Lost in Translation

Princeton is known for its small classes, but imagine taking this to the extreme. Last semester, I took SOC 310, Gender and Development in Latin America. Total students: one.

Not all classes fill up a lecture hall!

Following an odd turn of events last spring that saw all other students drop the course, I was handed an incredible opportunity: a one-on-one course crafted around my interests.

Much of the class was dedicated to discussing LGBTQIA themes in Latin America. There’s a lot I could write about, but for the purposes of this blog I will focus on one particular oddity. In several articles, I remember coming across the word “transvestite”. I am a peer educator at Princeton’s LGBT Center, and as I had learned in training, many consider this word to be pejorative and outdated. Shouldn’t a sociologist studying queer issues know better?

My professor was Brazilian, and when I questioned her about this oddity, she gave me a confused look, and asked, “Isn’t that the same as travesti?”

And that’s when it clicked. All of these articles were translations.

In both Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin America, travesti — sometimes described as a third gender option — usually refers to someone designated male at birth whose gender identity falls outside of the traditional man-woman binary. It is an identity with certain socioeconomic/political implications, and carries different connotations regionally. For example, during my trip to Rio following my freshman year, I learned that Brazilians often associate travesti with prostitution, as many travestis end up working in the sex industry due to lack of job opportunity.

Posters at ABIA, an AIDS-focused organization in Rio with extensive archives of queer- and HIV-related news clippings and other materials dating back to the 80s.
Posters at ABIA, an AIDS-focused organization in Rio that has archived of LGBTQIA- and HIV-related news clippings and other materials since the 80s.

(For brevity, I have provided a simplified idea of this identity. I encourage you to read more online. I’ll get you started with a Wikipedia link.)

The point is: while the words “transvestite” and travesti sound really similar, they are false equivalents. Instead of misleading readers, a better option would be to use the original word and define it.

Ultimately, translation is an imperfect art, and some meaning will always be lost. This is true for research, in general. Researchers are translators, too, interpreting what they find in the world, and often missing something in the process. A historian, for instance, may do an incredibly detailed analysis of an early 20th century magazine, but must do so knowing that some subtexts will always go uncovered.

As we engage in research, we must look at what is lost as an opportunity to learn and educate, to clarify and explain, and to inspire further curiosity and discovery. In my research, it is a way to participate in cultural exchange and appreciate the diversity of human existence — something challenging, indeed, but beautiful.

– Dylan Blau Edelstein, Humanities Correspondent