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Dislocating the Sign: Toward a Translocal Feminist Politics of Translation

Author(s): Claudia de Lima Costa and Sonia E. Alvarez

Source: Signs, Vol. 39, No. 3 (Spring 2014), pp. 557-563
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Comparative Perspectives Symposium
Translation, Feminist Scholarship,
and the Hegemony of English*

Dislocating the Sign: Toward a Translocal Feminist

Politics of Translation

Claudia de Lima Costa

Sonia E. Alvarez

T he concept of translation in its broadest sense—based on not only an

ontological but also a linguistic paradigm—has become central to
cultural theory, especially for feminism. The translation turn, so to
speak, shows that translation exceeds the linguistic transfer of meaning
from one language to another and seeks to encompass the very act of enun-
ciation—when we speak we are always already engaged in translation, for
ourselves as well as for others. If to speak means to be already engaged in
translation, and if translation is a process of opening the self to the other,
then we can say it always involves a process of displacement of the self.
Therefore, in translation there is a moral obligation to uproot ourselves, to
be, even temporarily, homeless so that the other can dwell, albeit provi-
sionally, in our home. To translate means to come and go, to be “‘world’-
travelling” ðLugones 1987Þ, to live in the interstice, to be perennially dis-
In contemporary globalized postcolonial formations, in light of the
reconfiguration of knowledges and the remapping of all kinds of borders
ðgeographic, economic, political, cultural, libidinal, among othersÞ, the
problematic of translation has become an important, as well as recent, do-
main of feminist contention. We are witnessing an ever-growing need for
feminists to engage in productive dialogue and negotiations across multi-
ple geopolitical and theoretical borders. We propose to consider translation
as politically and theoretically indispensable to forging feminist, prosocial

* The editors at Signs would like to thank Amari Verástegui for her invaluable work in
conceptualizing this Comparative Perspectives Symposium and in recruiting contributors.

[Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 2014, vol. 39, no. 3]
© 2014 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. 0097-9740/2014/3903-0001$10.00

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558 y Symposium: Translation, Feminist Scholarship, and the Hegemony of English

justice and antiracist, postcolonial, and anti-imperial political alliances and

epistemologies. If women’s movements in the Latin/a Americas and else-
where in the global South share a “common context of struggle” ðMo-
hanty 1991, 7Þ, as Millie Thayer contends, then “their conflicts with the
‘scattered hegemonies’ represented by states, development industries,
global capital, religious fundamentalisms, and market relations create
powerful, even if only partially overlapping, interests and identities that
make the project of translation among them both possible and all the
more pressing” ðThayer 2014Þ. As Donna Kate Rushin ð1981, xxiÞ reminds
us, in her “Bridge Poem” that opens This Bridge Called My Back, we all
do “more translating/Than the Gawdamn U.N.”
In this brief essay, we want to argue that the project of a translocal femi-
nist translational politics is crucial to the decolonial turn and to the con-
struction of better “bridging epistemologies” ðLao-Montes 2007, 132Þ, so
as to confront the mistranslations or bad translations that have fueled mis-
understandings and obstructed feminist alliances, even among women who
share the same languages and cultures, such as US-based Latinas and Latin
Americans. Moreover, in the interactions between Latina and Latin Ameri-
can feminisms, the travels of discourses and practices across geopolitical,
disciplinary, and other borders encounter formidable roadblocks and mi-
gratory checkpoints. As Norma Klahn ð2014Þ argues, to better understand
the “coloniality of power” one must “comprehend the unequal traveling
and translation of feminist practices, theories and texts, and their recep-
Much ink has been spilled about the travels of theories across different
topographies and through itineraries that are ever more complex. One way
to approach the difficult task of unraveling the import and export of fem-
inist ideas and the institutionalities that oversee this process is to develop
an analysis of the circulation of ðfeministÞ knowledges from their contexts
of production to their contexts of reception. By what means and through
which routes do feminist concepts gain temporary ðor even permanentÞ res-
idence in different representational economies? It is well known that texts
do not travel across linguistic contexts without a “visa.” Their dislocation
can only take place if there is also a material apparatus organizing their
translation, publication, and circulation. This apparatus—which is at the
same time constituted by and constitutive of the contexts of reception—
influences in significant ways which theories and which texts get translated
and are resignified for a better fit with local intellectual agendas. Among
those institutionalities controlling the circulation of texts in the symbolic
networks are the cultural magazines and academic journals that, according

