Renaming Gender in Translation

By Casagranda, Mirko | European English Messenger, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Renaming Gender in Translation


Casagranda, Mirko, European English Messenger


1. Gender and Translation

As seminal works like Gender in Translation by Sherry Simon (1996) and Translation and Gender by Luise von Flotow (1997) testify, in the last twenty years the interplay between Gender and Translation Studies has been particularly fruitful and has originated manifold approaches and methodologies that have broadened the scope of research in both areas. Among them I would like to mention what I have defined elsewhere (Casagranda 2011, 2013) as 'transgendering translations', a term that brings Transgender Studies to the fore and tries to put forward an epistemic framework that is the theoretical background to this article.

By transgendering translation I mean the translation of texts that subversively question gender as a non-homogenous and non-heteronormative category by showing its instability as a cultural paradigm and a linguistically performed social act. Such 'transgender texts' play with the structures of language, so that the gender opposition, embodied by personal pronouns like she-he in English or elle-il in French, is challenged. In other words, "the texts that present a non-dichotomous use of linguistic gender may be considered as transgender, because they contribute to the subversion of the binary system of the male/female divide" (Casagranda 2013: 115). (1) It is the case, for example, of a genderless narrator who speaks in the first-person singular and omits any anaphoric reference to gender-marked pronouns. This is possible, of course, in languages like English that are grammatically neuter.

When we translate such texts into a grammatically gendered language like Italian, however, we are often forced to assign gender to what has none in the source text because there are no equivalent genderless structures in the target language. I metaphorically compare these translations to surgical sex reassignments operated on the bodies of hermaphrodites and intersex individuals and claim that such surgical translations "regender language as they regender human bodies and human identities" (Casagranda 2011: 210). From a literary and linguistic point of view, a text may be re-gendered too and made to conform to the hegemonic discourses on gender.

Since naming is one of the most pervasive and culturally rooted strategies to convey and shape one's identity, it goes without saying that the perception and representation of gender is moulded through and by names as well. Consequently when we cross gender in language and translation, i.e. when we either do not reveal gender or we shift from one gender to the other, we often do so by means of 'transgendering' naming practices. In other words, naming is to gender, as renaming is to crossing gender.

2. Naming Gender

The starting assumption of this article is the fact that "[t]he subject is at least in part constituted as a social being by being named" (Humphrey 2006: 158) and that "subjects are brought into existence and classified through speech acts such as naming" (vom Bruck 2006: 226). Indeed, together with the examination of a baby's sexual organs, naming is the first linguistic act a human being is identified with as soon as s/he comes to the world and becomes a member of society.

Building on John Stuart Mill's philosophy (1919), Saul Kripke defines proper names as singular referring terms, i.e. rigid designators that denote without connoting. In other words, a name--unlike a noun--refers to one referent only (even when the same name is used for different persons or places). Anderson points out that, according to Kripke, a name is not part of the linguistic system, since it contains "only a concept of a referent that gives access to encyclopaedic information, indiosyncratic information particular to that or those individuals that bear(s) the name" (Anderson 2007: 158). By denoting only, names are not descriptive, i.e. they do not describe any quality of their referent (despite the fact that they might have been chosen to bestow such quality on the name-bearer), and have no semantic property beyond onymic reference, i. …

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