Automne / Fall 2020
Edited By Marc Maufort
Julie K. Allen, Eugene L. Arva, Jean Bessière, Helena Carválho Buescu, Vanessa Byrnes, Chloé Chaudet, Yves Clavaron, Christophe Den Tandt, Catherine Depretto., Theo D’haen, Caius Dobrescu, Dong Yang, Brahim El Guabli, Nikki Fogle, Gerald Gillespie, Kathleen Gyssels, Oliver Harris, Sándor Hites, Michelle Keown, S Satish Kumar, Jacques Marx, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Jopi Nyman, David O'Donnell, Liedeke Plate, Judith Rauscher, Haun Saussy, Karen-Margrethe Simonsen, Chris Thurman, Anne Williams, Janet M. Wilson, Chantal Zabus, Gang Zhou
Comparative Gender Studies: Where We Are Now (Liedeke Plate)
When the ICLA Comparative Gender Studies committee was first established, in 2002, it was not without resistance. Was not a concern for gender outdated and gender studies “too passée [sic] to become the concern of the ICLA” (Higonnet “Gender”)? A standing permanent committee since 2014, the Comparative Gender Studies Committee now represents a lively and booming branch of comparative studies. This essay aims to offer an overview of the state of the art in comparative gender studies. To undertake this ambitious task, I received help from several scholars in comparative gender studies.1 Still, it is far from complete, as it is well beyond the scope of a single review essay to survey the international field of comparative gender studies in all of its diversity and complexity, attending to the nuances of its tempi and rhythms of development, its ←151 | 152→different foci of attention, and to local accents, specific geopolitical and institutional contexts, and particular concerns. I therefore offer this essay as an initial sketch of the field, hoping its drawing of the contours of the complex, diverse, and dynamic terrain of comparative gender studies will inspire further research and international collaborations.
Introducing the Field
To begin with, it is important to acknowledge that comparative gender studies is a transdisciplinary field of scholarship that is situated at the intersection of scholarship and activism, and that its links to politics locates it in a complex geopolitical landscape. In recent years, “gender” has come to stand at the forefront of public debates and culture wars worldwide, developing multiple lives as an academic term, a theoretical concept, and a common word used to designate sexual difference. On the one hand, there is increasingly visible and loud criticism of heteropatriarchy (i.e., heterosexual male social dominance), more visibility and acceptance of LGBTQI+ people both of colour and white, movements such as #MeToo and #ReadWomen, and calls for considering gender intersectionally; that is, as always intersecting with other social categories and therefore requiring attention to “the relationships among multiple dimensions and modalities of social relations and subject formations” (McCall 1771); and, on the other hand, a widespread transnational “resistance to feminism” (Verloo and Paternotte), the rise of anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQI+, misogynistic, racist, xenophobic, nationalist political leaders, attacks on gender rights and campaigns against “gender ideology” and “la théorie du genre” (understood as the rejection of a natural, God-given gender essentialism and complementary male-female binary), and rampant gender-based violence. Made legible by the theories and methodologies of gender studies, these public manifestations of gender anxiety directly impact on the field and its scholars while at the same time forming interesting if disturbing objects of study for them. In 2018, the Hungarian government removed gender studies from its list of approved master’s programmes and discontinued funding gender studies in Hungary, claiming it is “not a science” (Oppenheim). A year earlier, Judith Butler, professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and author of the paradigm-shifting and agenda-setting book Gender Trouble (1990), was confronted in São Paulo, Brazil with a group of right-wing religious fundamentalist ←152 | 153→protesters burning an effigy of her as a witch at a conference on democracy she helped organize (Jaschik). Such examples of backlash against gender studies and theory, no less than the backlash against women, queer and trans people both of colour and white, rich and poor, situate comparative gender studies in a polarized socio-political field. It is evidently important to recognize the social and political forces working against gender studies as they impact the field and the daily life of its scholars. Nevertheless, the focus of this article will be on what can be seen as a worldwide feminist réveil: a waking-up, awakening or reawakening to the importance of gender as a “useful category of analysis” (Scott) that exceeds its reduction to a female gender or a male / female binary and that intersects with other axes of inequality and difference.
