Challenging Borders in Anthropology: Translated Woman (Behar, 1993)

What is the aim of ethnography? What is it that anthropologists are trying to offer to the discipline, to the academic community, and to the general public through their writing of insights gained through fieldwork? A topic of great concern among anthropologists today, the question of purpose (and therefore, the question of methodology) is far from settled. Instead, this dilemma seems to be further complicating dialog among anthropologists, for different attitudes about postmodern theory lead ethnographers to have different goals for and assumptions about the nature of fieldwork. This produces varied expectations about ethnographic writing--whether it should be analytical or purely descriptive; objective or "confessional" (Van Maanen 1988:Ch. 4, Hammersley 1990:21); historical or fictional--and to judgments about the relative values of each of these approaches.

Ruth Behar's Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story, published in 1993, arrived in the midst of these serious theoretical questions. Both praised and criticized for her postmodern approach to the life history of a Mexican woman, Behar began this book with the purpose of bringing across the border to el otro lado, "the other side," the story of Esperanza in her own words, free from the bias of Western theory. Behar finds, however, that late night conversations with this woman in her mint green kitchen bring up issues relating to her own life--issues which convince Behar of remarkable parallels between her life and Esperanza's. She feels bound to take the book beyond a simple translation. The result is a largely "confessional" approach, one which describes Esperanza's experiences while including references to Behar's history and to personal insights gained through the fieldwork.

The most significant contribution of the book to anthropological literature, then, is that Behar includes the story of her own struggles with Esperanza's narrative. Following recent trends in confessional, even autobiographical ethnography, Behar is upholding a postmodern theoretical approach while "demystifying fieldwork" and writing in a style easily accessible to both students and professionals (Van Maanen 1988:73). Since the validity of this approach is key to the validity of her book, much of the controversy surrounding Behar's Translated Woman is based on opposition to and support of postmodern theory, and we must consider the implications of such a position for anthropology.

Translated Woman is the story of an exceptional Mexican peddler, a woman who arouses the reader's sympathy and admiration as she fights back against endless intolerable relationships in an unjust patriarchal society. Behar's aim is to portray her as such, while including a final autobiographical chapter to illustrate the similar hardships endured by women in different cultures. Her goal is not to make a definitive statement about Esperanza's culture, but to probe into the life of Esperanza herself. Behar is interested in kinship, religion, economy, and other anthropological concepts, but not in their traditional abstract form. She does not comment on social structure as did Radcliffe-Brown, nor does she focus on the functions of certain cultural features as did White (Langness [1974]1993:84-128). Instead, Behar approaches her task with a greater emphasis on subject matter than on theory, although her postmodern feminist ideology is evident throughout the book.

Behar has realized her stated objective having translated for readers in the United States Esperanza's story. Her descriptions are vivid, her writing is well-organized, and her presentation, overall, is effective. Additionally, Behar has achieved an implied objective: to challenge her Western readers to reconsider their roles in a culture which still perpetuates inequities both within itself and also in its relationships with less powerful peoples. In the sense that she has realized her intentions, then, Translated Woman is a success. A careful analysis of this work, however, must consider its validity and relevance beyond the scope of her proposed objectives.

The validity of Behar's work may be assessed by consideration of her major claims, the evidence used to support these claims, and the strength of her conclusions (Hammersley 1990:Ch. 4). Her major claims are that Esperanza's coraje, "rage," has been a defining feature in her life, that her fight against victimization has made her an exceptional, if marginal, member of her community, and that anthropology should be reevaluated and restructured to promote a more self-reflective, while native-centered, ethnography. Reviewers clearly disagree about the final autobiographical section in the book (that which most exemplifies the confessional style), while several reviewers commend Behar for her approach to the translation and interpretation of Esperanza's story.

The first two claims, related to the raw material of Esperanza's life and to how Behar shares this information, often are combined in reviews. Perera, for example, comments on Behar's portrayal of coraje and "search for redemption through suffering," commending Behar's close relationship with Esperanza which allows her a more intimate understanding, while questioning the potential reactivity of such a relationship. He claims that Behar has gone too far, even in describing Esperanza's life, because she is too personally involved and loses her objective approach (1993:290-291). Soldatenko, on the other hand, writes that the book's weakest point is its lack of interpretive analysis:

Behar translates the Mexican Esperanza (a social, political, and cultural being struggling in Mexico's informal economy) into an exotic woman who peddles her vegetables and engages in spiritism. Behar recognizes these other dimensions of Esperanza but does not comment on them (1994:273-4).

