How Did Eight Translations of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's WOMEN AND
ECONOMICS
Transmit Feminist Thought across National Boundaries in the
Years before World War I?
Introduction
 
 
Charlotte Perkins Gilman, ca. 1900.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division, Washington, D.C.

 

Documents selected and interpreted by
Harriet Feinberg
Independent Scholar
September 2018

____________________________________

   In 1924, when Dutch feminist Aletta Jacobs, the first woman physician in the Netherlands and an international leader in the suffrage movement, was seventy, she wrote her memoir. In her study, surrounded by papers and memorabilia spanning an eventful life, she reminisced.

   One highlight she recalled was the extraordinary 1899 conference in London of the International Council of Women. Jacobs was in her mid-forties then, already well known at home and in correspondence with many women abroad. Like many of the three thousand attendees, she was dazzled by the sumptuous receptions and dinners, fascinated by the mix of women, and inspired by the speakers.[1]

   In her account of the conference, she wrote about being seated at a dinner next to "the American writer Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Stetson." And a few sentences later: "Before the dinner was even over, Mrs. Perkins Stetson asked me if I would like to translate her latest work into Dutch. I said I would, and the very same evening I received a letter of confirmation from her." A year later the translation was published.[2]

   Having edited the English translation of Jacobs's memoir, I knew that she had translated Women and Economics (1898).[3] So when an unexpected opportunity presented itself to delve into that subject further, I was eager to proceed.[4] In my research I encountered Carl Degler's entry about Charlotte Perkins Gilman in Notable American Women. Degler wrote that Women and Economics was translated into seven languages including Japanese, Hungarian, and Russian.[5] Irresistibly I began thinking about those translations. What were the other languages? Who were the translators? How did those translations happen? Could I highlight Jacobs's effort, yet put her in context through a journey encompassing those other efforts? How might this broader subject illustrate and illuminate the international dissemination of feminist thought in the years before World War I? More specifically, what can we learn about the reception of Gilman's classic work by examining the prefaces to these translations? Fortunately, these editions are all accessible; the scans of their title pages make the book's international travels visible. (See Documents 1B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B.)

   Jacobs's Dutch translation came first, appearing in 1900, two years after the book's original American publication and only a year after the London conference. Meanwhile Geertruida Kapteyn, another Dutch feminist, who was also at that conference, wrote a detailed review of the book's arguments which appeared in two parts in a respected Dutch journal, Belang en Recht. The article is entitled "A remarkable book."[6] That review helped prepare the public for Jacobs's translation. Probably then as now, many people who did not intend to read the book at least got a glimpse of its contents from the review. Then, to follow up publication, Jacobs gave a few public lectures of explanation.[7]

   Women and Economics was translated into seven languages between 1900 and 1911: after Dutch, there was German in 1901, Italian in 1902, Russian in 1902 and again in 1903, Hungarian in 1906, Polish in 1909, and Japanese in 1911. I discuss these translations and their translators not in chronological order, but in clusters based on similarities and differences, with the two Russian translations considered separately at the end.

   The first cluster of three translators includes Aletta Jacobs; Marie Stritt, who translated Women and Economics into German; and Rosika (or Rozsa) Schwimmer, who translated the book into Hungarian. These three women had much in common. All were leading feminists in their own countries, heads of organizations, and suffrage activists.[8] All three were at another key international women's conference in 1904 in Berlin, the second conference of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, where Gilman made a brilliant speech. (See Document 11 for a summary of her speech.) The three knew one another, indeed Jacobs and Schwimmer were very good friends at this time, though later they became estranged.[9]

   All three were also involved with Gilman beyond the translation. Marie Stritt welcomed and introduced her at the 1904 Berlin conference. Gilman stayed at Aletta Jacobs's home in Amsterdam for several days in March 1905 when she was on her European lecture tour, and gave a speech which Jacobs arranged and promoted. Rozsa Schwimmer was active in arranging her visit to Budapest in 1905.

   The three resembled Gilman in certain ways: all were writers, though not of fiction, mostly of essays on political and social issues, and all were also very good speakers, though not as charismatic as Gilman. Like Gilman, Jacobs and Schwimmer did lecture tours internationally.[10]

   In short, these were three formidable, multi-talented, very busy women, who nonetheless took the time to translate Gilman's major work themselves in order to make her thought accessible in their language, and they each wrote prefaces explaining to their readers why they did it. (See Document 1A, Document 2A, and Document 6A.) These three prefaces, made available in English for the first time, not surprisingly have similarities, yet each has a different tone and emphasis.