This article identifies main trends and key foci in comparative gender studies, defined as the intersection of comparative literature / comparative studies (broadly defined, including the arts) and gender studies (also broadly defined, ranging from women’s studies, masculinity studies and sexuality studies to queer studies / theory and trans studies). This, then, includes: traditional comparisons across national and linguistic borders as these relate specifically to gender and / or sexuality; comparative work across historical, postcolonial, and transnational contexts focusing on gender and / or sexuality; and scholarship using gender and / or sexuality as sites of comparison themselves, or as they intersect with race, class, ethnicity, national and religious affiliation, and other sites of difference.2 Comparative gender studies goes “both ways,” to use Hayes, Higonnet and Spurlin’s suggestive formulation (6), approaching gender studies comparatively and doing comparative literature in a way that is sensitive to issues of gender and sexuality and heeds queer resonances and trans possibilities. Already the Bernheimer report – Charles Bernheimer’s 1993 report on the state of the discipline of comparative literature, mandated by the bylaws of the American Comparative Literature Association (ACLA), and which included sixteen responses and position papers – acknowledged the relevance of gender and sexuality to comparative studies, arguing that “comparatists should be alert to the significant differences within any national culture” and pointing out that “[a]mong these are differences (and conflicts) according to region, ethnicity, religion, gender, class, and colonial or postcolonial ←153 | 154→status” (Bernheimer 43–4). For Margaret Higonnet, past president of the ACLA and of the ICLA Committee on Comparative Gender Studies, these differences to which comparatists should be alert mean that “Gender studies should [always] be comparative” (“Comparative” 155; the inserted “always” is derived from the self-quotation in Hayes et al. 6); an imperative gender studies has taken to heart, given its growing commitment to intersectionality as a central category of analysis. But what about comparatists’ alertness to gender+, that is, to gender, sexuality, and their intersections with other categories of difference and inequality (such as race, religion, class, and age)? Haun Saussy’s 2004 ACLA State of the Discipline Report, Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, included two essays that engaged with questions of gender and feminism (by Françoise Lionnet and Gail Finney) and the most recent ACLA State of the Discipline Report, Ursula Heise’s Futures of Comparative Literature, includes three essays on gender, sexuality, and queer and trans approaches (Berman; Hayes; Lanser). A quick survey of recent conference programme booklets of the ACLA reveals a steady presence of gender, feminist and queer concerns and perspectives at the organization’s annual meetings, with around 30 papers annually using the term gender in their title, a little bit more using the term queer, and about 15 using the term feminist.3 In contrast, the programmes of the triennial conferences of European Society of Comparative Literature / Société Européenne de Littérature Comparée (ESCL / SELC) uses the term gender six times in total throughout the years 2015–2019, with no mention of queer at all and one use of the word feminist in a paper title.4 For ICLA, the score is similarly low: in 2016, there were two papers using the term gender, two papers using the term feminist, and two sessions plus two papers using the term queer in their title. In 2019, the score reached a record low, with one session only using the term gender (organized by the Comparative Gender Studies Committee) and four papers using the term queer (all presented at the session organized by ←154 | 155→the Comparative Gender Studies Committee). Similarly, scrutinizing the summaries of 38 issues of the Brazilian Journal of Comparative Literature (Revista Brasileira de Literatura Comparada) yielded only two articles on women writers, one on the image of woman in literature and one on ecofeminism, and none on queer-related themes. To be sure, our mining of the Comparative Literature Associations’ conference programme booklets for the use of the terms gender, feminist and queer does not necessarily reveal all papers devoted to issues of gender and sexuality. Sometimes other terms are used, such as femininity or masculinity. Other times the terms only appear in the abstract or in the presentation at the conference. However, the word count is revealing when conferences are contrasted: in contradistinction to the ICLA meeting in Macau, the International Comparative Literature Forum co-hosted in 2019 by the Chinese Comparative Literature Association (CCLA) and Shenzhen University had three sessions devoted to feminism and ecofeminism while the symposium of the Spanish Society of General and Comparative Literature (SELGYC) that was held in the Spring of 2019 had as one of its major themes “Transcomparatism: Gender and Genres: Feminism and sexuality in comparative literature.” Furthermore, conferences of the Modern Language Association of America gather hundreds of papers and sessions that engage with issues of gender and sexuality annually, with in 2020 a whopping 120 sessions in whose title the term gender appears, 93 session titles using the terms sex and / or sexuality, 36 sessions titles that use the words feminism or feminist, and 59 session titles that include the term queer. There are, then, huge differences in the amount of attention paid to issues of gender and sexuality in comparative studies worldwide, as there are huge differences in the visibility of this scholarship and the recognition given to it within the broader, or intersecting, field of comparative literature / comparative studies.
Comparative Gender Studies and Intersectional Feminism
Because of its commitment to social justice, there is a strong connection between comparative gender studies and feminism. Always inflected by specific local / glocal geopolitical configurations, gender studies scholarship and feminist activism converge on issues ranging from redistribution, recognition and representation (see Fraser), addressing issues of economy, culture and politics, to labour, governance ←155 | 156→and private sphere, including the rights and freedoms to live in peace and dignity amongst diversity. At universities in the Global North, gender studies started as women’s studies in many places, expanding to include perspectives focusing on sexuality (lesbian and gay studies), masculinity, and identifications beyond the traditional binaries – e.g. queer, trans, genderfluid – and mindful of the ways in which these identities, identifications, or categories intersect with other axes of difference and inequality such as race / ethnicity, religion, class, and region. The emphasis on identity and recognition is offset by work in comparative gender studies that focuses on sexual and gender violence, on matters of livelihood, empowerment, state and citizenship, and the discourses and ideologies that legitimize women’s political, economic, and social oppression. In the wake of scholars such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Trinh T. Minh-ha, the Argentinian-born Maria Lugones explores the intersection of race, class, gender and sexuality as they inform the systematic violences inflicted upon women of colour in what she terms “the coloniality of gender” in postcolonial and transnational contexts. In South Asia, which had the dubious distinction of occupying three slots among the top ten countries with the worst records for crimes against women according to the Thomson Reuters Survey conducted in March 2020, comparative approaches to gender and feminist activism combine to seek to understand the complex intersections between language-cultures and religions which inflect local patriarchies and articulate them to the economies of globalization and globalized capitalist patriarchies (Jayawardena; Chanda), often centring cross-border and cross-religious research on gender within the same local language, for instance Urdu and Bengali.
