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Considering Toxic Masculinity through Translation

The instructor was adjusting the straps on the breast of Sandra’s horse and Rodolphe was already approaching me, savoring in advance how he would explain to me, seriously and rigorously, what a man is, a real man, before informing me of the barriers that would decidedly keep me from becoming one.

— from À l’arrache (excerpted in Two Lines 29)

Patrick Goujon’s À l’arrache is a book about many things all at once. The narrator, a white man who grew up in one of Paris’s disadvantaged banlieues, takes a group of young children (mostly of color) from the same neighborhood on a summer vacation in the countryside. As he tries to navigate his own sense of belonging and difference with the kids, we also learn more about his failing relationship with a bourgeoise white woman from the city.

When I’ve talked about this project in the past, I’ve focused on the aspects of the book that have challenged me the most—how the book handles questions of race and cultural difference in particular.

These have been difficult subjects as a translator, and they are a large part of why I felt this book needed to be translated. But when selecting a stand-alone excerpt to publish in Two Lines, I found another thread woven throughout the narrative. As the narrator works to help a young boy overcome his fear of horses, he is forced to reflect on his own experience as a kid. What emerges, through a series of alternating flashbacks, is a moving juxtaposition of two typical responses when fear challenges a young person’s sense of masculinity. The first is a defensive posturing of machismo (“horses are for pussies . . . I like lions way more”), the other is humiliation and shame (“I would have beaten this body up if it weren’t mine, or if it at least would have been able to handle that”).

In putting together the two reactions, À l’arrache shows how these modes of masculinity are reinforced and perpetuated. In the end, though, it also demonstrates how gentleness, honesty, and compassion can offer an alternative. As conversations about toxic masculinity proliferate in today’s discourse, I often find myself thinking back to this passage, how I relate to my own masculinity, and how these cycles might be disrupted.

Translation is always an act of appropriation. That’s what we as translators do: we lift a text, a story, a voice, from one language and speak it anew in our own. That is what makes translation as necessary as it is intimidating (especially for an emerging translator like me). We are responsible for making sure the voices that need to be heard come into our own language, as well as for how those voices come across. This is how we challenge our home culture and even the language itself: by introducing difference. But, and this may sound corny, we just as often find things that are—if not universal—at least shared between a young kid and a school counselor in France, and an American translator.

Get your copy of Two Lines 29 to read Noah M. Mintz’s translation from Patrick Goujon’s À l’arrache.