“Translator is a mean of achieving different kinds of information between nations. A translator is a bridge between nations that help them to discover and comprehend their vast and amazing world. Unknown world will be known world by translators.”

No man or woman but has felt, during a lifetime, the subtle barriers which sexual identity interposes in communication. At the heart of intimacy, there above all perhaps, differences of linguistic reflex intervene… Under stress of hatred, of boredom, of sudden panic, great gaps

open. It is as if a man and woman then heard each other for the first time and knew, with sickening conviction that they share on common language… It is not as translators that women novelists, and poets excel, but as declaimers of their own, long-stifled tongue.

George Steiner, “Understanding Translation”

But how well in fact is women’s “long-stifled tongue” translated from one language to another, from one text to another? As the translator begins the act of translation, certain factors inevitably influence this act of creation and interpretation: the place and time of the

source language and the target language, the literary and translating community surrounding the translator, whether the translator is a writer, whether the translator is a critic or comparatist (in the sense of understanding the source language’s culture), and the gender of the translator.

In the 1990s translation studies saw a renewed interest in the analysis of gender and ideology in relation to, and interacting with, translation as theory and practice. Simon (1996) presented an extensive study of translation influenced by feminist thought, investigated gender issues in translation, and explored the ways in which women translators have been cultural mediators for centuries, creating “new lines of cultural communication” (Simon 1996: viii); likewise, Von Flotow (1997) researched practices of feminist translation, from the processes of ‘gendered translation’ to the translation of ideologically hostile texts, as well as the recovery of ‘lost’ women translators of the past.

Although not used by Simone de Beauvoir at the time she wrote The Second Sex the term gender came to be used in relation to her work. By her famous “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” she clearly stated that gender is not the same with the biological sexual difference, rather it’s a social construct that extends and completes the latter. Beauvoir thus suggests that a baby born with reproductive female organs does not simply grow up to be a woman. The woman she becomes later it’s rather a response to the milieu she grows up in. She is turned into a woman by the expectations the society has of women, through education and conditioning. Gender in its early feminist use expresses this very process of inoculating into girls and women the physical, psychological and socio-cultural attributes that are different from those of men. Historically, thinking about gender happens in cultures where gender configurations, the social meaning systems that encode sexual difference, undergo changes shifts. The same is true with thinking about race (that race as a construct becomes apparent when ideas of race are shifting) or economics, or politics, etc.: all of these concepts are reevaluated when social practice (i.e. what people do) shifts. So gender, or masculine and feminine qualities, or male/female social roles, comes up as area for analysis whenever gender roles are shifting. You can trace this back to medieval times (Chaucer’s Wife of Bath is certainly an example of questioning gender configurations). And because gender roles seem to shift in just about every time period, in relation to all kinds of factors (war, for instance, or economics, or notions of morality), gender is often a major focus of thought and writing, in popular culture and in theory.

Translations came to be viewed as products of cultural representation that is instances of a mediation process organically related to other modes of communication. Feminism has been one of the most important examples of cultural identity to gain prominence in the linguistic, social and political fields over the last decades. The alliance between translation studies and feminism was possible due to the common preoccupations with language: distrust of existing hierarchies and gendered roles, of rules defining fidelity. Moreover, as Sherry Simon argues: “Both feminism and translation are concerned by the way <> comes to defined and canonized; both are tools for a critical understanding of difference as it is represented in language” (1996:8).

Gender in Translation is a broad-ranging, imaginative and lively look at feminist issues surrounding translation studies. Students and teachers of translation studies, linguistics, gender studies and women’s studies will find this unprecedented work invaluable and thought-provoking. Sherry Simon argues that translation of feminist texts – with a view to promoting feminist perspectives – is a cultural intervention, seeking to create new cultural meanings and bring about social change.

Von Flotow (2001) offers a comprehensive overview of research areas in which the issue of “gender and translation” could be investigated:

  • 1-Historical studies (who translated what when and how, and how did gender play into this?)
  • 2- Theoretical considerations (how do different gender affiliations, definitions, constructions play themselves out in translation and translation research?)
  • 3- Issues of identity (how does gendered identity or a lack of it affect translation?)
  • 4- Post-colonial questions (does our largely Anglo-American “gender” apply in other cultures and their texts? Does it translate into other languages? And what does it mean if it doesn’t?)
  • 5- More general questions of cultural transfer (is the current government-supported export of Canadian women’s writing, a hot commodity in some literary markets, really about Canadian tolerance?)

Gender in Translation is a work which tries to put together the several inequalities which postmodernism, post-colonialism and post-structural thought have uncovered. It attempts to incorporate into the project of second wave feminism a translation practice, which abides to post-modern aesthetics while resisting to political, cultural and gender domination.