This intersectional and pluralistic perspective makes of gender studies an inherently comparative field: it always asks what difference gender makes, and what other differences a single focus (on gender, or race, region, religion,…) overlooks or even obscures. Comparative Gender Studies is then not only a plea to make comparative studies more sensitive to gender+ issues, though it is that too; it is also a name that brings gender studies within the purview of comparative studies and identifies it as such, highlighting the comparative dimension that is – or should be – integral to gender studies. A strongly self-reflective field, then, Comparative Gender Studies asks questions it believes are pertinent to all scholarship, such as those of perspective and location. Whence do we approach a literary text? Knowledge is situated, feminist science studies ←156 | 157→scholars have pointed out: it is embodied, located, and partial (Haraway). There is an epistemology as well as a politics of location – a politics that becomes all the more evident when wielding a comparative perspective, as Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), written astride cultures and languages, makes clear.5 While it is important to acknowledge one’s own position as a scholar and to recognize the implications of this positionality for the scholarship produced, in terms of methodology – of a theory of method, that is (Harding) – the implications of location and perspective reach further to include reflection on the different legitimacies that attach to differently and differentially positioned perspectives: dominant, hegemonic or subjugated and subaltern (Haraway; Spivak; Lugones); internal (participant, implicated) or external and an outsider’s perspective – a linguistically, historically or culturally exogenous point of view (Horchani). In addition, given the constructedness of locations such as nations and regions as politically necessary and resolutely historical fictions – an issue much debated in the context of Asia, for instance – it is important to recognize how such fictions are created through the flows of people, goods, and ideas, including ideas about gender, and how these in turn come to construct national or regional gendered identities (Johnson, Jackson and Herdt).
An important development in comparative gender studies is therefore the rise of men’s and masculinities studies. Whereas men have long functioned as the neutral default, with women’s and gender studies focusing on the constructedness of femininity, the field has recently broadened to include the critical study of men and masculinities. Literature authored by men is still rarely read as “men’s literature” (Plate “The Arena”) – unless the said men are identified as non-hegemonic (e.g. the “lad lit” of 1990s Britain). Comparative studies of men and masculinities are burgeoning around the world (e.g. Ruspini et al.) and the representation of men and masculinities is flourishing, for instance in Stefan Krammer’s MannsBilder: Literarische Konstruktionen von Männlichkeiten (2007), Jennifer Vaught’s Masculinity and Emotion in Early Modern English Literature (2011), Elahe Haschemi Yekani’s The Privilege of Crisis: Narratives of Masculinities in Colonial and Postcolonial Literature, Photography, and Film (2011), Stefan Horlacher’s Configuring Masculinity ←157 | 158→in Theory and Literary Practice (2015) or the volume Masculinities and Literary Studies: Intersections and New Directions (2018) edited by Josep Armengol, Marta Bosch Vilarrubias, Àngels Carabí and Teresa Requena. Masculinities continue to be the focus of much research in queer studies, for instance Paul Baker and Giuseppe Balirano’s Queering Masculinities in Language and Culture (2018), a field within gender and sexuality studies which, in its focus on non-normative sex, sexualities, and sexual orientations, is inherently comparative, given its concern with deviations from the norm.6
#ReadWomen is a hashtag started by the English writer Joanna Walsh in 2014, to address the enduring gender imbalance in the global publishing industry. In the United States, VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts (vidaweb.org) is an organization that has been counting the gender breakdown in major American literary publications and book reviews since 2009, and similar initiatives have been developed elsewhere, for instance in the Netherlands, where an anonymous “lezeres des vaderland” (female reader of the fatherland) kept track of gender imbalances in literary reviewing from 2015 to 2017 (Snelders). It is to counter bias in reading, publishing, and reviewing that the hashtag #ReadWomen was launched; to draw attention to the ways in which women still face discrimination in the (globalized) literary industry, which silences and censors them, albeit in different ways, across the globe (see Menon; Burrell).
