Gender and Translation in Early Modern England*1)

Jongsook Lee


Speculating about the possible motives of Mary Sidney's decision to translate Robert Garnier's Marc Antoine into English, Danielle Clarke suggests that her translation should be read as a contribution to the resistance discourse that her brother Sir Philip Sidney and his militant Protestant “party” were producing in a campaign against the religious policies of the Elizabethan government. Such a political dimension of Mary Sidney's translation has been ignored, Clarke goes on to argue, largely because “the assessment of translations, like that of other texts, is predicated on specific assumptions of value attached to the writer's gender” (149). She points out that theories of translation in the period have promoted such a gender bias, because, as a rule, they represent translation as an act of submission to the original, master-text, and thus as an activity more suitable for women than for men. But, as the Countess' participation in the political discussions of the time testifies, Tudor women translators had an interest in contemporary politics as active as that of the male writers of the period, contrary to the picture presented by those theories of translation.

In this discussion, Clarke is following the lead of those pioneering feminist scholars of Tudor women's writing who questioned the validity of the received critical opinions about women's translation. Unlike the first-generation feminist scholars, however, Clarke does not seem to feel it necessary to stop and ask why it is important to be able to extricate political meanings out of Mary Sidney's translation, or why it is important to be able to say Tudor women's translation participated in the political discussions of the period, a territory generally assumed to have been monopolized by male writers. This lack of self-consciousness explains in part why Clarke fails to deal with what seems to me the most important part of the question formulated by the first-generation feminist scholars―that is, the possibility of identifying “female voice” in Tudor women's writing and translation. Clarke's failure throws into high relief the problematics of the project of reassessing Tudor women's writing and translation initiated by scholars such as Elaine V. Beilin, Mary Ellen Lamb, Tina Krontiris, and Barbara K. Lewalski, among many others.


Their project of reassessment is a project of recovering the “lost” voice of the Englishwoman writer in the early modern period, which was silenced and excluded from the public sphere. And it has become, in practice, a project of reclaiming the public sphere denied to women by demonstrating “how the private writings of women . . . could carry meanings of the highest political significance.” (Summit 111). This project, of course, is based on the belief that the boundary between the private and the public sphere is not absolute but permeable. But it is a belief that has quietly been modified with acquiescence to the traditional hierarchy, where the public sphere occupied a higher place than the private.

In reassessing specifically Tudor women's translation, the project acquires another dimension. It is not just about the lost voice of the Englishwoman writer, but also about the silenced voice of translation. Translation is a metaphor for woman, and its relationship with the original text, for woman's relationship with man.2) Woman's translation, then, is doubly silenced, and requires accordingly a reassessment not only of the voice of the Englishwoman but also of translation in the early modern period.

Clarke attempts to counter the period's prejudice against women's translation with the argument of “equal opportunity” for women and for translation: given interpretational equality, translation will be found to be a “master-text” in its own right, and Tudor women's translation will turn out to have the same public and political meanings as Tudor men's writing. Having adapted this line of argument, she goes on to find the Countess of Pembroke was “resistant” in her translation, since the Countess was known at the time to have shared the same political views with her brother and his circle of followers. That is, the Countess' participation in the resistant discourse is by itself a testimony to her intellectual independence as a woman. But is it specifically so as a woman?3)

The close reading Clarke bestows upon the Countess' translation constitutes an effective counter-argument to the critical prejudice against translation: that it is subservient to the original text and thus cannot have a voice of its own. But, right here where the traditional view of translation as a submissive and “feminine” shadow of the original text is discredited in practice, the theorizing about Tudor women's translation―about the possibility of identifying female voice in women's translation―should really begin. What should women's resistance be about, if it is to be called specifically women's? Can it be argued that the Countess is “subversive” specifically as a woman writer, for example? Can it not also be argued, as indeed had been argued before the feminist recovery of the “lost property” of Tudor women's writing in 1980s, that she is merely echoing the voice of her brother, subversive as well as conformist, as his mouthpiece? Can it not be argued that the Countess identified with the dominant values of her “private” world and took up position as a guardian of that order?

