Skip to content
Give readers a window on the world. Click to donate.

Translating the Ancient Female Voice as Queer

By Gnaomi Siemens

In Gnaomi Siemens's queer translations of Old English poetry, gender becomes fluid and the female voice proliferates. Today on WWB Daily, Siemens discusses how queer translation can amplify silenced voices and subvert the gender binary.

A spell can never be disrupted into not being a spell, it just becomes a different one.

Poet CAConrad says, Queer is political.” A two-gender paradigm, like a two-party political system, is inherently exclusionary: someone is always left out. In Gender Outlaw: On Men, Women, and the Rest of Us, Kate Bornstein says a choice with only two options isnt a choice. She also says that if there were no women there could be no oppression. So lets do away with women, but also men. A tricky proposition in this particular moment, so what can we do?

One solution is to translate the Ancient Female Voice (AFV) as Queer. In doing so, we open up the proto-feminine creative potential to her quantum maximum: infinite permutations and possibilities of ways to live, love, work, express (trans-late) in a multidimensional universe. Why the AFV? The sacredness of the Queer in antiquity, the proximity of genderfuckery to the divine in ancient religio-political-cultural spheres. We have to go back to a time before the patriarchy as we know it (as Zainab Bahrani puts it, gender is not transhistorical) had begun to settle into the most intimate cracks of the planet.

If we reanalyze the archaeological evidence with an eye to the role of females in ancient Mesopotamia, we will uncover what was pushed aside in the early days of discovery” of these artifacts. The nineteenth-century mind, masculine and empirical, closed off to the understanding of a world completely different from its own, assumed that the role of women in antiquity was similar to the role of women in its own time. What we will find—what is being uncovered now—is that women were an essential part of palace and political life in antiquity: they were diplomats, business owners, priestesses, literati.

What if we decide to rethink utterly what it means to let go of gender, by letting go of everything we thought we knew about men, women, and the rest of us? Queer is political.

Here we have a swaggering jester (The Public Domain Review). Observe her perform one miraculous transformation (translation) after another. The apple becomes clown, becomes two, becomes three. With her magic cigarette she plays and struts and spins and sidles up to a white-skirted cutie, who absently eats the apple that was clown. She puts her girl in a box and shakes her out again. She magics her a new dress or she magics herself another girl to flirt with. If translation is a silent film longing for subtitles, this little gem of a jester would be the AFV as Queer AF.

Bonnie Chau, for Poets & Writers, quotes the Oxford Comparative Criticism and Translation Research Centre, which has this to say about translation:

Translation is creative, not mechanical; it is a matter of growth as much as, or more than, loss. Translators are writers. Languages are not separate boxes but are rather intermingled areas on the ever-shifting continuum of language variation.

Chau writes:

This attitude departs from historically conventional perspectives of translators as secondary or unoriginal. It also rejects the notion that translation takes place between discretely bounded languages and suggests instead that those boundaries are fluid and permeable.

Translation itself is fluid, a queer form. The plurivocity of different translations of the same origin text is authentic in its multiple permutations, a textual diversity that adds to rather than takes away from the verisimilitude of the origin text, especially when it comes to texts of antiquity, texts of unknown authorship, and even more so ancient texts in the female or ambiguously gendered voice. As Zainab Bahrani tells us, the female voice in the historical record is hidden, occluded, but leaves a trace. By translating the AFV as Queer we, like our jester, can use occult methods to call forth the trace and uncover the occluded female voice. This is political, this is personal, this is no big deal, this is everything.

My own experience with translation started with a surprise encounter: Seamus Heaneys translation of the poem Deor, from the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon anthology The Exeter Book. I had been playing around with some French and Spanish texts, looking for my first large-scale translation project, not really connecting with anything. Then I had the great fortune to be in a poetry workshop with the late Mark Strand, who as it happened would sadly leave us mid-semester. But in preparation for his departure, he had scheduled some wonderful stand-ins. Significant to this story was the brilliant medievalist Patricia Dailey, who, on reading us the Old English and the Heaney translation, had me hooked. I immediately set out to find an Old English copy of The Exeter Book manuscript. What happened next was that I discovered that it contained some of the few extant poems, in Old English, in the female voice. As I began interacting with the text, I was completely taken aback by the power of this trace of the female-identified voice rocketing out of the depths of literary history. Who was she? She sounds like us, like me. And because I had been finding more and more traces of the female voice scattered here and there (more Viking warrior womens graves uncovered, the long-buried tradition of Icelandic female seafarers, etc.), I decided to queer the speakers in the poems with editorial gender transitions.