#ReadWomen is a hashtag that also pertains to scholarship in comparative gender studies engaged in recovering women writers of the past and rescuing their texts from oblivion, (re-)inserting them into the canon (or changing the canon or doing away with it altogether), and offering critical readings of emerging bodies of texts by new generations of women writers. Over the past decades, many anthologies have been published, enabling the comparative study of women’s writings, such as: the four-volume Women Writing Africa (2003–2008) and the three-volume anthology Escritoras Brasileiras do Século XIX (Nineteenth-Century Brazilian Women Writers, ed. Muzart, 1999–2009), Women ←158 | 159→Writers of Traditional China: An Anthology of Poetry and Criticism (ed. Chang and Saussy, 2000), Margaret Busby’s New Daughters of Africa (2019), and Chinese Women Writers on the Environment: A Multi-ethnic Anthology of Fiction and Nonfiction (ed. by Isbister, Pu and Rachman, 2020). Gynocriticism, a term coined to refer to the study of women’s writing (Showalter; see Plate “Gynocriticism”), continues to be of vital importance to comparative gender studies, especially as it evolves into “multiple gynocriticisms” (Friedman) and comparative ones, for instance Sadaf Ahmad’s Pakistani Women: Multiple Locations and Competing Narratives (2010), Meera Kosambi’s Women Writing Gender: Marathi Fiction Before Independence (2012), Michiko Niikuni Wilson’s Modern Japanese Women Writers as Artists as Cultural Critics (2013), Kay Schaffer and Xianlin Song’s Women Writers in Postsocialist China (2014), Ileana Rodríguez and Mónica Szurmuk’s The Cambridge History of Latin American Women’s Literature (2016), Fedwa Malti-Douglas’s Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing (2019), and Bharati Arora’s Writing Gender, Writing Nation: Women’s Fiction in Post-Independence India (2020). These studies sometimes trace the history of women’s writing and representation within a single language but across national and / or religious borders. Rakhshanda Jalil and Debjani Sengupta’s Women’s Writings from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh: The Worlds of Bangla and Urdu (2019) is a recent example of comparative gynocriticism exploring the ways in which Urdu and Bangla have shaped women’s creative universes in three nations of the subcontinent.
Gynocritical scholarship includes the study of women’s and feminist rhetoric, for instance Lindal Buchanan and Kathleen Ryan’s collection of essays Walking and Talking Feminist Rhetorics: Landmark Essays and Controversies (2010) and Kirsti Cole’s Feminist Challenges or Feminist Rhetorics? Locations, Scholarship, Discourse (2014), as well as comparative studies of specific tropes and topoi of women’s writing. The multivalent relationship between women and borders is such a topos, for instance in Episodes from the History of Undoing edited by Reghina Dascal, which inquires into the nexus of gender and “trespassing” in different cultural contexts – to wit, American, Brazilian, Hungarian, Polish, Romanian, and Turkish – while recalling and refreshing the stories of feminine daredevils; but also in Zubaan Series on Sexual Violence and Impunity in South Asia (eds. Butalia et al.) with volumes on Pakistan, India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Topoi in contemporary gynocritical studies include #MeToo ←159 | 160→and related hashtags (e.g. #NotInvisible, which focuses on the violence and indifference faced by Native American and First Nations women and their families, or the #MeinBhi movement in Pakistan); anger, personal and political (e.g. Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage and Patrícia Melo’s novel Mulheres empilhadas [Piled up Women] addressing the issue of feminicide); and maternity and motherhood, for instance in so-called mom lit (see Blackwood). Gynocriticism includes critical focus on a broad variety of genres of women’s writings, from fiction and poetry to auto / biography, letters, magazines, and periodicals, for example Jameel Akhter’s two-volume history of women’s Urdu periodicals Urdu mein jaraaed-i-niswaan kee taareekh (2016), which gives rare and historical information on 250 periodicals published since the late nineteenth century in Urdu specially for women; or explores new genres such as women’s comics and graphic narratives, for instance Hillary Chute’s Graphic Women (2010), which focuses on American comic writers mostly but includes a chapter on the Iranian-born French Marjane Satrapi.7 It also includes critical crossings with such emergent interdisciplinary fields as cultural memory studies, for instance in the volume Women Mobilizing Memory (2019) edited by Ayşe Gül Altınay et al., a transnational inquiry into the politics of memory-making in relation to experiences of vulnerability and violence, focusing on Chile, Turkey, Europe, and the US.
