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from the June 2017 issue

Queerying Translation

Translators and queers have a lot in common.

For one thing, we’re both invisible. You can’t tell just from looking at someone that they’re a translator or that they’re lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or otherwise queer (LGBTQ). (Unless, that is, they’re wearing a T-shirt that proclaims “I’m a Queer Translator,” and now that I think of it, I’d like to get one of those.)

Furthermore, many people would like us to stay invisible. They often don’t want to see the fingerprints of translators in translated works or even to know they’re reading translations, and they don’t want to hear about queer issues or see evidence of queer “lifestyles.” I can’t overstate how many times people have told me they don’t read translations, and when I point out which texts they might have read that are translations, they often reply in an underwhelmed voice, “Oh. Well, does it really matter? Why do I need to know about the translator?” Similarly, I’ve had people say, “I don’t care what folks get up to in their own homes, as long as I don’t have to see it or be told about it.” It’s as though many believe that translation is confined to an office and sexuality or gender identity to a bedroom, and they’d rather not think any more about it.

Then there’s the matter of how both translation and LGBTQ topics are not studied enough. This relates back to the previous point: neither translated texts nor queer texts are generally considered canonical, and therefore they are not thought to be worthy of being more visible. Queer texts don’t necessarily get written, published, translated, acquired by libraries/bookstores, or studied in schools. Those who have traditionally held the power within the publishing industry and the literary academy have not always wanted to allow different voices to be heard or studied. Look at any syllabus for primary school, secondary school, or university, and count how many of those books are translations and how many are by queer authors or about queer topics. And if you’re feeling especially brave, count how many are translations of queer texts, perhaps even translated by queer translators—I have a sneaking suspicion the percentage would be incredibly small.

So it’s time. It’s time for LGBTQ texts to be translated and for those translations to be analyzed, and it’s time for translators to consider what it might mean to translate LGBTQ texts and authors, and whether there are, or should be, particularly queer methods of translation. After all, there are feminist or postcolonial translation strategies so why not queer ones, too?

For instance, feminist translators use particular translation strategies to highlight issues such as sexism or to emphasize an author’s gender or an author’s feminist views. Examples of strategies that translators and scholars such as Luise von Flotow, Sherry Simon, and Suzanne de Lotbiniére-Harwood have proposed include: supplementing, prefacing, deleting, footnoting, hijacking, or radical changes, such as invented spellings. In other words, translators can draw attention to gender itself and to related issues, such as the treatment of female characters, by choosing to highlight, to add in, or, indeed, to remove particular aspects of a text. They may not do this in all cases (for example, there may be a text where gender does not seem relevant, or where a translator does not feel like pointing the reader toward gendered ideas), but there are options for translators if they want to or believe there is a need.

Queer translators and translators of queer texts can do likewise. They can focus on the queerness of a character or a situation, or they can push a reader to note how a queer character is treated by another character or by the author, or they can otherwise hijack a reader’s attention by bringing issues of sexuality and gender identity to the fore. I like to call such strategies “acqueering,” as they emphasize or even acquire queerness. For example, a translator can add in queer sexualities, sexual practices, or gender identities or change straight/cis identities or situations to queer ones; remove homophobic, biphobic, or transphobic language or situations or highlight them in order to force a reader to question them; change spellings or grammar or word choices to bring attention to queerness; or add footnotes, endnotes, a translator’s preface, or other paratextual material to discuss queerness and/or translatorial choices.

On the other hand, a translator may choose—or be encouraged by the publisher to choose—strategies that remove or downplay queer sexualities, sexual practices, or gender identities, or that change queerness to the straight/cis norm. Doing so can be considered what I term “eradicalization,” as this eradicates the radical nature of queerness. We’ve all heard stories of writers who have censored themselves and have chosen not to include queer characters in order to increase the marketability of their work, or who have been forced to do this on orders from their editors or publishers, and therefore it wouldn’t be a surprise if translators do this at times as well.

The desire to make the invisible visible is one reason why I decided to explore the translation of queer texts in my own academic research. The outcome, I hope, is multifold, including: we can come up with new strategies for translating queer texts or for encouraging the translation of queer texts; we can analyze which queer texts get translated and by whom and how; we can support the publication of work by queer writers or work on queer themes; and we can likewise support queer translators as they enter and build careers in the translation industry. Perhaps we’ll one day be able to start a prize for translated queer fiction, just as there finally is a prize for translated work by female authors.

