Keepin’ it Queer: an experiment in translating queer and queering translation
This is the text of a talk given at the 2012 Feminist Spaces Conference in Tampere, Finland. The talk was performed using a recording of the text made by a person of the opposite gender. I gave the talk mouthing along to the recording as though I were speaking in a man’s voice.
I do not mean to imply that to translate and to queer are the same thing, neither am I about to make them the same. What I hope to do is to create something like a third term in which what is similar in translation and in queering will be bracketed and put into relief. Performed, not invented, but cited, in a new fashion.
The similarity between translation and queering seems to me strange, to make strange. In French, foreign and strange are the same word (étrange). Likewise, the translation of queer into French is queer (with French accent), an untranslatable foreignness. The task of both of these procedures implies making the same strange to itself, doing the same by doing different, creating difference by repeating the same.
It is important to note as well that I am using these words as verbs, and when I use them as nouns, as the nouns of their verbs. We are not discussing here, a translation, a queer, or the queer. We are translating, queering. This is another thing that translation and queering share: the conflation of creation and critique, of reading and writing. It is not a critical model applied to a text, nor a creation engendered from a system of thought, but a creation and a critique that happen simultaneously, like a mark on paper, it is neither solely ink nor movement, but the expression of their junction. Likewise, translation interprets a text as it rewrites it and queering puts into question without erasing.
As theoretical sites, both what we call “translation theory” and what we call “queer theory” have grown up as ways of rereading cultural and literary discourses, to expose histories of power and influence inscribed in them. They also share the goal of uncovering and enunciating silences, and cast margins into high definition. They upset dyads, attempt to reimagine the doxa, and reorder orders of operations within hierarchies.
This talk will practice a kind of enactive deformative reading of some key moments in translation and queer theory. I think of this reading as both a way to translate and a way to queer, but taking translation and queering as kinds of metaphors, for ways of keeping terms in motion. The principle is simple: I have selected six quotes, three from queer theory and three from translation theory and swapped the terms (replacing the word queer with translation and the word translation with queer). I have then reread the resulting quotes as new original texts (original translations). In so doing, I’m attempting to read the same through the lens of difference, to disarticulate the original, which I hope will make something appear that was hidden in the original.
Jorge Luis Borges
“El original es infiel a la traducción.”
- Jorge Luis Borges, “Los traductores de las 1001 Noches,” Historia de la Eternidad. Buenos Aires, Viau y Zona, 1936.
The original is not faithful to the queering.
Translations have long been conceived of as fluctuating between two poles: that which privileges the original text and the foreign language, and that which privileges the language and text of reception (usually, the translator’s native language). This model is both gendered (of course, what isn’t) and heteronormative. The concept of fidelity in translation studies itself is infused with sexual, heteronormative rhetoric (the translator’s two texts as embodied by two mistresses with competing claims on our translator’s affections, for example). Indeed, the very deployment of fidelity calls up thoughts of the family unit, of the monogamous couple playing out their gender roles. The translator is often male in this model.
In the Borges quote, desire and infidelity are playful inverted as though in a pun or a Freudian slip. The translator is not unfaithful to the text, but rather the text is unfaithful to the translator. It creeps, to use TLC’s words. And in so doing, the poles are jumbled. Queering jumbles poles, but it also jumbles the notion of origins—of original desire, original pleasure, original sex &c. Here, this applies to the role of original desire or original pleasure in symbol formation (what exists before symbols or before discourse, and thus what determines us in an innate and immutable fashion). It may also be read as the way the notion of originality or maybe something like originary-ness can serve in a conception of sex and gender: that sex is to be conceived of on the model of the origin, on the origination of a being, origin in the sense of Courbet’s Origin of the World.
Teresa de Lauretis
“Can our queerness act as an agency of social change, and our theory construct another discursive horizon, another way of living the racial and the sexual? […] ‘Queer Theory’ conveys a double emphasis—on the conceptual and speculative work involved in discourse production, and on the necessary critical work of deconstructing our own discourses and their constructed silences.”
- Teresa de Lauretis, “Queer Theory: Lesbian and Gay Sexualities,” differences: a Journal of Feminist Cultural studies 3, 2, 1991. pp. iii-xviii.
Can our translation act as an agency of social change, and our theory construct another discursive horizon, another way of living the racial and the sexual? […] ‘Translation Theory’ conveys a double emphasis—on the conceptual and speculative work involved in discourse production, and on the necessary critical work of deconstructing our own discourses and their constructed silences.