I think we ought to answer in the affirmative to the last two of the above questions, if we are to use, as Clarke does, the logic of the argument of equal opportunity for women and translation with any consistency. Obviously, arguments like that cannot get us very far in accomplishing the feminist project of giving a specifically “female” tongue to women's translation and writing. The idea of female voice does not lend itself easily to the argument of equal opportunity for women in the first place, because it insists on the distinction and difference between female voice and male voice. But, at the same time, complicating the matter even further, the idea of female voice is based on the premise that gender is a social construction, a premise that places female voice, right from the start, in a range of male-centered discourses and a series of places in the signifying system that the discourses have produced. Defined as distinct from male voice but occupying a place in a male-centered cultural system, female voice becomes a possibility chiefly where the woman writer is self-reflexive about her gender identity, where the gendered-ness of writer and text is articulated, where the workings of patriarchy and the issues they entail are analyzed, or, in brief, where feminine subjectivity is consciously re-read and re-examined. One can give a tongue to Mary Sidney's translation, for example, by reading it as an act of participation in the resistance discourse produced by the males around her. But it will be difficult to give it a specifically “female” tongue, unless we can also read in the translation the Countess' awareness of her own gendered-ness in her political views, or her responses as a woman to “the woman question.” It is important to try to figure out how much of the subversive energy that the Countess' translation is said to have can be identified as specifically feminine, or as signs of gender rebellion, if it is indeed the Countess' own.

Clarke's argument, then, brings to one's attention, if unwittingly, the ineluctable fact in the history of the West that women's culture, be it identified with the dominant cultural system or subversive of it, has always been a part of men's culture. It has been constructed, deconstructed, and re-constructed, within and by men's culture (as it has constructed, deconstructed, and re-constructed men's culture)―a fact whose implication most feminist scholars of Tudor women's writing and translation have not been particularly eager to face. But the history of Tudor women's translation provides a laboratory case of the 'multiple gender' of woman's gender identity, or of 'the multiplicity of the gendered-ness' of women's culture.


Translation was essentially an elite activity in the period. It was all the more so when it involved the classics, because only those who were trained in classical languages and literature could have tried their hand at translating the classics. As John N. King observes, the women translators in the Tudor period, like the Countess of Pembroke, belonged to “a circle of aristocratic women . . . who sponsored humanistic scholarship and patronized the translation and publication of religious works into the vernacular.” (J. King 43)4) Some of them, such as Catherine Parr, Lady Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth Tudor, were themselves the centers of the court. That is to say that these women were already very much involved in “men's world,” deeply trained in its signifying system, and participating in its production and transmission of public discourses with their patronage.5) What was it, then, that led them to do translation themselves instead of patronizing men's translation?

What did the act of translation mean to them? What does a woman intend to achieve when she volunteers to translate and transmit men's writing? These questions are all the more urgent because translation was regarded in the period as a feminine act of reproducing the issue of men's brain. We might be able to find the answers to these questions, I think, in the fact that these women translators tried their hand at translation first before they did at writing. But those questions will lead us to ask another set of questions.6) The most important of those questions for us to ask seems to be: did they turn to translation as an act of rewriting the male text? Did they use translation as a strategy not only to claim an entry to the world of public discourses but also to create their own voice? Did they use translation as a strategy to invent and articulate a female voice, to reinvent femininity? Did the Tudor woman translator succeed in making a room of her own through her translation activity? Did she ventriloquise, in translating, the male voice in order to find its ‘alternative voice’?7)