I started with a small project, looking at just two young adult novels and their translations to Swedish. The two novels are Aidan Chambers’s Dance on my Grave, which was translated as Dansa på min grav by Katarina Kuick, and Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush, which was translated by Moa Andersdotter as Sugar Rush.

Aidan Chambers’s Dance on my Grave tells the story of high school student Hal and his friendship, and then romantic relationship, with Barry. They become lovers, Barry cheats on Hal with a Norwegian woman called Kari, and then Barry dies in a motorcycle accident. The book was published in 1982 and is quite experimental/daring in terms of style and format, in that it is a mixture of newspaper clippings, psychologist’s reports, narration, and other pieces and styles. Hal is well aware that he is attracted to men, though the phrase he employs is that he is looking for “bosom palship,” such as the one David and Jonathan in the Bible shared. Barry, meanwhile, does not use such terminology, but he does make it clear that he is unwilling to be tied down to just one partner.

Julie Burchill’s Sugar Rush is a more recent work, published in 2004. The novel is about Kim, an upper-middle-class teenage girl. Her mother leaves the family, financial difficulties ensue, and Kim switches from a private school to a state-run school. There she meets Maria “Sugar” Sweet and they become friends. They start a sexual relationship, but the passion is rather one-sided, and eventually it fizzles into “lesbian bed death.” Like Barry, Sugar has no wish to be monogamous, or to be intimate with only one gender, but Kim refuses to accept this. Sugar cheats on Kim with a number of men. As in Chambers’s book, the characters don’t use terms such as gay, lesbian, polyamorous, bisexual, or queer. Sugar never uses a term of any kind to define herself, and Kim is also quite reluctant to, even looking down on queer teens. Kim somewhat sarcastically refers to her feelings for Sugar as a “temporary pash for the naughtiest girl in the school.” The book was made into a Channel 4 TV program in the UK, which added more drama and made Kim seem much surer of her sexuality; the first episode starts with Kim masturbating with an electric toothbrush. The issue of queer adaptation is an interesting one that should be explored more elsewhere.

In short, both of these young adult novels show teenagers who aren’t fully out as queer but who certainly are involved in same-sex relationships and who are coming to terms with their sexuality. In English, the terms used to describe the characters, their feelings, and their sexual interactions are often subtle but still clearly sexual. In the Swedish translations, however, we see a different story, and this influences the queerness of the texts as a whole.

In Kuick’s translation of Chambers’s novel, many terms that reference sex, sexuality, or genitals are changed or deleted. For example, “nut-cracking scared” (p. 19) becomes “skiträdd,” or “shit scared” (p. 22), and “impotent sails” (p. 22) becomes “slaka seglen,” or “slack sails” (p. 25), and “his presence fingered me pliant” (p. 126) turns into “blev jag alldeles knävsvag av hans blotta närvaro,” “I got weak in the knees from his very presence” (p. 139). Much of the sexuality in this book is quite euphemistic, so it is possible the translator didn’t recognize the sexual connotations, but it also changes the tone so it is less sexually charged. It does make me wonder whether queer translators would be the best choices for queer texts, but of course that implies that a queer person would be familiar with all sorts of sexual terms and practices, which isn’t necessarily the case, nor would it always be straightforward, so to speak, for a publisher to find a good translator who works with a particular language pair and is also queer.

In Chambers’s book, terms that subtly suggest gayness are also changed and softened. For example, “effete” (p. 29) becomes “dekadenta," or “decadent” (p. 33), “You crafty young bugger” (p. 95) is “Din smarta lilla skit,” “you smart little shit” (p. 104), “Lazy bugger” (p. 99) becomes “lata jäkel,” or “lazy devil” (p. 109), and “hello-sailor clothes” (p. 175) turn into “matroskläder,” or “sailor clothes” (p. 194).

At one point in the story, bullies stop Hal and Barry and seem to recognize them as a male-male couple. The bullies taunt them with phrases such as “a little Southend pier” and “a couple of bottle boys” (p. 133), while also pretending not to know if they are male or female and acting camp as a way of mocking them. In Swedish, this scene is shortened and simplified so that the taunts are just well-known slang words for “gay” (“akterseglare” and “fikusar”) (p. 147). So in translation, the insults and the threats seem less scary and there is also less of a poetic, euphemistic feel. On the other hand, one could argue that using the slang words gives a stronger sense of queerness here, even if it changes the style of Chambers’s writing.

