MLA 2012 panel 247: The Queerness of Translation

Friday, January 6, 12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., 613, Washington State Convention Center

Program arranged by the Discussion Group on Translation

Chaired by Christopher Larkosh, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


1. Richard Allen Kaye, Hunter College, City University of New York

"Hellenic Freud: Translation and the Queering of Psychoanalysis"

My talk explores James Strachey’s translation of Freud’s writing into English in the “Standard Edition” of Freud’s writings. Arguing against critiques of Strachey for his invention of Greek-sounding neologisms such as “cathexis” and “parapraxis,” I argue that Strachey’s work reveals a coded investment in a “Hellenic” culture that endorsed homosexual relations. Any hint of moral judgment on erotic matters was repeatedly shed in Strachey’s schema, and so, for example, where the German word for “good” appeared in Freud's texts Strachey invariably replaced it with the more neutral English word “appropriate.” Strachey's early experience as a member of the Cambridge "Apostles," an all-male university society that treasured Hellenic civilization as an idyllic alternative to oppressive Edwardian conventions, was an important determining factor in shaping Strachey's "Greek" rendition of Freud. I suggest that Strachey’s conception of Freud was doubly elegiac, shaped by a nostalgia for Ancient Greece as well as for an enlightened, nineteenth-century scientific rationality. Drawn from my research in the Strachey archives in London, my talk offers a model of Queer Translation that contradicts prevailing conceptions of translation that accentuate translation’s powerlessness, its “passivity,” and its ultimate “failure.” Rather, I stress the power of translation as a Queer intervention in the formation of psychoanalysis and larger cultural attitudes.

2. Merrill Cole, Western Illinois University

"Queer Is a Foreign Language"

Queerness is a process of translation. As that which contravenes normative significatory practice, even in monolingual contexts, queerness plucks signs from stale, commonplace arrangements, scatters them, twists them back together differently. The process, and not the product, matters—a playfulness, even when stakes of the game are life and death, more valuable than its toys. In turning a “queer” text from one language to another, the translator attends not only to linguistic incommensurabilities, but also to translation already in play, how the text turns about its own language. Anita Berber and Sebastian Droste’s 1923 Die Tänze des Lasters, des Grauens und der Ekstase, or Dances of Vice, Horror, and Ecstasy, incorporates a variety of genres—poems, poem-like pieces called “dances,” commentary, photographs, and sketches—that stand in for what the book cannot present directly. (All film footage is lost.) Scandal and disruption that Berber and Droste could provoke on stage through props, crossdressing, and nudity here depend on making the German language speak otherwise. I must find a strange-enough English to translate this, at the same time respecting the inherent transitivity. To follow the dancers, my translation must be a travesty, something quite odd, a text in obvious drag.

3. Jenna Clark Embrey,  Harvard University

"‘Because I liked you better’: Housman, Hellenism, and Homosexuality in Stoppard’s "The Invention of Love"

This paper examines the poetry and translation of A.E. Housman within the context of Tom Stoppard’s play, "The Invention of Love." In Stoppard’s drama, Housman’s work illuminates the classical ideal of love and friendship between men as exemplified by heroes Theseus and Pirithous, Plato's "Symposium," and Horace's "Odes." Struggling with his own sexuality in the background of the Oscar Wilde trials, Housman tries to distance himself and his work from Greek poets who wrote of Ganymedes and pederasty. While such Greek poetry found numerous “hes” changed to “shes” in translation, the “comrades-in-arms” of the Roman texts managed to escape the censor’s pen. In the context of the play, Stoppard uses both Greek and Roman texts, and Housman’s translation of them, to invent a new language through which Housman can define his sexuality.

4. Todd Reeser, University of Pittsburgh

“Setting Plato Straight: Translating Ancient Sexuality in the Renaissance”

As fifteenth- and sixteenth-century European Humanists read, digested, and translated Plato, they found themselves faced with a fundamental problem. On the one hand, the rebirth of the Ancients  in the Renaissance implied a “fidelity” to the words and the sense of Greek texts. On the other hand, many Humanists refused to translate faithfully, and thus to propagate, the institution of pederasty or the other homoerotic elements in the Platonic corpus. This recurring tension in Christian-Humanism could not be avoided in the face of the blatant homoerotics in Plato. So what happened to the same-sex elements represented in the Platonic corpus? To what extent is Plato “set straight” in the Renaissance? I will present key theoretical issues at play around the Renaissance reception of Platonic sexuality within the rubric of modern theories of translation (e.g., Venuti, Apter, Derrida) and of queer theory. How, for instance, do reading “acts” relate to sexual “identities”? Positioning my topic within a modern theoretical framework, I will discuss specific ways in which the translations that I study replace—or attempt to replace—the original Greek texts, as I examine how the notion of the “untranslatable” factors in to this hermeneutic context.

Inquiries may be sent to Christi A Merrill, University of Michigan <>