But what is a woman? Recent controversies in the Global North over the exclusion of and discrimination against transwomen have rekindled debates about who is included in and who is excluded from the category “woman” and what kind of social, cultural, and affective work the category does. These debates then are about the definition of gender, conceived as sexed or sexual difference, and one’s (and / or other people’s) positioning with respect to the man / woman dichotomy. As Lennon and Alsop among others have argued, in English-language countries but also outside, the meaning of the term gender has changed over the past decades. Feminist insights into the constructedness of a binary biological division into male and female – that is, “as itself mediated by cultural assumptions ←160 | 161→about gender and by norms of heterosexuality” (1) – have undone the famous sex-gender distinction of 1970s white western feminism, while new uses of the term in popular parlance and legislation recognizing non-binary or third genders further reinforce a sense of the term as signifying “without commitment as to whether this positioning is biological or social” (2).8 A comparatist approach, taking into view the many different ways in which gender is done, in discourse and in practice, around the globe confirms wide divergence among genders (however defined and understood) worldwide.9 It also lends credence to Paul B. Preciado’s thesis that “the notion of [dimorphic] gender belongs to the biotechnological discourse that appeared in the US medical and therapeutic industries at the end of the 1940s” and that it served the purpose of subjugating “an infinite variability of bodies and desires (multiple chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, external genital, psychological, and political variables)” to the imperative of heterosexual reproduction (99; 104).
As a concept and a category of analysis and understanding, gender does not travel well. Sure it travels; but the difficulties scholars encounter in seeking to translate the term and employing it in a foreign context are plenty, as many have pointed out, referring sometimes to the term’s Anglo-American pedigree (e.g. Fusco; Di Cori; François and Zoberman), other times insisting on its western or Global Northern bias (e.g. Berry et. al; Shah). The way gender intersects with other categories, for instance caste in India (e.g. Rao; Banerjee et al.; Gosh and Banerjee), also differs across space (and time).10 Crucial, moreover, is indeed the (conceptual) ←161 | 162→separation between sexual orientation and gender identity, which may be relevant in the West, but does not neatly apply to non-western contexts, as hijras in Bangladesh and Thai toms and dees, for instance, illustrate. Careful consideration of gender and sexual variance around the world and of the complexities of drawing on western theory and terminology to engage with varying cultural contexts are therefore called for, as is attention to different configurations of meaning and power that may be operative in, or articulated through, them. Indeed, as “tom” and “dee” also illustrate, as gender travels, it also changes, adapts, mutates, and transforms, with English words becoming names for distinctive subject positions elsewhere. Thus “tom,” derived from the English word “tomboy” and referring to female-bodied individuals who hold a masculine identity or are marked as masculine by others, is “paired, both linguistically and romantically, with feminine-identified women who are called ‘dees,’ a shortening of the English word ‘lady’ (la-dee).” Together, they emerged in Thailand in the 1970s and have now largely overridden regional linguistic variations to form a new Thai discourse on sexual / gender subjectivity (Sinnott 119). Therefore, as Ana Tsing points out, “instead of following Western originals across non-Western cultural transformations, we can follow the narrative contexts through which foci of cultural difference are identified”; and “instead of debating the truth of Western-defined universals, we can debate the politics of their strategic and rhetorical use across the globe” (254). These latter arguments are also supported by Inácio, who claims that there was in Portuguese a queer aesthetic expression before the queer itself had been named as such.11
The problems posed by the categories of gender and sexuality are further underscored by comparative work in queer theory, for instance Rahul Gairola’s reading of the gay body as a colonial queer translation in its travels to the non-West, Héctor Ruvalcaba’s exploration of the meanings queer acquires in its translation into Latin American cultural codes, and Robert Diaz’s scrutiny of the term “bakla,” which is used in the Philippines to denote “gay male identity, male-to-female transgender ←162 | 163→identity, effeminised or hyperbolic gay identity, and gay identity that belongs to the lower class” (721). Queer is, like gender, yet another term that does not travel well. Queer has been used as a synonym for gay and lesbian or LGTBQI+ and to refer to non-normative sexualities; it is increasingly used to challenge all kinds of normative categories (Buikema et al. 270). There is no direct translation for queer in any language; it is also a most contested term, subject to critical interrogation even as it is employed, as for instance in Luther and Ung Loh’s Queer Asia (2019), which offers a pan-Asian perspective that places queer Asian identities and movements in dialogue with each other, rather than within a western framework.12 Expanding the meaning of translation to include the culturally and geopolitically signified and situated body, comparative queer studies problematize and destabilize established and normative categories of gender and sexuality. To return to the example of bakla: serving as a term that problematizes gender and sexuality categories that come out of the West, in its deployment, bakla at the same time acknowledges its own limitations. As such, bakla is exemplary of the queer: it is not simply a translation of queer, but it does queer.
Gender, Sexuality, and Translation
Translation has long been recognized as an important site of comparative work. Not surprisingly, it is also an important area of comparative gender studies. Research here focuses on gender and translation / women and translation, feminist translation studies, and queer translation studies. It also looks into the travels of theories and theoretical concepts into new linguistic and / or cultural domains or areas of study, as when scholars study “the uneven migrations” of the category “gender” (Costa 68) or the term queer (Ruvalcaba), examining the work these translations do while “highlighting the significance of translators as power brokers within the linguistic and cultural borders that organise power relations” (Hill Collins xiii).