   Jacobs's preface is simple and clear, emphasizing the power of Gilman's personal charisma. She assures her readers that Gilman's observations, though developed through her experiences in the United States, would with only slight alterations be quite applicable in Europe. Stritt expounds at greater length on Gilman's theories, amusingly explaining in super-complex sentences why she and her collaborator, Alice Salomon, abridged Gilman's text. Schwimmer scolds Hungarian society for not moving forward fast enough on women and for neglecting to produce thoughtful writing in this essential area. All three women exhort their own country's citizens in a direct fashion to read and benefit from the book.

   With regard to the Italian, Japanese, and Polish translations--the second cluster--the relation of preface to text is quite different. In these three, the translator appears only as a name on the title page. Instead there is a preface by another, quite eminent individual. The Italian and Polish prefaces were each originally written in English for a different audience, and were published elsewhere before being translated for these editions: the Japanese preface was written by a prominent Japanese educator who had nothing to do with organizing and producing the translation. (See Document 3A, Document 8A, and Document 7A.)

   The Italian translation has a long prefatory essay by British expatriate writer Vernon Lee, who lived in Italy for years and had a salon there.[11] Perhaps in harmony with Lee's flamboyant lifestyle, this translation has the most decorative front matter; the lush design includes an eagle and elaborate floral borders. [Italian title page file—Document 3B] As an added Italianate touch, "Charlotte" is translated into "Carlotta." Lee's essay was published in English in the North American Review the same year as the Italian translation (1902); she anthologized it in 1908 in an essay collection, Gospels of Anarchy.[12]

   Lee reflects on the "conversion" Gilman's book brought about in her thinking regarding the "woman question," which she had previously disparaged. Often slipping a bit of mordant humor into her rather exclamatory prose, she relates Gilman's arguments to those of leading male thinkers and writers of the day, including Durkheim, Darwin, Zola, Michelet, Dumas fils, and Henry James.[13]

   The relationship between Vernon Lee and Gilman has been well explored.[14] But what about Carolina Pironti, who did the entire translation, including Lee's preface? She came from a family of Italian patriots who were active in the Risorgimento, Italy's unification movement. Her father, Michele Pironti, was imprisoned for almost ten years as a result of his participation in the 1848 revolution. Carolina cherished and preserved his heritage and also flowered on her own, embracing feminism and educational reform.[15] In a 1911 article about John Dewey's The School and Society, she intertwined translations of passages from his three noted lectures at the University of Chicago with reflections on education in Italy, comparisons with the work of Maria Montessori, and exhortations to transform the system so that schooling would connect creatively with the world beyond the classroom. She had a particular interest in the "navi-scuoli"--experimental residential schools on docked ships for poor, neglected children--and spoke about these ventures at an international conference in 1920.[16] Her initial connection with Vernon Lee was probably made through several salons Lee frequented, and clearly continued, as she wrote a laudatory preface to the re-issue of Lee's prefatory essay as a separate publication in 1912.[17]

   The preface [Document 8A] to the 1911 Japanese translation is by Jinzo Naruse (1858-1919), the founder and president of Japan Women's University, who was an important Japanese advocate for women's education.[18] But Naruse did not initiate or carry out the plan to translate Gilman's book. Another leading Japanese educator, Kazutami Ukita (1854-1946), encouraged his student Take Otawa to undertake the task; in an unusual arrangement, Otawa enlisted two other graduates of the women's university, Junko Oyama and Sadako Koide, to share in the translation, and invited Jinzo Naruse to write the preface. Since that university was founded in 1901 and graduated its first class in 1904, only seven years before the translation was published in 1911, these were very young women at 28 or 29, taking on the task of translating a third of the complex language of Women and Economics into Japanese.

   Naruse's preface is a very general plea for women's education and the acceptance of women as full human beings. He does not engage with any of the specific arguments or proposals in Gilman's book. Instead he situates the translation within the Meiji push for Japan's modernization and Westernization by pointing out that Gilman's book has already gone through three editions and must therefore be esteemed by many highly educated Europeans and Americans. He expresses great pleasure that the translation has been done by graduates of Japan Women's University. Thus the translation and reprinting of Women and Economics was very much a part of the radical reform of Japanese society that was the Meiji Restoration. As controversial as Gilman's ideas were in advanced western countries, they were viewed by progressives in Japan as an integral element of modernization following the western model.

   The Polish translation of 1909 has an erudite and persuasive preface [Document 7A] by British humanist philosopher Stanton Coit. This preface was not written for a Polish readership but appeared in 1906 as the preface to an inexpensive British printing of Women and Economics, which was intended to be affordable, particularly for working-class British women. The choice of Coit to write the 1906 preface was appropriate in view of his deep involvement in settlement-house work with poor Londoners and also his connection with Gilman.[19] However, the preface itself has philosophical and literary references unlikely to be familiar to any but the highly educated.

