Essay: Alice Whitmoreon women and translation

Tell Me About A Complicated Woman

At his words,
Athena smiled into his eyes. She took
his hand, and changed her body to a woman’s:
beautiful, tall, and skilled in all the arts.
Her words were light as feathers.

The Odyssey, 13:287–292

In 1654, French scholar Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt courted controversy when he published a particularly free translation from Ancient Greek of Lucian of Samosata. Several years later, d’Ablancourt’s contemporary and compatriot Gilles Ménage observed:

When Monsieur d’Ablancourt’s version of Lucian was published, many people complained that it was not faithful. I called it la belle infidèle – the unfaithful beauty – which is the name I gave to one of my mistresses, in my youth.

Ménage’s words must have had the ring of truth. The echoes of them have persisted for centuries.

In 1955 (the decade seems particularly appropriate, for its Mad Men aura of cool misogyny) the phrase les belles infidèles – unfaithful beauties – enjoyed a fresh surge of popularity after a book of the same name was penned by the French linguist, translator and semiotician Georges Mounin. The term, used disparagingly by Mounin, came to signify any translation that sacrificed accuracy at the altar of some aesthetic ideal (or, as Vladimir Nabokov would have it, that ‘vilely beautified’ a masterpiece ‘in such a fashion as to conform to the notions and prejudices of a given public’).

The sentiment still exists today, smoothed and smallened, like a pebble passed through too many hands. Translations, it tells us, are like women: they can be either faithful or beautiful, but not both.

History serves us a smorgasbord of gendered metaphors for translation that are as confused are they are surprisingly explicit, from Ménage and Mounin’s belles infidèles to George Steiner’s depiction of translation as erotic possession (more on this in a moment). Some of these metaphors characterise the (male) translator as an active agent who forces or manipulates the (female) text into submission. In others, the work of the (male) author is feminised, enfeebled, by the inferior and subsidiary process of translation. Always at the heart of this rhetorical clutter is the question of fidelity.

More than a decade has passed since I last consulted a French textbook, but I am ninety per cent certain that the word for translation, in French, is feminine: la traduction.

I type the word  t r a n s l a t i o n  into my online English-to-French dictionary, just to make sure. I find that yes, the noun is feminine (of course) and yes, it is written traduction.

The example sentence, given directly below the translation (the translation of the word  t r a n s l a t i o n, which, as I have just confirmed, is traduction) catches my eye. The sentence reads:

He’s just written a new translation of The Odyssey.

Below that, the French:

Il vient juste d’écrire une nouvelle traduction de l’Odyssée.

Notions of human fidelity have long been bound up with female sexuality. And, almost without exception, theorists of translation have obligingly situated the concept of textual fidelity in relation to women, whether through explicit analogy or through insinuation. George Steiner, in his 1975 book After Babel, describes translation as a four-tiered process of ‘hermeneutic motion’. Fidelity belongs to the last of these tiers, a step Steiner calls ‘equilibrium’ (the second step is ‘penetration’). Steiner borrows, here, from Levi-Strauss’s Anthropologie structurale, which regards human social structures as systems of dynamic equilibrium ‘achieved through an exchange of words, women, and material goods’. Fidelity construed not as spousal devotion but as a kind of indemnification for the deflowering of the text. ‘All capture,’ Steiner writes, ‘calls for subsequent compensation; utterance solicits response, exogamy and endogamy are mechanisms of equalising transfer.’

It is a binary as old as our creation myths: in the Matsya Purana, the wife of man is born when Manu pours an offering of milk and ghee into the floodwaters; after Prometheus shapes man from the mud, Zeus commands the creation of ‘stealthy’ Pandora as his punishment; Eve, though more ‘helper’ than scourge, is borne of Adam’s bones, ‘called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.’

Man as source. Woman as derivative.

The analogy practically writes itself: Author as God (Roland Barthes: L’auteur est un dieu); translator as underling (Tim Parks: Glory, for the translator, is borrowed glory).

Like any good student of language, I know that grammatical gender should never be interpreted literally. There is nothing inherently feminine about a door, for instance, although the noun is feminine in many European languages (la porte / la puerta / la porta / die Tür / θύρα). But the femininity of the word ‘translation’ seems significant, somehow.

