Translation and gender in South America: The representation of South American women writers in an unequal cultural scenario


This chapter explores literary works and representations of women within the South American literary and cultural context, focusing on how translation processes into English deal with gender in the original text, transferring not only the story, structure, and literary characteristics but the world view of the writers — in this case women writers. The works chosen for discussion by women in the Global South (Mahler 2017) reflect polarized power relations and gender inequality, and the analysis centres on gender-related markers in the categories of motherhood, female body, and violence. Selected writers are Maria Luisa Bombal and Silvina Ocampo and their reconstruction in the English translations, with self-translations by Bombal revised by Armand Baker, and Daniel Balderston translating Ocampo. The analysis presents examples of the cultural perspectives on gender that any translation of South American women writers may face.

Historical context of the writers

Up until the last two decades of the 19th century, the role of South American women of all social strata was to meet family needs. They were subordinated to men and limited by social codes that did not allow them to decide on their lives or their bodies, let alone participate in civic life (Stuven and Fermandois 2013). Only a few women, from privileged social backgrounds and with access to European intellectual knowledge, managed to break with these codes. Most women, however, lived in a context of strong religious constraint due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church (O’Neill 2016), lack of formal education, and generalized female illiteracy (De Ramon 2003).

The situation in the region started to change in the 1880s, when the Argentinian state promoted a strong European migration policy and established a common, secular, free, and compulsory education, integrating all sectors of society regardless of their origin, gender, language, identity, or religion (Saenz Quesada 2001). This inspired other South American governments to introduce similar reforms, which changed cultural codes and rearranged societies throughout the continent.

Under these changing circumstances, a pioneer generation of women writers began to question the role of women in South American literature, contrasting ideas about gender equality and a concept of masculinity still largely perceived as superior.

The translation of these works is an important vindication of these women’s views on gender inequality and its reflection in their writing, assigning translators the responsibility to understand and transfer the social and cultural context of South America to a different cultural and gender reality through their work into English.

Critical issues and topics: translation, culture, and gender

The question of gender in translation emerged in the 1980s, highlighting relationships between source and target discourses, where gender representations of a particular culture are relevant (Flotow 2011). This topic continues to challenge translation studies because gender difference and inequality remain urgent. The selected South American writers address cultural particularities that arise in much of the regional literature, and this chapter thus focuses on women characters who are subject to power relations based on gender inequality and the conception of ‘male superiority’ which they reflect as fictional themes and represent by particular narrative elements, namely (1) manifestations of motherhood, (2) the female body, and (3) violence caused by gender inequality.

Current contributions and research

Despite the importance of this topic — the analysis of gender in South American texts and their translations — research contributions in this area are sparse. Most of the available research on translation and Latin American women writers is found in anthologies, such as the one edited by Sara Castro-Klaren et al. (1991), and present biographical and literary information on different renowned women such as Clarice Lispector, Gabriela Mistral, and Rigoberta Menchii.

Some research has also focused on general aspects of the life and works of certain Latin American women writers such as Maria Luisa Bombai, Victoria Ocampo, and Clarice Lispector (Bassnett 1990), including women film-makers, poets, and artists. Other works have addressed the relation between Latin American women, literary culture, and political life, like the texts collected in Women, Culture, and Politics in Latin America: Seminar on Feminism and Culture in Latin America (Bergmann et al. 1992). Naomi Lindstrom (1998), however, specifically connects the literary work of women authors and feminist literary criticism as shaping factors of feminist social criticism and gender-based debate.

Other studies have analyzed specific issues regarding the writers included in this chapter; for example, Bo Byrkjeland (2013) focused on Bombais self-translated works and Carolina Suarez (2013) approached the subversive treatment of the stereotypes of gender and age in Silvina Ocampo s work.

Regarding translation, Suzanne Jill Levine has largely written about being a woman translator translating Latin American male writers such as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and the difficulties she has faced in regard to these authors’oppressive views on women and their use of metaphors to suggest negative images of them (Furukawa 2010).

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