"Solving" Translation

Women's labor on the page

by Saanya Jain

Illustration by Pia Mileaf-Patel

published February 8, 2019

“In Urdu, the only language she knew, all things, not just living things but all things—carpets, clothes, books, pens, musical instruments—had a gender. Everything was either masculine or feminine, man or woman. Everything except her baby. Yes of course she knew there was a word for those like him – Hijra. Two words actually, Hijra and Kinnar. But two words do not make a language.”—The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy


Awareness of the ways in which language mediates recognition and participation in the public sphere is increasingly coming to the forefront, whether through analyses of sexist media coverage in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or the implementation of a fine (up to $250,000) in New York for intentionally using the wrong name or pronoun for a transgender person. Arundhati Roy illustrates this fact poetically through the story of Anjum, an intersex woman, known as a hijra in South Asia, who must navigate life through a language that does not accommodate her.

The question of gender bias in language becomes especially inescapable as we move between different languages, where distinct histories and grammatical systems define the boundaries of what can be expressed; it is in translation that the artificiality of these structures is exposed. Arundhati Roy herself describes Ministry as a novel “translated from the original”—exposing how the very fact of rendering a story in language is a kind of intervention that necessarily imposes a specific interpretive structure.

The most common way translating gender is approached has been through grammatical gender differences between English and Romance languages. In the latter, nouns are gendered (for example, a bike versus un vélo in French or una bicicleta in Spanish). There has also been recent interest as to how different languages approach the gender neutral pronoun (they, ze, and hir in English, x or @ in Spanish).

When simplified to an algorithmic approach such as Google Translate, however, this question is further complicated. There have been well-documented cases of Translate turning phrases with gender-neutral pronouns into gendered pronouns along sexist lines, for example “he is a surgeon” or “she is a nurse.”

The question of how bias is perpetuated through language will only become more pressing as we move closer to a world that runs on automatic translation services, with the spread of products such as Google Glass, which are meant to incorporate technology even more fluidly into the way we live our lives. Eva Vanmassenhove, a PhD candidate at Dublin City University, described in an article for Slator, a language industry intelligence publication, a hypothetical situation in which a selection algorithm using Google Translate could accidentally eliminate candidates for a job because a gender-neutral term gets translated from one language into a male or female variant in another language.

Only a month ago, Google announced its efforts to reduce gender bias in its translations as part of its broader mission to “solve” translation and thus make all information universally accessible. Such an endeavor has significant potential for impact, especially given that Translate’s reach is immense: more than 500 million people use the service, which processes more than 100 billion words each day. Perhaps even more relevant is the fact that the vast majority of users (92 percent) come from outside the United States, suggesting Translate’s supplemental importance in addressing inequities related to language access, given English’s hegemonic dominance. (Over 55 percent of all web content is in English, though only a fifth of the world’s population speaks English at all. Just a quarter of that fifth speak it as their native tongue.)

        Although the utopian vision of a world where translation allows for universally accessible knowledge is a commendable one, approaching gender bias as a challenge that can be “solved” through the tweaking of an algorithm obscures the roots of these issues: the presence of bias in Translate’s database (made up largely of the Bible, United Nations and European Union documents, and mystery novels), and more importantly, in the very assumptions of what makes for a ‘correct’ translation.

As Google aims for free, easy, and instantaneous translation, we must ask what we are sacrificing for this ease. To understand this question’s political and social ramifications, it is necessary to revisit the history of gender and translation itself.




The work of translation has often been cast in metaphorical terms, and more specifically, gendered ones. The most prominent example of this is the French phrase les belles infidèles, which suggests that translations, like women, can either be beautiful or faithful. Moreover, the nature of the French language makes it so that infidèle is a feminine noun—les beaux infidèles is an impossible statement.

Tapping into sexist connotations of fidelity, the phrase compares translation to a marriage, structured by an implicit contract between the original (male) and the translation (female). The opposition of faithful to unfaithful also determines how translations are judged—that is, in terms of how well they reproduce the sacrosanct original. This view stems from a view of translation encapsulated by Umberto Eco: "Translation is the art of failure." If one takes translation as impossible by nature, betrayal is a given.

More broadly, patriarchal systems rely on these metaphors to justify translation as feminine—and therefore, an inferior process. Few know the name of the translator of One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gregory Rabassa, who Gabriel Gárcia Márquez himself said produced a better work than the original, and arguably did as much as Márquez to influence authors such as Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie who read Solitude in translation. Moreover, the coding of the original as precious production and the translation as unchaste reproduction also has implications for how the labor of translation is valued in the marketplace.

What is ultimately at stake is, as Lori Chamberlain, one of the few prominent women theorists of translation, puts it, is “the struggle for authority and the politics of originality.”




