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Lost in (Trans)lation: The Misread Body of Herculine Barbin


Published: May 1, 2012
Keywords:
Barbin memoirs gender transexual transexualism sexuality translation
C. J. Gomolka
Abstract
After the twentieth-century’s crise de la langue, it might be considered commonplace to hear the phrase, “the meaning was lost in translation.” However, the twenty-first century has inaugurated a new era in which “linguistic gender bending” among transsexuals has witnessed a recrudescence and the desire to translate the meaning of this identity is at the center of the gender movement. Today, numerous trans-autobiographies attract buyers at Fnac or on Amazon.fr: Né homme, comment je suis devenue femme, Alain transsexuelle and Je serai elle just to name a few examples. Besides their discourses that recount a marginalised social identity, all share a common linguistic denominator: a narrative alternation between genders. However, this modern linguistic heterodoxy may owe more to the past than it seems. Discovered in the 1860’s by Auguste Tardieu and first published under the title Question médico-légale de l’identité, the memoirs of Herculine Barbin might represent the genesis of the practice of trans-subjectivisation through the linguistic manipulation of gender. Herculine’s life, told through h/er memoirs, exemplifies a linguistic attempt to expose a trans-identity relegated to the margins of nineteenth-century French life. This essay will explore the hermeneutic function of narrative gender variation in Mes souvenirs (the memoirs of Herculine Barbin). On the one hand, this essay will attempt to show how, in the French version, Herculine’s trans-discourse produces a narrative subversiveness that transcends social margins and expresses what it means to be between genders. On the other hand, I will expose how the English version of Mes souvenirs, translated by Richard McDougall, pigeon-holes her identity into one of two genders and therefore removes from h/er discourse any possible trans-subversiveness.
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Author Biography
C. J. Gomolka
C.J. Gomolka is a Doctoral candidate in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures at the University of Maryland, College Park, focusing on homosexual identity at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentiethcentury
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