Building on an established tradition of research into issues of gender and translation (Jouve; Lotbinière-Harwood; Simon), comparatists across ←163 | 164→the globe have been exploring how the performativity of gender and the performativity of translation intersect, for instance in the collection Translating Women edited by Luise von Flotow (2011) and its sequel, Translating Women: Different Voices and New Horizons (2017), edited by Flotow and Farzaneh Farahzad. Such research continues the important labour of (re)discovering and re-evaluating the work of women as translators, raising issues of power dynamics implicit in gender relations, and exhuming forgotten texts. What kinds of problems do translators run into when seeking to translate gendered or historically gender-neutral terms, for instance in the works of seventeenth-century French moralists (Zoberman)? How are women’s experiences and women’s ideas being translated across cultures? What contextual influences – religious, cultural, political, commercial – come into play in the production of these translations?
Over the past decades, the problematics of translation have also become an important domain of feminist contention. In her article “Lost (and Found?) in Translation: Feminisms in Hemispheric Dialogue,” Claudia de Lima Costa breaks a lance for the study of translation as central to understanding, and to forging, a transnational, feminist politics. Opposing “feminism-as-cultural-imperialism” and the spurious universality of the term “global sisterhood,” she argues for looking at translation as a practice and a metaphor that offer an apt understanding of the mechanisms through which gendered identities are forged, exploring “how ‘foreign’ theories and concepts are brought into friction and dialogue with local experiences so as to enable identifications and de- identifications, as well as configurations of alternative theoretical cartographies” (65). Particularly important to this process are the ways in which, and the means by which, “feminist concepts / discourse / practices gain temporary (or even permanent) residence in different representational economies” (67), as well as the “formidable roadblocks and migratory checkpoints” they sometimes encounter when they attempt to cross borders (63). Since texts that travel across linguistic contexts require a “visa” – “they always entail some sort of ‘cost,’ ” Costa writes (67) – this includes looking at the material conditions and circumstances organizing translations, as well as the contexts of political, cultural, economic, and institutional power. Thus, in the context of the Americas, Costa points out the important role that the academy and feminist NGOs play in the production, circulation, and reception of feminisms while observing how ongoing economic crises in Latin America have put serious constraints on ←164 | 165→the circulation of feminist theories and noting the still pervasive dismissal of subaltern knowledge within the US academy.
Translation is “a privileged site for the negotiation of difference in a world of increasing cross-border movements and cross-cultural contacts” (Costa 72), at once a place of (transnational) connection and a space of epistemic violence, as when the translation of foreign concepts enters in conflict with local vocabularies of activism. This entails attention to feminist translation as intersectional feminist activism, as well as inquiry into the connections between translation and transnational feminism. It also entails attention to pseudotranslation and its political potential (Taronna) and to feminist paratranslation as a key geo / political and analytical tool of feminist translation (Abou Rached).
The cultural turn in translation has also led to research at the intersections of gender and sexuality studies and translation. Indeed, the recognition that translation is “a multidimensional site of cross-lingual correspondence on which diverse social tasks are simultaneously performed,” as William Spurlin writes (“The Gender” 202), inaugurated the study of queer translation studies, exploring “translating queer, queering translation, queer as translation and translation as queer” (Epstein and Gillett 7). Key questions are:
How do we work with translating terms for naming genders and sexualities in comparing texts and cultures of the past which may not be translatable to modern understandings of gender or to contemporary understandings of gay, lesbian, bisexual, or queer difference? How might we work with the specificity of queer, which has its origins in western Anglophonic cultures, when translating texts from non-Anglophonic and non-western contexts? How has translation functioned as a site of social change when dissident forms of sexuality in certain source texts, considered to be foreign to a particular target culture, become part of, and challenge, that culture’s official discourses through the dialogical processes of interlingual transfer and cultural exchange? What new translation issues arise when we work within postcolonial cultures, for example, where terms for same-sex sexual desires may not be inscribed discursively in indigenous languages, or, if they are, may have emerged under a different set of material, ideological, and cultural conditions, such as colonial history and the effects of transnational migration and diaspora? How do race and class differences impede the straightforward translation of gender and desire?
