Glitch Feminism As If Another World Is Briefly Shimmering Through

Are the mistakes,  the glitches, an opportunity to escape categories and liberate the body?
Are the mistakes, the glitches, an opportunity to escape categories and liberate the body? | Photo (detail): © Adobe

Working with a team of translators and literati, writer Ann Cotten co-translated the book “Glitch Feminism” by US-American Legacy Russell. What does translate a book like this into German involve? And what is glitch feminism exactly? 

By Romy König

New York artist, writer and curator Legacy Russell reinterprets cyberfemist issues in her book Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, published in 2020 in the USA. She focuses in particular on illustrating how gender, sexuality, class and ethnicity impact identity creation. In the mistakes, in the glitches, she sees an opportunity to escape categories and liberate the body. A German translation by a collective comprised of Ann Cotten, Barbara Eder, Franziska Füchsl, Mark Kanak, Jakob Kraner, Claire Palzer, Fiona Sironic, Lotta Thießen, and Bradley Williams Cohen was published by the Merve Verlag in 2021. We talked to Austrian writer and translator Ann Cotten.

Ms Cotten, what exactly is a “glitch”?

A glitch is an error. Not a long blackout, not a disaster, just a short interruption you notice, but generally assume will correct itself or won’t be fatal. Basically the opposite of a fatal error. Typically, a glitch involves a faulty overlay of different levels because in reality both are comprised entirely of code that was selectively implemented in the wrong spot. A glitch can appear ghostly, as if another world is briefly shimmering through.

In “Glitch Feminism”, which you translated into German for the Merve Verlag, US author Legacy Russell talks about a “veil of race and gender” through which she – or rather her first-person narrator – has long looked at the world. She writes: “The glitch posits: One is not born, but rather becomes a body.” This is a clear reference to Simone de Beauvoir’s famous assertion that one is not born a woman but becomes one. Ms. Cotten, how important was translating this book to you?

The translation wasn’t my idea. Tom Lamberty from the Merve Verlag approached me to suggest it. I don’t engage much with theoretical feminism; I’m fed up enough with the need to practice it. But I like interesting texts, and I have great faith in Tom Lamberty’s taste and skill as a socially networked reader. If he suggests something, it has merit.

Was that the case with “Glitch Feminism” as well?

I find the content fascinating and I’m a huge fan. But the writing, the jargon used, is very academic – which makes translating it into German difficult and almost a little unpleasant. Here in the US (editor’s note: Cotten was on a research trip to Hawaii at the time of the interview), this type of academic jargon doesn’t have negative connotations. I have repeatedly seen how the university functions as a thoroughly liberating, positively occupied space with a bit less of the irony you see at universities in Germany. There is a focus on solidarity, on working together. Education has a different flavour, especially in the context of people from socially disadvantaged groups; It tastes like emancipation. Whereas in my circles, a vocabulary that clearly and somewhat performatively only addresses an academic audience tends to be seen as off-putting.

Legacy Russell is speaking to a new generation with internet experiences that have been different for almost every cohort in our generation.

How did that impact your translation?

For me, the moment a book like Legacy Russell’s uses these instruments, this vocabulary, to excise observations from the digital underground and place them in the light of the university and discourse is very exciting. But you can’t just translate it one-to-one for the German-speaking world. Plus most people interested in reading this kind of academic book speak English and will want to read it in the original. So I realized that the point here was one, to draw the German-speaking world’s attention to the book, and two, to tackle the difficult questions of vocabulary and phraseology – to find ways to speak in German about the problems and emancipations positioned differently in Europe than in the US, but which have repeatedly been expressed using borrowed words to date.

You decided against going it alone and brought some colleagues on board for the translation. Why?

Translating the book on my own would have been a little dismal. It was much more fun, more interesting, and, above all, more meaningful to do it as a group, in conversation. The Glitch Feminism text itself is a bit discursive. It is not about the positioning of an individual, but about the network of allies and artists who share a sense of something and contribute different flavours of critique. As a team, we were able to experiment and ask each other for opinions and ideas on things like different phrases or gendering.

Gendering? In what way?

Individual translators solved the problem of gendering in different ways. Personally, I like to use Polish gendering, when you add all the letters necessary for all genders in a pleasing order at the end of the word. Such as Pensionistennni, eien Lehrerni, dier Leserni, (retirees, teacher, reader) for example. I apply this to everyone, whether they like it or not, to really physically blur the gender binary. Franziska Füchsl, meanwhile, decided to degender in keeping with Phettberg...