   How this preface became attached to the Polish translation is at present a mystery. Perhaps the connection came through Adela Stanton Coit, his wife, who had widespread contacts in the international suffrage movement. Though lively and forceful, of all the prefaces it is the least appropriate to its intended readers because of Coit's focus on the specifics of reform in England. The translator of his preface and of Women and Economics into Polish, Marya Podlewska, has not been traced.[20]

   So those are three translations of Women and Economics--into Italian, Japanese, and Polish--which have a preface by a prominent individual who is not the translator. Two of these prefaces first appeared in English in other publications and the third was written by someone not involved in the translation decision or process. Hence, whatever the value of the ideas therein, they do not address the potential reader with the same personal engagement as the first three.

   A Russian edition appeared in 1902 [Document 4B], published in St. Petersburg and translated by A. (Andrei Vasil'evich) Kamenskii. In 1903 another complete Russian version [Document 5B] was published in Moscow, translated by M. Mamurovskii. At that time it was not unusual for rival translations of a new work to appear if publishers anticipated that it would be quite popular,[21] and feminism was a controversial and widely discussed topic.

   Both translators wrote their own prefaces; Mamurovskii devotes part of his [Document 5A] to complaining that the 1902 translation was inadequate and inaccurate. That accusation is questionable, for Kamenskii was by far the more experienced translator, having already rendered several major English works of fiction and non-fiction into Russian.[22] So Mamurovskii's criticisms may have been part of the publishing rivalry, and may also reflect his more pro-feminist orientation. Neither of these two men knew or had a prior intellectual connection with Gilman; indeed she found out about the 1902 translation only when Kamenskii wrote to her in 1899 asking for biographical information for his preface.[23]

   Both men write in an exclamatory, almost exalted manner about Gilman and about the book. Kamenskii's preface [Document 4A] includes more expansive biographical information than any of the other prefaces, an indication that Gilman replied to his query with a good deal of material. Mamurovskii [Document 5A] is carping and sarcastic about his rival translator but switches to a laudatory tone when praising Gilman's theories.

   The translations, of course, were not the only international responses to Women and Economics during this period. With the appearance in 1900 of the Dutch translation, Jacobs gave a series of lectures, though as she recalled in her later memoir, she encountered "much resistance and sheer incomprehension." (See Document 9) With the passage of time, European feminists became more accepting. In June 1904, Gilman addressed a meeting of the International Council of Women in Berlin, speaking on "the significance of the Woman's Movement during the last century." According to a contemporary account, her "address was received with prolonged applause." (See Document 11) In 1905, Gilman traveled to the Netherlands (at Jacobs's invitation) and Germany, speaking about her book.[24] Letters from Gilman to Jacobs in connection with this venture (see Documents 10A-10D) show Gilman's pleasure at the international interest in her work as well as her own attempts to craft and enhance this response through lectures and networking.[25] Jacobs was an experienced events planner and publicist but it did not prove easy to arrange Gilman's Amsterdam lecture. As Jacobs explained in a contemporary letter to Rosika Schwimmer (see Document 12), "Not a single association wanted to invite her, not even my own Women Suffrage Association." Nonetheless, Jacobs made arrangements for the talk with the help of a committee of "four aristocratic ladies." The response to Gilman's lecture, "The Home and the World," surpassed even Jacobs's expectations. Her group "sold so many tickets" that the room was packed; some people couldn't even get in.

   A few phrases from the extensive news reports in the Dutch press convey the spirit of the event. Besides explaining some of Gilman's ideas for their readers, reporters commented on the enthusiastic listeners: "The applause in the crowded hall was thunderous"; on Gilman's delivery: "the richness of her vocabulary is just as extraordinary as the power of her speech"; "her pronunciation was crystal clear"; on her background, for example, that Gilman was the grand-niece of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin; and on the crowd, ninety-eight per cent women. We cannot know to what extent the availability of Jacobs's Dutch translation contributed to this outpouring of interest, but one can infer that it was at least a contributing factor. Gilman didn't read Dutch, so how could she know what was in those news reports which were collected and given to her? Dutch feminist Martina Kramers supplied her with a handwritten report, in which she provided a paragraph in English--a mix of summary and translation--for each of the articles. She included the coverage in De Amsterdammer, the Nieuwe Rotterdamische Courant, the Algemeene Handelsblad, Evolutie, and Het Volk.[26] (See Document 13.)

   This overview illuminates the variety of circumstances under which a specific major feminist work became better known internationally through translation. Far from providing one model, the evidence is for a serendipitous mix ranging from long-term friendship with the author to chance seating at a festive dinner to efforts to glean "foreign" knowledge for one's own country's benefit. The dispersion of these translations was part of a much broader surge of Gilman's international influence in the years between the book's publication in 1898 and World War I. Her powerful voice moved listeners and readers not only throughout the existing international networks of suffragists and reformers, but beyond those linkages to a much wider range of awakening women and their male allies.

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