(Spurlin, “The Gender” 205)
A number of recent articles, collections, and monographs are exploring such issues, studying the translation of queerness and applying queer thought to issues of translation. Following Spurlin’s groundbreaking special issue “The Gender and Queer Politics of Translation: Literary, Historical, and Cultural Approaches,” B.J. Epstein and Robert Gillett’s Queer in Translation (2017) and Brian Baer and Klaus Kaindl’s Queering Translation, Translating the Queer (2018) are two important volumes that explore how the rendering of queer phenomena across languages and cultures challenge our understanding of translation as a theory and a practice and how attention to translation can keep queer scholarship “honest – that is, true to its anti-hegemonic orientation, by forcing researchers to interrogate deep-seated Western, and perhaps specifically Anglophone, biases” (Baer and Kaindl 3). Here, research may focus on strategies and techniques used by various translators in dealing with queer texts, as well as the representation of queerness in literary works across different countries. Exploring translation studies and queer theory together as sites of performative practices and mediation, Epstein and Gillett’s volume uses queer theory to challenge traditional views of the ideal translation as being invisible, that is, as being able to “pass” as the original, to call into question the “legitimacy of the allegedly authentic” (3). L’intraduisible as “a queer space, one that challenges any normative idea of straightforward translatability,” to quote Spurlin, brings home the ways in which translation is a queer praxis (172). For as he also argues in “Queering Translation,” the slippages of meaning, the differences, that occur in working across languages and cultures, speak to the very queerness of translation as a critical praxis and site of knowledge production. While some of the essays focus on the failure and impossibility of translating queer texts and subcultures, others set themselves the task of uncovering hidden non-heteronormative sexual practices excluded due to target cultural norms or the translators’ conscious or unconscious censorship. Importantly, Nour Abu Assab’s warning of the ways in which “reclaiming a gay and lesbian history in the West has affected perception of homosexuality in the Arab world” (31) underscores the politics of translation and the tensions implicit in the articulation of queer dissidences across languages, geographies, and cultures. Addressing the ethics of ethnocentrism and monolingualism, TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly in 2016 devotes a special issue to “Translating Transgender,” calling for multilingual and translational critique to challenge the dominance of Anglophone frameworks ←166 | 167→and resources in transgender studies, while Douglas Robinson, in Transgender, Translation, Translingual Address (2019), seeks to understand the “translational” or “translingual” dialogues between cisgendered and transgendered people in a similar effort to bring translations studies and transgender studies in dialogue.
If western studies of gender, sexuality, and translation originated in the context of Francophone Canada and in discussions about transatlantic translations – the translation, in the late twentieth-century, of so-called French Theory in general and “French Feminism” in particular into a U.S. context – by now, reverse movements (marked, for instance, by the late arrival in France of translations of Judith Butler and Eve Sedgwick; see Tomiche and Zoberman) as well as area-focused debates complicate the geopolitics of feminist and queer translation studies and complexify the nature of the international conversations on gender, sexuality, and translation. To the more broadly international exchanges staged in Epstein and Gillet, Baer and Kaindl, Castro and Ergun, and Flotow and Farahzad, we might add the collection edited by Sonia E. Alvarez and Claudia de Lima Costa, Translocalidades / Translocalities: Feminist Politics of Translation in the Latin / a Américas, which as its title indicates focuses on the Americas. Exploring Latin American, Caribbean, and United States-based Latina feminisms and their multiple translations and cross-pollinations, its contributors advocate a hemispheric politics based on the knowledge that today, many sorts of Latin / o-americanidades – Afro, queer, indigenous, feminist, and so on – are constructed through processes of translocation as many people in the Latin / a Américas move back and forth between historically situated and culturally specific, increasingly porous, places, and across multiple borders. Here, then we may also mention Héctor Dominguez Ruvalcaba’s Translating the Queer: Body Politics and Transnational Conversations (2016), which focuses on queerness in and about Latin America, exploring the complex ways in which Latin American social and intellectual circles interacted with Anglo-American queer theory and scholarship.
Conversely, given the many languages spoken on the Indian subcontinent, most scholars in South Asian gender and sexuality studies work in at least two languages apart from English. Not only are general surveys necessarily comparative (e.g. Fernandes) but the practical and experiential basis of gender studies and research entails use and capability in at least one local language, as it enhances capabilities in field research and enables engagement with discourses of gender in different ←167 | 168→language-cultures both within these multilingual nations and across national borders.
#CiteASista: Women, Queer, and Trans Scholars in the Profession
To the key practices of reading, writing, and translating as vectors of comparative gender studies, we need to add the scholars themselves. For it is not only texts, ideas, and concepts that travel, but also the people who do the reading, writing, and translating, giving lectures, attending conferences, and participating in seminars and expert meetings across the world. To the politics of #ReadWomen we need to add the politics of #CiteASista: the politics of citation, i.e. who gets cited. For as Sara Ahmed writes, citation is “a rather successful reproductive technology, a way of reproducing the world around certain bodies.” Who gets cited matters, for citations translate into recognition, impact, and more (awards, money, etc.). Established in 2016, the hashtag #CiteASista, like the Cite Black Women movement started in 2017 (#CiteBlackWomen; www.citeblackwomencollective.org/), centres Black Women’s work, writing, and voices and functions as a disruptor of white supremacy. As such, it gestures towards the politics and ethics of citational practices in comparative scholarship. For comparative gender studies, it is crucial to look beyond the canon of white feminist and / or queer scholars, cite feminist and queer scholars of colour, and reflect critically on the geopolitics of citational practices.