For example, in my translations of The Seafarer (inspired by the Icelandic female seafaring tradition) and The Wanderer, I thought about how the poems used these figures as archetypal avatars, an everyman character (irony) if you will. While we can imagine individuals voicing these poems, they are operating so that the reader will project themselves into the body of the text and feel the pain of exile, the salty air of the sea. It puts you in the action! The problems come when we imagine these figures as rigidly masculine: this leaves out more than half of history, more than half of the human population. So, in keeping with the oral tradition of ancient poetry, I took bardic license to shift the heroes to heroines, the male deities to female deities—heck, I even gave the animals a sex change. Why the female voice? Why not make everybody gender-neutral? I considered it, and I think it would also be a valid translation strategy, but because of the hidden nature of the female voice in the historical record, I didn’t want to further erase HER.

Another example: someone asked why I kept The Husband’s Message in the masculine voice, or why I didn’t change the title to, say, The Wife’s Message. In this piece, what came through for me while I was working on it was actually the voice of the husband as told by a messenger, heard through the ears and mind of “The Wife.” What clues you into this—and the thing that stuck in the craw for me—is the word own.” In my femme-positive, feminist reading of the poem, the reader recoils at the wife being a desired possession, to be acquired, to be added to the husbands list of owned things. Additionally, in my translation of The Husband’s Message there is a rune stick that becomes a phallocentric fetish object, the messenger holding his lords dick in his hands. The general unpleasantness of this offer is clear in a queer, feminist context—what is offered is to become a sexed tchotchke the husband wants to plop into his curation of capital, his worldly booty. And so, when we hear his offer through her ears, what happens is a rejection of phalli-capitalistic girl-grabbing (#AFVQAF, #gurlz).

In Wulf and Eadwacer I translated a repeated refrain (Ungelic is us) as We don’t think like that. It is an odd line and a vague first-person plural (Christopher Patton, in his collection of Old English poems of the same name, leaves the line full strange: Unlikeness is us.) This is a short poem, full of ambiguity. An implied love triangle, a baby stolen by a wolf, mixed messages. As in Zainab Bahranis reading of Mesopotamian visual representation of ritual, ambiguity in this poem is necessary for the performative aspect of transformation (all gender is performance, as Judith Butler reminds us). Ambiguity does not follow a binary path but creates an area for play and transformation.

In translating the AFV as Queer we are creating a Third Space (similar to Bornstein’s gender theater, trans-space) where the identity of the translated voice becomes only as limited as the imagination, birthing the ability to be cool with paradox.

Why is translating the AFV as Queer important right now? In Mary Beards Women and Power, she says that When it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice.” She goes on to tell the story of the first recorded example of a man telling a woman to shut up. In The Odyssey, Telemachus says to his mother Penelope:

"Mother," he says, "go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff . . . speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household."

Horrible, but as Beard points out, women are still being told to be silent, or threatened violently for speaking out. She herself is no exception; she receives vile threats from online trolls on a regular basis (see also Rebecca Solnits Men Explain Things to Me).

If we look a little further into the past, beyond the classical Greek world, we arrive in ancient Mesopotamia, where the goddess Inanna (Ishtar) is fully at home in paradox and genderfuckery. She has helpers called the Galla, and other third-gendered or gender-neutral beings, at her call. She practices ritual gender-swaps, in which the masculine becomes feminine and the feminine masculine.

Yet Bahrani points out that even in ancient Mesopotamia women were seen as other for their sex, though they also held property, were involved in politics, and were artisans and authors (gender is not transhistorical). There was at least one exceptionally powerful ancient Sumerian woman who needs to be more widely known in our historical record. The first named author in history, a powerful high priestess and princess, Enheduanna. Enheduanna is credited with epic praise poems devoted to the goddess Inanna (Ishtar), and forty-two temple hymns, in which she elevates the gender-defying goddess to the highest echelon of the Sumerian pantheon. Queer is political. By putting this female deity first, Enheduanna gives us a glimpse of an ancient feminism. She herself created a Third Space where the wife of the moon god takes on a mountain and ends up with all the me (powers of civilization).

