‘Dividing everything into two is always problematic’ | Loranne Vella

With her latest book Marta Marta, novelist and translator LORANNE VELLA argues that a plurality of voices – as opposed to the stark binarity of the male/female divide – is ‘the best weapon against the patriarchy’

Loranne Vella
Loranne Vella

Apart from writing novels, you have also translated numerous foreign-language works into Maltese. There has been a lot of discussion, recently, about the role of gender in translation: for instance, when Emily Wilson became the first woman to translate ‘The Odyssey’ into English, she discovered that previous translations (by men) had subtly introduced ‘patriarchal’ biases, that were not necessarily implied in the original text. In your own experience, do you feel that gender really makes such a difference, when it comes to translating?

In an ideal world, gender would not be an issue when it comes to literary translation. Once gender becomes practically irrelevant to one’s destiny and role in life – as are, for example, the colour or shape of one’s eyes – it would no longer matter whether a literary work is written by a male, female, or a gender non-conforming writer; nor would it make any difference who ends up translating them.

In reality, however, the implications of ‘who translates who’ are still things we have to think very seriously about. There is, as you mention, already an issue with men translating other men, and adding misogynistic elements where there were none to begin with. Moreover, men translating women today tends to feel like a betrayal of sorts, while women translating men has been seen as problematic by many throughout the centuries.

Things have changed, of course - women are no longer expected to translate only religious texts, as any other text was deemed inappropriate for women. But gender has always been a battleground, so it comes as no surprise to discover that male translators have sometimes wilfully, or perhaps naively, worded certain phrases in classical texts in ways that continue asserting the role of men over women. It’s like men have always felt entitled to remind women of their weaker position. They were always allowed to do so; and they always got away with it.

Translation is a powerful tool and so must be used very carefully. We are now more conscious than ever about how careful translators have to be in conveying an honest rendering of a text into another language. So for me, a good translator, like a good writer, is not defined by their gender but by their honest attention to detail, characterisation, ideas. Now: whether that honesty is itself undermined by an ideological framework, is the more burning question.

Is it a question that has ever troubled you as a translator, though? When translating works written by men, for instance: are you concerned that your own ideological viewpoints may end up influencing the finished result?

While working on Bertolt Brecht’s ‘Mother Courage And Her Children’, I was aware of the fact that Brecht had spent years editing draft after draft of this play: each time adding to the complexity of the character of the Mother, so as to make sure that she does not sound like the stereotype of the ‘suffering mother’; and that we, the audience, don’t end up feeling too emotional about her losses during the Thirty Year War.

Brecht was very keen on keeping this distance between the characters and the spectator. This obviously guided me in my choice of words while translating the text. I was aware of the affinity and empathy I sometimes felt towards this strong woman, who is doing everything in her power to survive the war and keep both her business and her family alive. But I also kept in mind Brecht’s theories for his epic theatre, so I made sure I was not “feminising” it as I went along.

As for my own work in translation, I can truly say that working with Kat Storace, who translated my collection of short stories ‘Mill-bieb ‘il ġewwa’ (Ede Books, 2019) into English as ‘What will it take for me to leave?’ (Praspar Press, 2022), has been an amazing experience. It felt more like a  collaboration.

I could say that it worked because she is a woman translator, and that women translate women writers better. But I’d rather not say that, as what I would like to believe is that an honest translator is the best translator; and our political commitment to this honesty is more important than the gender per se of writer and translator.

Turning to your latest novel, Marta Marta. You described the work as ‘polyphonic’: which, interestingly enough, is the same word Wilson used to describe her Odyssey translation. This is the clean opposite of how the Patriarchy usually manifests itself (which is always either ‘monolithic’ – the One True God; the One True Church, etc. – or ‘binary’). Would I be right in guessing, then, that it’s not just the plot, the story, the characterisation, etc., that challenges the Patriarchy… but also the narrative structure of the novel itself?

With polyphony comes the idea of voices, more than one, like a chorus of different voices singing in harmony. In many polyphonic novels we find stories that are allowed to be told by voices who were very often silenced because they might have sounded out of tune, in discord with the dominant heteronormative (usually white, but definitely always patriarchal) culture.

Polyphonic narratives are for me an interesting way of subverting the idea of the omniscient narrator, the singular point of view of a story which usually has so many other (more colourful) angles to it. Marta Marta proposes the idea of listening before speaking, where speaking results in silencing the other and judging them before they can explain themselves: the ‘other’ being those whose reality is so much different than one’s own.

Polyphony also presents itself as an alternative to that which exists only in a dual relationship, a binary reality which strengthens one aspect against its seemingly direct and weaker opposite, whereby any other possibility is not even deemed worth considering.

