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From Work to Tech: Digital Archives and Queer Narratives

What size is a queer story?

—Wendy Moffat, “The Narrative Case for Queer Biography”[1]

Contemporary genealogies of transgender are now returning to the scene of the modern, for the modernist era witnessed tremendous change in concepts of sexual and gender identity. In turn, contemporary modernist scholarship is returning to fin de siècle sexology. Michael Levenson in Modernism (2011) makes the case for the sexologist’s case study as an experimental modernist narrative form.[2] In 2016 Benjamin Kahan published Heinrich Kaan’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1844): A Classic Text in the History of Sexuality and edited a cluster for Modernism/modernity’s Print Plus platform on “sexual modernity.”[3] And currently we, with Nikolaus Wasmoen, are co-editing the first comparative scholarly edition of Man into Woman (1933), the life narrative of “Lili Elbe,” who, as Einar Wegener, was one of the first people to undergo gender confirmation surgery in 1930.[4] Thinking about the display of this text in both print and digital versions raises an interesting set of connections between transgender theory and a theory of the literary work as an historical artifact.

Flowchart of various editions.
Fig.1. Flow chart of various editions.

Translating Transgender

Title page from Fra Mand til Kvinde, omitting any identifying information about the author.
Fig. 2. Title page from Fra Mand til Kvinde, omitting any identifying information about the author.

What’s fascinating about this work is that the narrative of the 1931 Danish first edition differs significantly from the 1932 German edition and both from the 1933 British and American editions, which were translated from the German. And not simply because of their different languages. All four editions vary in terms of narrative elements, pronoun choices, and paratextual materials in ways that affect the reading of gender in this work. Critical essays on this text are actually working with different narratives, depending on the edition used, though many scholars are not aware of this fact or do not have access to editions in other languages. Contemporary transgender and modernist scholars are now recovering this work as the first transgender life narrative, but which work are they reclaiming? And what difference does that make to our historical understanding of transgender and the gender of modernism?

It was the very nature of Lili Elbe’s narrative (whose Danish title, Fra Mand til Kvinde, literally translates as From Man to Woman) that made it so intriguing a project for a digital edition and archive. Not just because of its history as a literary object; its status as a queer text made the prospect of a digital archive all the more compelling. The idea that a literary object may have multiple and varying versions of a narrative that is and is not the same across versions is compatible with the notion of the trans subject who is and is not the same across persons. For it is as difficult to say precisely when the modernist transsexual’s transition from one sex to another begins and ends, when Einar is really Lili, as it is to say when a term like “transsexual” achieves sufficient coherence and stability in modernist discourse as to constitute a distinct identity.[5] The very variability of this narrative, its resistance to being pinned down to any one version, marks the narrative as “queer” as much as does its subject. And that queerness is something to retain in the republication of this story as a digital edition and archive.

As Sabine’s research has shown, Lili Elvenes (Elbe’s legal name) initially worked on a manuscript together with her former wife Gerda Wegener and the Danish journalist Loulou Lassen, but an ill-intentioned article published in the Danish magazine Sandheden in December 1930 resulted in a dropped book option and the end of that particular collaboration. In the wake of her public outing, Elvenes approached Ernst Harthern, a German author and translator based in Copenhagen, to assist her with turning the manuscript into a publishable book. Using the manuscript only as a kind of diary source, Harthern eventually penned an entirely new typescript under his pseudonym Niels Hoyer. Finished after Elvenes’s death in September 1931, this typescript, written in German, served as a template for Fra Mand til Kvinde, the Danish first edition published in December of the same year. No translator is acknowledged in the Danish edition, giving the impression of a work in its original language. It was, however, translated from the German typescript by someone at the publishing house and noticeably edited in the process. The German edition, Ein Mensch wechselt sein Geschlecht (A Man [or person] Changes His Sex), released in November 1932, does not constitute a translation of the Danish first edition but returns to the German typescript and omits a number of passages from the Danish edition. Meanwhile the German publishers demanded more illustrations and more authentication, as this was one of the major objections in the reviews for Fra Mand til Kvinde. Hoyer solved this problem by including a significant number of allegedly authentic letters written by Elvenes in the text, including handwriting samples meant to illustrate the dramatic change after the first operation. The additional letters, however, are most likely fabricated and ascribed to Elvenes’s hand to consolidate the narrative the German publishers wished to convey.[6

