Aimée Duc’s Are They Women?: Translation as an Act of Literary Recovery

[Margaret Sönser Breen and Nisha Kommattam share their thoughts on translating and editing the new Broadview edition of Are They Women? as an act of literary recovery.]

The idea of translating Aimée Duc’s remarkable lesbian novel from 1901 began some four years ago. Margaret Sönser Breen was reading a study of fin-de-siècle German culture and encountered a brief mention of the novel: a lesbian text with a happy ending. How unusual; how exciting. The one-sentence description invited a number of questions, both about the text and about LGBTQ+ scholarship. Was the novel still in print? It wasn’t. Had it ever been translated into English and was any edition available? Yes and no: it had been partially translated in the early 1980s, and was no longer in print. Were there any critical discussions of the novel? A handful of excellent pieces, not many; most of the responses, cursory. Why hadn’t the novel received more attention? And what about Aimée Duc: why wasn’t she better known? Who was she, and was she lesbian? Three years ago, Breen and Nisha Kommattam set out to pursue these questions concerning the novel and its groundbreaking though largely forgotten author. Their research has yielded the most comprehensive discussion of Duc’s life and work to date.

Aimée Duc was the pen name of Mina (or Minna) Adelt-Duc, who in so many ways personified the New Woman figure: a professional writer deeply invested in her autonomy and mobility. Born in 1867 in Breslau, East Prussia, she grew up far to the west, in the border city of Strasbourg, where both French and German were spoken, and whose biculturalism informed her own public persona. A businesswoman, journalist, editor, and travel and fiction writer, she lived for several years in Berlin before moving to Cairo and then Calcutta, only returning to Germany in the mid-1920s. She married and divorced twice.

In the 1890s, Adelt-Duc made a name for herself as a women’s rights advocate with two projects: an undercover account of the difficult living and working conditions that female factory workers faced; and the first German women’s cycling magazine that, offering wide-ranging discussions of sport, fashion, and women’s rights, she founded and edited.  

Less than a decade later, Adelt-Duc, under her pen name, published Sind es Frauen? Roman über das dritte Geschlecht, which Breen and Kommattam have translated as Are They Women? A Novel Concerning the Third Sex. The short novel is a fun, accessible read that encodes autobiographical features of Adelt-Duc’s own life. The novel also fluently participates in turn-of-the-century feminist debates and discussions of the third sex, a scientific term for people who defied gender and sexual norms—the protagonist, as well as most of her associates, do both. Minotschka Fernandoff is an adventurous university student; her love interest, a Polish countess. Other women circling around the pair include medical students, representatives of the first generations of European women allowed to pursue higher learning; a young French actress; and a Russian gynecologist turned anarchist—these last two both attracted to Minotschka, even as the one’s inexperience and the other’s severity get them nowhere. Set primarily in Geneva, Munich, and Paris, the novel provides tourist-friendly descriptions of the cities and their environs, even as it recounts the romance of Minotschka and her countess: their love; their near-heartbreak; and, ultimately, their joyful reunion.

Are They Women? is well worth literary recovery. While its style may be lacking, its storyline is fun. It is also bold. The novel offers insight into the lives of women who loved women in late-nineteenth- and twentieth-century Central Europe—how they were able to meet; develop networks of support; pursue passion; and build lives together in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Central Europe. Are They Women? also complicates the standard scholarly narrative insisting that, with few exceptions, happy endings were reserved for the lesbian heroines of post-1969 fiction. First published by a popular German press and, within a decade, reissued by another, it is less an exception than an invitation: an invitation to recognize and recover the literary and social performances of women who loved women at the turn of the century. It is in this spirit that Breen and Kommattam have translated and edited the novel.

Posted on October 14, 2020