of the feminine pronoun “she”. This allowed him to create a construction with a similar effect as the source text.

Another example of a translational difficulty in a feminist book upon which Sherry Simon reports is when Bersianik, in another of her works, asks her readers what the feminine form of the French word “garçon” (boy) is. The answer to this question that she herself provides is “garce”, which originally indeed meant “girl”. This is however no longer its meaning. Nowadays it has taken on the degrading meaning of “slut” or “whore”. Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood, who translated the text into English, explains that “the same kind of sexual slippage has occurred in English” (de Lotbinière-Harwood 118). She could not rely on masculine and feminine forms of the same noun in English, as was the case in French (with “garcon” and “grace”), because “boy” and “girl” have different etymological roots. She therefore came up with the “obvious equivalent” as she herself calls it: “What is the feminine of dog? It’s bitch!” (Simon 21).

De Lotbinière-Harwood goes even further in her defiance of grammatical rules, as she also uses the pronoun “she” instead of “it” to refer to the noun “dawn”, because the French word in the source text, “aube”, is a feminine noun. In a line from Nicole Brossard’s Sous la Langue, the first few words end in “-elle”:
Fricatelle ruiselle essentielle aime-t-elle dans le touche a tout qui arrondit les seins la rondeur douce des bouches ou l’effet qui la déshabille? (De Lotbinière-Harwood qtd. in von Flotow, Translation and Gender 23)
In her translation of this line, de Lotbinière-Harwood uses the pronoun “she” in a way which renders the text ungrammatical, but manages to preserve the emphasis on the feminine of the source text. Her translation is as follows:
Does she frictional she fluvial she essential does she in the all-embracing touch that rounds the breasts love the mouths” soft roundness or the effect undressing her? (De Lotbinière-Harwood qtd. in von Flotow, Translation and Gender 23)
Feminist translators may also choose to use feminine grammatical features in their translations, even if they are not used in the source text. De Lotbinière-Harwood, for example, is such an “assertive, interventionist” translator (von Flotow Translation and Gender 28), who gives the text a feminine identity where there was none in the source text. In the preface to her translation of Lettres dune autre by Lise Gauvin, a fellow feminist, she points out that Gauvin writes in the generic masculine, but that she chose to make “language speak for women, and therefore used every opportunity to make the feminine visible in her translation. For the French word “Québécois”, for instance, she uses the translation “Québécois-e-s”, adding the feminine suffix in order to emphasise that women live in Québec too, contrary to what the (masculine) generic form seems to suggest.

Another category in translation strategies that feminine translators can use concerns typography. This is a strategy that De Lotbinière-Harwood uses as well. In her translation “HuMan Rights and Men’s Rights” for “Droit de l”Homme et Droits des homes”, the capitalised M in “HuMan” draws attention to the fact that the word “human” contains the word “man” and that women do not seem to be included in it and that “man” alone makes up humankind. Other examples are where for example a bold face is used to emphasise the feminine aspect of a word. In the French source text, its author Michèle Causse used an e muet (the silent “s” at the end of a word to indicate the feminine form) to feminise her text. In the sentence “Nulle ne l”ignore, tout est langue”, “nulle” is the feminine form of “no one”. In English this word does not mark gender. De Lotbinière-Harwood came up with a creative solution; she used a bold e in “one” to indicate the foregrounding of gender that was present in the source text (Simon 21).

A third strategy of feminist (translation) strategies is to use wordplay, often by forming new words out of existing ones. It can be extremely difficult to translate these puns, as will become apparent from the next chapter, but sometimes it is possible, as the German translation of the title of Mary Daly’s Gyn-Ecology, “Gyn/Ökologie” shows us. Barbara Godard gives us an example of a creative solution for the translation of the title of a book by Nicole Brossard, L’Amer, which is a pun on “mère” (mother), “mer” (sea) and “amer” (bitter). Godard centres her translation “These our Mothers” around a large S, cleverly creating the phrases “these our mothers”, “the sour mothers” and “these sour smothers” (Simon 14).

Examples like these show that what translators have to rely on most of all is their creativity and that they have to “go beyond translation to supplement their work” (von Flotow, Translation and Gender 24).

    1. Mary Daly and Gyn/Ecology

Mary Daly is an American theologian and radical feminist writer who also believes that the patriarchal nature of language is related to the position of women in society. In her writings, Daly attempts to deconstruct conventional language in order to show this. In Gyn/Ecology, she describes how women have been silenced by a patriarchal culture, in which they have come to believe that male-written texts are true. Women therefore need to “spring into life, speech, action” (Daly 21). They need to become writers themselves, but they cannot use patriarchal language and therefore need to “invent, dis-cover, re-member” (24). This is exactly what Daly herself does in Gyn/Ecology. She uses several techniques to give women a voice and to challenge patriarchal language. For example, she uses words that would normally be considered to be offensive to women, such as “hag” and “crone”, to refer to women who undertake the feminist journey and attaches positive images of strong and independent women to them. By doing this, she reclaims these words and gives them a more positive meaning.

Daly agrees with the feminists who object to the use of the pronoun “he” and the noun “man”. She even questions the use of the first person singular “I”, as it does not disclose the identity (i.e. gender) of the speaker or writer, and can even make women feel “deceptively […] at home in a male-controlled language” (8). Despite her objections against the use of this pronoun, however, she does use the words “we” and “our”, of which the same can be said be it that they are plural forms, to refer to women.

