In Translation: Adapting and Translating "Our Bodies, Ourselves"

June 5, 2008

It’s thrilling any time Our Bodies Ourselves receives a positive mention. But we admit to total giddiness over the beginning of Linda Gordon’s article in The Nation:

“The progressive social movements of the last half-century produced millions of pages of print, from manifestos to journalism to novels, but nothing as influential as Our Bodies, Ourselves. The feminist women’s health manual is the American left’s most valuable written contribution to the world. This claim is meant to be provocative, of course, but it’s true. The publication of an excellent book about the book, Kathy Davis’s The Making of Our Bodies, Ourselves: How Feminism Travels Across Borders, makes this a good time to examine its impact.”

Gordon, an author and professor of history at New York University, does a terrific job of summarizing Davis’ book, which features the stories of women’s groups throughout the world that have adapted “Our Bodies, Ourselves” and highlights the work of OBOS’s Global Translation/Adaptation Program:

If Our Bodies, Ourselves had retained its original authorship, the homogeneity of the original Boston-based CR group — in class, race and nationality — would have limited its appeal. The group’s concern with women’s concrete experience led them to gather many personal reports, so the book’s sources grew increasingly varied. As activists in other countries discovered the book, they asked for versions in their own languages. As Davis recounts in her history of the book’s global expansion, the original authors soon came to understand how saturated their book was with the perspective of educated, middle-class, white American women.

In fact, the group’s initial chutzpah in challenging medical authority was partly a product of these women’s privilege. As their global sophistication increased, the Boston group came to a new understanding of what “translation” requires: Words, sentences, images and anecdotes have different meanings in different contexts. What was oppositional and radical for the Boston authors, such as challenging mainstream medicine, made no sense to women who lacked access to medical care.

The authors realized that you could not just hire a translator, or allow publishers in other countries to hire translators. The non-English versions of Our Bodies, Ourselves were adaptations, and they could emerge only from protracted discussion. The authors work closely with “translators,” discussing how to present controversial material and providing help with publishing arrangements, information resources, graphics, fundraising and connections with activists worldwide.

And Gordon’s conclusion, which follows an important discussion of women’s health in poor and developing countries, is as inspiring as the intro:

As the feminist slogan goes, “Women deliver.” In other words, when women control resources, the social gain is greater than when men control resources. Improving health for the poor is as likely to produce progressive change as any other strategy, because health activism these days requires challenging the world’s most powerful and destructive forces. Matters of the body are politically fundamental. If Our Bodies, Ourselves contributed even in a small way to activating women globally, American feminists can feel proud.

Please read the full article, available online and in the June 16 issue of The Nation. You can also read the final chapter of Davis’s book, “Transnational Knowledges, Transnational Politics” (PDF), at our website.

Our Global Translation and Adaptation program is currently facilitating adaptations in Turkey, Nepal, Israel, Nigeria and Bangladesh, among other countries. To find out more, or to read excerpts or contribute to these projects, visit the program homepage.

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