Otherwise challenging the book's self-searching tone, Scheper-Hughes holds that Behar is an objective listener, "making herself appropriately small against the largeness of her subject" (1993:22). Perez finds a strength in Behar's methodology, asserting that the translation of oral history is "vital...for gathering women's narratives" (1994:837). If the methodology is a valid one and utilized effectively, then the ethnography itself, more likely, is valid.

Of those commending Behar's approach, only Stivens directly addresses Esperanza's coraje, stating that it is portrayed as "more than an emotional state." More effectively, Stivens contends, it is communicated as "an illness state that Behar sees as forming part of Mexican women's realm of suffering and healing and, for Esperanza, a central metaphor for reflecting upon her condition as a woman under patriarchy" (1995:708). One might argue here that Esperanza would not consider her life in the context of "patriarchy," and that this is a particularly Western feminist projection.

Behar's claims regarding Esperanza's coraie and victimization are questioned by many due to the two women's intimate, exclusive communication. Behar, throughout most of the book, offers only Esperanza's voice. For example, she does not comment on cultural conditions which may have led to high infant mortality rates. Instead, Esperanza tells us that she is responsible for the deaths of six of her children who were poisoned by her breast milk because she could not control her coraje (Behar 1993:69). We do not find a clear cultural explanation of why Esperanza returned to her abusive relationships and then finally decided that she would no longer be a victim. In place of a cultural statement about domestic violence, then, is a purposeful focus on Esperanza's personal experiences and reactions (1993:129). We learn that Esperanza is exceptional--that using her anger to empower her is not something normally accomplished by Mexican women of her status. But we do not learn what it is to be a Mexican woman, and Behar's translation could leave some thinking that culture has had little, if any, impact on Esperanza's personality.

Behar's use of oral history adds a further complication to the validity of her work. Basing almost all of her knowledge on Esperanza's memory of her life is effective and colorful, offering a direct experiential account of Esperanza's life. The accuracy of the information, however, is dependent on the quality of Esperanza's memory, her motives in sharing her story with Behar, and her selective omission of those parts of her life about which she feels uncomfortable speaking, most notably her sexuality (1993:92). Our understanding of Esperanza's culture ultimately is based on the translation of Esperanza's "native" voice, with minimal assistance from Behar as "insider" (Cerroni-Long 1995).

The third major claim is the most controversial, for it addresses directly the theoretical direction of anthropology. Although the purpose of this review is not to critique postmodern ideology, we must consider the implications of this approach as it relates to Behar's work. She contends that we must challenge anthropology to go beyond traditional analysis--to accept that "the border between history and story, reality and fiction, is a fluid one" (1993:16). She struggles with the interpretation of Esperanza's life from her own feminist perspective, finally concluding that Esperanza cannot be defined within the constructs of Western feminism (1993:296-297). This approach encourages a healthy cultural relativity, reminding us "of the dangers of imposing Western feminist values on the actions of women of color in developing nations" (Soldatenko 1994:273).

Behar's next assertion, however, is that she found it difficult to consider certain concepts such as economics, politics, and history as they related to Esperanza's life (1993:269). Here she moves from cultural relativity to the problematic ground of virtually omitting culture from the equation of the individual. Stivens compliments her efforts, reinforcing Behar's claim that an attempt to link the individual (Esperanza) with "these wider structures" was "difficult, reductionist, and potentially epistemologically violent" (Behar 1993:269 quoted in Stivens 1995:709). Aponte-Ramos concurs on this point (1994:152-153). The problem in this statement is that neither Behar nor the others offer an alternative approach, contributing to what Hammersley has criticized as a rejection of "universal, deterministic, sociological ... (and probabilistic) law" which is weakening the legitimate stance of ethnographic work (1992:93).

The conclusions in Translated Woman are prescriptive, focusing on her relationship to Esperanza and on what Western culture (and, more immediately, anthropology) could do to reduce or eliminate the all too common struggles of women in patriarchal institutions. To a certain degree, she is apologetic, staying true to her confessional mode by describing the discomfort she has felt for her privileged position. This fact must be considered in the face of criticism, which accuses Behar of exploiting Esperanza for personal gain and success in her profession. Soldatenko is most harsh in this regard:

Behar is trapped by the sins of ethnography and anthropology (because she) objectifies women of different races and ethnicities and never grapples with the power differences between herself, the white researcher, and her 'de-indianized' comrade and subject of her study (1994:273).

Perera contends that Behar's close relationship to Esperanza "opens the book to accusations of privilege and conflict of interest that are potentially harmful to both women" (Perera 1993:291). Behar clearly states, however, that her work has been aimed at precisely this disparity, that she has struggled to understand what has brought these two women of unequal economic and social positions to a better understanding of one another (Behar 1993:2-3).