The supposed inferiority of the translation led to the rise of feminist translations, which aim to render the female subject visible by being explicitly unfaithful to the original. One of the most prominent examples is Suzanne Jill Levine’s translation of Guillermo Cabrera Infante’s La habana para un infante difunto (Infante’s Inferno). Infante was a widely celebrated author and winner of the most prestigious literary award in the Spanish-speaking world, the Miguel de Cervantes prize. The book, a celebrated Cuban novel, follows the sexual education of the author on the island under Fidel Castro.

The original is, in Levine’s words, “unabashadley pornographic,” and “mocks” and “manipulates” women. Her translation, in turn, mocks and manipulates men. For example, she translates the victim-blaming phrase "no one man can rape a woman," as "no wee man can rape a woman," using the text’s continuous reliance on alliteration against itself.

While discussing her approach, Levine offers a metaphorical alternative to les belles infidèles—that of the traduttora traditora, or an intentionally traitorous female translator. This alternative of intentional unfaithfulness, however, continues to operate within a paradigm in which faithfulness is the ultimate measure of a translation. Levine remains caught in an ambivalence to fidelity, claiming that being unfaithful is a form of faithfulness to the text, a claim supported by her alleged "collaboration" with Infante. Furthermore, words used to describe this strategy—such as castration—reveal its continued reliance on assumed gender relations. While working against patriarchal language, subverting faithfulness to a misogynistic original through translation continue to reinscribe gender norms.

Other approaches to translation jettison a hierarchy that places the translation over the original text entirely. In this view, translation is framed as production in its own right, striving not for the invisibility of the translator but instead privileging the traces of their labor throughout.

There are several recent translations by women that put such a model into practice. One is by Emily Wilson, a professor at University of Pennsylvania, who published a translation of Homer’s Odyssey in 2017. With more than 60 translations of the Odyssey dating back to the third century BCE, Wilson’s was the first by a woman. Thus, the fact of Wilson’s gender is—unfortunately—radical, but it is also the basis of the book’s marketing campaign, marking one of the few times when a female translator’s labor is made visible.

And for those who wonder whether a ‘female sensibility’ would affect the translation of an ancient text which has been through dozens of permutations, Wilson’s text provides ample evidence. One example is Wilson’s approach to the Greek word kunopis, a rare word literally meaning “dog-face,” which had before been translated as “whore” or “bitch.” She instead chose the word “hounded,” arguing that the connotations of female destructiveness are not integral to the original. Thus, Wilson’s work seems to participate in the tradition of feminist translations, as she re-translates a man’s work that, in her words, was invested in “female fidelity and male dominance.” But such an approach is perhaps essentializing and not the only productive angle with which to judge the work of female translators.

Other criteria—such as depth, clarity, coherence—that are used to judge any original literary work, can and should apply to translations as well. The “fresh[ness]” of Wilson’s translation is part of the reason for which academics such as Stephen Kidd, a professor of classics at Brown University, decided to use her text in his class Greek Mythology. He told the Independent that he had thought he had seen every possible variant of the first line of the Odyssey—“Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many ways” (such as “many wiles,” “skilled,” “many turns”)—but was still pleasantly surprised by Wilson’s choice of the word “complicated.” In his words, it was “something new, simple, and poignant.” It is one of many choices that brings a new facet to the Odyssey, even for a reader who knows the original Ancient Greek and has devoted his life to its study. And it is not just Kidd who appreciates it. The students “seem to like it very much,” Kidd told the Independent: “It's about as far from a stilted translation as you can get.”

Wilson’s increased visibility, both through the marketing of the translation and her choices throughout the text, is not the only way in which her work serves as a model for reconsidering the inequalities inherent in our current approach to translation: the manner in which she approaches the Translator’s Note,” normally used to apologize for the ways the subsequent text has been ‘unfaithful,’ instead proposed an an entirely different model for approaching and judging translation. She argues that while she approaches the original with great respect, as a classics scholar, she aims for “a new and coherent English text, which conveys something of that [original] understanding but operates within an entirely different cultural context”: one that is more aware of the (re)production of unequal relations within language.

Such a paradigm may seem limited to feminist translations; however, there is much to learn generally from translations of texts written by women, and in fact explicitly against patriarchy.

There are numerous examples where this has gone poorly. One prominent one is the English translation of Simone Beauvoir’s “feminist bible” The Second Sex, done by H. M. Parshley. This was the version that made bestseller lists, was reprinted several times and read throughout the United States. It is also one that features unmarked deletions of more than ten percent of the original (particularly to do with the names and achievements of women in history; the centering of which was integral to Beauvoir’s approach of feminist historiography) as well as the omission of any references to lesbians.

