Tuesday, March 30, 2010

'silly' American translated: herstory

At some point in my blogging, I want to begin focusing on points at which several Bible translators and bibliobloggers have downplayed if not downright denied the fact of much Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek wordplay in the Bible (of Jews and of Christians).  Today, I just want to look at how feminists have worked with wordplay and with (the consequences of) its translation.  You'll see how this comes back to Mary Daly just a bit.

Let me quote extensively from the German / Canadian writer Luise von Flotow and her essay, "Mutual Pun-ishment? Feminist Wordplay in Translation: Mary Daly in German," in Traductio: Essays on Punning and Translation, edited by Dirk Delabastita.   Biblicists might initially be more interested in the book's essay, "A Portion of Slippery Stones: Wordplay in Four Twentieth-Century Translations of the Hebrew Bible," by Anneke De Vries and Arian J.C. Verheij; however, von Flotow's chapter comes first, and with good reason: she gets at the critical issues more richly.

Here's von Flotow:

[Among Canadian feminists], translation came to be viewed as creative and cooperative interaction, rather than suspect and uncertain approximation.  And the challenge that wordplay translation presented was answered with 'polysemic' approaches in which the translator used unorthodox, multiple methods to deal with multiple meanings -- even mimetic translation of wordplay, which abandons the conventional striving for semantic equivalence in favour of interlingual formal association.  This, in turn, "violate[d] the current rule that a translation must not give the impression that it is a translation" (Godarad 1987:7), so that the Canadian academic-cum-translator became a reader/writer who was as liberated from the constraints of translation norms, as the writer she was translating was liberated from 'patriarchal' textual norms.

So why is the German version of Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology a form of pun-ishment, as critic Pusch claims, and as the hasty disbanding of the German reading circles may show?  If Anglo-American-Canadian feminist academics and critics have been able to integrate foreign wordplay into their critical practice..., why is this not possible with the German text?  (page 54)

....  One particularly salient example [of the German translator's failure] is her footnote to Daly's footnote on the term herstory.
      Daly does not approve of this term; she feels that the term herstory, a neologism for women's history, implies "a desire to parallel the record of men's achievements"....  Prehistory would be a better term to use.  [German translator] Wisselinck enlarges on this, placing her own explanation of Daly's comment before her own translation of Daly's footnote.  She begins by stating that the German language has not yet developed the new woman's language ("neue Frauensprache") that English has, and she speculates that German may lack the capacity to change.  She then goes on to explain that married anglophone couples like to use toothbrush glasses, towels and place mats with His and Hers labels.  It is from this practice, she implies, that the term herstory has been derived.
      The sudden appearance of such lowly domestic items as toothbrush glasses and place mats in conjunction with excuses about why the German language resists change is more than disconcerting; it trivializes the issue.  Anglo-American efforts to change language and thereby change gender awareness are undermined by parallels drawn to 'silly' American cultural artefacts and habits.  The German language appears in counterpoint as a solid constant, impervious to such trivialities [or even impervious to much change].  Though Daly herself disapproves of the herstory wordplay for political reasons, she does not degrade the term in the way the German translation, perhaps unwittingly, does....  (pages 59-60)

All translation of wordplay raises particular problems regarding the transfer of cultural knowledge and specific context-bound shades of meaning, besides the question of the unavoidable differences between semantic items and their range of meanings and connotations in different languages (e.g. Levine 1991; Delabastita 1994).  In addition, wordplay translation in feminist writing has raised issues of political solidarity between women across linguistic and cultural boundaries.  It in fact highlights problems originating in cultural and historical differences, similar to those aired on the occasions of international or 'supranational' women's congresses, where vastly differing economic and cultural groups try to reach understanding and agreement.

Reading Mary Daly in German

The wordplay that laces Mary Daly's Gyn/Ecology, her classic of 'radical feminist' (now viewed as white-middle-class-educated-feminist) thought, made it a pleasure for me to read in English (perhaps because I, too, fit the white-middle-class-educated-anglophone category).  My first reading of the work in the summer of 1979 had me in stitches over her inventive impudence, her sarcasm and lack of respect for conventional American English and the culture that supports it, and over her unceasing and creative efforts to find ways to take the wind out of the complacent sails of 'patriarchal' language.  The book's main focus is on the historical victimization of women, and on the role filled by 'henchwomen' of patriarchy for this purpose....  For me, the wordplay was one of the more important aspects, providing respite and relaxation from an often disturbing context.
      The German translation of this work was completed by Erika Wisselinck shortly after its English publication.  (page 51)


Fortunately, von Flotow has made her entire chapter available right here, at her web site.  You can read how she details Wisselinck's three strategies and failures, as compared to wordplay methods and successes by French-English Canadian translators.


Jane said...

I've been too busy today having anervous breakdown but I shall come back and read more of this - you must also get yourself a copy of Chouraqui's translation of the Bible into French . I Must try to get myself a copy of his translation of the coran... one day there will be time for all of this - thanks so much for all that you read, digest and think about - a real inspiration!

J. K. Gayle said...

Yes, Jane, time and nerves - humanity we are. Thanks for sharing so much! I remember your commenting on how André Chouraqui is changing you and how others are reading his translation (which you quote here) for needed change and calls to transformation, and how he himself (in the obituary you've linked to) insisted on change in Jerusalem to the peace and inter-religious harmony he experienced as a child in Algeria, saying: “I am a scribe and I am a linguist. I am neither a politician, nor a theologian.”

Jane said...

A truly wonderful man and a prophet for our times ...