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S I G N S Spring 2014 y 559

to Nelly Richard ð2002Þ, play the role of cultural mediators between met-
ropolitan theories and their peripheral translations.
To scrutinize the ways in which journals become cultural mediators in
the traffic of theories and discourses, it would be necessary to carry out
tasks such as ðhere the list is of course only suggestive, not exhaustiveÞ an
analysis of the journal’s content and the transnational quotation market,
an appraisal of the knowledges being disseminated by the journal, an
analysis of the location of the journal vis-à-vis the disciplinary fields of the
academy ðand the field of feminismÞ, an assessment of the journal’s edi-
torial board and its representation in the larger discursive context, and—as
Clare Hemmings ð2011Þ has explored so incisively in her study—consid-
eration of the issue of canonicity and the silencing of other feminist ge-
nealogies, especially in the practices of translation of foreign-language
articles. In sum, according to Richard ð2001Þ, if we are to grasp the pro-
duction and circulation of knowledge, we need a scrutiny of the local
academic and extra-academic networks and their relation to institutional
fields, the inscription rules of epistemological repertoires, and the broader
political-intellectual conjuncture.
We would like to stress that we already have incisive studies about the
processes of cultural translation operating in the economy of symbolic and
material exchanges. Such studies have traced the global circuits of theories
and their dislocations across axes structured by the relations of power and
marginality in diverse “translation zones” ðApter 2006Þ. However, the
majority of these more recent studies focus on the circulation of signs and
meanings across regions other than Latin America, and very few of them
offer a more in-depth inquiry into the specificities of the travels of feminist
theories and their analytical categories.
One such specificity to attend to, we argue, is how a feminist canon is
constructed by a transnational citation market. It is by now well known
that citation practices are not only largely responsible for the formation of
scholarly canons but are seen as the most objective measure of academic
merit ðLutz 1995Þ. There is a significant number of studies, mostly com-
ing from the fields of applied linguistics and discourse analysis and from
bibliometrics, on the uses of citations—considered one of the most rele-
vant features of academic writing—as a core activity in knowledge produc-
tion ðLillis et al. 2010Þ. Who gets cited, where, and by whom—namely,
the geolinguistics of citations—exposes the routes through which theories
travel and ðmaleÞ intellectual lineages are constructed in a global context.
Emphasizing the geopolitical dimensions of citations, Theresa Lillis and
her coauthors ð2010Þ studied the link between these micropractices and

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560 y Symposium: Translation, Feminist Scholarship, and the Hegemony of English

larger social practices of knowledge production, circulation, and evalua-

tion globally. The Science Citation Index and the Social Sciences Citation
Index ðindexes managed by Thomson ScientificÞ are the dominant mea-
sures, by way of impact factor, of a journal’s influence and visibility. A
journal’s inclusion in such indexes also influences authors’ value and, in
some countries, including Brazil, most directly affects the financial allo-
cation of resources for both the author ðfor her/his researchÞ and the
academic publication, among other things. One of the relevant, but not
surprising, conclusions of the above study ðencompassing 240 published
psychology articles in English-medium journalsÞ for our discussion here is
that “the global status of English is impacting not only on the linguistic
medium of publications but on the linguistic medium of works that are
considered citable—and hence on which/whose knowledge is being al-
lowed to circulate” ðLillis et al. 2010, 121Þ. Moreover, for these authors,
“English cannot be viewed as a transparent medium, simply ‘translating’
knowledge from one language to another; its status within global evalu-
ation systems is actually shaping what gets counted as knowledge, illus-
trated in this paper by the privileging of English-medium citations and the
exclusion of citations to work in other languages” ð131Þ.
How, one may ask, are we to escape the epistemological economies that
have institutionalized the Anglophone academic centers as the grids of in-
telligibility for theory and, more specifically, for feminist theory? We will,
of course, avoid engaging here the most instigating debate on what theory
is, together with its correlatives ðthe place, the object, and the subject of
theoryÞ. However, what cannot be avoided is the issue of translation and its
relation to both theory and power. J. Hillis Miller ð1996Þ has already
pointed out that when a theory travels, it is “disfigured, deformed, trans-
lated” ð220Þ. However, “if a theory is transformed by translation,” he ar-
gues, “it also to some degree transforms the culture or discipline it enters”
ð223Þ. As Iain Chambers ð2010Þ, drawing on Talal Asad, remarks, “both
translator and the translated are exposed to unauthorized planetary pro-
cesses and procedures that expose the ‘conditions of power’” ð261–62Þ.
To explore the subtle ways in which conditions of power operate, we
want to point out that, as Diana Hicks and Jonathan Porter ð1991Þ long
ago indicated, in analyses of citation practices, quantitative and qualitative,
what gets occluded is the fact that theories are intertextual and citational:
they do not necessarily appear in the usual form of a scholarly citation.
They are hidden between the lines of the text, in its margins, in assump-
tions that are not spelled out by the author, or in the complex circuitry of
knowledge formations. This citationality of theory, residing in the near
invisibility of the lower strata of texts, is what needs to be fleshed out—and