The German edition became the source text for Henry James Stenning’s English translation, published in Britain and America in 1933 under the title Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex. The true story of the miraculous transformation of the Danish painter Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparre).[7] Apart from translational errors and linguistic refinements, the changes are predominantly paratextual: a new and expanded set of illustrations and captions, which differ in the two versions; and the addition of an introduction by the British sexologist Norman Haire, which takes the book back to a case study model à la Richard von Krafft-Ebing or Magnus Hirschfeld, something the previous editions had overcome.

As Sabine points out, technically the Danish first edition resulted from the collaboration of six individuals and a publishing house: Lili Elvenes and Gerda Wegener; Poul Knudsen, their friend, who supplied the records they kept; Loulou Lassen, who assembled the records; Ernst Harthern, who turned the records into the German typescript; Lili’s doctor, Kurt Warnekros, who proofed the typescript; and Hage and Clausens Forlag, the firm that published and edited the typescript, translated into Danish.[8] The distributed authorship and the four versions in three languages make this text especially suitable for a comparative scholarly digital edition and archive. But it also requires a rethinking of the nature of the work itself, and suggests an analogous relation between the trans subject and the literary object as mutable, dynamic phenomena rather than fixed, stable bodies.[9] This work, then, raises the question, “What is the scale of the literary object?,” on multiple levels: the level of the narrative itself, the level of translation, the level of its technological rendering in a digital edition and archive.

Title page from Man Into Woman, which identifies only the name of the editor.
Fig. 3. Title page from Man Into Woman, which identifies only the name of the editor.

Discrete ways of presenting and selling the narrative and thereby ascribing varied concepts of agency to the protagonist are found in the different editions and versions of this work. Fra Mand til Kvinde (fig. 2) omits identifying an author and only offers a suggestion in the subtitle, Lili Elbes Bekendelser (Lili Elbe’s Confessions). This strengthens the aforementioned image of an original text. In the German edition “Lili Elbe” heads the title page and consequently occupies the author space, while Niels Hoyer, the Danish-sounding pseudonym Harthern adopted for this work, is credited as the editor of the text. The English-language versions (fig. 3) do not specify an author but only the editor. The crucial aspect of those title pages, however, is that the name “Lili Elbe” does not appear. By describing it as the story of Einar Wegener, those title pages erase the identity of the subject altogether. More confusing still, the Royal Library in Copenhagen catalogs the work under the name Einar Wegener (fig. 4).[10]

Thus, one cannot point to any one edition and say “this is Lili's story,” even though her story is often claimed as the first transgender life narrative. The various versions cannot be reconciled, not only because the work’s distributed authorship complicates any notion of “intention,” but because linguistic choices represent competing understandings of what we now call transgender.

As an example of how translation variants affect the reading of gender, consider the opening paragraph of chapter XI of the American edition (chapter XIII in the Danish edition).

The next morning news came from Professor Kreutz in Dresden. Everything was ready for the patient’s reception. If the patient’s physical state allowed, the journey to Dresden might be undertaken immediately. But before going it was desirable to pay a visit to Doctor Karner, who had tested Andreas’ blood barely a fortnight previously, to enable him to take a test of the patient’s blood after the first operation.[11]

The Danish version reads, “Alt var parat til, at Patienten kunde komme, saafremt hendes Tilstand tillod hende at gøre Rejsen til Dresden” (“Everything was ready for the patient to come, should her conditions allow her to undertake the journey to Dresden”).[12] In the English translation, the only pronoun used is “him,” referring to Dr. Karner. In the Danish version, however, “hende” or “her” is used in reference to the patient.[13] In the Danish version, the reader is primed to see Andreas as Lili even before the operation, suggesting that the operation will resolve the misattribution of gender, making the body conform to the gender identity. In the English translation, the awkward avoidance of the pronoun raises the question of just when the trans subject in this narrative is recognized as the other sex. The inconsistency of pronouns among these versions mirrors the phase of confusion and consolidation of identity the narrative suggests.