Translation maintains a paradoxical relationship to otherness, and to foreignness. It is not only the way we come into contact with other cultures, but likewise the way we define our own. I’m thinking here among other things about the arrival of French theory into America, and the return of French theory to France (coincidentally, sometimes through the transport of queer theory). Consider an anecdote: The English speaker learning for the first time the concept of Derrida’s différance (French accent here). For the French speaker, the metaphor of a phoneme crossed by the difference of writing spews out from the language, sign that gives sense through its sound (différence sounds like différance) (French accent here), so much so that a French person must say “différance avec un a” to be clear. In English, difference does not sound like differance (American accent). An English speaker does not need to hear “with an a” (although a rare few do use this expression). We just say it with a French twist: differAHNZ (with American inflected French accent). Foreignness invades the metaphor. Foreignness becomes the metaphor. DifferAHNZ becomes a kind of metaphor for foreignness, for “French Theory” taken as a whole. For many Americans this means: obscure, incomprehensible difference. The idea of “French theory” is an American invention embodied, among other things, in this word pronounced à la française, “differAHNZ.” It would of course be absurd to say “French theory” in France (you would have to say it with a French accent: French theory (with a French accent). Which people are actually starting to do, the way they say “gender studies” or “postcolonial studies” or “queer theory” (these three with French accent). This is the Derridian slip between grapheme and phoneme with a translational twist.
“[La bible Luthérienne] suggère en outre que la formation et le développement d’une culture propre et nationale peuvent et doivent passer par la traduction, c’est à dire par un rapport instensif et délibéré à l’étranger.”
- Antoine Berman, L’Epreuve de L’Etranger. Paris, Gallimard, 1984. p. 56-57.
The Lutheran bible also suggests that the formation and development of a nation’s own culture shall and must go through a queering, that is to say through an intensive and deliberate relationship with the foreign.
- Original translation from the French
In this quote the equivocal expression, “that is to say,” aligns “queer” with “foreign.” It may also suggest to us something that is “unheimlich” in the queer: the apprehension of foreignness in the familiar. On the one hand this may be perceived as the othering of self that is constitutive of all subjectivity. However, to conflate foreignness with otherness is to ignore the incalculable diversity of the foreign, of representations of foreignness in culture, and of the ways in which the foreignness forms and develops the nation’s own culture—and therefore of this culture itself. Queerness here is not a reconstituting of a first term by a second term but rather the generation of a third term, or better, an nth term.
“A word so fraught as “queer” is—fraught with so many social and personal histories of exclusion, violence, defiance, excitement—never can only denote; nor even can it only connote; a part of its experimental force as a speech act is the way in which it dramatizes locutionary position itself.”
- Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Queer and Now,” Tendencies. London, Routledge, 1994. p. 8.
A word so fraught as “translation” is—fraught with so many social and personal histories of exclusion, violence, defiance, excitement—never can only denote; nor even can it only connote; a part of its experimental force as a speech act is the way in which it dramatizes locutionary position itself.
Translation is a song that never ends. In this word “dramatizes” I hear repetition (French for rehearsal is “répétition” French accent). The locutionary position is written again, but each time new in every translation, and that translation is this dramatization. It cannot only connote or denote, and if it tries to (we are trying to figure out its connotation and denotation by reading it here), we find that its connotation is in translation. This is perhaps the old adage of the inescapable failure of translation: that in spite of translation’s dream of equivalence, it only ever encounters approximation. Translation hovers around a meaning (or meanings) read by the translator in the original, and almost always could have been something else. Translation is the telling of many worlds in one limited set of inexhaustible representations. The translation is the residue of the deliberation, of trying to express. Everything is untranslatable, which is the condition of translation—the untranslatable is what we translate, or at least try to.
Homi K. Bhabha
“By translation I first of all mean a process by which, in order to objectify cultural meaning, there always has to be a process of alienation and of secondariness in relation to itself. In that sense there is no ‘in itself’ and ‘for itself’ within cultures because they are always subject to intrinsic forms of translation. This theory of culture is close to a theory of language, as part of a process of translation—using that word as before, not in the strict sense of translation as in a ‘book translated from French into English’, but as a motif or trope as Benjamin suggests for the activity of displacement within the linguistic sign.”
- Rutherford, Jonathan, 1990. The Third Space. Interview with Homi K. Bhabha. In Ders. (Hg): Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 207-221.
By queerness I first of all mean a process by which, in order to objectify cultural meaning, there always has to be a process of alienation and of secondariness in relation to itself. In that sense there is no ‘in itself’ and ‘for itself’ within cultures because they are always subject to intrinsic forms of queerness. This theory of culture is close to a theory of language, as part of a process of queerness—using that word as before, not in the strict sense of queerness as in a ‘book queered from French into English’, but as a motif or trope as Benjamin suggests for the activity of displacement within the linguistic sign.
Queerness in this instance is a trope of the sign, of a movement of disjunct in the sign—in particular, of disjunct in Benjamin’s notion of the linguistic sign. This is because queering perturbs the dyad of the sign. A sign of the sign, or a sign of the non-correspondance of sign and other than sign, of presence and absence. Sign in motion, sign about sign. A sign for a sign production retailer. Signs!
Signs signs signs!
Get your signs here! Old news. Old sign for a sign store long out of business. What’s new here is more the implication that all cultures are subject to intrinsic forms of queering. We’re constantly queering in the French sense of location: that is to say location (with French accent): rental. Appropriating or adopting a space or a premise and in the mere act of appropriation, subversion: détournement. Bhabha here turns queering into a kind of strange universal, the universalization of strangeness: the paradox of queerness is like this paradox that we are all unique, our uniqueness is common. This may also be applied to the paradox of foreignness, in that it is how we constitute difference (our own singularity), and yet it is perhaps the one true universal in that that we are all foreigners when we are not at home. Is the paradox of the foreigner at home thus an allegory for the paradox of the constant queering of the norm? Could queer be conceived of as universal in this same way? As the subversion at work in every instance of normalcy?
