Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Translating Terminology: Int'l Women's Day

International Women’s Day was almost a month ago, and I managed to let it slip by without an entry! Many of the blogs I read picked up on it, however, so even though I am out of the college activist celebrations I still had some interesting things to read about.

This article is going to substitute, however, for my lack of discussion and is motivated both by my work and by a book I just finished reading called Queerly Phrased: Language, Gender, and Sexuality. The book fluctuates between some amazing and still relevant essays on queer identity and language and articles that are clearly along the lines of sexuality 101 for linguists back in the early 90s. My favorite so far has been “Lexical Variation in the Deaf Community Relating to Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Signs” by Mala S. Kleinfeld and Noni Warner because it has spurred me to think about the art of translating.

I didn’t hear the term “gloss” until I took courses in ASL where we often read ASL gloss sentences and had to sign them. Gloss is the term for writing one language with another, when you aren’t translating but instead are writing down sign for sign or word for word. In ASL the benefit of writing in gloss is that some of the true intentions of the signer are more visible. For example, if they choose to describe a man using effeminate versus homosexual versus fag all of which could be translated into the English “gay” when really the signer was implying something more. When faced with the reality that one could sign multiple signs for one single English word I began to think about other issues of translating, especially a discussion I had in a class with the amazing Scott Morgensen.

Our class had just watched the film Woubi Cheri set in Abidjan. The film is narrated in French and subtitled in English. Many of the terms used are not directly translated but are translated as near to the actual meaning of the word as possible (for instance woubi is not the synonym for gay). Our class was focusing on intersex and transgender identities and many people in the class, myself included, wanted to have an exact translation of woubi. Are woubis effeminate men or are they cross-dressing men? Are they transgender women? Eventually our inability to discuss more important aspects of the film because of our fixation on definitions caused Scott to give us a lecture on terminology politics.

What he said, which is echoed by many grass-roots organizers internationally, is that translating identities into English, or any “universal” language, denies them their culture, history, and individuality. We were still thinking from a place of medical truth – that there are men and women, transgender people and intersex people and every person in the world can fall into those categories. Scott reminded us that every country, culture, and geographic region has a different history in relation to bodies and that therefore terms such as transwomen simply don’t always translate cross-culturally. When international LGBT organizers scoff at people abroad who say “there are no transgender/gay/bisexual/lesbian people here” the international organizers are ignoring that in many places there literally aren’t LGBT folks. There may be hijras, or same-sex loving couples, or okana and onabe but those terms imply something of cultural meaning that “gay” simply doesn’t cover. The term “gay” is Western, and so long as Western is synonymous with capitalism, cultural appropriation, and violent governmental overthrows people will resist any terminology we try to use as an umbrella term.

This relates to International Women’s Day because of the number of women who make up transgender communities but it also relates to the way organizers have to walk a line between uniting international movements and denying difference. Being aware and helpful in other people’s movements is important. We shouldn’t pretend that transgender organizers don’t exist in Tokyo, the ASL-using communities, or Abidjan but we should make sure that issues of privilege don’t overwhelm collaboration.

I was going to use this discussion of translating terminology to jump into issues of femme identity, but I worry that this is now too long so I’ll save that for another day. All of my colleagues seem to be chatting away about what “femme” means so I’m excited to join the discussion soon. In the meantime, my friend and co-worker contributes to The Femme Show, which people should check out!

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