MedHum Monday Book Review: Sexology in Translation

24886078In English-language humanities research, the study of human sexuality is often understood implicitly or explicitly as a Western invention, emerging in the late 19th century and spreading outward from Europe and North America. The new anthology Sexology in Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World (Temple University Press, 2015), edited by Heike Bauer, aims to be a “corrective to the pervasive idea that sexuality is a ‘Western’ construct that was transmitted around the world” (2). Toward this goal, Bauer has collected an impressive range of essays on sexual science and sexual cultures across Asia, the Middle East, and Europe as they developed between the closing decades of the nineteenth century and World War II.

While the collection is still weighted toward the Anglo-European, and in no way globally comprehensive, the essays are nonetheless a rich contribution to our understanding of the global history of sexuality, both in terms of their individual topics and through demonstrating theoretical models for utilizing the tools of translation and sites of cultural exchange to better understand our modern preoccupation with human sexuality. As Bauer writes in the introduction,

This research addresses one of the fundamental questions in the modern history of sexuality: why sexuality? Or, to phrase this differently, they consider afresh why erotic desires and sexual acts have gained such a prominent role in modern debates about politics, science, and individual and collective subject formations. (8)

The anthology is organized in three sections, focusing in turn on the interplay between translation and key concepts in modern sexological discourse such as frigidity, love, the third sex, and homosexuality.  The second section turns to examine the way in which understandings of human sexuality were translated from one language or culture into another, for example the translation of European sexologists’ writings into Russian and their reception by Russian scholars. The final section focuses on individual responses to sexological ideas, the translation of scientific ideas into personal identity formation.

It is perhaps a mark of how Eurocentric English-language histories of sexuality have been that even in an anthology with a preponderance of essays focused on Anglo-European literature or contexts the overall work feels refreshingly global in its reach. There are essays that examine the sexual sciences and cultures of China, England, Japan, Germany, Peru, Russia, and among Hebrew and Arabic speaking peoples of Egypt and Palestine. The material and metaphorical meanings of “translation,” too, are wide-ranging, with contributors looking not only to linguistic translations but also translations of medium (scientific text to popular magazine, literary depiction to sexological concept), and cultural shifts from one era to the next.

Not written for the generalist reader, this anthology will be most useful to scholars with an interest either in one or more of the specific subjects under consideration or in expanding their toolkit for historical analysis to include notions of translation and cultural exchange. Familiarity with this anthology and the scholarly gaps it seeks to address should be required of students of the history of sexuality.  As we strive to ensure a global perspective on the historical development human sexuality in the modern era.

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