Feminism, Translation, and the Importance of Local Context

Feminism, Translation, and the Importance of Local Context: Emma’s The Emotional Load and Other Invisible Stuff

by Jennifer Boum Make

Emma. The Emotional Load and Other Invisible Stuff, translated from the French by Una Dimitrijevic. Seven Stories Press, 2020, $19.95, 232 pages. ISBN: 978-1-6098-0956-0.

While the notion of a mental load translates a state of constant solicitation in women’s lives due to the overlap of (often invisibilized) household and professional tasks, the emotional load, or charge, suggests that women tend to take on responsibility for the emotional comfort of people they interact with beyond the scope of service provider/user interactions…

The Emotional Load and Other Invisible Stuff (or Un autre regard 3: La charge émotionnelle et autres trucs invisibles, 2019) is French artist and activist Emma’s third graphic novel project after The Mental Load: A Feminist Comic (parts 1 & 2 combined, also published by Seven Stories Press and translated by Una Dimitrijevic), or Un autre regard 1 & 2 (Massot Eds., 2017) in French. In The Emotional Load, Emma builds on the work she initiated with The Mental Load exploring the social conditioning overdetermining an unequal distribution of social roles between men and women in all spheres of public and private life, and more generally, the many situations in which women face male privileges (such as the risks of sexual violence, street harassment, contraception, etc.). Considering almost exclusively heterosexual couples, Emma explores the mental load associated with both housework as well as work-related (i.e., outside the home) tasks, although developing a particular focus on the mental load in relation to housework as a way to reveal profound gender inequalities. We read for example that in a 2010 study by the French Institute of Statistics, “women took on two-thirds of household and parenting tasks” (114). In a more contemporary present, the COVID-19 pandemic has in fact exacerbated existing inequalities between men and women and members of minoritized gender groups with increased financial insecurity, unemployment, and mental health challenges (among other things). Emma’s graphic novel therefore offers a clear and precise reflection on gender bias and violence calling into question often normalized and/or overlooked everyday life situations, such as emotional labor, invisibilized and unpaid housework, “ordinary” sexism, etc., which constitute insidious microaggressions.

While the notion of a mental load translates a state of constant solicitation in women’s lives due to the overlap of (often invisibilized) household and professional tasks, the emotional load, or charge, suggests that women tend to take on responsibility for the emotional comfort of people they interact with beyond the scope of service provider/user interactions (i.e., nurses, flight attendants, etc.). The pairing of these two notions thus appears essential to both explore and disrupt the continuum of exploitation expressed through social norms and expectations regarding gender roles as well as numerous forms of social pressure, including peer pressure. In light of the theoretical and practical complementarity of these two notions, Una Dimitrijevic’s choice to sample across Emma’s works is quite telling. Dimitrijevic’s translation is in fact a compilation of Emma’s La charge émotionnelle mentioned above and Des princes pas si charmants or Princes Not-so-Charming[1] (Massot Eds., 2019), and therefore materializes a critical resonance effect across gender inequalities in everyday life that are too often overlooked and/or underplayed because they appear as isolated events. For indeed, the mental load that is all the thinking, planning, organizing of work and home lives is continually tied to the emotional load women experience in terms of catering to everybody’s needs. For example, Emma describes the moment she realized she was acting as a “house manager” when, returning to work after the birth of her son, she caught herself thinking about having to get groceries before picking up the baby while at work (136). There is a clear overlap of the home and the office, as well as of temporalities – even more so when work and home are the same place.

With Dimitrijevic’s translation into English of Emma’s Un autre regard series, the urgency of change in terms of gender violence and discrimination is felt even more acutely at a time where the #MeToo movement has spread around the world calling for a cross-language and intersectional mobilization. Dimitrijevic’s translation therefore partakes in a global, translingual movement for collective awareness and action towards a shift in culture, away from gender-based bias and violence. The original hashtag #MeToo, which resonated most vividly on social media, has indeed been used as a vehicle for women to share their stories of abuse and has generated new or translated hashtags in many languages, such as #BalanceTonPorc in French, #YoTambien in Spanish, etc. Translation is, in part, the conveyor of a move towards the universalization of the gender-based violence that women have experienced. But in fact, assumptions of a growing universalizing of struggle for gender equality are already found in Emma’s referencing of wide-ranging feminist theories and discourses: for instance, readers find mentions of Silvia Federici who, in the context of the 1970s feminist movement “Wages for Housework,” proposes that “the State should pay women for the housework they did,” alongside Angela Davis’s argument against the prevalence of household chores for women challenging the alienating patterns of housework (83). Emma’s project thus adequately combines accounts of local (French) and individual experiences of gender inequality and bias, while engaging global women’s rights movements and activists. As Dimitrijevic’s translation helps develop translingual pedagogy on issues of gender-based violence, her work reflects an original ambition to call for collective efforts so as to work towards gender equality.

And yet, such an attempt at universality might run the risk of cultural mistranslations, or lack of correspondence across cultural contexts. For example, when Emma addresses cases of minimizing experiences of sexual harassment and violence on a daily basis, she mentions French actress Catherine Deneuve’s publicized faux-pas in early 2018 (22): amidst the #MeToo surge, Deneuve and other socialites denounced the movement in an open letter advocating “une liberté d’importuner” or “freedom to pester.” Reference to the French actress is made through a drawing, with no further indication of her identity. While Deneuve and her polemical remarks might retain a feeling of familiarity in a French context, such controversy carries less cultural weight and/or possibility of a correspondence, if not clarified.

Similarly, and maybe more tellingly of a possible disconnect with Eurocentric cultural knowledge for readers of the translated work, when Emma discusses the genealogy of workplace organization, especially related to the introduction of profit goals and private property, the author presents a historical narrative from a Western perspective, ranging from primitive societies to the feudal system of the Middle Ages to the division of labor within the working class at the hands of the bourgeoisie since the French Revolution in 1789. The history of Europe here described as paradigmatic, as set in stages – hunter-gatherer culture, farming, feudalism and modern-day capitalism – reveals the dominance of a European perspective to decode the power dynamics that liberal global markets create. The challenge for the translator might thus be, if not to challenge historical bias, then to make visible the imprint of a necessary situated intersectionality allowing for the possibility of competing gazes at inequalities of class, gender, and race.

All in all, despite evoking a seemingly universal phenomenon that takes after the ambition of the #MeToo movement, Emma’s work reveals a quite Eurocentric (francocentric?) perspective, which would necessitate a pedagogical endeavor pursued in translation so as to provide the tools for cultural identification and intersubjective engagement across spheres of experience. The issue of cultural centrism highlighted here might serve as a nod to the importance of translators’ notes (in the form of foreword or afterword for example) to reflect on the critical role of cultural mediation, which suggests in this context in particular to take into account the relevance of specific socio-cultural contexts when discussing issues of gender bias and violence.

[1] Translation my own.

Jennifer Boum Make is Assistant Professor in the Department of French & Francophone Studies at Georgetown University. Her teaching and research include a focus on migration, hospitality and notions of care in representations of the colonial past and its legacies in contemporary French Caribbean. She has published or has forthcoming publications in Crossings: Journal of Migration and Culture, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies: SITES, Convergences Francophones, Nouvelles Études Francophones, and Francosphères, among others.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, August 24, 2021

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