Of Inanna/Ishtar, Bahrani says:

At any rate being "masculine" and being "feminine" are constructs. They are unstable identities that need to be continuously performed. What we have in Ishtar is a derailed femininity, and a derailed normative femininity is not equivalent to bisexuality, androgyny, or hermaphroditism. (146)

In Inanna/Ishtar’s gender-flux we witness the power of paradox, the shamanic vehicle for transformation (translation), not an either/or. It is a contrariety, not a contradiction:

The truth of the shaman is the performance of the shaman, a performance that can’t be ignored. With this performance, the shaman performs (creates) the culture. The essential tool of the shaman is a paradox: a presence that is absent or, equally, an absence that is present. (Bornstein, 124)

Translating the AFV as Queer is a paradigm shift into the unlimited imaginative potential of the Third Space. Five thousand years is a whole lot of patriarchy, but if we look to the fiery face of Inanna as told through the reed stylus of Enheduanna, we see an example of a female-identifying being existing in that Third Space where gender is something that can be shifted and turned and played with. As translators we are familiar with this Third Space. Translation is always the chimera in the act of walking away. It is a male seahorse giving birth. In the queer space of translation, the girl gets the girl, or the guy, or both, or none. She wears lipstick made of language, and pants. She is the hero who makes mistakes, the villain with a soft spot for a soft sweater. She is a bad parent or a down-the-way girl. She decides what her words/world will be. Translation is the chimera with the window rolled down, driving by. Translation is active, breathes, is trans. It is queer and changes its mind, like, all the time. Translation is anachronistic, it is archaeological, it surprises you. It is the robin wrestling a worm out of the snowmelt at the start of spring, during a global pandemic.


Bahrani, Zainab. Women of Babylon: Gender and Representation in Mesopotamia. Routledge, New York, 2001.

Beard, Mary. Women & Power: A Manifesto. Liveright Publishing Corporation, New York, 2017.

Bornstein, Kate. Gender Outlaw, On Men, Women, and The Rest of Us. Vintage Books, New York, 2016.

Carson, Anne. If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. Vintage Books, New York, 2003.

De Shong Meador, Betty. Inanna Lady of Largest Heart: Poems of the Sumerian High Priestess Enheduanna. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2000.

De Shong Meador, Betty. Princess, Priestess, Poet: The Sumerian Temple Hymns of Enheduanna. University of Texas Press, Austin, 2009.

Echlin, Kim. Inanna: From The Myths of Ancient Sumer. Groundwood Books, Toronto, 2003.

Grahn, Judy. Ecology of the Erotic in a Myth of Inanna. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, Vol. 29, Issue 2, July, 2010.

Lassen, Agnete W., and Wagensonner, Klaus (Editors). Women At The Dawn Of History. Yale Babylonian Collection, New Haven, 2020.

Long Chu, Andrea. Females. Verso, London, 2019.

Montañez, Amanda. Beyond XX and XY: The Extraordinary Complexity of Sex Determination. Scientific American, September, 2017.

Mukomolova, Gala. Without Protection. Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, 2019.

Nelson, Maggie. The Argonauts. Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, 2015.

Oberman, Miller. The Unstill Ones. Princeton University Press. Princeton, 2017.

Prower, Tomás. Queer Magic: LGBT+ Spirituality and Culture from Around the World. Llewellyn, Woodbury, 2018.

Rippon, Gina. Gender and Our Brains. Pantheon Books, New York, 2019.

Rosenberg, Jordy. Confessions of The Fox. One World, New York, 2018.

Strouse, A.W. Gender Trouble: Couplets Volume 1. Punctum Books, Earth, 2019.

Wolkstein, Diane, and Kramer, Samuel Noah. Inanna: Queen of Heaven and Earth, Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer. HarperCollins, New York, 1983.

Related Reading:

8 Queer Books in Translation to Read This Pride Month

Emboldening Queer Characters: On Translating Gender

11 International Queer Pieces to Read Right Now

Published Jun 23, 2020   Copyright 2020 Gnaomi Siemens

Leave Your Comment

comments powered by Disqus
Like what you read? Help WWB bring you the best new writing from around the world.