Recent theories of translation have proposed that translation is a rewriting of the original text. It is a borrowing of the words of others to comment on one's own world, to intervene in order to change the status quo. Translation is a ventriloquising of the original text; a submission to it with an aim to conquer; a colonization of it by cannibalizing. It begins when one can tell the differences between self and other, purports to express and erase at the same time those differences in order to carve out a space of one's own, and so on. These theories are certainly applicable to the early modern vernacular movement in England initiated by men. Men's translation of the classics in the period was often an act of conscious transgression of the authority of the ancient, the prince, or the church, on the one hand, and on the other, a first necessary step in creating the vernacular authorship, the nation-state, and the reformed church. But did Tudor women's translation operate in a similar way vis-à-vis the male original texts and the male-centered world they were produced in? Can it be argued that, for the women in the period, it was an absorbing of the culture of their “masters,” a whole-hearted, “aggressive” submission to the male culture? It is vitally important to ask what women's translation does with the femininity voiced in the original text produced by a male writer in a male-centered culture. One of the more efficient ways to answer that question is to compare a woman's translation and a man's version of the works of the same male author.


The appropriation of Euripides in the English Renaissance is a case in point. It seems to me the most fitting example with which to begin a comparative study of women's and men's translation in the Tudor period. The first Greek tragedy re-introduced to early modern England was Euripides' Hecuba and Iphigeneia at Aulis in Erasmus' Latin rendition. The first English translation of Euripides was Lady Jane Lumley's Iphigeneia at Aulis, which was also the first woman's translation of a classical drama, a fact that would by itself provoke a speculation about the possible motives for the choice of the text. Did Lady Lumley's decision to translate the play have anything to do with Euripides' interest in women and the women question? Could she have been conscious of the gendered-ness of the original text and tried to negotiate with its maleness in order to voice her own position as a woman? Or was it to express her gratitude to her father, and to show that she was aware of what preoccupied his mind at the time? Or was it to show to her father that she also was interested in the power politics at the court and around her namesake cousin Lady Jane Grey? Was the translation to show Lady Jane Lumley's Iphigeneia-like consent to sacrifice herself for the family and the patriarchal power? Whatever the answer might be, it is to be a series of inferences drawn from the original text, the biographical information we have about Lady Lumley around the time the translation was made, and the fact that she chose that particular play and no other for translation.8)

Her translation itself allows very little room for such questions, however. It is a literal translation except the omission of most of the classical references, the reduction of the part of the Chorus, the addition of the prefatory “Argument of the Tragedie” translated from Erasmus, and the translations of the name “Artemis” as “Diana,” and of “πρεδβιτηζ” as “Senex.” Re-reading Lady Lumley's translation amounts, in effect, to a recovering of the traces of her life lost in male-centered historical narratives written by male historians re-reading of her life. But one might still ask whether these two texts are the same.

The first translation of Euripides by a man came about 19 years later than Lumley's. In 1572, George Gascoigne and Francis Kenwelmersh translated Phoenissae into English, and put it on stage under the title Jocasta. Translated from Lodovico Dolce's Italian version, Jocasta is a heavily adapted version of Euripides' play. As the “Argument of the Tragedie” that the translators added to the beginning of the play expounds, this version is a morality play about tyranny and its attendant misery. The translators reworked the original play into a Humanist play of the de casibus pattern―a play about kingship, tyranny, civic duty, and res publica. By changing the play's title from Phoenissae to Jocasta, the translators make Jocasta the type of woman whose fate is closely allied to that of her country, whose ill fortune drags the whole country into misery, and whose fate in the end serves as a reminder of the importance of putting the claims of the country above those of the self and the family. The story of the war between Polinice and Eteocles is presented as a moral parable of how easily family-love can become self-love to the exclusion of all other consideration and how destructive that kind of family-love can be. The image of Jocasta killing herself on the corpses of her two sons becomes in that context an emblem of the destructiveness of self-love and family-love. Jocasta is singled out as the root of the misery of the country: she mothers Oedipus as well as his sons and daughters, carrying literally into practice her love of the family.

