Skip to content

Translating (Gender) Trouble

By Sameer Abraham Thomas

This essay is dedicated to the memory of Dr Aniket Jaaware, who would probably have appreciated the inclusion of some wry witticism in doing so, but the author finds himself unsuited to the task at the present moment. 

In the final semester of my MA in English at Shiv Nadar University, I decided to translate Judith Butler into English, as an assignment for a Translation Studies course. I began this translation with the suggestion made by the course instructor, the late Dr Aniket Jaaware, that I translate a work from one kind of English into another, as there is no language that I can claim to have as much control over as English. That the translation should be from a technical English to simple English was attractive to me because I have for a while now held the belief that any knowledge risks extinction if it is not transmitted in a form that is accessible to as many people as possible. The question then became that of choosing a technical English to translate from. Once again, being a student of English literature who had been immersed in some of the language used in that discipline in India for five years, it was the language of academic writing in the humanities that I felt I was familiar enough to attempt to translate.

I selected the first section of the first chapter of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble (2010) for a number of reasons. It was a piece of writing that I had encountered fairly recently, a little under two years prior. It was a piece of writing that had interested me and fired my imagination. It was a piece of writing that I had studied in an academic writing class and hence had taken apart literally word-for-word in an attempt to make sense of it. And it is a piece of writing that is complicated enough to be a challenge, but written in a manner that attempts to be lucid enough not to be too daunting. Throughout the chapter, Butler phrases and rephrases her argument repeatedly, each time suggesting different facets of meaning to even the moderately attentive reader. This constant re-articulation of the same thoughts, I felt, would be immensely helpful to me while translating the text.

However, I ran the risk of translating the piece into an English that I thought was simple but only seemed so to me because I was so familiar with the text and somewhat familiar with the kind of writing it represents, having had to study within it for so long. I needed some kind of limitation to ensure that I did not do a translation that would be “simple” only to me or people like me. It was then that I remembered having encountered Randall Munroe’s book Thing Explainer in a bookstore. The book sets out to explain, as its subtitle puts it, “complicated stuff in simple words”, by using only the 1000 most used words in the English language. Munroe had put up a word checker, called the Simple Writer, on his blog that allows anyone to check any text for words that do not occur in his list. Armed with this newfound tool for translation, I hoped that my task would be made slightly less tedious.

I was wrong. I quickly realized that 1000 words really aren’t that many. Certain words that I would consider indispensable for everyday conversation, let alone academic writing, were rendered unavailable to me. Like “unavailable”. Or “imply”. Or “theory”. The problem was that the Simple Writer didn’t actually produce simple writing at all, strictly speaking. If I were to take a child as my benchmark for simplicity, I would expect to be able to use the word “frog” and not the word “countering”, and yet the former is not in Munroe’s list while the latter is. This is largely because “most used” is not actually an objective criterion. It depends entirely on the sample space. Unfortunately, I have not come across any information from Randall Munroe about the methodology he followed in compiling his list[1]; in all probability, Munroe being an American might have recorded the most used words in a specifically American context. Proof for this can be found in the fact that the Simple Writer recognizes “color” but not “colour”. My decision to use the Simple Writer was beginning to seem far more arbitrary than I had initially thought.

Translation from any other language would have been positive in that I would be offered suggestions by the Internet or a physical dictionary of what word I might be looking for. Simple Writer though is entirely negative. It offers no help, only a list of words that thou shalt use, a list that you can only find by rooting around in its innards; and a box that paints all taboo words in red telling you what thou shalt not use. To translate using Simple Writer, you need to subvert its commandments, find workarounds and loopholes in an attempt to convey your meaning. For example, when I was told that I shalt not use “structure”, I used “ordered system” instead, even though I was fairly sure the Simple Writer was recognizing “ordered” as a past participle form of the verb “to order” and not as an adjective (assuming, of course, not unsimplistically, that the two words are different and one is not always part of the other). Frustrating as it was, this translation was certainly challenging.

For the most part, I sought to retain the way Butler structures her sentences, as they constitute her argument and to restructure her argument would be to change it. At the same time, in order to convey the meaning of a sentence within a paragraph, I would sometimes need to rearrange words and clauses so that the sentence did not bloat into an unreadable mess of clauses and sub-clauses obtained by simply replacing each word with what the Simple Writer allows. Then again, since the Simple Writer lacks certain basic words (like “basic”), many of the substitutions I made were my “explanations” of what I thought Butler meant, which, by stripping Butler’s language of the connotations and connections to debates within her area of study, mutated her argument into something that was not hers. My writing, in a way, infected hers.

