Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Translating Aristotle's Sexism: Part I

A feminist rhetorical translator may choose her own agency to make meaning of the original text.  If a female, she may start by recognizing that she’s really an outsider to the text, if it’s a misogynistic or gynophobic text. 

She may, for example, “overtranslate” the masculinism in the most blatantly sexist of Aristotle’s texts, such as quoted below from Generation of Animals 737a.  To “overtranslate” is to “add shock value” in the translating, especially in comparison to the traditional phallogocentric translation.  The traditional translation, she may recognize, can undertranslate the separational violence in Aristotle’s cold and ostensibly objective observation about females in nature.

σπερ γρ κα κ πεπηρωμένων τ μν γίγνεται πεπηρωμένα τ δ’ ο, οτω κα κθήλεος τ μν θλυ τ δ’ ο λλ’ ρρεν.  τ γρ θλυ σπερ ρρεν στ πεπηρωμένον·

--Aristotle Generation of Animals 737a

If mutilated young are born of mutilated parents, it is for the same reason as that for which they are like them. And the young of mutilated parents are not always mutilated, just as they are not always like their parents; the cause of this must be inquired into later, for this problem is the same as that.

--traditional translation by Arthur Platt

born [generated]  mutilated [peperomia]

--traditional, key-word focus

Just as the young of mutilated parents are sometimes born mutilated and sometimes not, so also the young born of a known female are sometimes female and sometimes male instead.  The female is, in fact, a mutilated male, like the poisonous flower, the pereromia, if beautiful, then deadly still.

 --a feminist rhetorical translating

The reader should notice how in Arthur Platt’s English translation, there is no gender reference at all.  His is an undertranslation. The translator’s focus is on Aristotle’s discussion of “mutilated young” in these sentences, as if gender is not relevant.  Although not shown here, Platt only discusses females in the immediately subsequent statement where Aristotle begins to differentiate male and female young in relation to the presence or absence of sperm.

In contrast, the feminist rhetorical translator brings out the fact that, in these very sentences, there are explicit references to θλυ or “females,” as opposed to ρρεν or “males.”  Aristotle’s logic separates the genders absolutely and purely with no mix of characteristics.  Hierarchically, his logic classifies males as superior.  The translator recognizes the process and product of Aristotle’s logic. 

Furthermore, the translator herself makes explicit a couple of other things only implicit in Aristotle’s Greek language.  First, she explicitly associates being “born” with “a female.”  She knows that γίγνεται (“are born”) may pun with γυναῖκας (“women”) and with γινώσκω (“know”), even if Aristotle does not intend or hear the puns.  The pun with “known” has the double meaning of “cognition” (which a female, according to Aristotle, will not have) and of “having been sexually known” (which is one reason, according to Aristotle, that females exist in nature for males). 

Second, the feminist rhetorical translator brings out the overt fact that the root word, πηρόω, or “mutilate,” sounds in transliterated English like the name of the poisonous plant, “peperomia”; she knows that, etymologically, the English word comes from a different Greek root:  πεπέρι, from which comes the word pepper.  The puns for the feminist rhetorical translator may be intentionally explicit word plays. 

The puns stretch and strain the meanings, not only by ignoring etymologies but also by generating new explicit meanings to trouble the implicit sexism.  The translator flaunts the etymological issues of origins as with the separate etymological “roots” noted above for “born,” “woman,” and “know” and for “mutilate” and “peperomia.”  She recognizes with Hélène Cixous that:

The origin is a masculine myth. . . . The question, ‘Where do I come from?’ is basically a masculine, much more than a feminine question. The quest for origins, illustrated by Oedipus, doesn’t haunt a feminine unconscious. Rather it’s the beginning, or beginnings, the manner of beginning, not promptly with the phallus, but starting on all sides at once, that makes a feminine writing. A feminine text starts on all sides at once, starts twenty times, thirty times, over. (qtd. in Mairs, 85) 

The feminist rhetorical translator also generates the kinds of meanings that Mary Daly does.  Daly, in Gyn/Ecology, invents (and “re-cognizes”) wordplay in American culture; she reappropriates the male-superior contexts of  words such as “therapy,” “bureaucracy,” and even of the Total Woman of Marabel Morgan in phrases such as “the-rapist,” “bore-ocracy,” and the “Totaled woman” (Simon 21).Notice how Daly is not concerned with the origins of the original terms but with how the original phrases sound to the female in American culture.  The “overtranslation” of sexism in the Greek text illustrates one implication of feminist rhetorical translating: agency for the translator with respect to meaning making when the text forces her to be a silent outsider.

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