On Reading and Translating Queer Literature

On Reading and Translating Queer Literature

by Allison Grimaldi Donahue

I think of translating firstly as a branch of my reading life rather than my writing life, if the two can be separated at all.  I am moved to translate books I read in Italian that seem new or important or unique, and I come to these texts generally through my reading life.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this concept of a reading life lately, and how for artists and writers of any kind it is extremely important—but for translators, it creates all kinds of new questions.  Since I’ve read a lot of articles recently about reading only women authors for a year or only reading authors of color, I’ve been trying to read more queer authors myself, since I am one.  In my search for answers to how to decide what to read, I picked up Moyra Davey’s book The Problem of Reading.  In this wonderful book, she talks about what she calls the “dilemma” of reading, this constant feeling that we should be reading one thing and not the other, that we are missing something, that we are unable to focus on one singular thing.  This anxiety is something a lot of us may be hesitant to admit to, but it is so true.

If you believe, as I do, that the personal is the political, then what and how we read is an expression of something beyond a passing interest or entertainment— it is a reflection of who we are.  A reading life, which for most people is private, can become very public for a translator through the choices she makes in translating and publishing.  As Davey writes:

Jean-Paul Sartre and many other writers have said reading is writing, by which I understand that as readers we are always piecing together meaning and, in a sense, writing our own texts by weaving the threads and associations of previous readings and experiences. But by this I don’t mean to suggest that reading and writing are one and the same—writing is infinitely harder. The central question I mean to pose is, what if the most gratifying reading is the one that also entails the risks of producing a text of one’s own?

What we read and what we translate is an implicitly political act. The more foreign texts I read, the more I come to know the Italian literary landscape, and the better the chances I have of finding that next book I want to translate. I look for diversity in what I read, I seek out texts that may not be as popular but are experimenting in form or structure, I also seek out texts written by queer authors. Perhaps this comes from my own identification as a queer author but it also comes from wanting to show the multiplicity of a language and a culture to English language readers. The issue with queerness is in its slippage of meaning; how what it may mean in one context, cultural, temporal or otherwise can change when transposed.  I’m editing a special issue at Queen Mob’s Teahouse of queer authors in translation and I have had more than one email asking what exactly I mean by that.  I don’t know.

Queerness in art is a multilayered term.  It can mean the author is queer—I think this is the most common understanding.  It can also mean that the text itself is queer.  This queer text can potentially be written by anyone.  And this queerness doesn’t necessarily coincide with the author’s identity.  Or does it?  I’m still not certain.  I know plenty of queer identified authors who don’t write “queer” and other writers who wouldn’t use the term to describe themselves but write work that formally, structurally could only be termed queer.  Because it is work that doesn’t fit a category, that unsettles, that refuses the framework offered.  The book I think of is Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick— it is one of the queerest texts I’ve read.  But she doesn’t write about homosexuality or sexual or gender orientation.  She writes an unsettling text about female desire.  This is queer.  She subverts form through her unanswered letters; she mixes memoir, fiction and theory; she makes her desire apparent for all and it isn’t monogamous desire.

I would like to be able to answer these questions:  Can my body be queer and my practice not?  And vice versa?  But I just find myself with more questions.  There is a great book on queerness in visual art called Pink Labor on Gold Streets: Queer Art Practices, in various artists and critics discuss what queer art actually is.  José Esteban Muños writes,

Nothing but intellectual laziness or misguided hipness has led to the word queer establishing itself in our speech as a synonym for “gay/lesbian”: for example what was once called “gay cinema” is now known as “queer cinema” although it generally means “gay cinema” and nothing else.  By contrast Andreas Kraß explains in his introduction to the reader Queer denken, queer thinking aims to denaturalize normative concepts of masculinity and femininity, to decouple the categories of gender and sexuality, to destabilize the binary of heterosexuality and homosexuality, and to acknowledge sexual pluralism.

Perhaps this is where my answer lies, in the destabilization of binaries, which can be a smooth analogy for translation in itself.  Queerness can be a model for translation, but prismatic, multiple, collaborative translations can also be a practice of queer writing.  As a reader and translator I am always looking for queer texts, queer in both regards: I want formally challenging work written by queer-identified authors.  But authors in Italy don’t advertize their sexuality very openly so it is difficult to find those texts.  Often in the LGBTQ area of a bookstore, or in an LGBTQ bookstore itself, the books are stereotypical. While I am always happy to see LGBTQ books represented I am also concerned by the limited point of view some of these shelves may be advertizing. There is room for white cis-male love stories and erotica or middle class lesbian coming out stories but there also needs to be room for so much more. Queer texts should not only be challenging in content but they should be challenging to what dominant culture expects from a narrative. A popular example of this is Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts— blending criticism and memoir not only does the book deal with the topic of queer family and life building but also queers the very genre of memoir itself through its use of theory. Another text that comes to mind is Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Farther Traveler: Poetry, Prose, Other. Just the title alone lets us know we will not be confined by form but instead freed through its many uses. Wilson writes uncomfortable truths about sexuality and race, includes graphic images, places the personal beside the theoretical and reveals both pain and pleasure, often on the same page. Texts like these should be on all book shelves, not only LGBTQ shelves. But as it is they often have to be sought out, discovered.

When voices are already marginalized and it is difficult to find them, it becomes our task, as translators, to promote them; maybe it is even our task to work on promoting these authors within their original language and context. As a translator actively looking for queer texts in Italian it could also be part of my task to share this work with other Italian readers as well— what I learn from one language and culture, meaning the energy I spend reading promoting American LGBTQ writers can be shared by doing the same in Italian.  

A lot of artists have been pushed to take the “queerness” out of their work, either directly through fear or threats of violence or through rejection from journals and publishing houses.  In some cases any trace of the queer in a work could be physically dangerous to the artist; I think that highlights how queerness across cultures is so diverse and complex. This complexity makes creating a truly queer bookstore or bookshelve an endless task, as large as literature itself. Queerness is not universal and to better understand the term and the way of life translation must seek those authors and bring them to new readers. This active creation of a larger queer canon makes room for more diverse stories and moves away from those repeated stereotypes mass media likes to sell us.

It may be that I decided to make this special issue because I am still unsure what it means to be a queer artist. And, since the term queer is so impossible to pin down, it can mean different things to different people.  It is an ongoing search to find those texts to read and fall in love with and translate, a dilemma that is filled with pleasure.  And through more translation of queer texts and queer authors we can define and redefine over and over again what queerness can be.

Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator originally from Connecticut.  Her fiction, essays and translations have appeared in The American Reader, The New Inquiry,addddddOmega Metatron, and tNYpress Eeel.  She was awarded an NEA Translation grant to the Vermont Studio Center for her translation work on Davide Orecchio’s novel Città distrutte. Sei biografie infedeli. In summer 2015 she was a Katherine Bakeless Fellow at the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference.  Allison is contributing fiction editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, an online literary and arts journal.  She earned her BA from St. Michael’s College, an MA from Middlebury College in Italian, and an MA from the University of Toronto in Comparative literature. Allison is also pursuing her MFA in fiction and translation in the low-residency program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives and works in Bologna, Italy.