That involves using the neutral article “das” for all personal designations and adding a Y to the root, so “der Leser, die Leserin” becomes “das Lesery” ... (the reader)

I really like this method, but we realized that it has limits. Adding a Y turns a word into the diminutive, which creates a humorous tone that is inappropriate for some subjects or terms, such as Opfery (victim). The good thing about working together was that we could rely on each other stylistically, while amplifying various tones at the same time. Maybe one chapter got a touch more melodious, while another took a more conservative turn. One person might translate meticulously almost to the point of pedantry, while another found their own, elegant words, though these sometimes took off in almost their own direction. A beautiful spectrum of the possible emerged. “A range,” as Russell often says. I also thought: We can navigate the constructive non-consistency under the glitch banner. In my view, a deeper dimensional stability emerges through the parallax of polyphony.

You said Russell’s style was very academic though…

... but also very rich in images, full of powerful works of art! When you reread a text multiple times and translate it, you pick up on words the author repeats. For Legacy Russell, for example, the word “range” serves a kind of key function. The term stood out, especially because it’s hard to translate into German: “Auslauf” sounds like dogs at a city park, but Reichweite is too deeply anchored in the advertising industry; you don’t think of movements over vast stretches of land like you do with range.

What effect does that kind of repetition have?

The repeated words serve as cues, mnemonic reminders, and rhythmic structuring. They refer back to the first place of occurance. All these functions are key to making a text flow and avoid sending the reader off on the wrong track.

So you were never tempted to use synonyms to deal with the repetitions in the translation?

Alternately using several words as translations of one word is not a great solution. You might resort to in a pinch, and with a lot of gnashing of teeth. As a general rule, you should never mess about with supposed synonyms (true synonyms are almost non-existent) as a translator. However, I would distinguish this from the principle we applied here, where the different translators were free to choose different translations – to create what might be called parallax synergy. Russell works very rhythmically anyway in terms of chapter length and progression. There is a wisdom in her work that is reminiscent of poet Amanda Gorman. Russell uses sayings and clichés deliberately and strategically. This tends to be frowned upon in German and, as a result, is more likely to be found in trash literature. These phrases appear to have developed from longer, generational experience in Russell’s work. They function like building blocks or mandalas, objects of meditation. An expression unfolds, especially when used repeatedly in different contexts, in its diverse aspects. There is a wisdom of practice in it, instead of the idea, itself a cliché, that a text must above all be original and reductively rise above the usual. This rhythm testifies to the fact that “Glitch Feminism” as a text comes from a practice of teaching and discourse. And that is also a component of its beauty.

There is a wisdom in her work that is reminiscent of poet Amanda Gorman.

Did you actually know Legacy Russell and her ideas before you started working on the translation?

No, I didn’t know her. I have been to one of her lectures since then. I find her intersectionality between theory and art, among several emancipation movements, and not least her affirmation of the irregular and the precarious very exciting and can’t wait to see what she does next.

The link she makes between the digital and feminism is not really new. We’re familiar with cyber feminism ...

But the keyword cyber itself is already outdated. Cybernetics dates back to the 1950s and ‘60s, from Norbert Wiener at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology (MIT). California professor Donna Harraway later popularized the term cyborg for hybrid bodies in the context of feminism. It is an important position because it emphasizes the artificiality of images of the female body while affirming nature or materialism by describing this hybridity as normality, as inhabitable. With glitch feminism, Legacy Russell is speaking to a new generation with internet experiences that have been different for almost every cohort in our generation. It travels at a faster pace, almost becoming less theoretical.

“Glitch Feminism” will remain iconic for a volatile, glitchy era in digital upheaval.

What do you think will remain of “Glitch Feminism”? What might Russell’s legacy be?

Besides the fact that the text can also serve as a collection of links, it gives outsiders insight into the American queer net art scene. For some, the book may speak in print for the first time to experiences they had otherwise only discussed off the record with friends. For others, who might not even be able to imagine how important the internet can be to someone, it offers a window into a massive part of contemporary reality. From my perspective, one of Russell’s strengths is that she manages to speak affirmatively about glitch without turning it into a silly volte-face by an over-the-top philosopher. This all only works with a grounding in real experience. This is another reason I think “Glitch Feminism” will remain iconic for a volatile, glitchy era in digital upheaval.