Her use of the above-mentioned pronouns “we” and “our” presents another feature of her style. She uses it in a way that would be considered ungrammatical in normal usage, for example in sentences such as “Spinsters can find our way back to reality […]” (4), where “our” instead of “their” is used to refer to “Spinsters”. She does this, she says, because it is “a means of realizing my identification with, or separation from, certain roles and behaviours” (25). The capitalisation of certain nouns, too, depends on the extent to which she can identify with the concept in question. Thus, for example, “Self is capitalized when I am referring to the authentic center of women’s process, while the imposed/internalized false “self,” the shell of the Self, is in lower case” (26).

Daly clearly has her own style, and does not agree with all feminists, as becomes clear from her statement that she uses “they” rather than “we” to refer to those women. With respect to language, she does not always agree with developments in the language or techniques that are invented (by feminists) and used to make language less patriarchal. She rejects the use of gender-neutral words such as “chairperson”, and expresses her disapproval of the word “herstory”, that is meant to replace “history,” which according to some feminists implies that history is the result of men’s achievements.

The main strategy that she employs to achieve her goal, however, is the use of wordplay. She invents words such as “hag-ography” and “Gynocide”, and adds or lays bare (new) meanings to words such as “dis-ease” and “re-cover” by using hyphens which draw attention to additional meanings. In the preface to Gyn/Ecology, Daly warns her readers that

[t]his book contains Big Words, even Bigger than Beyond God the Father, for it is written for big, strong women, out of respect for strength. Moreover, I”ve made some of them up. Therefore, it may be a stumbling block both to those who choose downward mobility of the mind and therefore hate Big Words, and to those who choose upward mobility and therefore hate New/Old Words, that is, Old Words that become New when their ancient (“obsolete”) gynocentric meanings are unearthed (xiv).
These “Big Words” are not only a stumbling block to non-supporters of Daly’s theories, but also for the translators of the book, as the wordplay that it contains is often difficult, or even impossible, to translate, as becomes apparent from its German translation for example.

In her 1997 article, Luise von Flotow discusses the German translation of Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology in the light of its translational problems to do with punning. She sets out by stating that while wordplay is used in German feminist writing, other strategies are used more predominately. One of the feminists who do use wordplay in their writing is Luise Pusch. She also published a critique of the German version of the book, which von Flotow uses in her discussion of the translation.

The German translator of the book, Erika Wisselinck, refers to the difficulty of the task of translating the wordplay that is present in the source text. Pusch’s main point of critique is that the excessive use of translator’s notes to accompany the many puns that were deemed “untranslatable” made the translation extremely difficult to read. The title of her critique therefore is “Mary, please don”t pun-ish us anymore!” (von Flotow, “Mutual Pun-ishment” 52). According to Pusch and von Flotow, one of the reasons that the German translation does not “work” is that the number of puns in the source text is excessive and becomes “indigestible in translation” (von Flotow, “Mutual Pun-ishment” 54). Another reason may have to do with the fact that Wisselinck seemed to feel daunted by the source text and perhaps even inadequate at fulfilling her task, as von Flotow observes that Wisselinck places greater emphasis on the difficulties that the puns presented her rather than the fun and on the “inadequacies of her solution” (von Flotow, “Mutual Pun-ishment” 59). A third reason that is mentioned is the function that Wisselinck ascribes to the translation. According to Pusch and von Flotow, the translation was given an educational function, serving to popularise feminism in Germany, whereas the source text did not necessarily have that function ” (von Flotow, “Mutual Pun-ishment” 64).

Wisselinck describes three strategies for translating feminist wordplay in her preface. Her first strategy is to find related and appropriate German puns. This can, however, result in a translation that is rather free. The second strategy is to translate the literal surface meaning of the pun only, which results in a text that is faithful to the text’s meaning, but it also rids the text of its playfulness, a powerful tool in conveying Daly’s feminist views. Her third strategy is to explain certain puns that she thinks are “impressive” (“eindruckvolle Wortspiele”) in footnotes. Unfortunately, because of the fact that puns are dependent on language-specific features, finding appropriate German puns, or puns in any language for that matter, is difficult. For this reason, Wisselinck resorted to using footnotes, even in combination with her strategy of translating the surface meaning. Von Flotow points out that the wordplay that is present in Mary Daly’s work is turned into wordlabour in the German translation (von Flotow, “Mutual Pun-ishment” 57).

One of the translations of puns that von Flotow discusses in her article, is when Daly explains that she does not approve of the feminist term “herstory”, meaning “women’s history”. Wisselinck explains this pun to her audience by pointing out that often products such as glasses, towels and place mats are given His and Hers labels, and that the word “herstory” is derived from this practice. According to von Flotow, such an explanation, using “such lowly domestic items” (von Flotow, “Mutual Pun-ishment” 60) trivialises the issue.

The explanations of the puns are not only tedious, but sometimes they are simply incorrect as well. This is the case in the translation of the hyphenated word “re-cover”, where she claims that “recover” is the English word for “entdecken”. This word, however, means “discover”. Von Flotow wonders why such trivial or even contradictory points are given such long explanations, while other puns such as “ludic cerebration” which are more important and “loaded” have only their surface meaning translated. She feels that the tedious footnotes from which the translators difficulty to translate the wordplay is so painfully apparent, do “more to alienate than “educate” the readers” (von Flotow, “Mutual Pun-ishment” 59).

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