There were two ways that I could use the Simple Writer. I could copy text into its entry box and spot-change words that were flagged. Or I could first attempt to rewrite the text a paragraph at a time and then check each paragraph for words that needed to be replaced. I chose the second method as I ran the risk of losing sight of the sentence that I was translating if I focused on each word. Through the second method, I was able to focus more on the meaning conveyed in each sentence and then rearrange or modify the sentence to my liking. The process became like a game of Sudoku. I would enter in lines, but then on checking would find an error and would need to mentally reshuffle everything until it reformed into an order that avoided any errors. Like Sudoku, it forced my brain to work in ways it has no need to in everyday life, even when reading Butler. The consequence of this was that Butler was estranged from me. By this I mean that whatever familiarity I had with the text was thrown out as I could no longer think in the words I was comfortable in. By limiting myself in an arbitrary manner, I was forced to question my own assumptions of meaning.

One example of this came in translating the word “juridical”. While I thought I knew what it meant, this exercise forced me to look it up in greater detail than I had before. Having learned that the term contains within it both the suggestion of being like a law and being negative and prohibitional (in contrast with productive and constitutive power), I learned to translate it in different ways depending on what the argument required at the moment. This became necessary in sections where “juridical” occurred repeatedly in different registers, as in the following extract: “Juridical power inevitably ‘produces’ what it claims merely to represent; hence, politics must be concerned with this dual function of power: the juridical and the productive” (Butler, 3). I chose to translate this as: “The power of such law always ‘makes’ what it says it only represents. For this reason, politics must pay attention to these two ways in which power works: by using laws to tell people what not to do, and by making certain kinds of persons.” Once it had come up sufficient times, I was able to begin to use “law-like” as a kind of cognate. That said, I chose not to use “law-like” too many times as I risked falling into a new comfort of usage that would inhibit the potential for estrangement that I was now drawn to in the exercise. It was for this reason that I avoided neologisms or footnotes while translating. I made exceptions for “feminism” and “politics” as the words came up in similar ways so many times in the text that to render the complete meaning into Simple Writer each time tended to make the prose confusing and unreadable. I also retained the words “subject”, “representation” and “feminist genealogy” as the text itself explores the meaning of these terms. I thought of this in some ways as being similar to what Chinua Achebe did in retaining Igbo words for cultural realities like egwugwu in Things Fall Apart. I also chose to retain Marx’s term “historical present” as Butler uses it as a specific term that a reader might then be able to explore further on their own. On the other hand, many of the words Butler used that I translated could be considered “quotes” or “acts of naming” in that they were referring back to the way they had been used in the past. Butler’s usage of those words could then be thought of as constantly adding to and transforming the meaning of those words as used in society, with my usage only extending this process.

It was almost impossible to decide on any stable methodology while writing. Perhaps the only rule I sought to follow consistently was that I should translate in a way that ran the risk of misrepresenting or misunderstanding Butler but not the risk of adding anything to the main body of the text that was not even suggested in the original. If I initially took it as a criticism when a friend told me my translation still “read like Butler” in that the reader had to reread lines in order to parse their meaning, I eventually came to consider the retention of that reading experience valuable. That said, I do not, by any means, consider what I did a successful translation. It is experimental and imperfect, and I would not recommend anyone read it if they want to understand Butler, even children. It was not, in other words, Judith Butler in simple English. What it was though, was, I believe, a sound argument against the simple English movement in the humanities. To demand that the humanities abandon certain words that may not be accessible to everyone is like asking an astronomer to use binoculars instead of the Hubble Space Telescope because one is cheaper. And if scientists are given no grief for using words like “entropy”, “valency” and “chirality”, my translation, I believe, showed the lack of clarity and nuance that comes from not being allowed to use words like “ontology”. While there are certainly valid concerns regarding the exclusionary capacity of academic jargon, particularly when it comes to historically disadvantaged communities, this translation exercise suggests the solution to be in the direction of either eradicating the disparity between groups in their access to familiarization with such language, or, preferably, the creation of a new academic lexicon drawn from more diverse experiences and formulations. To advocate the use of any unexamined standard of “simple” English not only obscures the relations of power that go into constructing definitions of simplicity, it risks rendering academic writing clumsier than ever.

