Translating Identifying As

(Available as a podcast here.)

This is a very strong essay by my friend Alta Ifland at East West Literary Forum. It becomes especially powerful when one reads the Russian translation by Tatiana Bonch Osmolovskaya, where the key phrase “identify as” feels as strange and culturally specific as Ifland claims. The meta-phenomenon she identifies (not the self-identifying, which I’ll get to, but the use of translation to find such cultural fissures and the depth of context that often conditions key cultural concepts) is something translators often run into but seldom interrogate at any length. There are some exceptions. Eugene Nida discussed the practical difficulty of finding equivalents for the trinity in the indigenous languages of mesoamerica, and while he doesn’t, to my knowledge, have much to say about what this indicates regarding the source cultures that came up with such a concept, it’s clear from pointing out the difficulty that the concept must have developed over time, probably with similar predecessor concepts that prepared the way, until people were used to it, a little like some folks in the U.S. have become used to “identifying as.”

My sense, from having worked as a dean for diversity and inclusion for a couple of years, is that the growth of the phrase’s use in the U.S. in the last several years (it is relatively recent in administrative circles) was driven more by gender identity than by race, ethnicity, native language, or the other categories that are on the forms one needs to fill out, let alone by ability status. Ifland correctly points out how the use of the phrase comes to seem absurd and offensive in many contexts, almost as if implying that one might not really be what one claims to be. Does one self-identify as deaf?

Another strong point she makes is about the close connection between capitalism and notions of self-formation, identity choice, and, though she doesn’t say it, a kind of liquidity of character that goes along with being able to “identify as.” Here we’re in the domain of Erving Goffman’s presentation of self, a sort of floating of oneself on the social market that enables others to evaluate and agree, yes, that’s who you are.

This reminds me of the work of the Unitarian minister Orville Dewey from the mid-19th century, which I explored a bit when I was writing my Woman in the Window, especially his essay, “The Moral End of Business,” where he writes: “For what is trade? It is the constant adjustment of the claims of different parties, a man’s self being one of the parties.” He did not see this as a bad thing, and indeed, it is basic Dale Carnegie that one should adapt oneself to the interests of one’s interlocutor if one expects to “win friends and influence people.” As I pointed out in that book, it’s also Gogol’s Chichikov and any parfait negoçiant.

I suppose I also tend to agree with Ifland about the contrary case, the peasant so rooted in being that identifying as comes clearly into relief. Would a family farmer count, I wonder? I know some family farmers in the U.S. (they’re in my family, and I grew up on a family farm), and my suspicion is that the answer is likely yes, and this might be one of the reasons I have sometimes felt deeply uncomfortable about the notion of identifying as. But I also want to catch myself here, for the other big historical category of people who would have resisted this fluidity of character/self/identity notion are the landed aristocrats of the past. Like peasants, they tended to see identity as fixed by the conditions of one’s birth, and here the opposite case begins to make sense as a condition of U.S. American cultural assumptions, grounded in a capitalist ethic and an experiment in radical social mobility.

Those ideas, those assumptions about being able to become anyone and anything, have been weakened in the past twenty years or so, and I wonder if the B. from Ifland’s essay would be so certain about such ideas if he were to hold forth today. I suspect he would sound a little out of step with what has been happening in the U.S. lately. In this context, I can’t help remembering a claim made by Caryl Emerson in her 1986 book on Boris Godunov and the story of the Pretender in Russian cultural history. After spending some time exploring the Russian intelligentsia’s preoccupation with telling and re-telling the stories of its own past, searching for Russia’s present and future, as it were, she notes:

This search for a national identity through a re-creation of the past was, to be sure, a general European project. But it was pursued with particular intensity in Russia, where there has always been a special orientation toward historical experience. The past has weighed heavily on Russia’s present. […] There is also the general preoccupation of the Russian intelligentsia with their nation’s identity, and the presumption that certain historical periods hold the key. But a larger reason embraces all of these: to a much greater extent than Americans, Russians have tended to believe in a closed future.

I’ve emphasized the last line because it relates to the topic in question. We could flip it around: “to a much greater extent than Russians, Americans have tended to believe in an open future.” This can come to look absurd when those same Americans think they can make themselves into other people simply by “identifying as.” But is it surprising that certain groups in the U.S., those most enabled by the experiment in capitalist-based mobility that has been one of the country’s most lasting contributions, would internalize such assumptions, even become pseudo-evangelists for the cause?

The thing is, as I say, I’m not sure people think this way nearly as much as they used to, and the disparaties of wealth and access in the country have tended to weaken this old “American ethic.” Those most enabled by the mobility experiment constitute a group we can identify. It’s not everyone. I wonder if Emerson still thinks her claim is true today. She’ll be coming to Bloomington for a talk in a few weeks, barring travel restrictions. I plan on asking.

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