A translation error in the American edition further confuses the temporal trajectory of the narrative in interesting ways. The sentence reads, “And this fanatical aversion from the enjoyment of tobacco in every form he [Andreas] inherited from Lili” (Man Into Woman, 129, emphasis added). In the Danish version, as in the German edition, it reads: “and this distaste for smoking was inherited by Lili” (Fra Mand til Kvinde, 81, emphasis added). Logically, the German and the Danish versions make sense, but the English translation may suggest to a reader that Lili is the dominant identity, that Andreas has been Lili all along. Indeed, the Danish edition keeps the identities of Andreas and Lili separate more strongly

The Royal Library binding of the Danish edition.
Fig. 4. The Royal Library binding of the Danish edition.

than does the English-language translation. For example, in the American edition, Lili imagines saying to her sister, whom she visits after the first operation, “I want to be as pretty and ladylike as all other well-groomed women,” whereas in the Danish this reads, “I would like that Lili should be as pretty and ladylike” (Man Into Woman, 232; Fra Mand til Kvinde, 146, emphasis added), making Andreas the implicit referent of the pronoun “I.” Although the conversation with her sister may trigger an instability in Lili’s identity, the shift between first and third person pronouns in this narrative is itself indicative of the difficulty of narrating a life in two genders. The instability of Lili’s identity is mirrored in the instability of the work itself.

Later, when Lili’s friend Claude tells Lili stories of their time in Paris (before the operation), the English-language versions read, “until her whole memory, as if awakened from darkness, now seemed to her like an iridescent firmament”; in Danish it reads, “as if her memory was untangled from the fog that had separated her two worlds” (“som om hendes Erindring vikledes ud af den Taage, der havde skilt hendes to Verdener”) (Man Into Woman, 262; Fra Mand til Kvinde, 170). “Firmament” is a spatial metaphor suggesting an expanse without any break. “Two worlds” implies a territorial division, a stark separation. The English-language translation presents gender as a continuum, as do the German edition and typescript, which also use “firmament”; only the Danish edition reinforces the notion of an absolute difference.

Similarly, paratextual material, such as the captions for illustrations, affects the gender tone of the narrative. In some captions Andreas and Lili are separate subjects while others seem to elide that distinction. For example, the illustration facing page 136 of the American edition identifies the model as Lili, whereas the German edition (where the illustration appears on page 32) identifies the model as “Andreas Sparre as Lili” (fig. 5). Yet in general the American edition is invested in upholding the male identity in its captions. For example, the illustration facing page 112 of the American edition identifies the woman in the photograph as “Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparre) as Lili (Elbe),” while the caption for the same photo in the British edition says simply “Lili (Elbe)” (fig. 6).

Editing Transgender

Our edition will make no effort to choose which version, which word choice, which phrasing best represents Lili’s story. The work’s composite authorship and complex publication history make Jerome McGann’s concept of social text, which attributes textual authority to the cumulative social history of a work in all its versions, far more appropriate for this scholarly edition than the notion of copy text based on authorial intention.[14] According to McGann, the basis of copy-text editing, the search for final intentions, misunderstands the nature of authorship. It elides the social contingencies of the production, publication, dissemination, and reception of literary works, greatly expanding the “scale” of the work.