La traduction / la traducción / la traduzione / die Übersetzung / μετάφραση

Is it just a coincidence? Probably. The word in Russian, I learn, is masculine (перевод). Perhaps grammar is not the place to answer the kinds of questions I’m trying to ask.

Since the early seventeenth century, close to seventy different men have tried their hand at translating The Odyssey into English. In 2017, British classicist Emily Wilson became the first woman. As Wilson often points out, though, she is not the first woman ever to translate Homer’s epic – remarkably, Anne Dacier’s French prose version appeared in 1708.

I ought to submit a small amendment to my online dictionary’s sample sentence:

Elle vient juste d’écrire une nouvelle traduction de l’Odyssée /

She’s just written a new translation of The Odyssey.

In the expansive Translator’s Note that prefaces her version of The Odyssey, Wilson challenges the expectation that she ‘bewail [her] own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original’. She points out that old metaphor of the faithful translation, ‘whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance’. I have to physically restrain myself from underlining these words in pen, lest I desecrate the pages of my still-immaculate hardcover copy of Homer’s (Wilson’s) masterpiece.

Helen Lowe-Porter, the first (and for many years, only) translator of Thomas Mann’s work into English, once described translation as a ‘little art’. Nothing grand, nothing serious. An art like knitting, perhaps, or cross-stitching.

Kate Briggs, the translator of Roland Barthes’s La Préparation du roman and Comment vivre ensemble, has written a whole book on the question of translation. In it, she describes Lowe-Porter with respect and compassion. She writes of her decades-long dedication to Mann’s work, her profound modesty, and her keen sense of inadequacy (encouraged, in no small measure, by Mann’s suggestion that the intellectual demands of Der Zauberberg [The Magic Mountain] might be ‘more readily met by a male rather than a female temperament’). After her death in 1963, Lowe-Porter was excoriated by critics who claimed her schoolgirl’s grasp of German had led to unforgivable ‘errors of lexis, syntax and tense; unexplained omissions; unjustified rephrasings’ – in short, she had been a faulty tool. An untrustworthy vessel.

Patronising women translators is easy to do, since women and translation have both been subjected to condescension for a very long time. In an interview with Madeleine LaRue, Briggs lingers on

the fact that translation has so often been seen and described as … a second-order, derivative but also necessary and therefore – that therefore, please hear that therefore with a big question mark after it – a kind of feminised practice, as this thing that gets done quietly and invisibly and graciously at home, like the washing.

What came first: the projection of women’s qualities (wiliness, treachery, dependency) onto translation, or the projection of translation’s qualities (submissiveness, restraint, inferiority) onto women?

Brenda Hosington, in her essay ‘Women Translators and the Early Printed Book’, disabuses us of the commonly-held notion that translation has historically been women’s work. ‘The mere fact,’ she writes, ‘that over one thousand translations by men saw print [in the first half of the sixteenth century], as compared with just over forty by women, renders absurd the claim that translation was a female activity.’ Like all intellectual pursuits, translation has traditionally been dominated by men. Even today, a slight majority of published literary translations are performed by men, according to Rochester University’s Three Percent database. Our collective overestimation of women’s historical (and current) presence in the translation sphere is likely a result of the now-famous gender perception gap (a quick example, for the uninitiated: studies conducted by the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media indicate that if a crowd is comprised of 17 per cent women, the men in the group perceive the gender split as fifty-fifty; if the crowd is 33 per cent women, men believe there are more women in the room than men).

The way in which gender interacts within the transnational literary space points to a further imbalance. The most common translation pairing (around 40 per cent of published translations) sees men translating books written by men. The second most common, but well behind, are books written by men and translated by women (around 25 per cent). Then come books written by women and translated by women (around 20 per cent). Books written by women and translated by men account for only 15 per cent of all published translations.

In light of this, I wonder: should we then embrace the feminisation of translation? More women translators may mean more women in translation. More women in translation may mean more women writers. More women writers is surely an unequivocal good, a thing worth striving for.

The historical circumstances of the woman translator were, and are, particular. She is invariably well-off (relatively speaking), and highly educated. Often, she is also a mother – Lowe-Porter worked, as she tells it, ‘with a cradle in the next room’.

Briggs coins the term ‘lady translator’ as a way of reclaiming (and thus re-examining) the domestic overtones that emerge when women and translation coincide. While she acknowledges that the phrase is ‘actually quite horrible, certainly off-putting,’ she argues that ‘it also says something about amateurism, and about leisure, about having the time to devote oneself to translations, and so also about privilege’.

