PLUME INTERVIEWS:
OLGA CASTRO

Dr. Olga Castro is a feminist translation studies scholar, co-editor of Feminist Translation Studies: Local and Transnational Perspectives (Routledge, 2017), and convenor of the MA in Translation and Cultures at the University of Warwick. She and Helen Vassallo were co-organisers of last year’s Translating Women Conference and now also co-editors of the just-released Translating Women e-book (ITI, 2020), bringing together seven contributors from the conference and their perspectives on the barriers facing women in translation in the English-language book market. We talked to Dr. Castro about the vast field of feminist translation, her conference highlights and her book recommendations for Women In Translation Month.

What originally sparked your interest in the topic of translation, both personally and as an academic?

My Erasmus year in Britain, back in 2000. At the time, I was studying journalism in Galicia, Spain, where I originally come from. During this exchange year, I had to write mock press articles for British media. I realised it’s much more than a purely neutral linguistic activity and was fascinated to find out translation is always an act of intercultural and ideological mediation. I decided I wanted to be trained as a translator upon completing my degree back in Galicia, and so I did. 

My academic interest in translation came a few years later, while doing my BA in translation and interpreting with Galician as my main ‘native’ language. Despite its co-official status recognised by the 1978 Spanish Constitution, Galician remains a minorised language, with Castilian-Spanish being the hegemonic language. During my studies, I was introduced to the vast scholarship about translation in stateless cultures, peripheral literatures and non-hegemonic languages. I learned about the important role translation has played, and still plays, in promoting Galician culture and strengthening the Galician literary system. 

What struck me, however, was the lack of a feminist approach that could help disentangle the different layers of invisibility and discrimination experienced by women in relation to the many different facets of translation – and that is what sparked my interest. I decided to write a PhD to help fight this and offer new understandings of so-called “Galician Translation Studies” from an intersectional feminist perspective, that is, looking at how gender and ethnicity interacted to create intertwined layers of discrimination in translation. I suppose I can say that my academic interest in translation was informed by both my feminist and Galician political activism. 

Publishing the Translating Women e-book with the Institute of Translation & Interpreting, the biggest and most prestigious professional association of translators in Britain, ensures open access and a wider readership, namely practitioners and stakeholders. And that goes totally goes in line with the Translating Women conference’s aim: to bridge the gap between academia and the industry.

— on the Translating Women e-book, available for free download here

In 2017, you co-edited the collection Feminist Translation Studies: Local and Transnational Perspectives (Routledge). How would you define the field of “feminist translation” to someone who is unfamiliar and who might not be in academia?

“Living a feminist life”, to use Sarah Ahmed‘s term, can be defined as actively and consciously adopting a feminist perspective about absolutely any and every aspect of our experiences and activities. This feminist perspective can be materialised in different ways — actually, the plural “feminisms” is often used to acknowledge how rich, diverse and context-specific this theoretical framework and social movement is.

By the same token, “feminist translation” could be defined as approaching absolutely any and every aspect of translation from a feminist perspective. As I see it, for it to be most productive, this perspective should be aimed at challenging and disrupting gender power relations, as well as other power relations that intersect with gender, such as race, class, ethnicity, disability, etc., so as to fight regimes of oppression operating in our neoliberal societies and achieve global social justice.

In most cases, what a feminist approach involves is, first, identifying where different mechanisms of intersectional gender discrimination lie and disclosing the oppressive ideological values behind them. Second, to propose alternatives and interventions for gender equality, anti-racism, anti-ageism, anti-classism, anti-transphobia, anti-cis/heteronormativity, and so on. This all has implications for the actual practice of translation as well as for theoretical reflection about these practices. 

“Feminist translation” could be defined as approaching absolutely any and every aspect of translation from a feminist perspective. As I see it, for it to be most productive, this perspective should be aimed at challenging and disrupting gender power relations, as well as other power relations that intersect with gender, such as race, class, ethnicity, disability, etc.

What are some practical examples of a feminist approach to translation?

Given the interdisciplinary nature of translation, it is crucial to note that research on feminist translation can have very different manifestations. Just to give you an idea, it can range from gender issues in machine translation to the working conditions affecting freelancers with care responsibilities in this feminised profession, the transnational travels of Black feminist scholarship in translation, gender and racial stereotypes in audiovisual translation or in the translation of adverts, feminist retranslation of children’s literature classics, or public service interpreting for victims of gender violence and human trafficking, to name just a few. My point is that at present, feminist translation studies is experiencing fruitful interdisciplinary encounters with a great variety of research fields.

