Just the other day, The New Yorker had a fascinating little article called “Translating a Novel of Sadism,” which is rich with implications about translating literature with explicitly sexual content, and in particular, sexually explicit content that would not be considered PC to discuss. In the article, the translator, who chose to write under the pseudonym D.E. Brooke, talks about the decision to translate Robbe-Grillet’s A Sentimental Novel, a lushly overwrought description of one person’s sadistic feelings and activities. In an e-mail interview, Brooke rightly criticizes society’s inability to talk about non-PC feelings, such as sadism and masochism.
While there is primal revulsion at the rape of innocence and the various other crimes detailed in this story, conflating act and fantasy in assessing a work of this kind seems to me to reflect a generally upheld social lie that requires the weirder and more disquieting manifestations of the human psyche to be swept under the public rug. The book’s lack of hypocrisy is in direct proportion to the rarity of similar avowals, especially in established spheres of social privilege and influence. The resulting schism of minds burdened with shameful, unspoken secrets appears to me to do more damage than what can be laid at the doorstep of this novel, which by its very existence forces us to ponder our relationship to criminal thoughts and fantasies: whether we must not think bad thoughts, not share them, not be exposed to them; whether we must condemn them in ourselves and others; and whether they can even be curtailed or eliminated by these actions. Rather than disown his darkest psyche, Robbe-Grillet erects a shrine to it.
Translation has, as often as not, historically been a site of repression—one place where sexually explicit material was bowdlerized, excised, shortened, smoothed over, or reframed in more socially “acceptable” language—even though as the translator in this article argues, such thoughts are frequently part of the very fabric of the human psyche. I certainly feel that the position that this translator has taken is important, allowing an open and honest encounter with a non-PC form of sexuality. The result is that Brooke has revealed an important side of the work of Robbe-Grillet for anglophone audiences, and, I hope, in the encouraged more dialogue about forms of desire that society tends to shun. If anything, the inclination to combine sexuality and power play (submitting to power as well as wielding to power) are far, far more common than society would have us believe.
What should one make about the translator’s decision to keep his/her name off the book? On one level, I can sympathize with the decision to remain anonymous for fear of being shut out of certain communities where it is difficult to have open discussions about sexuality, much forms of sexuality that would be considered problematic or taboo.
In fact, I can relate to this story in my own way. When I was in graduate school, the former publisher of Gay Sunshine Press asked me to translate some comics by the Japanese author Tagame Gengoroh 田亀源五郎, who draws manga of hirsute, muscle-bound men who engage in all sorts of homoerotic sadomasochistic pleasures—often of the most extreme sorts. In almost every single one of his comics, one character rapes, ravages, and sometimes even mutilates another, but despite the protests of the victim, readers can tell from the erections on every page that the one receiving the abuse at some level likes what is happening.
On one hand, I was happy to have the money to do the translations. Plus, as a budding scholar of queer studies, I found myself fascinated by Tagame’s comics, which dared explore a part of the psyche that (to borrow Brooke’s phrase) is often swept under the rug. On the other hand, I was worried about associating my name with the translation, especially since I hoped one day to get a job in academia, and there was no guarantee that an association with such non-PC work would not be a liability. I could imagine potential employers doing a Google search, finding the comics, then dismissing me altogether, feeling that I was not a serious scholar or that I was too involved with marginal, even “unseemly” things.
In the end, I decided to do the translations but used a pseudonym. I was spared any complication, however, by the fact that Gay Sunshine Press went out of business and my translation was never published. Interestingly, more than fifteen years later, a collection of translations of Tagame’s stories was published under the title The Passion of Gengoroh Tagame. Currently, the Bruno Gmunder Group is publishing a number of other, new translations of Tagame’s work. So far all of the translations have very positive reviews on Amazon, and this give me hope that society is growing increasingly able to talk about non-heteronormative forms of desire and fantasy with less opprobrium.
Now that I have what appears to be a secure position in a university teaching Japanese literature and translation, I probably would not be so concerned about using my real name, but even though my translations never went anywhere, I have reflected many times about my own decision in the late 1990s to use a pseudonym. I can see more clearly about how the translator is caught between conflicting ideological and economic currents. I see that the use of a pseudonym, even when one is doing good work on interjecting sexuality into the realm of discussion, is complicit with the historical problem of the invisibility and erasure of the translator. More importantly, the translator’s decision to leave one’s name off a book could be seen as complicit with, or perhaps even contributing to exactly the same problem that Brooke criticizes so forcefully in this article—the inability to speak openly about sexuality in all of its forms.
On the other hand, it is not difficult to understand the reasons one might use a pseudonym, especially considering that translators are often financially and socially vulnerable—underpaid, under-appreciated, and working at a task that is as likely to invite criticism as praise. One can easily imagine how associations with controversial material could potentially harm one’s career.
So what is a translator to do? The answer is not at all clear, but I hope that with more open discussions about the difference between reality and fantasy, about literature and society, about translation, writing, and erasure, we can open up a space within society where it is easier to talk about sexuality, desire, language, and power, in their many, multivalent, intertwining forms.