Q+A with keynote speaker, Clàudia de Lima Costa

Our keynote speaker, Clàudia de Lima Costa (University of Massachusetts, Amherst and Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina) will be leading Friday’s conference. In advance of her keynote address on ‘Translation and the Ontological Turn’ we asked her some questions.


What is the politics of translation in the Latin American context?

I would qualify this question by emphasizing that there are two politics of translations. One is about the politics of mainstream (or, better, “male-stream”) texts are translated and made available almost at the same time that they are published in the original (usually Anglo-Euro or other dominant) language. Another is the politics of feminist translations, which usually strives to make available the voices of the inappropriate/d [female] other (as Trinh T. Minh-ha would say). In the Latin American context, feminist translations have enabled a conversation (not always easy) among women from diverse races, classes, genders, generations, and abilities, partially connecting them to several dimensions of struggle against oppressive regimes of power.

In a book Sonia Alvarez, myself and other colleagues co-edited, entitled Translocalities/Translocalidades: The Feminist Politics of Translation in the Latin/a Americas (Duke University Press, 2014), we try to give some examples of the politics of feminist translations at work. I especially would like to cite the article by Ana Rebecca Prado about translating Anzaldúa in Bolivia – which shows how the feminist anarchist group Mujeres Creando, in their queer performances, converse with Anzaldúa in transporting Borderlands/La Frontera to a context of feminist politics beyond the walls of the academy (where this author had originally been read), hence establishing affinities between the two political projects. Thus, the language of Anzaldúa, enunciated in the South of the North, was appropriated by the South of the South, and “in fact incorporated in the transnational feminism which […] has no frontiers but the ones which patriarchy, racism, and homophobia insist on.”

While in my role as editor of the Brazilian journal Revista Estudos Feministas (REF), we managed to publish in Portuguese  — for the first time — two articles by Anzaldúa. In the journal we have a section entitled “Debates” in which we try to translate articles by feminists in the North (on race/racism, decolonial feminism, feminist theories, and other contemporary issues) and invite feminists residing in Latin America to respond to them, attempting to establish a dialogue across geopolitical boundaries. I believe these two examples are instances of a feminist politics of translation at work.

What do you see as the relationship between language and power?

Whenever I go into the classroom to teach beginning undergraduate students about literary theory, I ask them what they believe (L)iterature is. My aim is twofold: first, to discuss how language (and literary, canonized language) is always already connected to power in that it becomes the dominant representation of the world, since literature is about representation. So, when we read canonical authors (who are usually male and white), we see the world through their — necessarily biased and limited –representations. Because they are canonical, their voices become hegemonic. What about alternative representations, situated at the margins of dominant narratives? What sorts of representations emerge if one reads non-canonical texts?

Second, and following the practice of unsettling the canon, I like to practice with my students a reading that goes against the grain of canonized texts, exploring how what is said is always silencing the other side, what is not said. At the same time, I introduce them to other kinds of (minority) texts that are considered without literary value (of course, also discussing what value is). As one explores these issues, it becomes evident, via Bakhtin and Foucault, that language is power – the power to represent and to shape the world. It’s not just a coincidence that English has become a lingua franca – and this points clearly to the fact that there is a hierarchy of languages. As the anthropologist Talal Asad reminds us, the inequality [or asymmetry] of languages has always been at the root of the production of anthropological knowledge. To fully understand the relationship between language and power, we need to engage with issues about the geopolitics of knowledge and the coloniality of power.

Do you see language as an act of political activism? In your work, and more generally?

I use translation as political activism. In REF, (considered the most influential Brazilian feminist scholarly journal), one of the things we have been doing is to translate key contributions by Black feminist and queer women of color to bring the discussions of  the intersection of gender, race/racism and sexuality to the forefront of feminist theoretical debates in the Brazilian academy, which until recently has been dominated by white feminist scholars. This is not to say that debates on race/racism only emerged in Brazil due to translations of English texts by Black women writers, but to emphasize that they entered the academy also as a result of the influence of, and pressures from, Brazilian black women activists.

