Feminist and translation scholars gathered in Bern, Switzerland

Second workshop of the International Network (Leverhulme) ‘Translating Feminism: Transfer, Transgression, Transformation’
‘The materiality of feminist texts and translations: Economy, Production and Text’ , June 23-24, 2017

At the end of June, under a sweltering sun, a group of scholars and students of feminist literature, translation, and women’s history gathered in the Swiss city of Bern, where we were hosted by the Historisches Institut at the University of Bern. Our local hosts, and specifically Kristina Schulz, one of the Network’s partners, and administrative assistant Keith Cann offered a warm welcome, with seamless organization and the perfect setting for two days packed with debate, analysis, and above all inspiration.

This was the second international workshop in the Network’s existence – following on from the first one which was held in Glasgow in November 2016. There were many familiar faces – Network partners from around the world and others – and an equal number of scholars who’d more recently become acquainted with the Network. As one of the Network organizers, I experienced the workshop as truly motivating and in many ways an eye-opener. As at previous meetings of the Network, I was struck by the unique character of our interdisciplinarity – with scholars moving between History, Feminist Theory, Literary Studies, Translation Studies and Practice, and Postcolonial Studies, as well as translator-practitioners – and the geographic spread, with people attending from or working on Europe, the Americas, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.


All interventions dealt in one way or another with translation as a social event, and were aimed at teasing out the precise meanings and contributions of translation within wider processes of cultural contact and transfer. Historians of translation have noted the crucial importance of such transfers and of the translation of texts and ideas across linguistic and other borders, in times of social or political upheaval. It is in such contexts that established meanings – of words, of practices – come unhinged and carry the promise of transformation. This, broadly, was the theme of the first and final panels. The opening panel on Friday included two contributions on the role played by translation in and to the women’s movement against the backdrop of the decline of Francoism and the transition to democracy in 1970s Spain: one looking at transfers across the Atlantic, and the two-way, though uneven, impacts of North American and Spanish feminisms, while the other asked what happens when feminist activism and debate is translated across social classes. Jadwiga Pieper-Mooney (State University of Arizona), engaged both these sets of questions by unravelling the different forms of political communication produced by Chilean women under dictatorship and the translations that occurred between underground pamphlets, tapestries, and exile periodicals.

This was followed by a panel exploring the boundaries of what constitutes a text and translations between distinct types of textual material. While one paper explored a unique feminist diary experiment based on writing-as-consciousness-raising in 1970s Milan, exploring the creation both of new reading communities and of new vocabularies (‘starting from oneself’), Pauline Henry-Tierney (Newcastle UK) drew attention to paratextual material in translations of Simone de Beauvoir. Emily Ryder’s paper, originally intended for the next panel but nicely fitting here too, probed the legacies, parallels and differences between second-wave feminist magazine writing and today’s online feminist writing, specifically looking at the intriguing ‘feminist turn’ in Teen Vogue. Attention was drawn back to Switzerland, as Magda Kasper (Bern) presented ‘Women’s Liberation 2.0’, a new online resource on the Swiss feminist movement. Kristina Schulz and Lucy Delap (Cambridge) concluded the first day with a keynote address in which they compared the rise of feminist bookshops in the UK and Switzerland, hereby presenting and analysis of comparative historical research on feminism – still too often lacking in the literature – as well as an original view on the locality and materiality of bookshops as sites of transnational exchange.

Saturday’s morning panel linked papers on intergenerational transfers and translations – which has surfaced as a vibrant theme. Eleanora Federici (Naples) asked what remains today, and in what shape, of the 1970s-80s ambition to establish a feminist translation praxis, while Dinara Podgornova (Bergen) presented in my view one of the most fascinating papers, an analysis of debates in Russian online feminist writing on intersectionality and intergenerational conflict in feminism, stressing the centrality of international translations and their strategic usage. In another highlight, Ruth Abou Rached (Manchester) addressed English translations of The American Grand-daughter by Iraqi author Inaam Kachachi which employ distinct ‘listening’ and mimetic feminist translation approaches to the text. The final panel touched again on translation in times of social change, with Katharina Kowalski (Frankfurt Oder) probing questions around East-West transfers in post-communist Europe, the ‘silent migration of concepts’, and the construction of ‘Western theory’ in Poland. Finally, Maria Tavares (Belfast) presented a very stimulating discussion of women’s agency across cultures, dialects and languages by looking at translation and re-signification of the traditional and the modern in Mozambican author Paulina Chiziane.


Emerging from these discussions is a deeper and more contextualised understanding of the process of translation. While these contexts vary greatly, what has emerged for me, at the same time, is also a more specific and more focused notion of what translation *does*, in situations where political and social change is at stake. Not only have we attempted to refine notions of strategic use of ‘the foreign’ and strategic re-contextualisation and to propose more critical understandings of the hegemony and power relations in processes of cultural transfer, we’ve looked also at translation and adaptation as it occurs not only across space but over time, and blank spots – that is to say, what does not get translated and why, the inability to translate due to censorship or other factors, and blockages to cultural transfer.   These and other themes we plan to broach at the final, larger international Conference to be held by the Network in Glasgow in June 2017. Watch this space for updates.

The full immersion into such discussions was mirrored, for some of us, by full immersion into the river Aare. Aareschwimmen is a favourite activity of Berner citizens over the summer: the crystal clear, fresh river water running straight down from the Alps offered us not only much needed refreshment, it also provided us a glimpse into how this particular culture of bathing, and the intimate and social knowledges that come with it, has been passed down the generations, forming a significant part of local culture.  For me, finally, a very personal experience attached itself to the workshop, as I ended my visit to Switzerland with a trip up to Rünenberg, a small village nestled in the lower mountains of Basel-County, from where my maternal grandfather emigrated in the 1920s to seek a better living in Gent, Belgium – at the time attracting many immigrant workers due to its flourishing industrial activity. Tracing these ancestral lives and speaking with distant relatives (using a mix of (Swiss-)German, French, English and even Italian, as some village residents have Italian origins) offered me a fresh view on the multi-lingual experiences and sites of exchange in my own background – which will certainly continue to inspire new research questions.