A different approach to texts written by women is embodied by the first recipient in 2016 of the updated Man Booker International Prize: Deborah Smith’s English translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, originally in Korean. The Vegetarian is a three-part novella which tells the story of Yeong-hye, who stops eating meat after a nightmare, leading to devastating consequences for her personal life.

The win provoked significant controversy, as the book was criticized for diverging too much from the original, further compounded by the fact that Smith had “only” been learning Korean for three years prior to the undertaking, despite the fact that Han herself stands by the translation. Criticisms range from the minute—the substitution of arm (pal) for leg (bal)—to accusations of a complete overhaul of Han’s bland, repetitive, spare style (to English readers) enabled and in some ways required by Korean, to one that is more poetic and embellished, which arguably corresponds to the expectations of readers in English and style of the English language.

The implications of moving from a language as different as Korean to one as dominant as English, as well as Smith’s positionality as a white, young, then-PhD student translating the work of a woman of color, are important considerations when evaluating the structures that allowed for the successful production and reception of the work. The charge of unfaithfulness, however, is not inherent to those facts—and, furthermore, not the primary criteria through which the merit of a translation should be judged.

Smith took the critique that her work was indeed an entirely different book from the original, and reversed its impact by owning it. Indeed, her translation was an entirely different book—a work in its own right. She thus recategorized reproductive labor as inherently creative. She abandoned the paradigm of the faithful translation—one rooted very much in the assumed correlation between femininity and inferiority—in favor of one that should be judged on its own terms.

Such an approach is further modeled by the judging process for the prize. The committee does not compare the original and the translation side-by-side, but instead looks for a synergy between content and style in the translation, for a coherent whole produced in a new language. It is also reflected in the fact that the prize money, £50,000, is shared equally between the translator and author.

Furthermore, the genesis of The Vegetarian can in some ways be a new approach to translation. It no longer requires (and thus privileges) scholars, and instead opens the door for those who have a passion for another language, culture and text. It also serves as a model of creation based on collaboration, as Kang and Smith both state that they collaborated “on every word.”

The Vegetarian provides potential language with which to evaluate women’s work, both original and translation, that is not inherently gendered—although much is left open to question with regards to its implications for the movement of art across other axes of power differentials.

Finally, the vocabulary around a different form of translation—that of adaptations, for example from books to television or film—is also a valuable one to consider. While many critics may still compare the new media form with the original, adaptations, for the most part, are given more license and recognized as an achievement of their own; just think of the eleven Oscar nominations and wins for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation The Return of the King, which is tied with Titanic and Ben-Hur for the most Oscars ever won by a single film.

The language around adaptation is not effeminate, and the adaptation itself is not automatically considered inferior, but judged according to the possibilities and limitations of a new medium.

Another particularly interesting example is the aptly-named film movie Adaptation, ostensibly based on Susan Orlean’s book The Orchid Thief. Charlie Kaufman, the screenwriter, foregrounds the process of adaptation by depicting a fictionalized version of his own attempts to adapt Orlean’s book, introducing both himself (played by Nicholas Cage) and Orlean (Meryl Streep) as characters into the movie. This approach, too, explores the possibilities offered by an entirely different medium, thereby rendering the question of faithfulness unnecessary—perhaps even irrelevant.

Remarkably, when such adaptations fail to find a coherence in their target medium, the language of translation re-appears: for example, The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, commenting on Saverio Costanzo’s television adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, writes that the show “sublimat[es] itself to its literary source, like a caring translator.”

It is necessary to redefine the connotation of translation from failure and gendered betrayal to one that exalts it as an act of creation, where the original functions as the raw material for the production of a new text.




These issues will become only more integral as the production of meaning moves from the individual, who can be called out in the pages of literary reviews, to an algorithm in a black box. As translations increasingly touch more and more people’s lives in contexts outside of the explicitly artistic, it is important to think through what assumptions this automaticity requires and begets.

While it may seem that moving from the male editor to a non-human would break translation out of an explicitly gendered model, AI will never be able to “solve” translation as long as it continues to reflect and perpetuate our societal biases.

As Arundhati Roy shows us, it is impossible for us to exist outside of language. But perhaps our approach to difference can be reevaluated, from something to be overcome, requiring assimilation and invisibility, to an approach that instead exposes the structures that support difference in the first place. As Smith puts it, we can interrogate “the point of difference rather than just pointing it out.”

Ultimately, language is not neutral. Perhaps if we can find non-sexist ways of understanding and evaluating labor, not only will women’s translation become less rare, but so will the subjugation of reproductive labor in all its forms.


SAANYA JAIN B'19 is vegetarian and bets you will become one too after reading The Vegetarian.