Yet the Fredson Bowers theory of textual editing, which long prevailed in textual studies, especially at the University of Virginia where Pamela was a graduate student in the 1980s, laid the foundation for recovery work following WWII. As W. Speed Hill says in his 2003 presidential address to the Society for Textual Scholarship, “editorial projects that reclaimed [authorial] intentions could be seen as constituting a vital mission of cultural rescue.”[15] Cultural rescue is a vital mission for queer and transgender scholars today. When it comes to the rescue of Elbe’s narrative, however, such intentions are not only unreliable, if even obtainable, but undesirable. Confusion in terminology and gender pronouns, even translation errors, are not something we should simply clear up in terms of our present understanding of transgender, as if setting the record straight. Rather, that confusion is part of the experience of gender and sexuality in the modernist era, something to be realized and negotiated in readings of this narrative.

Our job will be to help readers negotiate the various forms of the narrative, to read it not as an “authentic record” but as a modernist experimental work that offers, in Levenson’s words, “a new metaphysics of character . . . an overlay of past and present” (Modernism, 83). The digital component of our edition will enable scholars and students to read all versions together in a way no print edition could, allowing readers to create their own route through the narrative, their own versions of the story, making readers literally producers of the text. The ability to display all the versions of Elbe’s story—not just the four editions but the typescript, the Sandheden article, a foreword attributed to Elbe though never published, letters, and accounts published in other contexts, such as Hélène Allatini’s 1939 memoir Mosaïques with a 42-page chapter on Elbe’s story—allows the reader to produce a new version, and all of these versions constitute the corpus of this digital edition and archive. Technology’s capacity to expand the literary object and render it infinitely malleable—or more precisely, its capacity to access the literary object’s inherent expansiveness—destabilizes the boundaries of a work and the limits of authority in ways that Roland Barthes anticipated fifty years ago when he re-conceptualized the literary work as text.

Barthes’s 1971 essay “From Work to Text” gave us a new object of study.[16] Text is not simply a new term for a literary work; rather, text is a new way of conceiving the object of study, changing the questions we ask and the approaches we take to the study of literature. A text is not a material object but a “methodological field,” writes Barthes, experienced “only in an activity, in a production” (“From Work to Text,” 57, 58, emphasis removed). Where a work occupies a space (on a library shelf, for instance), a text is an “interdisciplinary activity,” as is the digital archive (56, emphasis in original). The change in object, as work mutates into text, is less a rupture than an epistemological shift, Barthes writes. Yet its technical realization, we might say, marks an ontological shift in the object itself, not as realized in language (as Barthes says of the text) but in data. A new ontology is created by the digital archive. The scale of the object has expanded exponentially. The era of digital editions adumbrates a new temporality and spatiality for the modernist work. “[I]f you forego the search for the single, authorially sanctioned, text-as-end-product-of-the-editorial-process,” says Hill, “the logic of your position inexorably drives you beyond the codex and toward the archive” (“From ‘An Age of Editing,’” 40). The digital archive takes us from work to tech.

The American edition (left) identifies the model as Lili, whereas the German edition (right) identifies the model as “Andreas Sparre as Lili.”
Fig. 5. The American edition (left) identifies the model as Lili, whereas the German edition (right) identifies the model as “Andreas Sparre as Lili.”

What Hill identifies as a problem with the digital edition—namely, the inherent instability of computer files that can become inaccessible as encoding practices and technologies change, requiring renewed recovery work—is actually quite appropriate for a queer text. “[C]omputer files are inherently unstable,” Hill says; “they resist identity”—as do queer subjects (44). For Hill, the instability of digital archives “threatens the work we invest in preserving the artifacts we cherish” (43). But the collaboratively-produced, open-access digital archive may well be the most suitable mode of recovery work for fluid subjects like Lili Elbe. For the queer scholar, to quote Matthew Burroughs Price, “The (re)making of queer worlds begins with the salvaging of these literary worlds, artifacts to be taken up in another queer time and place.”[17] The movement away from authorial intention and intrinsic meaning to distributed authorship and fluidity of meaning suggests that the logic of queerness and transgender theory may help us think more expansively, and more historically, about the history of the literary object itself.

The American edition (left) identifies the woman in the photograph as “Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparre) as Lili (Elbe)” while the caption for the same photo in the British edition (right) reads simply “Lili (Elbe).”
Fig. 6. The American edition (left) identifies the woman in the photograph as “Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparre) as Lili (Elbe)” while the caption for the same photo in the British edition (right) reads simply “Lili Elbe.”


