Heads were nodding at the United Nations last June during an all-night session of the review of the 1995 Beijing Women’s Conference. Then, the few delegates and observers who were still awake were startled to hear a proposal from the Philippine government to include the word “herstories” in the meeting’s official document. There was a moment of confusion as delegates took to the microphones to complain that they did not understand the meaning of the word. Ironically, a hasty definition was offered by the Holy See. Unlike much else in the document, the definition and proposal were accepted with no objection. Thus, paragraph 100 (c) of the Final Report of the Twenty-Third Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly reads:
“…improve the global sharing of information, research, strengths, lessons learned from women’s experiences, including ‘Herstories’…”
A footnote to the paragraph defines “herstories” as “a widely used term denoting the recounting of events, both historical and contemporary, from a woman’s point of view.”
While some may applaud this step, I find it disturbing. I am a bilingual Chicana feminist. I have been translating in political settings for more than a decade and informally for much of my life. I am often involved in discussions with feminist friends and colleagues about how to translate terms that were invented in English and for which words in Spanish—or any other language—do not exist. The “herstory” incident troubles me for several reasons.
“Herstory” is not a widely used term. It appeared in the English language at a moment when U.S. feminists were trying to demonstrate women’s exclusion from the telling of the human story, which at that time was perceived as Western, male, and white. The word was coined in 1970 by Robin Morgan in her book Sisterhood Is Powerful. Ann Forfreedom argued for its use in a 1972 essay entitled “Why Herstory?” but the term never gained wide acceptance, even among feminist historians. This may be partly because the root of “history” is not “his story” but a Greek word meaning “inquiry.”
More important, “herstory” is yet one more invented term exclusively based in the English language. Like any play on words, it cannot be translated. Last June, no non-English-speaking delegate at the U.N. was given a translation of “herstory,” which probably accounts for the almost complete lack of debate about using the term.
In other deliberations during the review process (dubbed Beijing +5), delegates often claimed that they did not understand the meanings of the terms being used. Sometimes they honestly did not, sometimes they were signaling their dissent, and sometimes they were trying to stall the debate. Early on, it was clear that some governments were using the review to backtrack on the rights heralded in the Platform for Action adopted in Beijing. Women’s hopes for the recognition of “sexual orientation” as a basis for discrimination were crushed when the term was banished from the document. Governments fought over the definition of family, at times displaying thinly veiled fears of independent women, lesbian mothers, and nonnuclear families. Language calling for international cooperation in collecting data on violence against women was proposed and ultimately rejected. In this light, the meek acceptance of “herstory” looks like a cheap appeasement to women in a concession that was merely symbolic. We had hoped to gain stronger commitments by governments to areas that truly affect women’s lives.
Language at international negotiations is a high-stakes game and must be taken seriously. Many—though not all—of the words of feminism and women’s rights have their origin in the English language. This is an ideological challenge for all non-English speakers and a very real problem for translators and those who rely on them.
We must be adamant in demanding linguistic diversity in all