Activist translation, alliances and performativity: translating Judith Butler’s Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly into Italian

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This chapter theorises a concept of activist translation, understood as a political, and often oppositional act, capable of producing social transformation (Baker 2013; Tymoczko 2010; Wolf 2012). It takes inspiration from the reception of the translation into Italian by Federico Zappino of Judith Butler’s Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (2015) translated as L’Alleanza dei corpi (2017) [The Alliance of Bodies], a book that places particular emphasis on public protests. Firstly, by drawing on the idea of the performativity of bodies gathered in public demonstrations, I look at this translation’s performative aspect, that is at how the presentations of the translation mobilized Italian queer transfeminist groups who were resisting precarity, similarly to the groups discussed by Butler. I also look at the impact the debates raised around the translation have had on them. Secondly, this chapter considers the extent to which we can theorise translation in activist scenarios as an “alliance”, borrowing the term, which features in the title of the translation of Butler’s book. Understanding translation as an alliance reveals similarities with translation studies scholars’ theorisations of activist translation as an act that creates networks of solidarity (Baker 2015b; Tymoczko 2007) or alliances (Castro and Ergun 2017b) across languages and cultures. Concepts like “alliance” and “solidarity,” as in the use made by Butler, were, at times, criticized by the translator of L’alleanza dei corpi (2017), and by the Italian queer transfeminist groups and individuals who attended the presentations of the translation. According to them, Butler’s book rightly recognizes the importance of creating political alliances among various groups based on shared conditions of precarity, but does not stress enough how to challenge the power differentials based on concepts such as heteronormativity, dominant masculinity, whiteness, class, and ableism. This chapter uses this criticism to explore its applications for current understandings of activist translation, warning against ideas of solidarity and horizontality (Baker 2015a) which might not take sufficiently into account the power differentials among oppressed groups and countries.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Routledge Handbook of Translation and Activism
EditorsRebecca Ruth Gould, Kayvan Tahmasebian
Place of PublicationNew York and London
ISBN (Print)9781138555686
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2020


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