Your own work and research has been translated into Italian, Korean, Latvian and Brazilian Portuguese. Do you consider that feminist translation is a globally accepted area of study by now?

Besides the interdisciplinary growth I have just mentioned, we are also at a historical moment of geopolitical expansion in feminist translation studies. This is reflected in a considerable amount of academic conferences and publications. For example, in my 2017 co-edited F eminist Translation Studies book, chapters covered examples from China, France, Galicia, Germany, Great Britain, India, Italy, Morocco, Poland, Spain, Turkey and the US. Similarly, the Routledge Handbook of Translation, Feminism and Gender, published last month, includes chapters about twenty-something different geopolitical contexts. But we must remember this is just scholarship published in English, which unfortunately has become the lingua franca in academia: it seems you only exist if you publish in English!

Yet, there is a lot more published out there in other languages – and not only translations of scholars working in Anglophone universities, but also original thinking and very valuable reflections that take into account the specificities of the different contexts examined. So when assessing whether feminist translation is a globally accepted area of study, it is very important to recognise our own blind spots due to our academic situatedness and linguistic limitations. Because of that, I’m in a position to confirm that feminist translation is a quite well-established area of study in Brazil, Catalonia, France, Italy and Castilian-speaking Spain; and that it is only emerging in Galicia, Portugal or in some Latin American countries such as Argentina or Mexico.

Through transnational networking tools such as the Feminist-Translation-Studies mailing list, I also got to know that a lot of projects are being developed in Arabic, Chinese, Turkish and different Easter and Northern European languages that I cannot read. And there are of course many other minor and major languages in the world, so I can only offer a partial answer to your question.

Now that more women writers are being translated, we need to ask who they are, which identities they embody beyond gender (understanding women beyond cis/heteronormative categories), which linguistic and literary traditions they represent.

Since you first entered the field, have you observed any shift in the role of feminist translation within the wider cultural conversation about literature?

It really depends on which literatures we consider but sticking to the English-speaking context, absolutely! In recent times I have seen a growing presence of feminist perspectives in wider discussions about translated literature, especially fiction and poetry. For example, it is nowadays quite common to see panels and discussions organised about women writers in translation at major literary events and book fairs — although I guess the ideal situation, so as to avoid essentialist understandings of ‘women’s literature’, would be that these discussions were also part of the general panels about translated literature in English, which is only now gaining momentum and getting over the (shameful) 3 per cent problem. This is in line with the many WIT (Women In Translation) initiatives to promote the translation of women-authored literature from other languages into English, including of course Project Plume or the ‘WITMonth’ campaign by Meytal Radzinski every August, among others.

But, honestly, it was about time! Let’s not forget it was back in 1984 when Margaret Resnick and Isabelle de Courtivron published their first panoramic study Women Writers in Translation: an Annotated Bibliography 1945–1982, in which they already criticised and documented the underrepresentation of foreign women in English translation. In any case, as I said above, this is just about the English-language book market, and other literatures I know are not yet there in terms of “women in translation” initiatives incorporating publishers and the industry.

Going back to the Anglosphere, the truth is that despite these advances, there is still much feminist work to be done in wider cultural conversations about literature. I’ll mention just two areas: First, now that more women writers are being translated, we need to ask who they are, which identities they embody beyond gender (understanding women beyond cis/heteronormative categories), which linguistic and literary traditions they represent. In a short piece I wrote in 2017 for The Conversation, I was already warning that the tendency to translate fewer women authors than men authors was even worse for outstanding women from postcolonial, peripheral and non-hegemonic contexts – no matter whether they write in a stateless language like Galician, in a small nation language like Czech or in a major colonial language like Portuguese when used by Angolan writers. That is why I welcomed so much Project Plume, dedicated precisely to championing women writers from less-represented languages and cultures.

Second, a pressing use to consider in conversations about literature is what it means to make feminist choices when carrying out a translation of a literary text. For example, applying feminist strategies does not necessarily mean ‘distorting’ the source text, as Emily Wilson demonstrated when she became the first woman to retranslate the Odyssey into English in 2017. 