The direction this male translation/adaptation has taken is clearer than that of Lumley's. The skepticism of the original text about the claims of the country, or its fine balancing between the dehumanizing and destructive aspect of political power and the humanizing and self-sacrificing aspect of family-love, is all but gone in this translation. Euripides' sympathetic treatment of the women in the play is given way to a strident denunciation of women offered by the translators as a Mirror for Magistrates. The interrogation of the validity of male heroism conducted by Euripides in the original text is ‘translated’ into an affirmation of the conventional association of femininity with what is irrational, physical, and private. The interesting catch of this adaptation or reworking, however, is that the conventional association of masculinity with what is exalted, high, and rational does not survive the process of translation and adaptation. It is revealed that “masculinity” is vulnerable to self-love and irrationality, or that it has been (tainted with or) fashioned by “femininity.” The adaptation is geared toward the revelation that Jocasta, like Eve, is responsible for her children's self-destruction, her brother's tyranny, and the country's misery. But the men in this play are either Jocasta's children or siblings. They are all connected with her―metaphorically as well as literally.

What is clear from this brief comparative study is that Tudor women translators rarely reworked male original texts, while Tudor men translators adapted and changed them. Should we then conclude the signs of gender rebellion that those feminist scholars have tried to read in Tudor women's translation are just signs of the signs that are never there? Yes and no. Yes, because in the case of Tudor women's translation, what we read in the translation (be it politics or gender politics) is already there in the original text, and the “voice” of translation is scarcely different from the voice of the original text. But no, because, through their translation activity (although it was defined as “feminine”), those Tudor women participated in the political discussions of the time together with men and with men's words, and also because some of the women translators (like Elizabeth Cary) became writers themselves and created signs of gender rebellion in their own words.

(Seoul National University)

Works Cited

Chamberlain, Lori. “Gender and the Metaphorics of Translation.” Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology. Ed. Lawrence Venuti. London: Routledge, 1992.

Clarke, Danielle. “The Politics of Translation and Gender in the Countess of Pembroke's Antonie.” Translation and Literature 6. 2 (1997): 149-66.

Ezell, Margaret J. M. Writing Women's Literary History. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins UP, 1993.

Hodgson-Wright, Stephanie. “Jane Lumley's Iphigeneia at Aulis: Multum in parvo, or, less is more.” Readings in Renaissance Women's Drama: Criticism, History, and Performance, 1594-1998. London: Routledge, 1998.

King, John N. “Patronage and Piety: The Influence of Catherine Parr.” Silent but for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators, and Writers of Religious Works. Ed. Margaret Patterson Hannay. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1985.

King, Margaret L. Women of the Renaissance. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 1991.

Summit, Jennifer. Lost Property: The Woman Writer and English Literary History, 1380-1589. Chicago and London: U of Chicago P, 2000.