Plurality, and hence diversity, creates a more level playing field. It is a celebration of all possible sounds and colours while also promoting the creation of new ones. It thrives in solidarity, not in competition or rivalry. And yes, it is the best weapon against the patriarchy which in Malta has always manifested itself in the form of the domineering single voice of the Catholic (male) priest, the lawyer or head of state (almost always male), and the father as head of the nuclear family.

At a certain level, you also seem to taking the fight against binarism beyond its immediate misogynistic connotations. For instance, you once said that “it is bizarre to treat LGBTIQ rights as separate issues from women’s rights.” Are you suggesting that our dualistic views on sexuality are not just ‘wrong’, because they result in discrimination and injustice; but that they’re just, well… WRONG? (As in: anatomically/physiologically incorrect)?

It is a fact that when a child is born, depending on its visible anatomical characteristics, it is immediately assigned a gender (we used to refer to this as sex, before the distinction between the two became more widely acknowledged).

This means that the child, irrespective of how it feels about all this, is given a very specific role to play throughout their life.

Amongst many other things, this also comes with a number of advantages, if it’s assigned ‘male’; and disadvantages, if it’s assigned ‘female’. These roles are social constructs which can make life fairly simple for a person who fits easily into the role assigned to them; but a nightmare if they don’t. The fact that they are constructs is conveniently forgotten by those who feel threatened by whoever behaves differently than what is expected of them. These constructs, unfortunately, are largely to blame for all the suffering that the oppressed have to endure, and have had to endure throughout the centuries.

In the words of one of the characters in ‘Marta Marta’: when one puts on the glasses of feminism, one becomes more aware of, and attuned to, other forms of oppression by the strong over the weak. And it is very often the case that the oppressor is one and the same - the patriarchal and capitalistic mentality that stands for and promotes heteronormativity, whereby the binary of male  and female (and where male is strong and active; while female is weak and passive, to name but a few binary traits attributed to these two) is the only possible and acceptable idea of normality.

In an earlier interview, you said that: ‘Historically and traditionally, a woman was expected to become either a Marta – the woman who marries and stays home to take care of her husband’s house and children – or a Mary, the woman who chooses not to marry but to take holy orders and dedicate her life to spiritual contemplation.” But your novel focuses on a third choice: the beguines, who ‘who chose to neither marry nor become nuns, but rather to buy property and live within a walled and safe space [beguinage] inside the city’. Doesn’t that imply, however, that the sort of freedom/equality you are advocating, can only truly be achieved by ‘walling oneself in’ from the rest of society?

The ‘wall’ becomes a symbolic architectural structure in Marta Marta; as it is not a wall which isolates or enslaves, but rather liberates those who live within it. It is a wall which offers protection, a safe place from the oppressors, a space in which one can be free to design for oneself one’s idea of being: the freedom to be oneself or to (re)create oneself.

The walled community of the medieval beguinage had a door, and the beguines were the ones in charge of the key. They decided who was allowed to enter the beguinage and at what time these outsiders (usually men) had to leave. The beguines themselves could go in and out of the beguinage whenever they needed to.

Also, the name Marta, which in the novel comes to represent the house in which all the main characters live, comes from Aramaic and it means the owner and mistress of the house. This is what the house in the novel stands for: an architectural space which implies safety and empowers its inhabitants to live together in solidarity, irrespective of their differences, and to construct for themselves their idea of freedom. It is the physical space that allows for an autonomous and self-governing type of communal living based on the principles of solidarity and respect for one another.

You also clearly attach a lot of importance to language: talking, among other things, about the ‘need to begin this conversation in our mother tongue’. Do you find it problematic, though, that Maltese is in itself such a highly ‘gendered’ language? (In the sense that we use ‘male/female’ labels not just for every noun/adjective; but also when conjugating verbs)? And if so: do you think that the same linguistic gender-structure may also have contributed to Malta’s cultural male-dominance?

I don’t consider Maltese to be problematic because it happens to be gendered, in the sense that I don’t necessarily feel threatened by it; nor do I believe it to be the reason for the prevalence of the patriarchal ideology in the Maltese community (although I might be wrong, I might not have thought enough about this matter).

Rather, my concern is that Maltese people who are trying to find ways of describing themselves, or referring to themselves in a non-gendered way, end up simply using terms in English which don’t work as easily when translated into Maltese: for example, the use of the pronoun “they”, as may be preferred by a non-binary person. In English it is often only the pronoun that changes, whereas in Maltese all the verbs, adjectives and other related pronouns would have to change as well.

So my worry is about the fact that these issues are not generating a much-needed creative process that could lead to local solutions to queering the Maltese language. I am hoping that this debate is taken up by the younger generation of Maltese writers: especially queer writers.