Heike Bauer, English Literary Sexology

Heike Bauer, English Literary Sexology: Translations of Inversion, 1860-1930 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). 232 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 978-0230221635.

This is, undoubtedly, an interesting and persuasive book. At first sight it could be seen to cover what has, of late, become familiar territory in late nineteenth-century studies - degeneration, sexology, the New Woman - and yet its focus on translation, on the emphases chosen by translators to put forward their own views of nationhood, of politics, of gender relations, is astute, and its time scales extend the range of the ways in which sexology has come to be thought about in recent academic debate. Bauer convincingly sets out her stall in the book’s introductory chapter, and demonstrates the ways that sexology - which she dubs “the sustained theorisation of sex” - came into being in German-speaking scientific contexts and yet was transmitted and translated - in ways that were not transparent - into other languages and other contexts and disciplines. Translation, for Bauer, is not simply about turning words from one language to another, but also, and importantly, about shifting the scene in which ideas are understood as they move, not just from one country to another, but from one form of discourse to another.

This book is, therefore, interesting, not just for its considerable insights into sexology, but for its ruminations on the processes of translation itself. Bauer’s erudition shines through this book, bringing her claims to light with the deftness of her linguistic skills. She cites Walter Benjamin on the art of translation, putting forward his proposition that ‘issues of the “translatability” of a work extend beyond mere linguistic knowledge, as cognition and the production of meaning are tied in to a process of culturally-specific association’. What follows is Benjamin’s amusing yet incisive conceptualization of the expectations that words, embedded in a particular culture, bring with them. As Bauer puts it:

Benjamin gives the example of the Geman and the French words for bread, ‘Brot’ and ‘pain’.  The entity of what these two words mean is the same, yet how they are understood in these two languages differs: native German spekers will be led by their culturally-determined chain of association to the image of a loaf, whereas a French person is more likely to think of a baguette.

This sense of the possibilities of words, and their curtailment through translation and through cultural expectation, is one of the real achievements of this book.  It may be churlish to say it, but such insights are not helped by the really strikingly poor editorial proof reading that has allowed numerous orthographical and grammatical errors to creep through onto the printed page, errors of a kind and a quantity that cannot but detract from the numerous merits of Bauer’s work.

Bauer’s achievement in this book is not only one of method, but she persistently seeks to find space for the unasked questions of traditional sexology, most notably how it is possible, amongst the welter of sexological discourse which so persistently prioritised the male homosexual, to make space for the lesbian without simply seeing female inversion as a form of feminist transgression rather than as a kind of sexual behaviour. It is no mistake, as Bauer points out in one of the many instances of instructive close attention to the details of translation - of what goes in and what gets taken out - that  F.J. Rebman’s translation of Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis cuts out all references to independent female same-sex sexuality, as well as ‘spinning’ the translation in ways that spoke to a specifically late-nineteenth-century British audience. No lesbians make it in, but the translation is awash with pollution, degeneracy and British Empire. Translation is not simply about matching one word to another, but about speaking in a voice that will resonate with its audience.

Bauer sets these linguistic insights not just in the context of the fin de siecle, but recognizes a form of knowledge that grew and developed over the second half of the nineteenth century and carried on well into the twentieth. The range is exhilarating and pulls ideas that gained currency late in the century in England back into 1860s Germany, in ways that demand a rethinking of history.

It is, beside all this, a book deeply invested in engaging with the specifics of modern academic discussion and Bauer’s work is staunchly embedded in critical debate, whilst the book’s linguistic astuteness allows Bauer to shine a light on the laziness of English-only speaking critics, who have not, and could not, read texts in their original language. The readings that stem from such an approach, readings reliant on capricious or biased translations, as Bauer points out, must inevitably be partial or just plain wrong. They must inevitably mistake the baguette for the loaf, and in so doing misunderstand and misrepresent the original text. Her book is, as such, a lesson in the advantages of polyglotism.

Lucy Bending, University of Reading