번역과 젠더: 16세기 영국의 여성 번역 작품 읽기를 위하여

이 종 숙

16세기 영국 여성 번역 작품을 읽기 위한 최근의―예컨대 Danielle Clarke과 같은 학자의―시도는 여성의 작품도 동시대 남성 작가들의 작품과 마찬가지로 당대의 정치, 종교, 사회적 문제에 대한 논의에 참여했다는 주장으로 요약될 수 있다. 여성도 남성과 마찬가지로 공적인 영역에서 이루어지는 담론에 관심을 기울였을 뿐 아니라, 그 담론 형성 과정에 문학적 행위를 통해 참여했다는 것이다. 이 주장은 여성의 관심과 문학적 행위―특히 이 경우에는 전통적으로 '여성적'이라 치부되어 왔던 번역 행위―가 실제로는 사적인 관심사에만 ‘유폐’된 바 없었다는 중요한 지적을 담고 있음에도 불구하고, 젠더는 사회적 구성물이라는 여성주의의 핵심적 통찰과 문제의식이 약속하는 논의 수준에는 여전히 못 미치고 있는 것 같다. 전통적으로 ‘남성적’이라 규정되어 왔던 관심사에 여성도 관심을 가졌다는 사실이 곧장 여성이 남성과 동일한 문화적 권위를 가졌음을 의미할 수 없을 뿐 아니라, 남성적 권위와 대비되는 개념의 ‘여성적’ 권위나 ‘목소리’를 발명했다는 얘기와는 상당한 거리가 있기 때문이다. Clarke이 논의한 Mary Sidney(Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke)의 경우처럼 남성 작가들의 작품을 번역했을 때에는 문제가 더욱 더 복잡해진다. ‘남성적’ 주제를 다룬 남성 작가의 작품을 번역했다는 사실이 언제나 ‘여성적 목소리’의 확보 노력을 의미할 수는 없기 때문이다. 원본이 담고 있는 남성의 말을 이용하여 여성인 번역자의 자기 목소리로 ‘번역’할 수 있었는지, 그렇다면 그 자기 목소리가 과연 ‘여성적 목소리’라 할 수 있는지 따져 봐야 하기 때문이다. 이 점은 Sidney처럼 남성과 여성이 서로 강한 상호 영향력을 행사하는 집단에 속했던 경우에는 더 세심하게 살펴 봐야 할 사항이기도 하다. 그런 집단의 경우에는 사실 여성 고유의 목소리를 벼려 내는 게 지극히 어려운 일이기 때문이다.

결국 16세기 영국의 여성 번역 작품을 읽는 것은 ‘남성적 목소리’와 ‘여성적 목소리’가 구별될 수 있는지, 구별된다면 어느 시기부터 그 구별이 뚜렷해지는지, 또는 여성적 작가가 영국에서 언제 어떤 경로를 통해 ‘탄생’하는지 살펴보는 일이라 할 수 있다. 그런 맥락에서 본다면 여성 번역의 여성성은 남성에 의한 번역과 견주어 볼 때 가장 분명해질 수 있다. 영국의 Euripides 번역사는 그 대표적인 예를 마련해 준다. Lady Jane Lumley의 번역은 남성에 의한 Euripides의 번역과 비교할 때 원본에 훨씬 더 충실한 번역이다. 아직 남성 또는 남성적 목소리를 腹話하는(ventriloquise) 단계에는 도달하지 못했으나, 앞으로 올 여성적 작가의 예표가 되기에는 별로 모자람이 없다. 16세기 영국의 여성 번역 작품을 ‘여성적’ 권위나 ‘여성적 목소리’의 확보를 위한 노력의 첫 단계로 봐야 할 이유가 여기 있다 하겠다.

Key Words: Gender and Translation. Female Voice. Early Modern England. Lady Jane Lumley. Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.

*1) This paper was first read at the 37th International Congress of Medieval Studies, 1-5 May 2002, at Kalamazoo, Michigan, U. S., and then, in a slightly different form, at the Biannual Conference of the Medieval Studies Association of Korea, 8 June 2002, in Seoul, Korea.

2) See Chamberlain.

3) The argument emphasizes the identity, rather than the difference, between the female and the male voice, translation and writing. One might ask at this point whether the parallel between woman and translation implicit in this project is appropriate for dealing with the woman question at all.

4) See also M. King, esp. 207-11.

5) In early modern England, as the saying goes, those women at the higher social strata were translating from Greek and Latin, while those at the lower, writing in the vernacular.

6) One might go on to ask the following questions: How did these women gain the right to enter the world of men and how did they use it once they had gained it? Did their act of translation serve to confirm once again the boundary between the sexes and the definition of the difference in gender roles that had already been there? Or what does it mean that they went beyond the limit set by such medieval women translators as Margaret Beaufort or Margaret Hull in their choice of topics for translation?

7) For a cogent discussion of this issue, see Ezell.

8) For example, see Hodgson-Wright 130-33. I use, for the comparison of these two translations, the electronic texts available at the LION.