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John Riley 03-14-2021 10:36 AM

Was it an "uproar" or just one journalist trying to make a name for herself?

RCL 03-14-2021 11:28 AM

Solid satire!

Mark McDonnell 03-14-2021 11:36 AM

John, I assume that one journalist, Janice Deul, posted her article on Twitter, the "uproar" then ensued and the publishers capitulated to it. That seems to be the pattern for these things. As to whether the hoopla would be happening if Gorman weren't who she is, writers don't seem to have to be associated with politics or even particularly famous to fall foul of identity related social media fuelled cancellation: see the cases of Michael Dickman and Anders Carlson-Wee in Poetry and The Nation respectively. And the various examples of YA authors that have been dropped by publishers because of Twitter outrage. This example is particularly ridiculous.

John Riley 03-14-2021 12:04 PM

I take the cases one at a time and try to stay off my high horse. The images in the Seuss books the Seuss company wisely decided to not continue publishing looked like something out of Goebbels playbook but that didn't stop Murdoch and company from trying to turn it into the Dreyfus Affair. I guess the thing that riles me the most is cultural appropriation. It is so incredibly small to say we can only be influenced by our own cultures. I recently watched a film that was a homage to Ozu. It's a few years old and I guess today it'd be attacked because the director was European. That is silly. But I live in a land with racism in its marrow bones and in a part of that country that is quickly trying to restore Jim Crow voting restrictions. When people are trying to breathe out of that world silly things may happen, but it's much more important to me to keep the focus on that rather than whether a Booker Prize-winning poet is allowed to translate a book of poetry.

Mark McDonnell 03-14-2021 12:22 PM

Yes, I take the cases one at a time too. I only mentioned those other cases because you wondered whether this would be happening if Gorman weren't so famous. I hope I'm not on a high horse. I do find the phenomenon fascinating and a little troubling, I admit.
There's no reason not to be able to focus on more than one thing. Ultimately, I don't think things like this help further racial justice or equality.

John Riley 03-14-2021 12:31 PM

I don't think hoopla among the educated elite does much for racial equality either. The problem with trying to focus on everything is that some of the things distract or are turned into distractions. In the U.S., this could or is easily be seen as another example of how African Americans or even Dutch Africans won't stop going on about racism and slavery and imperialism or whatever how it's been "over" for over 150 years but they still won't shut up and she was only allowed to read because she was black anyway and and and . . . . The right here have been using these type of things to agitate white people forever. From what I read, this started because of a journalist who becomes better known for creating issues where none exist. It's a shame the translator caved.

Mark McDonnell 03-14-2021 12:46 PM


It's a shame the translator caved
Exactly! Publishers and artists caving too easily is the whole point. They shouldn't. If they didn't it wouldn't be news and the right would have nothing to crow about. But they will continue to cave to silliness like this as long as left-leaning people either believe it to be genuinely progressive or are too scared to call it out. Left-leaning people need to stop giving the right the monopoly on criticising clearly bad ideas.

Julie Steiner 03-14-2021 01:21 PM

Most people are upset NOT about what Janice Deul actually said, but about bad-faith characterizations of it.

That's where stuff is really getting lost in translation.

Bolding mine below, from a republished version of the Washington Post's coverage (in case people want to read the whole thing but don't have access to the WP):


“Isn’t it — to say the least — a missed opportunity to [have hired] Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job?” Dutch Journalist and activist Janice Deul wrote in a piece in Volkskrant, according to the Guardian’s translation. “They are white, nonbinary, have no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff are still the ‘dream translator’?”

Duel asked why instead a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black” — like Gorman sure — was not commissioned.

“I’m not saying a black person can’t translate white work, and vice versa,” Deul told the BBC. “But not this specific poem of this specific orator in this Black Lives Matter area, that’s the whole issue.”
Do people really think that Janice Deul has no right to express an opinion about the translation of this particular poem?

She was not laying down rules for the translation of all works by young, black, female writers.

She was not even restricting the potential pool of translators for all works by Amanda Gorman.

She was only talking about the translation of this one poem.

I am in complete agreement with most of the general points about translation raised in all three of the statements I've seen by people hired to translate this poem (Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, Nuria Barios, Victor Obiols). However only one of these translators--Rijneveld, the Dutch translator who voluntarily stepped down after sympathizing with Deul's sentiments--was responding to Deul's actual objections, rather than to straw men of their own construction.

For example, I can, and will, shout a hearty amen to the content of the penultimate paragraph below.

The context, though, makes it a slippery slope fallacy, since Deul's argument was only about the translation of one poem, out of the totality of world literature.


A Catalan translator has been removed from the task of translating the poem written and performed by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman at President Joe Biden’s inauguration because he did not fit the “profile,” according to AFP.

The move by Barcelona publisher Univers marks the second instance of backlash in Europe against a white person being chosen to translate The Hill We Climb by Gorman.

Translator Victor Obiols told AFP on Wednesday that Univers had commissioned him last month to translate Gorman’s work into Catalan, a language spoken in Spain and Andorra. After he completed the job, the publishing house informed him that he “was not the right person,” he said.

“They told me that I am not suitable to translate it,” Obiols told AFP. “They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black.”

“It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity,” he continued. “But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”

Obiols said he would still be paid for his work.
Nuria Barrios seems to feel particularly threatened by what she calls "Deul's logic" starting us down a slippery slope to cultural perdition. But again, she's applying fallacious means to make her case. Look how her first sentence puts words in Deul's mouth and then attacks her fictional straw-man Deul for things that the real Deul quite demonstrably never said:


According to Deul, applying what we might call Deul logic, only whites can translate whites, only women can translate women, only trans people can translate trans people... And so on ad infinitum: only Mexicans can sing rancheras, only the Japanese can write haikus, and so on. And, of course, forget about translating Marcel Proust if you aren’t homosexual and have never tasted a madeleine.