Where are all the women? - Living Languages
Olga Castro with co-organiser Helen Vassallo welcoming participants of the Translating Women Conference 2019 at the Institute of Modern Languages in London

The Translating Women Conference, held at the IMLR in London, was easily my greatest highlight of 2019, so thank you for co-organising such an incredible event! We already featured the highlights on this blog but it would be great to know, did you find any of the lectures or panels particularly surprising in terms of what you learned or how they approached the topic?

What a memorable event! Over 70 delegates from four continents came together in London to attend the conference Translating Women: Breaking Borders and Building Bridges in the English-language Book Industry. It gave us two full days of highlights and also the opportunity to meet in person with many activists working on WIT initiatives, including Project Plume. When Helen Vassallo and I started planning this conference, we agreed it was absolutely crucial to build bridges and promote synergies between academia and the industry, that is, translators, publishers, literary agents, writers, bloggers, translation policy-makers, etc. The call for papers was a success, and the conference programme showed a nice balance between scholars and all key groups of stakeholders from the industry – a mix which is not very common in academic conferences. Having the opportunity to listen to these stakeholders talk about some of the issues scholars had been discussing in academic papers, and getting to know their experiences within the industry, was absolutely revealing for me.

Besides that, I found that two concepts presented at the conference are extremely useful when talking about women and translation in an intersectional way. The first is the “expectation bias”, presented by Aviya Kushner (meaning that writers and translators are ‘told’ about which topics to write and which books to translate); the second is “allyship” as a tool for solidarity, presented by Corine Tachtiris to emphasise that promoting diversity (and more specifically work by women of colour) is a shared social responsibility. 

What can people expect from the Translating Women – Activism In Action Research e-book, co-edited by Helen Vassallo and yourself, which has just been released by the Institute of Translators and Interpreters (ITI) in the UK?

The conference was such an inspiring event that we wanted it to last longer and to be openly and easily accessible to anyone interested. When the ITI Research Network coordinator Sarah Bawa-Mason invited us to edit an e-book for them, bringing together some of the papers delivered at the conference, we immediately agreed that was the perfect venue. Publishing with the ITI, the biggest and most prestigious professional association of translators in Britain, ensures open access (it is available for download here) and a wider readership, namely practitioners and stakeholders. And that goes totally goes in line with the conference aim – to bridge the gap between academia and the industry.

The e-book features contributions by Margaret Carson, Rosalind Harvey, Corine Tachtiris, Aviya Kushner, Muireann Maguire, Şule Akdogan and Oisin Harris. As Helen and I wrote in the editors’ introduction, “all of our contributors call on us to demand better: we should ask difficult questions, cite women, fight the status quo, challenge expectation bias, speak on behalf of those who are silenced”. Overall, working on this project has been a very rewarding experience and I hope readers enjoy the papers as much as the editors did.

What is a book, or some books, that would you enthusiastically recommend Plume’s readers to get their hands on during this WIT Month?

Difficult choice! I’ll stick to one poetry and one fiction book in English. First, the one I’m reading (and so far, absolutely enjoying) at the moment: The Sea Needs No Ornament / El mar no necesita ornamento, a bilingual anthology of thirty-three contemporary women poets from the English and Spanish-speaking Caribbean. Just published by Peepal Tree Press, it was carefully edited and insightfully, beautifully and passionately translated by Maria Grau Perejoan and Loretta Collins Klobah. My second recommendation is La Bastarda, a novel by Trifonia Melibea Obono, the first-ever woman writer from Equatorial Guinea to enter the English-language book market.

The splendid and thought-out translation from (colonial) Spanish, published by Feminist Press in 2018, was carried out by Lawrence Schimel, a white US-American guy who is very aware, as he has declared, of all the power dynamics and assumed privileges involved in translating blackness, and wants to use that privilege to amplify Obono’s voice. This would be a clear example of “allyship”, in Corine Tachtiris’ terms. The book was originally published in Spain (there are no publishers and barely any bookshops in Equatorial Guinea) and, quite unsurprisingly, it was soon banned in the African country: the novel is a powerful appeal for sexual diversity embodied in the life of an Equatoguinean lesbian who is also a bastard as her mother died during childbirth. It is such an intense and formidably narrated story, that I am including it as a case study in my “Translating and Gender in the Hispanic World” module this fall as I want all my students to read it. You can see how enthusiastic I am about it!


Interview by Salwa Benaissa

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