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The Translation of Trans Identity

I got into the topic of translating trans identity when I wrote my MA dissertation in 2013 - I translated the seventeenth-century French memoirs of the abbé de Choisy which are titled Memoires de l’abbé de Choisy habillé en Femme [Memoirs of the abbot de Choisy dressed as a woman]. In it, Choisy recounts two periods of his life in which he dresses as a woman. Before each period he writes as a man then takes on a feminine voice.

English only marks gender on third person subject pronouns (he or she) and possessive adjectives (his or hers).


French marks gender on adjectives: 'I am happy' in French requires a gender on happy - je suis content (masculine) vs. je suis contente (feminine); nouns; past participles in some circumstances: I went to the shop sounds different if you identify as a woman -  'je suis allé au magasin' (masculine) vs. 'je suis allée au magasin' (feminine); and third person subject pronouns ('il' or 'elle'). The general premise is that those assigned the male sex at birth use masculine grammatical gender and those assigned female the feminine.

Things become very interesting in translation when people break these rules. Here is an example of Choisy’s writing:

“Je n’étais donc contraint de personne, et je m’abandonnai à mon penchant. Il arriva même que madame de La Fayette, que je voyais fort souvent, me voyant toujours fort ajusté avec des pendants d’oreilles et des mouches, me dit en bonne amie que ce n’était point la mode pour les hommes, et que je ferais bien mieux de m’habiller en femme. Sur une si grande autorité, je me fis couper les cheveux pour être mieux coiffée” (Choisy 1995: 17).

"I was therefore constrained by no one and I abandoned myself to my inclination. It just so happened that Madame de La Fayette, who I saw fairly regularly, seeing me often accessorised with earrings and beauty spots, told me as a friend that this was not the fashion for men and that I would do better to dress as a woman. On such authority I had my hair cut to be better coiffed" (my translation).

Choisy uses masculine gender on ‘contraint’ and ‘ajusté’ but feminine gender on ‘coiffée’. Choisy’s memoirs were translated into English in the 70s and re-titled The Transvestite Memoirs, The translator, RHF Scott makes no attempt to show Choisy’s switches and the person who wrote the forward to the translation even remarks: ‘Choisy tells us nothing of his voice; we don’t know if his tone was masculine or feminine’ – well I very much beg to differ!

Thinking about how to translate Choisy’s voice and why this is really important was what started my PhD research; I looked at 6 fictional and non-fictional trans memoirs: 2 transgender texts (the memoirs of Catalina de Erauso and the Chevalier/Chevalière d'Eon), two intersex (the memoirs of Herculine Barbin and Middlesex) and two agender (Sphinx and Written on the Body; we never know if the narrator is male or female for example so the translators had to use strategies to avoid gender). My texts were from every century between the 17th and the 21st and I looked at French and Spanish texts translated into English and English texts translated into French and Spanish.

My research considered what you can do practically as a translator with shifts between masculine and feminine gender in English or how you cope with no gender in French or Spanish but it also looked at the ways that translation and trans identity can learn from each other – I suggested they have a lot in common.

I labelled all of my texts and their protagonists undecidable. The texts are undecidable because they are all a mixture of fact and fiction, somewhere between memoirs and novel (especially the autobiographies) – they are intertextual and they have unreliable narrators and open endings. The protagonists are undecidable because no decision should ever be made about whether they are male or female, masculine or feminine.

My research aimed to show that all bodies and all texts are in some ways undecidable – the job of the translator isn’t to uncover the essential meaning in the source text and replicate it in another language because there is no essential meaning to any text. And no body has an essential gender core either.

There’s a great quote from Kathleen Winter’s intersex novel Annabel (which actually wasn’t one of my books) where one of her characters says: ‘People are rivers, always ready to move from one state of being into another. It is not fair, to treat people as if they are finished beings. Everyone is always becoming and unbecoming’. I argued that no text or body is ever finished and texts and bodies are haunted by the ghosts of former and future texts and bodies. To represent this in translation I looked at the palimpsest, the hypertext and the cut-out technique. Translation is a great medium through which to look at sexual and textual undecidability because it shows that the source text and the body are never finished, both are constantly being reread and rewritten.