The simple truth is that Deul is not talking about translation, she’s talking about politics. She confuses “moral right” with literary quality, ignoring the fact that imagination is what makes translation and art, in general, possible. Deul’s logic makes translators visible, when the essence of translators is to be invisible. Their voice embraces all voices. In order to be everyone, they must dissolve and be reborn; to come out of themselves in order to enter into others. Contrary to other disciplines in which the artist seeks to have a voice, a stamp, to be Someone, in translation excellence is to be Nobody. It is a matter of not being.


Deul has triumphed. Deul’s triumph is a catastrophe. It is the victory of identity politics over creative freedom, of the given over the imagination. From the pride of being who you are, we have moved on to the imperative, subject to penalization, of not being someone other than who you are: our skin has become a straitjacket. But art is hybrid, omnivorous, inapprehensible. To remove imagination from translation is to subject the craft to a lobotomy that makes it impossible to exercise.
Barrios' passionate eloquent may seem very compelling, but I hope everyone here can acknowledge how intellectually dishonest her argument actually is. Barrios is stooping to blatant mischaracterization in order to enlist others in battling a perceived threat to her own livelihood as a translator.

Let's also be fully cognizant of the fact that the right-wingers who accuse everyone but straight white males of playing divisive identity politics are themselves playing very divisive identity politics. Those of us who disagree with that agenda should be very, very cautious about endorsing any narrative of white victimhood without carefully checking its validity.

Roger Slater 03-14-2021 02:34 PM

I don't know, Julie. I think you're splitting hairs. So she wants to ignore what many of us consider to be sound principles only for this particular poem, but the rest of the time she gets it. The fact remains that she didn't think a trans woman that Gorman herself enthusiastically approved of to translate her poem should be given the job, and her reasoning was based on factors that many of us feel ought to be entirely irrelevant.

The solution of having a "team" of translators collaborating on a translation is almost comical. Translation by committee? Yeah, that's how to best respect Gorman's poem.

Perhaps some of us are having a hard time because Gorman's poem is being discussed with an air of reverence that couldn't be exceeded were it a newly discovered sermon delivered by Jesus himself, in which case I could easily see there being quite a fuss over the translators. I liked Gorman's poem, and I thought she did a great job at the inauguration, but she didn't write a new book of the Bible. It's just a poem. I think the original translators were holy enough to take it on.

Julie Steiner 03-14-2021 06:54 PM


Objectively speaking, is "We Shall Overcome" any great shakes as a poem? It uses repetition as a substitute for rhyme, and the words really don't say anything poetic or profound.

It is the context of its performances as a protest song make that song sacred to millions of people around the world--and particularly to Black Americans, who were at risk of losing their lives or liberty in connection with the civil rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s, and also in connection with the situations that prompted those protests.

So, too, the context of Amanda Gorman's poem--after the blatantly unequal administration of justice and the blatantly race-based voter suppression that crescendoed in the final year of the Trump Administration--makes "The Hill We Climb" sacred to many Americans, but particularly to Black Americans.

Isn't it understandable that the poem might be viewed with far greater reverence by people who felt it was important enough to risk COVID-19 infection by joining 2020's Black Lives Matter marches, than it is by people who did not?

Even the very thing that I regard (objectively, I think, but possibly through implicit bias) as a poetic flaw in Gorman's poem--namely its inclusion of so many clichés, such as the time-honored "justice"/"just is" pun that many White people have assumed was Gorman's original coinage--becomes a strength, in the context of quoting things that Black voices have been saying for decades without being heard outside of the social justice community.

If the reason that various publishers did not include any translators of color among the options that Amanda Gorman was given to choose from was that they've never before seen any reason to hire any, I think that's a perfectly legitimate point for Deul to raise. If translation should, as you contend, only be done by "the best translators available," what are the implications if "the best translators available" are perennially only White, due to hiring preferences?


Meulenhoff said Gorman herself had approved Rijneveld appointment, though no Dutch Black spoken word poets were among the options, according to the BBC.

After Rijneveld’s resignation, the publishing house’s general director Maaike le Noble said the company wanted “to learn from this by talking and we will walk a different path with the new insights,” according to The Guardian. “We will be looking for a team to work with to bring Amanda’s words and message of hope and inspiration into translation as well as possible and in her spirit,” he said.
I don't see how Deul can be blamed for a decision by the publisher, which you characterize as resorting to "translation by committee." But surely Eratosphere itself illustrates the utility of communal workshopping. I don't see why you find a variant on that idea "comical." Regardless of its merits, though, this seems to be the publisher's idea, not Deul's.

Also, Roger, surely I've misunderstood your earlier comment that seemed to imply that since Blacks in the Netherlands are more likely to be recent refugees than the descendants of slaves, Blacks in the Netherlands don't have any relevant experience of racism that might inform their translation of a Black American's poem, and therefore there's no reason a White translator into Dutch can't do the job just as well. Knowing you, I'm pretty confident that that is not at all what you meant, so I'd be interested to hear what you did mean.

And finally, since identity is at the center of this discussion, it seems important to note that Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was identified as a girl at birth, but now identifies as non-binary, with the pronouns they/them. So "trans woman" is not accurate in any sense.

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