Research Articles and Papers

Theorizing Feminist Discourse in Translation

Barbara Godard based on her interaction with various feminist writers including Sherry Simon, Lorraine Gauthier and Elizabeth recognizes that the questions of language and gender, women’s troubling relationship with language, have emerged as a central preoccupation of feminist theory and in the translation of women writers.

The increase in translation of texts by French feminist theorists that involves disruption of dominant discourse has posed great challenges to the translator, as translator has to deal with their translation in the framework of language, gender and ideology and explain the relationship between the theories of discourse advanced in these texts and the theories of translation which have produced the English version.

Godard tries to find out theoretical basis of the solution that the translators propose in their translation influenced by feminist theories that challenges patriarchal order of society, culture, ideology and languages. She critically examines theories of equivalency and discusses relationship between various approaches to translation and finds proximity with Derrida’s post- structuralist approach to translation that allows deconstruction of discourse and hence critical transformation of texts and an ironic manipulation of semiotics of performance and production subverting monologism of the dominant discourse through a dialogue – the one within the other, through rupture giving way to meaning of a new order, not that of coherence and unification but movement and plurality. In the to and fro movement, writing is rupture and plurality.

While seeking this plurality in relation to language and one national culture, the feminist language is marginal hence confrontational encounter of languages becomes explicit. Woman writer experience the conflict of heteroglossia in a specific way as a deterrent to participation in a national tradition.  This conflict she defines as “traces of translation effect or l’epreuve de l’etranger. Thus, although framed as a transfer from one language to another, feminist discourse involves the transfer of a cultural reality into  new context as an operation in which literary traditions are variously challenged in the encounter of differing modes of textualiztion.

For creating of new discourse, Godard recognizes double activity of women’s translation (ref. Brossard) as reading/writing, as the re-reading of the already – written followed by the divining/writing of the unrecorded. She further relates this double activity – dialogue- with transformance –the work of translation that focuses on the process of constructing meaning, a mode of performance.  Tranformance is a collective title of rewriting project that engages other women writers involved in feminist model of discourse involved in re/reading and re/writing.

Godard explains that feminist discourse works upon language, upon the dominant discourse, in a radical interrogation of meaning.  The idea is to make visible what has been concealed. The language work’s function would thus be to throw male centric discourse and allow other possibilities. Translation, in this theory of feminist discourse, is production, not reproduction, the mimesis which is 'in the realm of music' and which, by an 'effect of playful repetition' — 'women also remain elsewhere' — makes visible the place of women's exploitation by discourse. Pretensions to the production of a singular truth and meaning are suspended. This theory focuses on feminist discourse in its transtextual or hypertextual relations, as palimpsest working on problematic notions of identity, dependency and equivalence.

Godard completely rejects the equivalence theory of translation which is grounded in poetics of transparency – the natural equivalence where in translation of certain cultural traces and also certain self-reflexive elements are eliminated from the text so that the translated text is deprived of its foundation in events. The elimination of self-reflexive elements results in the suppression of signs of the author-function but also in those of the translator-function since her manipulative work on these elements is rendered invisible in the resulting conflation of the two texts.  In this way translator's dual activities of reading and (re)writing are effaced. The translator is understood to be a servant, an invisible hand mechanically turning the words of one language into another. The translation is considered to be a copy and not a creative utterance. In the twentieth century, this theory of translation has served to encourage experiments in machine translation.

Rejecting equivalence theory including the dynamic equivalence proposed by Nida, Godard finds theoretical backing in partly in polysystem theory, but mostly in contemporary theories of translation that  that stress that equivalence in translation should not be approached as a search for sameness. It is perceived as dialectic between signs and structures within and surrounding source language and target language texts (Bassnett- McGuire, 1980: 29). Equivalence is located between the coding-decoding operations of two text systems rather than between the contents or words of two messages. As Bassnett/McGuire frames this: Author-Text-Receiver = Translator-Text-Receiver (p. 38). Like the author, the translator is the producer of an utterance. Godard further finds solution in intertextuality where relationships between the two communicative systems is taken into consideration and a shift in focus from author to text and then to reader and the act of enunciation takes place.

Godard finds close affinity with Bassnett and Lefevere who focus on interaction between translation and culture and who reject the ideas revolved around comparison between originals and translation. Perhaps, Lefevere ideas of power, ideology, institution and manipulation as the factors that influence rewriting or translation helps Godard to find a theoretical basis of feminist translation theory that moves translation studies from patriarchal order to more inclusive order where the traditionally a negative topos in translation, ‘difference’ becomes a positive one in the feminist translation. Thus replacement of the modest, self- effacing translator to an assertive translator who is active participant in creation of meaning and who are making their presence felt in texts, as Luise Von Flotow says through supplementing, prefacing, footnoting and Hijacking. Now, as Chamberlain recognizes Derrida’s thought, “translator (she) is not author’s secretary. She is also the one who is loved by the author and on whose basis along writing is possible. Translation is writing: that is, it is not translation only in the sense of transcription. It is a productive writing called forth by the original text”.

Barbara Godard (1942 – May 16, 2010)


Barbara Godard was Professor for English, French, Social and Political Thought and Women's Studies at York University. She published widely on Canadian and Quebec writers and on feminist and literary theory. As a translator, she  presented Quebec women writers Louky Bersianik, Yolande Villemaire and Antonine Maillet to an English audience. A founding co-editor of the feminist literary theory periodical, Tessera, Godard was the recipient of the Gabrielle Roy Prize of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures (1988) and the Award of Merit of the Association of Canadian Studies (1995).

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