As an example, consider the following paragraph from Butler:

The political assumption that there must be a universal basis for feminism, one which must be found in an identity assumed to exist cross-culturally, often accompanies the notion that the oppression of women has some singular form discernible in the universal or hegemonic structure of patriarchy or masculine domination. The notion of a universal patriarchy has been widely criticized in recent years for its failure to account for the workings of gender oppression in the concrete cultural contexts in which it exists. Where those various contexts have been consulted within such theories, it has been to find “examples” or “illustrations” of a universal principle that is assumed from the start. That form of feminist theorizing has come under criticism for its efforts to colonize and appropriate non-Western cultures to support highly Western notions of oppression, but because they tend as well to construct a “Third World” or even an “Orient” in which gender oppression is subtly explained as symptomatic of an essential, non-Western barbarism. The urgency of feminism to establish a universal status for patriarchy in order to strengthen the appearance of feminism’s own claims to be representative has occasionally motivated the shortcut to a categorical or fictive universality of the structure of domination, held to produce women’s common subjugated experience.

If for some this writing seems to be needlessly complicated and dense, consider what happens when an attempt is made to translate it via Simple Writer. Particularly challenging to translate were terms rooted in a long history of scholarship and activism, such as “patriarchy” or “Orient”:

Thinking that there must be some grounds for feminism that is the same everywhere and can be shared by everyone, and which is to be found in a certain way of being that can be found among people all through time and space, often comes with the idea that there is really only a single way in which people force women to lead certain lives. To understand supposed form, feminists have tried to look for some way that men everywhere can be said to have come together to force women to follow their orders. This idea of men everywhere coming together to make sure they have the most power has been questioned of late for the fact that it has failed to explain exactly how women are hurt and forced to do things in real cases. Where different real cases have been looked at in this way of thinking, it has been to find how they “prove” that such an idea is right, while taking it as a given that it is right in the first place. That form of feminist thinking has been attacked for its efforts to use cases that are not from the West to prove ideas that are very much of the West about the kind of bad-forcing that women are put through, rather than to try and understand those cases themselves. It has also been attacked because they make it easy to build the idea of a “Third World” or even a “strange world of the East” in which the bad-forcing of women is, without seeming to, explained as being caused by something about that which is not of the West which is always bad and stupid and hurts people. The strong need of feminism to make it seem like men everywhere come together in the same way to bad-force women, in order to make feminism seem more representative, has sometimes led feminists to take the easy way out and say that the way in which men take power away from women to become stronger than them is the same everywhere in completely the same way. This is held to create a way in which all women share the same kind of life that is without power.

One should note that this translation is entirely my own. The reader may disagree with certain choices I have made and offer new ones. Alternatively, they may disagree with my conclusion and find the translation superior to the original in some ways (though I highly doubt this). Either way, these conversations, so common to the discourse of translation studies, enable the teacher and student of academic writing to encounter the process of meaning-making in new and challenging ways. The possibilities extend even to the teacher attempting to explain Butler (rather than teach academic writing) to a class; were I to do so, I certainly would pick my words with greater care and seek to place Butler’s argument within a history of theorization before taking up the text, to give a sense of the weight of some of the words she deploys.

I believe that Simple Writer is of great use from a pedagogic standpoint. Asking a student to translate a passage into Simple Writer would force them to break each concept down to what they feel is its most crucial elements, thereby both encouraging them to think harder about the words they think they know and allowing any teacher reading their translation an insight into the way they imagine certain concepts. This should not, however, be done for the purposes of evaluation as Simple Writer is, ultimately, very arbitrary and it need not reveal any particular degree to which someone has understood a certain piece of writing. However, it would allow a teacher to correct certain misconceptions a student may have individually and understand how a student engages with a text on a micro level. Furthermore, by introducing questions of fidelity and interpretation that are typical of the process of translation, important debates regarding the responsible dissemination of knowledge through scholarship may be initiated in the classroom.

Though I am sure the idea of translation as a pedagogic tool in academic writing classes must be no means be unprecedented, I do not know of anyone who has attempted specifically what I did, using Randall Munroe’s Simple Writer. Going forward though, I would love to see others use this technique in a classroom setting, and thereby not only help their students but perhaps use the results to gain some insight into the phenomenology of learning and practicing close reading and academic writing. I will end with a disclaimer: as I write this, I do not claim to be any expert on phenomenology, or even the meaning of the word. So excuse me, while I turn to the Simple Writer and commence the long, frustrating, yet rewarding process of trying to find out.

[1] What can be said for sure is that his list of words, which can be found by accessing the source code for the simple writer, is not the same as that listed in the Wiktionary entry titled “Most frequent 1000 words in English”.

Image-credit: Here

Sameer Abraham Thomas
is an MPhil scholar in the Department of English, Delhi University, and a former academic writing tutor at Shiv Nadar University. He is currently writing his dissertation on fake news, post-truth and postmodernism.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: