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philoSOPHIA

Volume 9, Issue 1, Winter 2019

Judith Butler
Pages 1-25

Gender in Translation: Beyond Monolingualism

Anglophone theoretical reflections on gender often assume the generalizability of their claims without first asking whether “gender” as a term exists, or exists in the same way, in other languages. Some of the resistance to the entry of “gender” as a term into non-Anglophone contexts emerges from a resistance to English or, indeed, from within the syntax of a language in which questions of gender are settled through verb inflections or implied reference. A larger form of resistance, of course, has to do with fears that the category will itself release forms of sexual freedom and challenges to existing hierarchies within the second language. The well-organized political attack on gender and gender studies now occurring throughout the world has many sources, and that is not the focus of this essay. This essay maintains that there can be no theory of gender without translation and that Anglophone monolingualism too often assumes that English forms a sufficient basis for theoretical claims about gender. Further, because the contemporary usage of gender emerges from a coinage introduced by sexologists and reappropriated by feminists, it proves to be a term that is bound up with grammatical innovation and syntactical challenges from the start. Without an understanding of translation—its practice and its limits—there can be no gender studies within a global framework. Finally, the process of becoming gendered, or changing genders, requires translation in order to communicate the new terms for recognizing new modalities of gender. Thus, translation is a constitutive part of any theory of gender that seeks to be multilingual and that accepts the historically dynamic character of languages. This framework can help facilitate a way of recognizing different genders, and different accounts of gender identity (essentialist, constructivist, processual, interactive, intersectional) as requiring both translation and its limits. Without translation and historical coinage, there is no way to understand the dynamic and changing category of gender and the resistances it now encounters.

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