Future research: rereading Iraqi women's stories in translation

For the diverse peoples of Iraq, what is understood as Iraq and Iraqi society has undoubtedly changed and shifted in location since the country’s independence in 1932. Many Iraqis have lived in Iraq for generations. Others have had to move to other locations inside Iraq or leave the country altogether. Literary representations of Iraq thus often carry crucial emotional and political resonance for readers, Iraqi or otherwise, who feel some alliance or connection with Iraq’s diverse peoples, cultures, histories, and politics. In this respect, the study of Iraqi women’s literature in translation touches on many scholarly (and activist) disciplines and fields of research; these include Arab literature, diaspora literatures, women’s literatures, postcolonial studies, gender studies along with translation and intercultural studies, with feminist translation studies which are intersectional and transnational in focus being particular salient. Scholarship on Arab women’s literature in English translation is a vital starting point for the study of Iraqi women’s literature as a body of work in English translation (Booth 2016; Hartman 2012; Hassen 2009; Valassopoulos 2008; Kahf2006; Hassan-Gholley 2007 Amireh 1996,2000 Al-Majaj et al. 2002). While Iraqi women’s literature is a rich field of research, many scholarly themes, approaches, and questions have yet to be explored in depth, including which stories and works by Iraqi women writers have featured in (English) translation over time and which have not. Iraqi women’s literature has been translated into languages other than English — French, German, Italian, Serbian, Spanish, and Portuguese to name a few. The phenomena of‘transit’ languages, such as English and French functioning as vectors into other languages — and the asymmetries of power between them (Loucif 2012) — are worthy of further exploration in this context. Exploring the many languages other than Arabic intertwining the literary histories of Iraqi womens literature is also a field of inquiry inviting much more critical engagement. The self-reflexive choice of Riverbend (2005) the most well-known Iraqi blogger, at least to US readerships, during the 2003 war in Iraq to write her blog in English also questions boundaries between self-writing and self-translation in ways that certainly invite future research into local and broader contexts of Iraqi and Arab women’s literature. Other literary traditions of Iraq such as memoir (Al-Radi 2003), poetry, theatre, and literary critique invite further study, an invitation implicitly issued by Salih Altoma in his decision to publish his detailed catalogue of these genres already available in English translation (Altoma 2010).

This point raises the question of why it is useful to (re)read Iraqi womens literature in English translation alongside an analytical framework of feminist translation. This is a pertinent question in view of the charged discourses of ‘feminist’ and ‘feminism’ at play in post-2003 Iraq. According to Haifa Zangana (2013,2005), for example, the presence of US state-funded‘feminist’ NGOs in Iraq worked to serve US state interests rather than the post 2003 needs of Iraqi women, and damaged the legacy of Iraqi womens local gender-focused political activism as well as the term ‘feminist’ in Iraqi contexts. In these charged political contexts, the ‘feminist’ power relations at play clearly go beyond categorical definitions of what ‘feminist’ agency is or isn’t. As the local and global reach of (feminist) terminologies is pertinent to many other contexts of translation besides Iraq, it is important to situate any research project within a clearly defined understanding of what‘feminist translation theory’ means. One point of departure is to consider why feminist translation scholars view all writing, including translation, as ‘rewriting.’ In earlier instances of feminist translation praxis, such premises were based on exposing and questioning the very patriarchal premises on which all languages are based, translation being the vector by which different (gendered) discourses travel across languages (Massardier-Kenney 1997; Simon 1996; Flotow 1991; De Lotbiniere-Harwood 1991; Godard 1989). In more recent scholarly contexts, feminist translation praxes have taken a more ‘intersectional’ turn (Castro and Ergun 2018; Flotow and Farahzad 2017; Flotow 2012; Shread 2011), where gender is not the only field of inquiry when analyzing — and interrogating — the power dynamics influencing how different works, discourses, and literary traditions move across languages or are ‘rewritten’ through the vector of translation. Remediations of different constituencies of race, gender and class alongside those of languages, location, and epistemes of knowledge, to name a few, are being interrogated and called into question as they move across languages. In this way, engaging analytical frameworks of feminist translation to reread (para)translated literary works does not mean that all texts or writers should be identified as having a defined feminist ideology. In fact, feminist translation analysis sets out to challenge categorical definitions of ‘feminist’ as well as the many gendered, geopolitical, and other interlocking power relations in contexts of translation (Castro and Ergun 2017; de Lima Costa 2014; Alvarez 2014).

This last point is particularly relevant when we consider — and interrogate — the many (co-collaborative) agents presented as (para)translating, mediating, or ‘explaining’ an Iraqi woman writer’s story to new (perceived) target readerships as different expressions or pathways of solidarity. The importance accorded to academic expert introductions, for example, suggests that various power relations involving readers’ relations to an Iraqi woman writer are assumed to be at play when her short stories or novels are published in English translation. Similarly, the absence of introductions in earlier translations of Iraqi women writers configure ‘absence’ as well as presence as an important component of meaning-making in this literature in its earlier contexts of censorship. Questions of how to read the politics of Iraqi women writers’ story-making in English translation thus arise: Why are the politics of some agents, such as academic experts and editors, made more apparent in some Iraqi womens novels than others?

Why do some stories by Iraqi women writers have such extensive introductions, forewords, afterwords, and blurb reviews mediating their works, while others do not? How are Arabic-language representations of diverse gendered identities in Iraqi women’s literature mediated in (English) translation? Such questions are important to ask in contexts of the study of Iraqi and Arab women’s literature per se as well as in feminist translation analyses. Françoise Massardier-Kenney (1997, 63) states, for example, that the (feminist) translator must show or perform her political agency explicitly somewhere in the translated work, and that this often occurs in an introduction or in footnotes. If we use the tools by which hegemonic discourses invisibly shape our realities without question, we run the risk of being co-opted into reiterating them (ibid.). The more c/overt ways in which instances of solidarity are visible through the ways by which Iraqi women writers’ literature has been mediated in English suggest however that categorical notions of‘overt’agency in para/translated works are well worth revisiting, particularly in contexts of censorship and other (gendered) contexts of oppression. As noted by Ferial Ghazoul, much Iraqi story-writing must be read, after all, as “an aesthetic expression of a complex and disturbing reality” (Ghazoul 2004, 1). This reality includes the languages and ways in which Iraqi women writers have published. This chapter overview has worked to show how we can read the pathways that Iraqi women’s story-making have taken into English as an aesthetics of solidarity rewritten across different intersecting pathways and realities. Further research on Iraqi women’s literature will reveal how their stories continue to shed light on and work to transform such realities.

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