Perhaps it is this air of amateurism and frivolity that has so often caused women translators to contort themselves into absurd postures of humility. Margaret Roper, the Renaissance translator of Erasmus’s Precatio Dominica, provides one among countless examples. The eldest daughter of Thomas More, Roper was known throughout Europe for her erudition and intellect; nevertheless, she opted not to be named as Erasmus’s translator. Her editor, Richard Hyrde, characterised her anonymity as a typical act of female modesty. Roper is cast as the reluctant authoress, ‘lothe to have prayse gyven her’.

What is women’s work? In a word: making. Turning grain into bread, wool into thread. Barthes, after Proust, spoke of the novelist as a dressmaker cutting, assembling, tacking together; he saw her ‘gleaning and relaying bits of news’ – women as makers, collectors, storytellers.

‘A thread,’ writes Rebecca Solnit,

now most often means a line of conversation via e-mail or other electronic means, but thread must have been an even more compelling metaphor when most people witnessed or did the women’s work that is spinning. It is a mesmerising art, the spindle revolving below the strong thread that the fingers twist out of the mass of fibre held on an arm or a distaff.

The verb to spin, Solnit tells us, first denoted this practical act of making; later, it evolved to mean the telling of a tale. Strands becoming yarn; words becoming stories. And the hands that wield the wool are women’s hands. Scheherazade ‘forestalls her death by telling a story that is like a thread that cannot be cut’; Penelope staves of her relentless suitors ‘by unweaving at night what she weaves by day on her father-in-law’s funeral garment’.

At one point in her translator’s preface to The Odyssey, Wilson compares herself to a meticulous seamstress. I have been constantly aware, she writes, of the text’s ‘gaps and impossibilities… as I have woven, unwoven, and woven up again the fabric of this complex web.’

Briggs, too, draws on a textile metaphor to describe the work of translation. Paraphrasing an episode from one of Barthes’s late lectures, Briggs introduces a different feminine figure: that of the stoppeuse, mender of tiny holes. In the days when most women wore knitted stockings, every woman was a part-time stoppeuse, since the smallest hole in her garment could unravel a sudden ladder down her leg. Barthes recalls the familiar gesture, ‘a bit trivial, but necessary, whereby a woman would wet a finger in her mouth and apply it to the weave, cementing it with saliva, and in this way she would stop it’.

This – says Barthes, says Briggs – is what writing is; what translation is. The translator, Briggs suggests,

wets her finger, she presses it down on the run of alternatives, the run of endless translation possibilities, each one with its own particular shades of meaning, … and with all the delicate immobilising power of saliva on wool, she makes it stop.

In Wilson’s Odyssey, the women of Phaeacia work the wool ‘with fingers quick as rustling poplar leaves,’ oil dripping from the woven fabric.

Homer has historically been referred to as a man, although (he?) might as well be thought of as a god, or a mythological creature. Wilson writes:

I love Homer for many reasons. An essential one is that they (preferred pronoun) contain so many voices. You can be almost laughing one moment, and have chilled goose-bumps the next. It is a whole world.

It is the job of the writer, and of the translator, to contain many voices inside herself. Inside themselves. To embody those voices and carry them somewhere. Like bright-eyed Athena, shapeshifting into a young girl, or a shepherd, or soaring ‘transformed / into an ossifrage’.

One of the most powerful features of Homeric verse, Wilson has written, is its multiplicity of perspectives – ‘the juxtaposition of one point of view with another’. Like when Nausicaa bravely stands her ground against a naked Odysseus (‘a potential rapist, who may also be a guest’), and we also glimpse the desperate, partly predatory perspective of Odysseus himself. These gaps, these shifts,

are essential to the rich, layered social vision in Homer, and also essential to the representation of the divine. Night falls. A touch. A mist on the sea. A goddess is present. Now everything changes.

Wilson is an unusually generous translator. For those readers seeking a peephole into the mysterious world of Greek Homer, she has a lot to offer, and she offers it freely. Via the unconventional (the dialogic, the fragmented) medium of Twitter threads, Wilson imparts her insights into the original text of The Odyssey and the varying ways in which it has been translated over the centuries. What emerges from these threads is a disturbing pattern of distortion – one comprised of small, interlocking examples.

