Émile Zola’s Nana:

The Greek Translation and Reception of a Challenging Sexual Discourse in the Late Nineteenth Century

20 December 2023

Panagiota Vogiatzi  University of Birmingham

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Nana is the ninth part of Rougon-Macquart, the collective cycle of twenty novels by Émile Zola. The novel first appeared in installments in the French newspaper Le Voltaire in the fall of 1879. The entire novel was published in February 1880 and 55,000 copies were sold on the first day, making it the second biggest success of Zola's novels. French critical discourse of the time associated the text with pornography, and so Zola was accused of writing obscene literature. Aside from the novel’s sexual non-normativity, critics also reacted to its naturalistic discourse and thus its detailed sexual imagery and explicit descriptions of social decay and corruption. However, the interest and fascination of readers continued unabated.

The French novel was introduced into Greek literature only a few months after its first publication in France. It was first circulated in instalments by the Greek journal Rampagas in late 1879, though the journal ceased publication of the text quite quickly. However, the novel was published as an independent edition in the summer of 1880 in Ioannis Kampouroglou’s translation. The text introduced naturalistic discourse into Greek literature of the time, and thus detailed depictions of social depravity and images of transgressive sexual desires questioning then every kind of social and sexual normativity. Unsurprisingly, advocates of a more romanticised literature tried to block the spread of a naturalistic, socially and sexually revealing discourse in the country and this was the reason for the initial interruption of publication in Rampagas (Galaios, 2011:106). In particular, the Greek critic Aggelos Vlachos expressed concern about the possible effects of the novel on the health and morality of readers and the danger to Greek literary production if it began to incorporate original texts like Nana (Vlachos, 1879:789-795). The Greek translation of the text has indeed been extensively debated by scholars. Their primary focus has been on the novel’s linguistic and narratological evolution within Greece, particularly its influential role in cultivating realistic/naturalistic texts within Greek literature (Vitti 31991; Tonnet 1999). In my PhD project, I delve into the Greek translations of specific French novels from the late nineteenth and early 20th century that feature influential depictions of female same-sex desire, and examine how sexual discourse and knowledge undergo rewriting and resignification in diverse cultural contexts. Therefore, in terms of the Greek translation of Nana the focus is turned to the exploration of the disruptive sexual discourse inherent in the text. This analysis will encompass its translation and reception within the specific context of late 19th-century Greek literature, representing a significant departure from previous research efforts.

The novel depicts how heredity and contemporary social milieu lead to the moral and sexual decline and eventually the death of Nana. Moreover, the entire French narrative revolves around her sex life, her freely expressed passion for both men and women, and her rejection of marriage, motherhood, and monogamy. She constitutes a queer female figure who indulges in different kinds of sexual desire and experiences her sexuality as something fluid and never stable. One of the conceptualizations of “queer” in my research is that which describes persons, acts, performances that are at odds with what is socially and culturally considered “normal”, legitimate, dominant, and “healthy” (Weeks, 2012:526). “Queer” also represents the “taboo breaker”, the “monstrous”, and the “uncanny” (Case, 1991:3) that goes against patriarchy and naturalised notions of gender and sexual desire. Therefore, I consider Nana a queer female character because throughout the narrative she is a troubling being who challenges normative assumptions about female gender and female sexuality and struggles with the patriarchal system and its male and female representatives. Nana's story is more than just the story of a “degenerate prostitute” with an “uncontrolled” or “hypersexual” desire. Her story is about how a woman deconstructs the “myths” of “female nature”, “female sexual passivity”, and “female inferiority”, rejects male dominance, and cares mainly about herself, her happiness, and her sexual desire. So, Nana, using Sara Ahmed’s terms, “kills the joy” of patriarchy (Ahmed, 2017), as she is not made happy by the “right things”, while this “unhappiness” gradually generates anxiety, reaction, instability, and reproach against the heteronormative narrative system. Therefore, she is narratively “punished” by being gradually identified with degeneration and corruption. She experiences the violence, oppression, pain, and eventual death that many other fictional and nonfictional queer beings have experienced (Sedgwick, 1993:9).

The Greek translation of the novel was carried out by Ioannis Kampouroglou, also known as Flox. The novel was presented with the subtitle that underlined both the scandal it had provoked, and the literary movement it belonged to “notorious novel of the naturalistic school”. This experienced translator took on the task of introducing readers, writers, and critics to a literary discourse that sheds any didactic purpose, does not serve any national agenda, and does not adhere to moralistic conventions. It brimmed with detailed and often raw descriptions that place at the forefront the voices, images, and thoughts of previously invisible subjects in literature. So, in its Greek translation, Zola’s novel remained a naturalistic and scandalous text, preserving its vividness, analytical depth, and frankness, particularly concerning the negotiation and representation of issues surrounding sex. It was a narrative that centrally situated and openly described sexual desire, the dominance of sexual instincts, and the complexity of sexual pleasures, which were meticulously inscribed on the body of a woman. The latter, then, from being a site of male violence, power, and oppression, transformed into a realm of sensual delights.

Throughout the target text, a disruptive, innovative, and enlightening sexual knowledge was indeed constructed. Consequently, the Greek reading public at the end of the nineteenth  century had the opportunity to delve into descriptions of a woman who experienced sexual arousal to “the point of madness” (Zola, 1880: 576), gain insights into how a woman could engage in sexual encounters with prostitutes (Zola, 1880: 576), and discover which women were referred to as “tribades” (Zola, 1880: 336). Moreover, the same audience also learned that a woman could love herself primarily, care for her own sexual satisfaction, and experience sexual desire for her own naked body (Ζολά, 1880: 286). The narrative provided a multitude of images depicting how a woman could provoke intense sexual arousal, stimulate, and profoundly affect men, even leading to the “scandalization of their nervous system” (Zola, 1880: 45). Therefore, the knowledge shared with this wide Greek readership emphasized that sexual desire is not limited to heterosexuality and reaffirmed the notion that a woman is more than a mere sexual object; she can also be a bearer of sexual instincts.

