Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Empowering words

Resistancy is the translation practice of breaking with the target language’s norms. A translation strategy based on an aesthetic of discontinuity, it has been used in the translation of experimental source texts to create a target text that is as innovative as the original. Venuti identifies this strategy as a means of letting the readers know that they are reading a translation, preserving a difference, an “otherness, by reminding the reader of the gains and losses in the translation process”.1 Resistancy makes the translation visible “through linguistic means that have a defamiliarising effect and that work against easy fluency”.2 It has also been used by feminist translators to find experimental solutions to translation issues and to achieve the main goals of feminist translation.

Feminist Translation Studies started in Quebec in the late 1970s in order to investigate the links between translation and gender. Among its pioneers were Luise von Flotow, Susanne de Lotbinière-Harwood and Sherry Simon in Canada; Suzanne Jill Levine, Carol Maier and Françoise Massardier-Kenney in North America; and then José Santaemilia in Europe. As Lotbinière-Harwood observed, for the feminist translator the principal goal is to make the feminine (i.e. women) visible in the text. For Simon, feminist translations “will necessarily upset traditional vocabularies of domination” and “provoke the emergence of new meanings”.3

To make the feminine visible in the language, feminist translators advocate an active approach to translation, employing a series of translation strategies including resistancy. The work of Lotbinière-Harwood and Barbara Godard is often cited as an example of how resistancy is used in practice. They invented new words, playing with the target language to convey the source text’s nuances. When confronted with the new term auteure (used by Quebec feminists instead of the standard French auteur), Lotbinière-Harwood coined the English word 'auther' in the translation to recreate the same focus on the author as a woman. She renders the title of Nicole Brossard’s novel L’Amer, which contains three terms – mère (‘mother’), mer (‘sea’), amer (‘sour’) – as These Our Mothers, creating a similar combination of concepts: ‘the sea our mother’, ‘the sea (s)mothers’, ‘the sour mothers’. For the feminist word amante (‘lesbian lover/female lover’, contrasting with the non-gender-specific standard amant), Lotbinière-Harwood offers ‘shelove’, while Godard translates the plural form (amantes) as ‘lovhers’.

An experimental text

I turned to resistancy during my Translation MA when faced with the challenge of translating an excerpt from the sci-fi novel Too Like the Lightning into Italian. In this novel, author Ada Palmer plays with language, experimenting with the gender of English pronouns. Her unconventional approach towards gender aims to create an uncomfortable effect on readers, encouraging them to think about their own approach to gender. With this novel, Palmer joins the many science fiction writers using language as a means of investigating gender and its impact on society. Prominent examples include Joanna Russ’s assertive use of pronouns in The Female Man, Suzette Haden Elgin’s invented language in Native Tongue and Margaret Atwood’s use of names in The Handmaid’s Tale

In the future society of Too Like the Lightning, any mention of gender is forbidden, people do not differentiate themselves according to their birth sex (they do not have different clothes and behaviours), and they refer to each other using the non-gendered singular ‘they’, even when the gender of the person is known, for example: “Carlyle here is a sensayer. They can help you think about those things.” In the original, this device was enough to create a non-gendered language, but this is challenging to render in Italian, mainly due to the structural difference between the grammatically gendered and non-grammatically gendered languages.

In Italian, all nouns are either feminine or masculine and, as in many other grammatically gendered languages, there is a substantial difference between grammatical gender and referential gender. Grammatical gender is arbitrarily assigned to objects, with no semantical reason to determine why some are masculine and others feminine (e.g. tavolo (‘table’) is masculine; sedia (‘chair’) is feminine). In my translation, I opted to follow the standard grammatical rules of Italian. Referential gender, however, was more problematic. Words such as ‘reader’, ‘child’, ‘stranger’, ‘painter’ refer to people, and in Italian their declension depends on the gender of these people.

Moreover, gender is not only present in nouns; Italian also has gendered articles, verbs and adjectives. The conventional way of translating these words from English is to use the relevant gendered counterparts, with the male form as default when the person’s gender is unknown. This convention is currently under discussion in Italian because it hides the feminine in the language. Translating the gender-neutral language of the English original with such ‘masculine inclusive’ terms would have betrayed the novel’s view of the future – a future where “the progressive side of gender debates was victorious”.4

The art of resistancy

The most appropriate translation method seemed to be pragmatic equivalence, which aims to create the same effect on the target reader that the author intended for the source reader. This approach “goes beyond correct communication of information”,5 according to Nida and Taber. The effect Palmer desired was cognitive estrangement, so my approach to gender in the translation had to be as experimental as the approach in the source text. It’s here that resistancy comes into play. 

Since the source text presented unconventional typographical symbols to express meaning (for example, ? ¿ to indicate speech in Spanish and 「  」to indicate speech in Japanese), I decided to follow Palmer’s example and experiment with other typographical symbols. In Italian, most words end with vowels, therefore I choose to use the schwa /ǝ/ from the IPA alphabet for the singular, and the open-mid front rounded vowel /œ/ for the plural. I used these typographical symbols coherently in articles, nouns, adjectives and verbs.

‘Commissioner General Papadelias’ became lǝ Commissariǝ Generale Papadelias, and “a safe, unfamous bash, all Cousins, mostly teachers plus a masseur, two mural painters and an oboist” became na bash sicura, nella norma, tuttœ Cuginœ di cui la maggior parte insegnanti più unǝ massaggiatorǝ, due affrescatorœ e unǝ oboistǝ. In both examples, the use of /ǝ/ and /œ/ allowed me to avoid choosing the gender of the referents or to use the standard masculine, which conceals the possibility that any of the referents may be female. To help the reader understand the innovative translation, I decided to counterbalance this radical solution with a number of more traditional strategies, such as paraphrase, omission and modulation, which aimed to improve the readability of the target text.

This is just one example of the productivity of the resistancy strategy, which empowers translators and gives us a useful tool to express our creativity with an agency similar to the one usually reserved for authors. This can be particularly helpful in finding creative solutions to the challenging translation issues often presented by sci-fi texts.


1 Venuti, L (1995) The Translator’s Invisibility: A history of translation. London and New York: Routledge

2 Massardier-Kenney, F (1997) ‘Towards a Redefinition of Feminist Translation Practice’. In The Translator, 3:1, 55-69

3 Simon, S (1996) Gender in Translation: Cultural identity and the politics of transmission. London and New York: Routledge

4 Palmer, A (2018) ‘From Ada’a AMA: Terra ignota, language, gender and music’. In Ex Urbe, 8/2/18;

5 Nida, E and Taber, CR (1969) The Theory and Practice of Translation. Leiden: E J Brill