How (Not) to Translate the Female Body

Stephanie McCarter

Summer 2019

Not long ago, my three-year-old daughter drew all over herself with magic markers, as young children are wont to do. After we cleaned her up, she looked down and said, “There’s still some on my chest.” Her use of “chest” arrested me because, while it was exactly the right word for her to use, it’s one fraught with meaning. How long will she be allowed to simply have a chest? How long will she and her five-year-old brother run shirtless through the house, unaware of how much the world will soon differentiate their bodies?

A woman’s body is burdened by language, marked as something other than the male body. There is nothing necessarily intrinsic about this—her body’s assigned otherness extends far beyond any sex characteristics that make the biological female body function in ways the biological male body does not. A woman’s body is largely a cultural invention, given expression through words that mandate what that body must signify, even what parts it must possess. The language we use chisels and molds the female form, like sculpture.

“The chest,” as Iris Young writes, “is an important center of a person’s being. . . . It is to my chest, not my face, that I point when I signify myself.” And yet too commonly we allow only men to have chests, whereas a woman can have a bust or, even more invitingly, a bosom, a place to rest one’s head. She has breasts, and these have a thousand names. English is particularly rife with words for a woman’s body that set it apart from that of her brothers, that make it more enticing and more strange, less a material that contains her—that is her—and more a thing that another can act upon, for someone else’s use and pleasure.

The degree to which this binary is enforced varies from one language to another. A challenge translators face, or ought to face, is how to avoid imposing their own culture’s construction of gender and the gendered body onto the work they are translating, while simultaneously preserving how the source text constructs these, especially when it does so differently. Yet this is not often done. Because translation almost inescapably reflects its own place and time, it can illuminate what we modern Anglophones have too often and unnecessarily imposed upon female flesh.

Stephanie McCarter has just completed a translation of Horace’s Epodes and Odes and is now translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Her writing has appeared in Electric Literature, the Millions, and the Brooklyn Rail’s “InTranslation.” She teaches at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee.

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