Until the translation of Nana in 1880, Greek literature was full of representations that conformed to gender divisions, aiming at the ideological consolidation and stabilization of power structures. While men symbolized dominance, intelligence, the progress of the nation, and evolution, women, always subordinated to men (whether fathers or lovers/husbands), were expected to remain silent and bear children. In other words, women were identified with images and roles that were designed and formulated within the framework of patriarchy, defining them as weak and obedient “Others”, whose primary value lay in motherhood, fulfilling a biblical moral duty. The beautiful, fragile, and passive female figures of the romantic period of Greek literature embodied the “angels of the house”, exemplifying obedient femininity that proclaimed complete dependence and submission to male power and desire (Kalaouzi, 2007: 276). In contrast to all of this, Nana is positioned as a subject that deconstructs patriarchal myths, dismantles gender stereotypes, and shows in the most analytical and graphic way that a female subject can have a fluid sexuality, use her body as she pleases every time, be indifferent to marriage and motherhood, subjugate instead of being subjugated.

Greek literature may not have explored queer beings like Nana, but Greek medical scientists had already developed the terminology, symptoms, and categorizations for individuals engaging in similar acts. They had established evaluative frameworks for biopolitically controlling human lives, encompassing their sexual and social behaviors. In the 1870s, Greek forensic physicians and psychiatrists, scholars funded by the Greek state, who studied in Paris, such as Achilles Georgantas and Simon Apostolidis, gradually began returning to Greece. Indeed, these scholars brought with them essential sexological terminology and knowledge, enabling the examination of human bodies and the establishment of “objective truths” concerning issues of gender and sexuality (Tzanaki, 2019: 12-13). In the realm of their scientific studies, discourses began to be crafted and circulated, “illuminating” previously unmentioned and obscure aspects of human bodies, lives, and sexual desires that had long remained in the shadows until that time.

Thus, in Greece, medicine became the first discipline to participate in this intense transformation of the human body, transforming it from an “individual phenomenon” to a “social body” and a “medicalized subject” necessitating examination, surveillance, and control over the deviations of its sexual instincts (Papanikolaou, 2010: 207). My argument is that, together with this medicolegal discourse translated and introduced in Greece, the Greek translation of Nana in 1880 acted as a catalyst for Greek literature to actively engage in the discussions, examinations, and the exercise of authority over queer bodies and sexualities. The target text of Nana demonstrates that the exploration of sexual perversions should not be limited to the realm of physicians, nor should it be exclusively relegated to forensic manuals. Instead, these explorations can serve as a central theme in literature, reaching wider audiences, encouraging open debate, creating discourse that can make act become more visible and speakable. Consequently, Greek authors realized that a literary discourse vividly depicting queer bodies and sexualities could not only be part of foreign literary productions but also be translated and freely circulated within the Greek context.

Upon closer examination of the linguistic identification and significance of Nana, it becomes evident that she is consistently portrayed throughout the narrative as corrupt, morally depraved, sexually obsessed, and uncontrollable. While the usage of this vocabulary initially aimed to describe and subsequently “pathologize” female queerness, which is partially confirmed by the introduction and use of medical terms to address sexual issues, the discourse and knowledge the text promoted in Greek literary production went beyond this. If one attempts to reread moments of Nana’s sexual discourse, one is likely to find what both Castle and Ross have suggested: that behind the apparent attempt to condemn sexual queerness, this vocabulary can inadvertently open up new discursive horizons and help bring queer beings into readers’ consciousness and make them more visible and speakable (Castle 2003:16; Ross 2015:15). So, Nana’s vocabulary could be evaluated for its promotion of a variety of linguistic ways to “talk” about queer sexual desires and feelings. In addition, it provoked a broader understanding that sexuality is not only heterosexual but can also be vicious, uncontrolled, and tribadic. Last but not least, it provided writers with a great example of how to present and name queer sexual desires and address sexual issues from a more direct, explicit, and inclusive perspective.

Starting from Kampouroglou’s translation, Greek production at the end of the century created a sexual discourse and knowledge that began to bring to light what had previously remained hidden, unmentioned and in the dark. Drawing inspiration from Nana, some Greek authors embraced this direction in the 1890s creating an intriguing mosaic of images around female sexual instincts and their “perversions” (e.g., Neapolitis 1893; Spandonis 1893). Consequently, Greek literature increasingly shifted its focus toward female sexual desires that disrupted and subverted the prevailing patriarchal order. The groundwork had been laid, and the following century would enrich the Greek literary archive with the voices and narratives of female creators who would offer their own interpretations of queer femininities.



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The cover of the Greek edition of the novel, Nana, in 1880
The cover of the Greek edition of the novel, Nana, in 1880

Panagiota Vogiatzi is a Ph.D. candidate in Comparative Literature at the University of Birmingham. Vogiatzi holds a BA in Medieval and Modern Greek Philology and a MA in Modern Greek Philology from the University of Ioannina. Her dissertation focuses on the comparative study of the different representations and conceptualizations of female queerness in French and Greek literature (1880-1940). She also analyses the Greek translations of certain French novels from this period that contain influential representations of female same-sex desire, and examines how sexual discourse and knowledge are rewritten and resignified in different cultural contexts. Her research interests lie in comparative literature and translation studies and their interaction with feminist and queer theories. She is particularly interested in cultural and historical understandings of and reactions to perceived “female sexual abnormality” and those female subjects who transgress the gendered expectations placed upon them.