[1] Wendy Moffat, “The Narrative Case for Queer Biography,” in Narrative Theory Unbound: Queer and Feminist Interventions (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2015), 210–26, 216.

[2] Michael Levenson, Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001).

[3] Benjamin Kahan, ed. Heinrich Kaan’s “Psychopathia Sexualis” (1844): A Classic Text in the History of Sexuality, trans. Melissa Haynes (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2016); and, “What is Sexual Modernity?,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 1 no. 3 (2016).

[4] Such surgeries were once called “sex reassignment surgery” (SRS). The more recent terminology of gender confirmation gets at Lili’s case more precisely insofar as she felt that she had been a woman all along and thus the surgery affirmed this, correcting an error in nature rather than reassigning Einar Wegener a sex.

[5] The contemporary use of transgender, dating from the 1990s, generally refers to a range of gender nonconforming presentations, lifestyles, and identities including, but not limited to, transsexuals, a term that came into use c.1949 to specify those who desired to change sex through hormonal and surgical intervention. Neither term is historically accurate for Elbe; instead, she would have been understood through the language of sexual intermediaries.

[6] Letters between the editor and the German publisher in Ernst Harthern’s archives suggest the letters were fabricated. Other letters by Lili are extant but none of those were added to the German edition.

[7]Andreas Sparre is the fictional name given to Einar Wegener in the narrative; Gerda is called Grete. All the names are fictionalized.

[8] See Sabine Meyer, “Divine Interventions: (Re)birth and Creation Narratives in Fra Mand til Kvinder,” Kvinder, Køn Forskning 3–4 (2011): 68–76, 70. The translator of the Danish edition, commissioned by the Danish publisher, has not been identified.

[9] We use this term with some hesitation given that Lili Elbe resisted being seen as a “phenomenon” in the sense of a rare case, an exceptional being. We use it here in its meaning as something, an object or sentient being, which appears and an experience whose cause or explanation is in question.

[10] This is why Pamela and her editor John Paul Riquelme decided to refer to the author as Wegener in her 2013 article in Modern Fiction Studies, a choice she has since come to regret. See Pamela L. Caughie, “The Temporality of Modernist Life Writing in the Era of Transsexualism: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Einar Wegener’s Man into Woman,” Modern Fiction Studies 59, no. 3 (2013): 501–25. The first initial on the spine of the Danish edition, P. not E., is an error, as acknowledged by Mikala Brøndsted of The Royal Library.

[11] Man into Woman: An Authentic Record of a Change of Sex. The true story of the miraculous transformation of the Danish painter Einar Wegener (Andreas Sparre), ed. Niels Hoyer, trans. H. J. Stenning (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1933), 145.

[12] Fra Mand til Kvinde: Lili Elbes Bekendelser (Copenhagen: Hage and Clausens, 1931), 94. Danish translations are by Marianne Ølholm.

[13] In the German—“Alles sei zur Aufnahme bereit. Falls der körperliche Zustand des Patienten es im übrigen erlaube, könne sogelich die Reise nach Dresden angetreten werden.” (“Everything would be ready for reception. If the physical condition of the patient permitted him to do so, the journey to Dresden could at once be made”)—the patient is apparently male (Andreas), although “der Patient” can also be neutral (Lili Elbe, Ein Mensch wechselt sein Geschlecht, ed. Niels Hoyer [Dresden: Carl Reissner, 1932], 123–24). German translations are by Sabine Meyer.

[14] See Jerome J. McGann, A Critique of Modern Textual Criticism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1983).

[15] W. Speed Hill, “From ‘An Age of Editing’ to a ‘Paradigm Shift’: An Editorial Retrospect,” Text 16 (2006): 33–47, 34–35.

[16] Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986): 56–64.

[17] Matthew Burroughs Price, “A Genealogy of Queer Detachment,” PMLA 130, no. 3 (2015): 648–65, 661.