In my more recent work on decolonial feminisms, I borrow the notion of translation as equivocation from Amerindian perspectivism, as well as  the practice of diffractive reading (in material feminism), to engage in discussions about how to make partial connections among different feminist formations, such as decolonial and indigenous feminisms in the global South and material feminisms in the global North. I have written about these two approaches – equivocation and diffractive reading – connecting them to the politics of translation.

What role can translingualism play in activism (especially within the US context)? How important is this within the feminist activist context?

What I can say about translingualism (I prefer the term translanguaging) in the U.S. context is based on my readings of Chicana feminists, especially the writings of Gloria Anzaldúa and her emphasis on living on the border (the colonial wound), in between languages (Spanish, English, and Nahuatl). We cannot talk about translanguaging without discussing transculturation as an outcome of processes of globalization and diasporic movements of populations. All these processes are poetically elaborated by Anzaldúa in her writing style that mixes not only languages but also literary genres (poetry, testimonio, essay, etc.), thereby defying the ideology of monolinguism that was foundational of the modern nation-state—hence the difficulty of translating her into other languages.

Transculturaltion (a term coined by the Cuban anthropologist Fernando Ortiz) highlights that cultural flows do not happen in only one direction – for instance, from the West to the rest – but also from the rest to the West, mutually transforming one another and, more importantly, transforming modes of being in both. Moreover, transculturation and translation are mutually constitutive processes that put in tension languages and power relations, while also blurring the linguistic boundaries of nation-states.

Translanguaging in the context of feminist activism underpins how transculturation/translations is always at work in connecting feminists from different regions of – for example — Latin America. In the contact/translation zone between Spanish, Portuguese, “Pretoguese”(Black Portuguese), and countless Amerindian languages, negotiating these differences while trying to struggle against linguistic oppression and asymmetries becomes indeed a daunting task for women’s activism.

What can be done to improve the visibility of women writers?

Several of my colleagues at the Federal University of Santa Catarina have dedicated their careers to that end. Here I would like to give special mention to two of them, Susana Funk and Zahidé Muzzart. The latter founded a press – Editora Mulheres —  whose goal was to publish the writings of 19th century Brazilian women authors. Afterwards it broadened its scope to encompass contemporary women writers.

In many literature departments in Brazil – as elsewhere in Latin America – we can also find feminist scholars engaged in studying women writers. I guess the question is not anymore to make them visible, but to make visible the (canonical) mechanisms that silenced them in the first place, so that the canon as a perverse system of discrimination and valuation is revealed.

Your keynote address is titled ‘Translation and the Ontological Turn’: can you tell us a bit about what the ‘ontological turn’ is and the role that it has in relation to feminist translation.

In the past few years I have been reading and writing about how climate change, and our entrance in what geologists are naming the Anthropocene age, has demanded from us for a new approach to thinking about humans as species – or species thinking (as Chakrabarty puts it), together with a critique of capitalism. The Anthropocene refers to a new geological era when humans have become a planetary geological force and demarcates the end of the Holocene era.

Along with a call for species thinking – or thinking about our partial interconnections with human and other than human materialities –, we have also witnessed the decentering of the human and of human exceptionalism, together with logocentrism. As Chakrabarty argues, it inaugurates another kind of rationality or, if you will, episteme: as opposed to traditional Western rationality and representational paradigms (in which there is a separation between our experience of the world, the world in itself, and knowledge of the world); to know requires to be immersed in matter and in the world through continuous engagement (Stengers). It also calls for an ontological turn, that is, a movement from the view that there are different perspectives on an objective and universal reality to a recognition of multiple worlds/realities. As Horton explains, under the ontological turn “the body is thus a social entity, with the capacity to engage with other bodies, affects, and the environment. Relationality between multiple bodies and the environment is seen as the tool by which multiple realities are ‘unlocked’.”

Feminist contributions to species thinking have been innumerable and predate discussions about the Anthropocene, as the works of Donna Haraway, Karen Barad, Susan Hekman, Stacy Alaimo, and Jane Bennett attest. In my research, I am concerned with how the ontological turn, and the decentering of the logos, might affect the ways in which we think about translation. How to translate across different ontological realities? How to open up to more than human languages and rationalities? What the field of eco-translations promises us? These and other questions (more questions than answers) will be explored in my presentation.

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