There are also many references to “body” in the book in English, and these are most often translated as “lik,” or “corpse,” rather than “kropp,” or “body.” While “corpse” is relevant in some places, as Barry is dead, these changes also make the book less physical and active. The vital, sometimes confusing sexuality of the original has become dead and passive in translation.

In short, the subtle references to sexuality in Dance on my Grave, especially gay sexuality, are removed in translation, and the book generally feels less sexual and less active.

In Andersdotter’s translation of Burchill’s book, too, sexuality is deemphasized in translation. For example, words such as “frig” (p. 56) are deleted and terms such as “hot perving date” (p. 81) are softened into “het date," or “hot date” (p. 86). “Wanker” (p. 42) becomes the English word “loser” (p. 48), “het up” (p. 49), with its subtle nod to heterosexuals, becomes “upprörd,” or “upset” (p. 55), and “buggered” (p. 51) turns into “fan,” or “damn” (p. 57). Perviness and sexuality are removed from the story.

Also, besides the English word “loser” being added in, lots of challenging, taboo, and/or sexual words are simply kept in English rather than being translated (“bitch,” “freak,” “ladee-lovers”, etc.). This occurs throughout. Perhaps there is the assumption that Swedish teens will understand these words since they tend to have studied English (after all, the title is kept in English, too). Or maybe the translator (or editor or publisher) felt that these words were impossible to translate, or inappropriate to translate. But one could say that readers are kept at a distance from the meaning of the novel when the words are not translated; if readers wanted to read the text in English, presumably they would have chosen to do so.

One of the most interesting aspects of Sugar Rush is that Sugar explains how she does not want to be tied down to one person. Though she doesn’t call herself polyamorous or discuss having multiple lovers, she repeatedly states that she doesn’t want just one partner. She compares love to liking music; just because you like one song and want to play it a lot, that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy other songs as well. Kim, on the other hand, clearly wants a traditional monogamous relationship and finds Sugar’s poly tendencies threatening. So Sugar is queer both in that she is having a relationship with a woman, but also in that she is probably what we would call polyamorous.

It’s pretty clear to a reader that Sugar will not be able to stay in a monogamous relationship with Kim, and sure enough, toward the end of the book, Kim finds Sugar having sex with four boys. The Swedish translation, however, changes this to one boy. In English, Sugar is with four boys (p. 207) and she is described as “ENJOYING BEING GANGBANGED  . . . with four boys” (p. 209, caps in original) and to be “THEIR Sugar” (p. 210). In Swedish, she is with one boy (p. 210), is said to “NJUTA AV ATT GÖRA DET . . . med en kille,” or “ENJOY DOING IT . . . with a boy” (p. 212), and to be “HANS Sugar,” or “HIS Sugar” (p. 213). In other words, Sugar’s polyamory becomes sex with just one guy in Swedish. Perhaps the idea of sleeping with four boys, one after the other, was thought to be too queer for translation. Or perhaps the translator was uncomfortable with this scene of hedonistic orgy, or even felt it was antifeminist to show a young woman being gangbanged, though Sugar is clearly said to be “enjoying” it.

Whatever the reason, Sugar’s radically queer nature—her pleasure in being gangbanged by four boys at once, while her girlfriend is first just inside the nearby house and then outside watching—is drastically eradicalized in translation.

Indeed, both of these queer YA texts are not so queer in translation; eradicalization and not acqueering have been the overarching strategies here. In the Swedish translations words/phrases about the protagonists’ sexuality are toned down, changed, or even deleted. Perhaps the translators, editors, or publishers were uncomfortable with queer sexuality and/or didn’t think it was appropriate for Swedish readers. Or maybe the translators didn’t even recognize all the queer aspects of the books. Maybe some of the euphemistic language was too difficult.

While this is a fascinating case study and should be explored in more depth, it’s only the beginning. We need to do more research into queer texts and translation, and into how queer authors/works get translated. Should only queer translators translate queer texts? What distinct strategies can translators use with queer works and how drastic might some of their interferences/hijackings/approaches be? Do queer texts from different cultures need different approaches? Those are just a few of the questions we need to consider.

Let’s continue to queery translation and to make both translators and queers more visible. In the meantime, I’ll be ordering my “I’m a Queer Translator” T-shirt right away.


© 2017 B. J. Epstein. All rights reserved.

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