The weakness in Behar's conclusions lies not in the uncomfortable evaluation of her privileged position but in the extent to which she equates her life to Esperanza's. They are from two different cultures, impacted by entirely different social experiences. Comparison between cultures certainly is valuable to anthropology, but Behar does not tell us enough about Mexican culture to justify the dramatic parallels she draws between Esperanza and herself: Behar is not comparing two cultural units; instead, she is stating that two women have experienced the same struggles because of the larger problem of patriarchal control. While the piece is a valid criticism of Western culture, it is inappropriate for Behar to consider herself a comadre or "fellow literary wetback and victim of the patriarchy" (Perera 1993:292).

Translated Woman, while it does not address the need for a scientific study of culture, nevertheless is important to anthropology. Aponte-Ramos holds that Behar's confessional style embodies a dichotomy which "makes (her) book a valuable contribution to ethnography" (1994:153), and Frank claims that it "promotes a radical (and feminist) agenda of breaking down prescripted categories of women's experiences" (1995:359). Even Perera, while criticizing her approach, acknowledges its relevance by portraying Behar's critical consideration of anthropology and Academia as "right in step with the current crisis of identity in the social sciences...[Behar is] a standard-bearer of feminist ethnography" (1993:291). Behar's questions--about the role of ethnography, about ethics in fieldwork and representation, and about the value of personal reflection in anthropological work--are timely and pertinent. In denying the value of other perspectives, however, she suggests changes in anthropology which would limit, instead of expand, our understanding of cultures.

Ethnographies are not written in an intellectual vacuum. They come from historical trends in anthropology, and they both are affected by and contribute to contemporary discourse in academic disciplines. Behar's call for a more relativistic approach to fieldwork is most relevant in this time of struggle and colonial shame for anthropology. She facilitates the translation of Esperanza's voice across the Mexican border so that Esperanza may speak in the United States--so that she may tell us of her coraje and, ultimately, of her redemption. Behar's final message, however, is more about herself and her culture than it is about Mexican culture. Although her work is an important statement about anthropology and its struggle within a patriarchal tradition, a greater understanding of Mexican culture could have been reached with an analysis of those traits in Esperanza's culture which led her to the empowering coraje that made her capable of leaving her husband and supporting her children alone.

This draws us back to defining the role of ethnography. If our goal is to learn more about ourselves, a self-reflective approach to fieldwork and anthropological writing is most appropriate to the discipline. If we wish to understand more fully the cultures with which we are working and living, then we must endorse a methodology which is "scientific" (consistent and at least partially replicable). And if we hope to integrate both results--to combine a critical self-awareness with an objective understanding of cultures outside our own, then we must value the contributions of varied styles of ethnography, remembering the particular advantages and disadvantages that each brings to the study of human culture.

Behar's book is valuable because it forces academic anthropologists to examine their motives and ethics in fieldwork and ethnography. It is also valuable because it illustrates, by omission, the need for a systematic methodology in any extensive analysis of culture. If anthropology survives its current ideological crisis, then it will emerge stronger for having been questioned, and ethnographies like Translated Woman will be remembered not as methodological successes, but as necessary steps toward a more reflexive anthropology.


Aponte-Ramos, Lola
1994 Translated Woman (Book Review). Anthropological Quarterly 67:152-153.

Behar, Ruth
1993 Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza's Story. Boston: Beacon Press.

Cerroni-Long, E. L.
1995 Insider or Native Anthropology? In Insider Anthropology. E. L. Cerroni-Long, ed. Pp. 1-14. Washington, DC: American Anthropological Association (NAPA Bulletin 16).

Frank, Gelya.
1995 Translated Woman (Book Review). American Anthropologist 97:357-359.

Hammersley, Martyn
1992 What's Wrong with Ethnography? London: Routledge.
1990 Reading Ethnographic Research: A Critical Guide. London: Longman.

Langness, L. L.
1993 (orig. 1974) The Study of Culture. San Francisco: Chandler and Sharp.

Perera, Victor
1993 Translated Woman (Book Review). The Nation 257:290-292.

Perez, E.
1994 Translated Woman (Book Review). Journal of American History 81:836-837.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy
1993 Translated Woman (Book Review). New York Times Book Review, September 5:22.

Soldatenko, Maria Angelina
1994 Translated Woman (Book Review). Gender and Society 8:271-274.

Stivens, Maila K.
1995 Translated Woman (Book Review). Current Anthropology 36:706-709.

Van Maanen, John
1988 Tales of the Field: On Writing Ethnography. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

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