“Queering Translation” – Translating Sex and Gender: Part I, Henry James (J-3)
Date: Friday 10/27/17
Presenter: J. Keith Vincent
Summary by: Sarah Alys Lindholm
Professor J. Keith Vincent, chair of the World Languages and Literatures Department at Boston
University, was a distinguished guest speaker invited to ATA58 by the Japanese Language Division. He
presented a two-part series of sessions on sex and gender in literature which drew attendees from both
inside and outside of the JLD.
In this first session, he began by giving us his personal background, as well as background on the
theoretical frameworks he would be using to analyze the literature of Henry James and Murasaki
Two significant things happened while Professor Vincent was a graduate student at Columbia at age 23:
he began reading the Tale of Genji in Classical Japanese, and he came out as gay. This was in the 1990s,
so he started reading queer theory at the height of the world’s fear of AIDS as the “gay disease.” Today,
he teaches both Japanese literature and sexuality studies at Boston University. His approach to analyzing
works like Genji and their translations is grounded in a hybrid of two theoretical frameworks: “LGBTQ
Studies” and “Queer Theory.”
LGBTQ Studies vs. Queer Theory
LGBTQ Studies (originally known as “Lesbian and Gay Studies”), is the older of the two frameworks. It’s
referred to as “minoritizing” in the sense that it was thought of as a field for minorities which only
applied to minorities. By contrast, Queer Theory is “universalizing”: a way of understanding literature
and culture that is relevant to everyone regardless of their individual sexual orientations.
LGBTQ Studies began in the 1970s-80s by asking questions that no one in the mainstream had been
asking: What is the construct of gay identity? Who built “the closet,” and who is it really for? In this
framework where we work to define and illuminate the nature of identity, translation is a tool to that
end. New translations offer the hope of understanding and restoring gay identities historically left out of
literary canons; older English translations of foreign-language works might alter homoerotic passages, or
even omit them altogether, and modern translations of these works can render what has been erased
visible once more.
Meanwhile, Prof. Vincent tells us, the Queer Theory framework regards translation as an impossible
task: “The impossibility of translation is a metaphor for the impossibility of a stable identity.” Pursuing
this task, however, can revitalize a static source text. As an ongoing and uncertain practice, translation is
an inherently “queer” practice. Queer Theory focuses as much on not retroactively or inappropriately
assigning identities as it does on bringing erased identities to light.
Problems of Translation
We have already discussed older translations’ tendency to obscure LGBT Q identities. Another concern
when translating queer texts is the issue of warping and distorting the text by translating a neutral word
in a pejorative way, or vice versa (for example, the Japanese translation of Leo Bersani’s book Homos
omits the pejorative “homo” from the title, while “openly gay” is rendered as “shamelessly gay” within
the body of text).
Combining Two Theories
Professor Vincent prefers to combine elements of both LGBTQ Studies and Queer Theory. As LGBTQ
Studies emphasized, it’s important to specifically uncover the aspects of gender and sexual identity that
have been overlooked or obscured in the past. But in the Queer Theory model, gay identities shouldn’t
be coopted and applied to identities that were inexplicit in the source text. Avoiding this requires a more
nuanced and interrogative approach. This type of framework advances both translation and literary
theory. In Prof. Vincent’s opinion, “translating can make you a better queer theorist, and reading queer
theory can make you a better translator.”
Case Study: Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle
This session concluded with a case example analyzing Henry James’s The Beast in the Jungle. Henry
James’s writing is “notoriously vague,” and therefore susceptible to multiple interpretations. What did
the character May mean when she used words like “queerness” and “gaiety” in connection with
Marcher, since those words had different popular meanings when this novella came out in 1903 than
they do now?
At the time, critics’ reading of the text was that Marcher “failed to marry” May. The LGBTQ Studies
reading, on the other hand, is that James’s vagueness is hiding his sexuality. In this reading, Marcher is
gay and May is his beard or his fag hag. Eve Sedgwick’s later reading of it through a Queer Theory lens
pegged the text as about men who worried that their sexuality was “not straight enough”—but she did
not necessarily assume that Marcher was gay. Professor Vincent invited attendees to look at Japanese
translations of relevant passages and to evaluate them with these competing theories in mind.
Bersani, Leo. Homos. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.
Butler, Judith P. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.
Crimp, Douglas, and Leo Bersani. AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press,
1987. **This was Prof. Vincent’s first reading in the field.
Sedgwick, Eve K. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York, N.Y: Columbia
University Press, 1985.
Sedgwick, Eve K. Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.