Moreover, to the politics of citation we may want to add the politics of invitation, i.e. who gets invited to lecture, give a keynote address, or participate in a research project. Rita Terezinha Schmidt recalls the importance of the “Woman in Literature” research group, established in 1986, for the development of gender studies in Brazil, and the intense, sometimes bitter debates it sparked at conferences and workshops; debates that were, in part, about who got cited, referred to, or invited, not least because of the spectre of intellectual colonialism raised by scholars’ references to theories associated with the US historical presence as an imperial power south of the Equator and its decisive role in the 1964 Brazilian coup d’état. Likewise, in their “Bibliography of Studies on Women and Gender in China since 2008,” Robin Yates and Danni Cai point out the role the previous bibliography played in promoting scholarship on ←168 | 169→women and gender in the China field, helping to integrate, and so to institutionalize, women and gender studies across a wide array of fields, disciplines and sub-disciplines. Citational, invitational, and institutional practices are entangled, for instance through the establishment of gender studies committees in learned societies (Higonnet “Gender”).
Obviously, and as this article has hopefully made clear, such practices need to be attended to much more carefully than could be done within the compass of a single essay. Much more research on the vibrant and thriving field of comparative gender studies is needed: a more thorough mapping of its complex, diverse, and dynamic terrain, so as to facilitate more exchange and debate among its scholars, and to make their work more visible to each other and to the field of comparative studies at large.
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1 I wish to acknowledge the help of Ipshita Chanda, Rita Terezinha Schmidt, Yong Wern Mei and Pierre Zoberman, who have provided me with invaluable input and critical feedback at various stages in the development and writing of this article; and take this opportunity to thank them for it. Though this review of the state of the art in comparative gender studies could not have been written without their aid, the final product is mine and ultimately remains limited by my partial perspective. I also want to take this opportunity to thank Anna Geurts for her critical reading of the article, as well as Maaike Leendert, Marlijn Metzlar and Hester Julia Voddé, student assistants at Radboud University, who have helped me with the research on comparative gender studies in the national associations of comparative literature and the bibliography. Finally, my thanks to Marc Maufort for inviting me to write this review essay. While the mapping of comparative gender studies turned out to be a much more challenging task than I realized when I accepted his kind invitation, it also proved to be a wonderful opportunity to gather perspectives on comparative gender studies and so hopefully contribute to the further development of the field.
3 We counted the terms gender, masculine / masculinity, feminine / femininity, sex / ual / ity, feminist, queer and intersectionality in paper and session titles, as well as their translations where appropriate, using digital conference programmes made available on the organizations’ websites. For ICLA the research covered the 2013, 2016 and 2019 conferences; for comparison, the same time period was taken for sister organizations such as MLA, as well as national and regional comparative literature associations.
4 One of the “gender” references in 2015 is to (trans)gender.
5 See Gloria Wekker’s chapter in Buikema et al. Wekker explains that the concept of the “politics of location” was formulated by Adrienne Rich “based on discussions with black feminists such as Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, and Michelle Cliff” (68).
6 To the extent that queer is always queer in relation to the normative, queer is always already comparative.
7 Needless to say, feminist, gender-sensitive, or queer readings also extend to other texts, and to feminist ecocriticism, a developing field in comparative studies (see Gaard; Wei; Du; Najera). While the specificity of women’s reading was the focus of theoretical debate in the late twentieth century, today, the focus is more on queer reading, i.e. exploring queer modes and methods of reading, for instance by “taking up arguments about misreading, rereading, reading askew, reading with regard, wrong reading, and not (yet) reading” (Luciano; see also Kubowitz).
8 It is worth noting here that the Gender Summit, an international “platform for dialogue where scientists, policymakers, gender scholars and stakeholders in science systems examine new research evidence showing when, why, and how biological differences (sex) and socio-cultural differences (gender) between females and males impact on outcomes,” still holds on to the sex / gender dichotomy (and dimorphic gender) in its self-presentation on its website (https://gender-summit.com).
9 The idea of “doing” gender was first articulated by Candace West and Don Zimmerman in “Doing Gender” (1987). The phrase resonates with Judith Butler’s performative theory of gender as found in Gender Trouble (1990), her seminal book widely read, studied and translated around the globe. See also Doing Gender in Media, Art and Culture (2017) edited by Buikema, Plate and Thiele.
10 As Ciotti points out, already in the 1990s Dalit feminism drew attention to the nexus between caste and patriarchy and challenged the categories of ‘genderless caste’ and ‘casteless gender’ (Rege). Since then, insights into the way in which caste inflects gender have led to the analysis of the gender workings within caste itself.
11 See also Mineke Schipper’s Never Marry a Woman with Big Feet, which looks at proverbs about gender and sexuality originating from hundreds of languages and more than 150 countries, and observing many similarities among them. The book has been translated into 15 languages.
12 Here we may also want to note the important work done by the “Queer Asia Series” published by the Hong Kong University Press, which has been publishing books focusing on non-normative sexuality and gender cultures, identities and practices across all regions of Asia since 2009. See Berry et al.