Translators and Queers


From Fashionable melange of English words, Tsunajima Kamekichi, 1887

From Words Without Borders:

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.

“Queerying Translation”, B. J. Epstein, Words Without Borders