Sonia E. Alvarez in Glasgow – Turning to Feminisms: Re-visioning Cultures, Power, and Politics in Latin America, reported by Rebecca DeWald

As part of her self-confessed marathon of lectures and talks in the UK, Sonia E. Alvarez, Leonard J. Horwitz Professor of Latin American Politics and Director of the Center for Latin American, Caribbean and Latino Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was kind enough to stop over at the Translating Feminism Network at the University of Glasgow on Friday, 7th April, to discuss her work on “translocalidades”, feminism and translation in her recently edited volume as well as a forthcoming article.

Sonia Alvarez
Sonia E. Alvarez

To kick off the session, which she stressed should be an “informal discussion”, Prof Alvarez helpfully contextualised her work, since the members of Glasgow’s Translating Feminism Network, launched in June 2016 with a lecture by feminist translation trailblazer Prof Luise von Flotow, University of Ottawa, come from a variety of different backgrounds and academic disciplines. The initial idea, Alvarez explained, originated in conference discussions which led to the idea of founding a Bay Area research group comprising of Latin American Studies scholars (an established academic discipline struggling with its Cold War connotations) and Latin@ Studies researchers (the product of a political struggle within the university. The participating members’ aim was to rethink the relationship between their two research areas, the former typified by white Western scholars (with very few Latin Americans themselves), and the latter as a group converging around Spanish speakers in the US. A shared concept, as Alvarez defines in the Introduction to Translocalities/Translocalidades: Feminist Politics of Translation in Latin/a America (Sonia E. Alvarez, Claudia de Lima Costa eds., Duke University Press, 2014), was the moving back and forth between localities and places, “across multiple borders, and not just between nations”, hence the term “translocal” (p.2). While translation was not initially at the heart of the group, it became more and more central throughout the network’s exchanges. Alvarez names the notion of “women of colour” as an instance where perceptions diverged and necessitated a consideration of the “translatability” of the term into different languages and cultures: Latin@ scholars took umbrage at the expression, since not all Latina women are women of colour. Alvarez herself preferred the term “Third World women”, to stress that the very concept is the result of political formation. This led to the wider question: How do terms and texts travel within and outwith Latin America?

Translocalities/Translocalidades was the result of these debates, which went on over 5-6 years until the group decided on a coherent structure for an edited volume. Translation pervades the collection itself, since articles were often initially written in Spanish, or written in English by non-native speakers “translating themselves”. The advantage of a small-scale seminar over a big keynote speech is that we participants were given the opportunity to diverge from the “set” reading and discuss the ideas in relation to academic disciplines, but also personal experience. “We translate and code-switch all the time”, Alvarez asserted, naming her own life between English, Spanish and Portuguese (she specialises in Lusophone Studies and her partner, Claudia de Lima Costa, is Brazilian; her dog, she assured us, only spoke Portuguese). The fuzzy border between translating – that is, working between different languages – and code-switching – adapting one’s register to the context – became obvious in her examples of researchers undertaking field work in Latin America, unaware of the impact their English-slanted accent in Spanish would have on their field notes and research outcomes.

Since all the participants could empathise with the feeling of “translating oneself”, I put it to Alvarez to communicate this notion of “being in translation” to monolinguals, in order to reach as many people as possible with academic work in and about translation, cultural and otherwise. Alvarez’s answer is contextualisation, and refers to the notion of “equivocation” discussed in the forthcoming article ‘Turning to Feminisms: Re-visioning Cultures, Power, and Politics in Latin America’, where it says:

“equivocation – a term derived from Amerindian perspectivism […] – signifies not only deception or misconception, but also failure to understand that there are different understandings of different worlds. For example, class, race and ethnicity are categories that belong to the colonial division nature/culture. However, when deployed by indigenous peoples, they do not necessarily correspond to the meanings they have been given in Western history. They are, in other words, equivocations or equivocal categories: although they appear to be the same (i.e., to have the same meaning), in fact they may not be when signified by other communities.” (p.20)

In other words, searching for transgender narratives in colonial literatures is a mental leap, though even supposedly “easily translatable” terms that seemingly travel unscathed from one context to another, might change in the process (an obvious example beside gender is democracy, which is constituted of very different moral convictions in different contexts – in the recent The Guilty Feminist podcast on democracy Deborah Frances-White illustrates the point by explaining that women in Ancient Greece, held up as the cradle of democracy, were not allowed to vote).

The discussion seemed to gyrate around common markers known to the participants: we all know what it feels like to speak a foreign language abroad; we’ve all committed cultural faux-pas and been oblivious to it; we all agreed on the importance of feminism as one of the key factors in driving contemporary cultural studies, both in a Latin American Studies context (thanks to the influence of Latin@ Studies), and in the field of Translation Studies, towards increased engagement with political issues. Hence we were all surprised to hear the circumstances of ‘Turning to Feminisms’, co-written by Alvarez and de Lima Costa for the forthcoming New Approaches to Latin American Studies: Culture and Power (edited by Juan Poblete for Routledge). The commissioned article aims to offer an outlook on the next 25 years of feminism within Latin American and Latin@ Studies. Though Alvarez and de Lima Costa had argued that there should not be a separate article on “feminisms” in the volume, but rather that the collection should include more feminist authors and that other chapters should put more focus on feminist issues. Since none of their concerns were heard, the article takes a rather brazen stance towards the “essay question”.

The context for this upcoming article shows one of the issues early careers researchers – in this case network facilitator Dr Emily Ryder – want to find solutions to: “How do you combine academia and real-life activism?” Alvarez’s advice is to combine otro saberes with your academic work, by staying in touch with the work of “full-time” activists, so as to not influence your scholarly output directly, but be aware of the impact it might have in the “real world”. Another example of this is watching what “young feminists” [in Alvarez’s eyes a derogatory term, only employed by “old feminists”] do when they take feminism back to the streets, to make it a “real threat again”. Instead of jettisoning the term “feminism”, including its history, her advice is to resignify it.

In an answer to another question about issues with institutionalisation, Alvarez returns to the conflicted relationship between feminism and universities, which still seems to pervade the forthcoming New Approaches to Latin American Studies: when Alvarez identified as feminist (within Second Wave feminism, though she dislikes the term), there were still many academics who did not want to call themselves feminists, who instead opted for “being one of the guys”. Simultaneously, groups of so-called “autonomous feminists” called feminists in academic institutions and organisations “handmaidens of neoliberalism” (her side-remark: Marxists never get accused of being white, but feminist get all the slack), though it is partly thanks to women in policy advocacy that feminism is still as active, since they “made the movement move”. All in all, Alvarez has a positive outlook on the future of feminism: “the movements are going to continue, even when they’re not on the streets”.


Many thanks for reporting on this for us – wish The SALSA Collective could have been there in person, but it’s great to hear about it from Rebecca!

If you’re interested in writing for SALSA about events like this, or just have something to say about latinidades in general, please do get in touch!







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