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S I G N S Spring 2014 y 561

translated, appropriated, disfigured, and redeployed—in the pages of fem-

inist journals.
Rosi Braidotti ð2000Þ, speaking of the import and export of ideas in the
transatlantic divide and the commodification of the feminist academic and
publishing market, in a Deleuzian vein, argues that a critical perception of
the historical embeddedness and empirical embodiment of the concepts
with which we work requires transversal alliances among different types
of intellectuals, as well as a constant exercise in becoming polyglots, be-
coming transdisciplinary, becoming nomads. How, we ask, would that
exercise, which in principle might be seen as constitutive of the practice of
decolonizing knowledge, be deployed in the political context of feminist
academic publications such as Signs? Of course there are not obvious an-
swers, but some examples of what cultural magazines and academic fem-
inist journals have been doing in Latin America might serve as inspiration.
Due to space limitations, let us cite only two of those journals.
Nelly Richard, editor of the Chilean Revista de Critica Cultural, advises
that when examining the role publications play as critical mediators and
productive ðmisÞtranslators in the traffic of theories, it is imperative that a
space be created for heterogeneous textualities. This implies not only “the
coexistence of diversity of intellectual affiliations, disciplinary and antidis-
ciplinary, but also of a variety of discursive tones and textual forms autho-
rizing various sites of enunciation and representational registers” ðRichard
2001; our translationÞ. Such heterogeneity potentially enables the articula-
tion between academic reflections and other kinds of enunciatory practices
and countertranslations in the feminist project of decolonizing knowledge.
We might add that the Mexican journal Debate Feminista also stands as an
example of the heterogeneity of such representational registers.
Claudia de Lima Costa, as coeditor of the debates section of the Bra-
zilian academic feminist journal Revista Estudos Feministas, has been en-
gaged in publishing cutting-edge feminist theoretical articles, translated
from English into Portuguese, and in inviting responses by feminists from
Brazil and other Latin American countries in an attempt to provide a critical
reception of the translated texts. Unfortunately, however, their responses
do not travel back due to a lack of material resources for translation into
the academic lingua franca, hence revealing one of the many occult factors
that interfere in the articulation of transnational feminisms and the con-
struction of bridging epistemologies. As Emily Apter ð2001Þ rightly points
out, these layers of invisible interventions are, in a very obvious way, cru-
cial to a text’s access to translatability.
This is the worldly terrain on which we must continuously and untir-
ingly struggle to theoretically dislocate the sign ðChow 1998, 5Þ from the

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562 y Symposium: Translation, Feminist Scholarship, and the Hegemony of English

West toward new decolonial geographies and languages—theoretical or

otherwise. Wishing to facilitate such dislocations, we have coedited, to-
gether with Verónica Feliu, Rebecca Hester, Norma Klahn, and Millie
Thayer, an anthology titled Translocalidades/Translocalities: Feminist Pol-
itics of Translation in the Latin/a Ame´ricas ðAlvarez et al. 2014Þ, which
enacts a translational politics by unabashedly trafficking in feminist theo-
ries and practices across geopolitical, disciplinary, and other borders, bring-
ing insights from Latina/women-of-color/postcolonial feminisms in the
North of the Americas to bear on our analyses of theories, practices, cul-
tures, and politics in the South, and vice versa. Our contributors—who
include authors from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, and Mexico, as well
as East and West Coast–based Latinas of Cuban, Puerto Rican, Mexican,
Chilean, Peruvian, and Dominican descent and other US women of color
and allies—offer fresh insight into many of the conundrums posed by this
symposium and explored in this essay. Nonetheless, in conclusion, it is im-
portant not to forget what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak ð2012, 242Þ teaches
us—that the very notion of translation, that is, of one word or idea stand-
ing in for another, dislodges any possibility of literal translation. In the
sense that the concept is deployed throughout our anthology, translation
can only be understood as a catachresis, as an always already misuse of
words, an impropriety and inadequacy that underpins all systems of repre-
Departamento de Lingua e Literatura Vernáculas
Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina ðCostaÞ

Department of Political Science and Center for Latin American,

Caribbean, and Latino Studies
University of Massachusetts, Amherst ðAlvarezÞ

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