A topic to which Wilson returns often is that of the slave women in Book 22: ‘the ones who sleep with the suitors, who have been claimed by the wrong owners, who have the wrong memories’. For Odysseus to reclaim power over his household, the slave women must be murdered. He instructs his son, Telemachus, to hack the life of them with swords, but Telemachus insists that ‘they are too metaphorically dirty to touch with his sword (sic), so he hangs them instead’. More metaphors (‘The rope round the throat. What better way to stop a woman’s most threatening orifice: her mouth?’)

Wilson notes that many translations inject misogynistic language into this scene where it is absent in the Greek. She lists them off:

In Fagles’s best-selling version: ‘You sluts––the suitors’ whores!’

Lombardo: ‘Sluts.’

Lattimore: ‘Creatures.’

Fitzgerald: ‘Sluts.’

Pope’s is the best: ‘Nightly prostitutes to shame.’

The original simile for the death of the slave women paints them ‘like birds, trying to fly, who are trapped in a net’. Most translations – including that of Anne Dacier – attribute blame to the victims. ‘It’s their own fault they die,’ Wilson writes, ‘because they’re “disobedient” … It’s normal, like killing a chicken.’ In some versions, the women are even willing participants in their own hanging:

They would be hung like doves
or larks in springès triggered in a thicket,
where the birds think to rest––a cruel nesting.
So now in turn each woman thrust her head
into a noose and swung, yanked high in air

Wilson’s commentary is deft and to the point: ‘The word springès,’ she notes, ‘recalls Polonius warning Ophelia not to let Hamlet take her virginity. Thrust her head suggests Fitzgerald’s women are definitely gagging for it. There’s nothing they like more than a good hanging.’

In her own translation, Wilson claims to have sought a telling of the violence that ‘is not fun or normalising or sensationalised’. These birds, she writes, ‘want the same thing that Odysseus himself wants: to go home to bed’. Their death is visceral, agonising:

As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap–
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

The slave women of The Odyssey, Wilson writes, ‘stand in for millions of real silenced, abused and murdered women, in history and now, who never get to complete their journey’. If we (if they) re-write these women as women – not as ‘sluts’ or slaughtered chickens, but as young, enslaved women who met a painful and tragic death – then we can begin to re-read the stories of other hanged women. The ones killed as though in passing. The ones who were and are of no consequence to History. The ones Natalie Haynes calls ‘the forgotten, the ignored’.

Wilson’s Odyssey concludes with Athena, ‘disguised as Mentor’, bringing peace to Ithaca. Tricky, shapeshifting Athena: Goddess of technical and strategic skill, warfare, weaving. Her plant is the olive tree. She is the daughter of Zeus and the Titan Metis, and was born when she sprang from her father’s head, already fully armed.

I am a woman. I am a storyteller. I am a translator.

I will take my mythologies and do with them as I please.

The word Odyssey, in case you were wondering, is also feminine.

L’Odyssée / la Odisea / la Odissea / die Odyssee / Οδύσσεια

What might this mean, if we allowed it to mean whatever we want it to?

Works Cited

Roland Barthes. S/Z. Le Seuil, 1970.
––––. The Preparation of the Novel: Lecture Courses and Seminars at the Collège de France (1978-1979 and 1979-1980). Translated by Kate Briggs. Columbia UP, 2011.
Kate Briggs. This Little Art. Fitzcarraldo, 2017.
Natalie Haynes. A Thousand Ships. Mantle, 2019.
Brenda Hosington. “Women Translators and the Early Printed Book.” A Companion to the Early Printed Book in Britain 1476–1558. Edited by Vincent Gillespie and Susan Powell. D. S. Brewer, 2014.
Madeleine LaRue. “Waiting Translations: A Conversation with Kate Briggs.” Music & Literature, November 2017.
Gilles Ménage. Menagiana. Florentin & Pierre Delaulne, 1694.
Vladimir Nabokov. “The Art of Translation.” The New Republic. August 5, 1941.
Tim Parks. “The Translation Paradox.” The New York Review of Books. March 15, 2016.
Rebecca Solnit. The Faraway Nearby. Granta, 2013.
George Steiner. After Babel: Aspects of language and translation. Oxford UP, 1975.
Emily Wilson. The Odyssey. W. W. Norton, 2018.
––––. @EmilyRCWilson. Twitter.