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Transgender, Translation, Translingual Address by Douglas Robinson

Reviewed by Eleonora Colli, University of Oxford

Transgender, Translation, Translingual Address, Douglas Robinson. New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2019. £96.00. ISBN: 9781501345548.


In his 2019 book, Transgender, Translation, Translingual Address, literary critic and translator Douglas Robinson sets out on what the blurb calls a quest ‘to understand the “translational” or “translingual” dialogues between cisgendered and transgendered people’. The book moves aptly between queer, gender, and translation theory in order to create a practice of communication and ‘dialogical engagements between and among communities’ (x), breaking away from binary restrictions of original and target languages. Throughout four different chapters focused on different yet connected theoretical approaches, and drawing from a wide range of examples – predominantly from Scandinavian literature – Robinson shows how to think socially about the engagement of language across cultures and genders, not constricted to a simple binary exchange.

            The premises and objectives of the book appear somewhat generic in their now commonplace intent to break down national boundaries, and in their almost interchangeable use of theoretical terms. Robinson’s ambiguous terminology is evident from the opening line of the text, where he states that ‘this is not a book about transgenderism’ (x), thus almost rejecting the title of the book itself. Robinson in fact broadly takes from Halberstam’s view of ‘trans’ as an identity and umbrella term which ‘refuses […] stability’ and instead ‘embraces more hybrid possibilities for embodiment and identification’ (Halberstam, In A Queer Time and Place, 92). By employing this definition, Robinson justifies his adoption of the term ‘trans’ as a word capable of portraying all communities which refuse definition across language and translation: to do so, he pairs it up with the idea of translinguism as a term for ‘a subject-in-transit’ (xi), emphatically moving and shifting between communities and languages. To Robinson, then, ‘transgender, translation, and translingual address are all “stories” that get left out of those intertwined homo-hetero binaries’ (xii): he thus adopts the language of queer theory in order to draw out the potentialities and characteristics of a theory of translation beyond the binary of both gender and source–target equivalence, instead setting out to understand language as ‘crossing over […] whatever boundary one cares to posit’ (xxix). Robinson’s preface reaches its conclusion with an additional explanation of why he included the term transgender in the title: as he says, ‘if translation as translingual address is unstable transition between and beyond binary poles, transgender is translation too’ (xxv).

            After setting out the broad theoretical approach of his analysis, Robinson then moves to the explanation of the goals and benefits of figuring translation as ‘trans/formation, trans/versality, trans/ition and trans/lingual address’ (12). The first chapter effectively deals with the question of why this should be a topic worth analysing: after assessing different options, Robinson resolves that such transitional encounters in language – encounters taking place beyond the binary – effectively work ‘against knowledge-as-regulation’ (16) and as ‘translingual platforms for empathy and connection’ (33), thus presenting the study and the use of translingual address as an effective tool against nationalist and anti-LGBTQ+ ideologies. Having done this, Robinson then sets out in his second chapter to theorise and define new ways of understanding language that go beyond binaries and boundaries: Robinson here finds a third option between what he defines as the ‘Overall Language’ (41), which operates on the idea of the binary, and the ‘Underall Language’, which he borrows from Otto Lehtinen 2016 novel Wurlitzer – about a mtf trans character – and repurposes in order to foreground a conceptualisation of language as defined by embodied feeling and cognition. To combine the two, Robinson finds the solution, taking from Bakhtin, of a ‘transdiegetic narrator’, reading, writing, and translating across languages and cultures (58).

            Bakhtin’s theory of heteroglossia as providing different cultural reflections in language(s) continues to be important for Robinson in his third chapter, which employs the concept along with the idea of translinguality to show the many different cultural and ideological trends within one single language, and how to move and translate across them. Here, Robinson operates on the idea that ‘the binary gender system’ of language is so ‘policed, and so artificially stabilised’ that this ‘stabilization never works perfectly’, instead showing its cracks through hetereglossia, which for Bakhtin comprises ‘the tension between order and disorder’ in language (91–93). This use of heteroglossia points to an understanding of the binary system in language as ‘chaotic […] in its constant vulnerability to breakdown’ (110). Benefitting from close textual analysis of different works dealing with trans characters, such as Jarboe’s “Greenhorn”, this chapter is convincing in its use of a specific theoretical approach – the Bakhtinian one – and its opening up to new theories across queer and post-modern writing. A similar outlook is employed in the fourth chapter, where Robinson borrows Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the rhizome, as both a symbol of resistance to hierarchical and binary structures, and a concept useful for understanding local and gender dysphoria across languages and cultures. Deleuze and Guattari’s influence allows for an analysis of  ‘translation as becoming-trans’ as ‘de-/reterritorializing’ (164), in its avoiding set organisation both across genders and cultures. This practice of translation also succeeds in bringing together the two previously quite disjointed understandings of trans Robinson had presented across the book, the geographical one and the gender one.

            Despite the fact that the fourth chapter manages to bring together the concepts of transgenderism and translinguism into a single theoretical address, that of becoming-trans as deterritorialization, the rest of Robinson’s book is somewhat unclear on how to use the two terms in separate ways, and in ways that can productively engage with each other. From the very start of the book, and from his use of Halberstam’s notion of trans, it is clear that Robinson either has an extremely wide definition of the term, or that he has not attuned his understanding of it to one clear purpose. This becomes evident in the concluding remarks as well, where Robinson asks himself the question of target audience: ‘what group am I writing [this] for? Queer people? Trans people? I don’t really know. There does not seem to me to exist a ready-made target audience for the book’ (200). This struggle to understand his audience also comes from Robinson’s struggle in explaining why he should employ queer and trans theory, addressed in the Preface: ‘I have often […] felt uncomfortable in the traditional masculinity that society prescribes for the male body […] it was because I wore glasses and was uncoordinated, and traditional males tended to despise me. It was because I was an intellectual’ (xxvi). Robinson then describes his actions which he perceives as crossing binary roles, concluding that ‘if we allow for the existence of middles between the binary poles, I am somewhere in the middle’ (xxviii). On the back-cover of the book, however, Robinson describes himself as ‘cis-gendered in a male body’, thus seemingly contradicting his statement in the preface. While Robinson’s own identity obviously should not be policed, his struggle in defining his audience and his own somewhat casual engagement with trans and queer theory seems to undermine the success of his conceptualisation of transgender and translingual address as one single theoretical approach rather than two separate ones. While the book provides interesting points of discussion and successfully provides new ideas for both queer theory and translation studies in its understanding of Bakhtinian heteroglossia and Deleuze and Guattari’s deterritorializition, then, Transgender, Translation, Translingual Address remains often vague and confusing in its engagement with queer and trans theory. Still, Robinson provides readers with interesting ideas and prompts, which could be productively employed and further explored in future studies: for a book that sets out to open up new avenues for translation theory, then, Transgender, Translation, Translingual Address is generally successful in its pointing at new and interesting – while still hard to define – ideas on translation studies, across cultures and across binaries.