It is difficult to discuss the concept of ‘non-sexist’ language in languages that have masculine and feminine grammatical gender. It is important to distinguish between languages that show grammatical and pronominal gender such as French and German, and languages that show only pronominal gender such as English. The difficulties take place when translating from the language that shows grammatical gender to the language that shows pronominal gender. In Romance languages the ‘sun’ is feminine and the ‘moon’ is masculine, In Indo-European languages, the ‘sun’ is masculine and the ‘moon’ feminine. In Polish, ‘sun’ is neuter and ‘moon’ is masculine.

linguists consider gender as a grouping of nouns into classes of masculine, feminine, and sometimes neuter such that the choice of a noun of a given class syntactically has an effect on the form of some other word or element of the sentence or discourse (such as articles, adjectives, and pronouns). According to Pauwels (2003: 557), languages with a “grammatical gender” system categorize nouns into gender classes on the basis of morphological or phonological features. However, while many believe that a grammatical gender system does not have connection with ‘extralinguistic category of sex’, Corbett (1991), the author of Cambridge textbook of Gender, acknowledges that grammatical gender system is not merely a morphological system, but it has also a semantic basis which becomes obvious, particularly, in gender assignment to human (agent) nouns, where most nouns referring to women are feminine, and those referring to men are masculine (p. 557).

Chamberlain’s analysis mainly focuses on the parallel between women’s oppression in language and culture and the devaluation of translation. Conventionally both marriage and translation were viewed in terms of a contract between the translation as a woman and the original (as husband, father and author). Male translators see themselves as ‘guardians’ who must protect the purity of the young girl/text in order to make sure that the offspring (the translation or the children) are rightly theirs. In other metaphors the translator is figured as a male seducer, while the text is the mistress. As female sexuality was considered passive, the image was immediately transferred to translation, which supposes an active original, and a passive translation, active creation followed by passive transmission. The author is rendered powerless in relation to the translator. Flattered and seduced by the translator’s attentions the author/ text become a willing collaborator in the project of making herself beautiful and no doubt, unfaithful. We get thus to the adage “les belles infidèles” coined by the French rhetorician Ménage (1613-1692) and used to describe the French practice of translation in the 18th century. The idea it encapsulates is that women may be either beautiful or faithful, beauty or fidelity being thus viewed as mutually exclusive.

Sherry Simon (1996:12) advocates the need to redefine fidelity possible only through a conceptual reframing of translation. Conventionally, the latter was conceived in terms of the binary oppositions mentioned before. Meaning was thus thought to move from one fixed pole to another, while the translation was figured as an “invisible hand mechanically turning the word of one language into another.” (Barbara Godard cited in Simon 1996:12)

Under the influence of the cultural turn, contemporary translation studies are struggling against these old concepts, trying to find a way to define translation as a dynamic activity concerned with cultural systems. Equivalence in translation cannot be a one-to-one proposition. Translation is not only an operation of linguistic transfer, but also one that creates new textual forms, new forms of knowledge and introduces new cultural paradigms. Sherry Simon (cited in Arrojo 1993:71) argues that “the fascination of translation is that it poses the central question of ‘equivalence in difference’. More and more in an era reacting against the great hegemonies of identity, we realize that it is difference which interests us today.”

Since translators are no longer viewed as transferring the “truth” from one language/culture to another, but rather re-creating it, rethinking translation also implies reconsidering the identity of the translating subject as co-author of the translated texts.

Barbara Godard (cited in Simon 1996:13) argues to women “writing their way into subjective agency through a poetics of identity called << transformance>>. Subjectivity inevitably means to display one’s identity ostentatiously pointing thus to the visibility of the writing subject/translator: as “feminine discourse presents transformation as performance as a model for translation. […] woman handling the text in translation would involve the replacement of the modest self-effacing translator.”

The questioning of the conventional patriarchal language seen as an unsuitable instrument to render women’s experiences led to experiments with language. Radical feminist writing sought to undermine, subvert, and even destroy the everyday language maintained by institutions such as schools, universities, the media and dictionaries. This oppressive and subjugating language needed to be reformed and even replaced by a new women’s language. Writers have coined new words, new spellings and grammatical constructions, new images and metaphors in the attempt to get beyond conventional archetypes. These experiments raised a new set of problems for the translators and challenged them to come up with innovational techniques. Von Flotow names and describes three practices of feminist translation: supplementing, prefacing and footnoting, and “hijacking” (cited in Simon 1996: 15). Feminist translations place transformations at the very centre of the mechanism of representation. They set into play a multiplicity of dynamic meanings, which make linear and transparent meaning impossible. The feminist practices of translation deconstruct thus the long dominant theory of translation as equivalence of fixed meanings.


Arrojo, Rosemary (1993) Traduação, Descontrução e Psicanálise, Rio de Janeiro:Attica.

Chamberlain, Lori (1992) “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation”, in Venuti, Lawrence (ed.) Rethinking Translation-Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology, London/ New York: Routledge.

Delisle, Jean (1993) “traducteurs medievaux, traductrices feministes: une même éthique de la traduction?” TTR 6(1): 203-230.

De Lotbinière-Harwood, Susanne (1994) “Acting the (Re)Writer: a Feminist Translator’s Practice of Space”. Fireweed 44/45: 101-102.

Simon, Sherry (1996) Gender in Translation. Culture and Identity and the Politics of Transmission. London &New York:Routledge.

Venuti, Lawrence (1986) “A Translator’s Invisibility” Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and Arts 28.2: 179-212.

Von Flotow, Louise (1997) Translation and gender. Translating in the “Era of Feminism” Manchester: St. Jerome Publishing.