“If the term ‘queer’ is to be a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, queered from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes, and perhaps also yielded in favor of terms that do that political work more effectively.”
- Judith Butler, “Critically Queer,” GLQ, Vol. 1, 1993 p. 19.
If the term ‘translation’ is to be a site of collective contestation, the point of departure for a set of historical reflections and futural imaginings, it will have to remain that which is, in the present, never fully owned, but always and only redeployed, twisted, translated from a prior usage and in the direction of urgent and expanding political purposes, and perhaps also yielded in favor of terms that do that political work more effectively.
Of all the metaphors that have been used in discourse on translation, the currency metaphor is perhaps one of the most recent and the least useful. It did not emerge fully formed, its lineage is easy to trace and shows how little has actually changed in discourse on translation despite the many efforts of the past thirty years or so. As we began in this paper, translation has often been conceived as a moral dilemma, as fidelity, as betrayal, as a translator caught between two (heterosexual, female) lovers. To betray an original text was to sin against it—perhaps in the same way that a sacred text is sometimes perceived as untranslatable, or may even be subject to an interdiction against translation. This was accompanied by another natural rhetorical set: that of the spreadsheet or the tax record. Translation is conceived in terms of losses. Later, translation is seen as a gain. Debt and profit are seen in moral terms. Rather than in terms of presence and absence, language can indeed be thought in terms of red and black (credit and debit). Perhaps the archaeological origin of writing is accounting: tax records, inventory &c. The myth of equivalence is likewise conceived in mathematical terms: one translation should equal another. This is not only true for meaning (I think of that as the weight), but also for quantity (how many words). Payment for translations are often calculated by the word or by the number of words per page, for example. This is part of what Derrida is referring to when he writes about the economy of translation in “What is a Relevant Translation?” (Qu’est-ce qu’une traduction rélévante?). In this essay, Derrida remarks that the measure of a “good” translation or a “bad” one (again, translation conceived of on moral terms) is often based rather blandly on quantity: a translation should not stray too far from the amount of words in the original. A poem of twelve lines should not be translated as one hundred and twelve. That said, it is important to observe Derrida’s tunnel vision here, limited to translations between languages that share a similar alphabet. Economy also refers to the metaphor of property, since translation is an appropriation of property (in French, propre, for own, one’s own, same) by otherness, by an other: location (with French accent). As Eric Cheyfitz reminds us in The Politics of Imperialism, until the 16th century, the word “proper” was used instead of “literal” to oppose “figurative”. Translation and metaphor, then, have this in common: the foreign pays rent in the home of the same.
However, translation is what finally interrupts this economy of property and equivalence. To take an example from Norma Cole, reading Beckett’s translation of Rimbaud’s “Bateau Ivre” / “Drunken Boat,” Beckett translates Rimbaud’s “dix nuits” (ten nights) by “nine nights.” If translation seeks equivalence, equal weight and equal measure, if translation can be read through metaphors of marketplace tabulations, shouldn’t 9 = 9 and 10 = 10? It does not. Not in translation. Translation is in fact where 9 both does and does not equal 10, and vice versa. That’s some kind of fucked up corrupt marketplace. If we are to benefit from translation to alter the paradigms propagated by our figural landscapes, might we not look also to the figural landscape of translation itself? Translation is a metaphor, certainly. This metaphor has often served to represent the place of cultural hybridity, crossing, passing, sharing. It has also served as a metaphor of metaphor itself: of the disjunct within the signifier, of the deconstruction of the native by the foreign, of the same by the different, of the very divorce that may reside within representation. But what of the metaphors of translation? Butler suggests in our rewriting, an incalculable, perpetually curving metaphor for translation: pi.
 The terminology for this theoretical apparatus is borrowed from an essay by Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels, “Deformance and Interpretation.” http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/jjm2f/old/deform.html
 Lori Chamberlain, “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation” in Ed. Lawrence Venuti and Mona Baker, Translation Studies Reader. New York, Routledge, 2000, pp. 314-329.
 Eric Cheyfitz. The Politics of Imperialism: Translation and Colonization from the Tempest to Tarzan. (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991), p. xxiii.
“Sometimes you bend down to tie your shoe, and then you either tie your shoe or you don’t; you either straighten up instantly or you don’t. Every choice begets at least two worlds of possibility, that is, one in which you do and one in which you don’t; or very likely many more... To carry this line of argument further, there must be an infinite number of possible universes... Every displacement of every molecule, every change in orbit of every electron, every quantum of light that strikes here and not there—each of these must somewhere have its alternative. It’s possible too, that there is no such thing as one clear line or strand of probability, and that we live on a sort of twisted braid, blurring from one to the other without even knowing it.”
—Joanna Russ, The Female Man, p. 6