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Mark McDonnell 03-14-2021 06:10 AM

Lost in Translation
 
Clever thread title, eh? Thanks. So. That thing that might or might not exist (identity politics inspired, social media fuelled cancel culture) has butted heads with the poetry world and made headlines again. I'm sure you'd be disappointed if I didn't post this. You'd think I was ill or something. So what do people think, if anything?

Here's the story (first translator goes)

https://www.theguardian.com/books/20...ucas-rijneveld

Here's the sequel (another translator gone)

https://www.theguardian.com/books/20...n-poem-removed

And here's a take from a third translator (written, presumably, before the news about the second translator [second link] came out) .

https://english.elpais.com/arts/2021...are-white.html

Ann Drysdale 03-14-2021 06:52 AM

Can't open the third one without subscribing to the journal - a quick summary?

Mark McDonnell 03-14-2021 07:19 AM

Hi Annie. Strange, it works fine for me. Probably easier if I just paste the article.

NURIA BARRIOS
12 MAR 2021 - 10:49 CET


The story begins with the impact of a prepossessing young woman proudly reciting the poem she has written to celebrate Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington. Amanda Gorman’s voice, confident and eloquent, read out The Hill We Climb, rising above the cold January morning to announce the end of an era – “never-ending shade” – and the beginning of a “new dawn.” Her yellow Prada coat illuminates her like a torch. The enthusiasm she arouses spreads far beyond the United States. Just two months after her performance, agreements have been signed to translate The Hill We Climb into 17 languages.


Lumen, which belongs to Penguin-Random House, contacted me about translating Amanda Gorman’s poem into Spanish. Lumen and I knew it was more than a poem: it was a symbol of the victory of light over darkness.

Barely a few weeks had passed since I delivered the translation, when Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the Dutch writer chosen to translate Gorman’s poem into Dutch, withdrew following protests on social networks. The trigger was an article written by Janice Deul, a Dutch online lifestyle writer. Deul, who is Black, called it “incomprehensible” that a translator had not been chosen who, like Amanda Gorman, was also “a spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black.” Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a non-binary white person whose preferred pronouns in English are they/them, last year won the International Booker Prize with their first novel.

Rijneveld had been approved by Amanda Gorman, as had I, along with 15 other translators

Following Rijneveld’s decision to stand aside, Dutch publisher Meulenhoff issued a statement: “We want to learn from this by talking and we will walk a different path with the new insights. 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.”

End of story? No. Rijneveld had been approved by Amanda Gorman, as had I, along with 15 other translators. What authority did Deul have to question Gorman’s judgment? None: she hadn’t even bothered to read a single verse of Rijneveld’s translation. Deul had simply invested herself with the new and fearsome power of social media. She was the visible face of the anonymous chorus of voices that, under the banner of “moral right,” bolsters its censorious supremacy with each passing day. For Deul, the quality of the translation was the least-important thing: what mattered was the identity of the translator: the color of their skin, their age, their militancy.


What happened is not irrelevant. It points, beyond translation, to the very essence of creation: imagination.

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.

Applying what we might call Deul logic, only whites can translate whites, only women can translate women, only trans people can translate trans people

Gorman writes in The Hill We Climb: “We will not be turned around/ or interrupted by intimidation.”

What if Marieke Lucas Rijneveld withdrew because they did not want to be the victim of a scandal to which they were oblivious and which was likely to affect the reception of their own work as a writer? What if the publisher gave in because it feared that its own image and therefore its sales would plummet?

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.

We do not yet know if Deul’s logic will spread, if it will affect the other people hired to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem into their language. But we do know one thing: what has happened is no mere anecdote. It is symptomatic of a new censorship, lethal for translation, for art, for life.


Nuria Barrios is a writer and translator. She has recently translated James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb,’ to be published by Lumen in April.

Jim Moonan 03-14-2021 07:38 AM

.

In a word — infuriating — if the articles you've linked here are accurate.


This, from Nuria Barrios, El Pias, pretty much says it all:

"The simple truth is that [Janice] Deul [Dutch race activist via social media] 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."


You needn't look far to find out that Rijneveld is eminently qualified.

"Get back to where you once belonged" as the song goes. Gorman herself approved Dutch writer Rijneveld to translate her poem. Case closed.



No wait... The El Pais article ends with this:

"We do not yet know if Deul’s logic will spread, if it will affect the other people hired to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem into their language. But we do know one thing: what has happened is no mere anecdote. It is symptomatic of a new censorship, lethal for translation, for art, for life.

There's a fire burning...



-----

(Editing back in... I may be taken to school on this. I hope not.)
.

David Callin 03-14-2021 08:26 AM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Jim Moonan (Post 462002)
Gorman herself approved Dutch writer Rijneveld to translate her poem. Case closed.

I agree with Jim. This is the salient point.

Roger Slater 03-14-2021 08:45 AM

Of course this is sheer idiocy. You could come up with countless examples of translators whose gender and overall background differed from the original author's in significant ways. It's almost inevitable, since the whole point of translation is to bring the work into a another language spoken in another country that has its own distinct culture and traditions.

It's also silly to think that an Afro-Dutch translator (even assuming that rather small community has talented young women translators to draw upon) bears much cultural relationship to African-Americans. The majority of Afro-Dutch people are refugees (or descended from refugees) who came to the Netherlands in recent decades seeking freedom, so the Netherlands is a haven for them. The majority of African-Americans came to the United States under quite different circumstances.

Anyway, this silly attitude obviously shows an ignorance of what translation is or how it functions. Any sane poet would rather be translated by the best poet in the target language than by a lesser poet who checks more demographic boxes.

Susan McLean 03-14-2021 08:46 AM

The flip side of Deul's argument is that it would give translators who are women or people of color fewer works to translate, if people can only translate the works of people like them. I think the quality of the translation is the only thing that matters. We need more translations of the same work, not fewer, because each translator brings different skills and perspectives to the task. Each translator also brings his or her own blind spots (which may be what Deul feared), but it will do Amanda Gorman more good to have an excellent translation than to be known for being translated only by young black women like herself. As the original author, she deserves to have some say in the matter.

Susan

W T Clark 03-14-2021 09:56 AM

In this case I believe that Gorman's view (whatever that may be) should be held as the most important. If she desires only black, female translators then let the translators be so; if she does not, then they should not. Since it is her work, she is the prime mover -- not even activists, no matter how well-meaning they may be. The poet especially must not let others speak for hf.

Roger Slater 03-14-2021 10:18 AM

I'm not sure whether it's typical when authors sell foreign rights for them to have control over the translator picked by the publisher. I know many people who have had books translated into other languages and I have never heard them mention that they had any role whatsoever in picking the translator, or even knew about it until the book came out in another language.

John Riley 03-14-2021 10:30 AM

Gorman came to be known as a political poet. She wouldn't be translated into Dutch if not for her reading at the inauguration. So, of course, there is going to be politics associated with her work and all around it, probably for the rest of her life. Boy, that would suck. I doubt this hoopla would be happening if she was merely another of the thousands of MFA students with a first book. It's sort of like George W. Bush's paintings. Can you look at them without thinking of the thousands dead in Iraq?

If the poet picked her to translate everyone else should shut-up. IMO.

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

Quote:

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):

Quote:

“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.

Quote:

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:

Quote:

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

Roger,

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?

Quote:

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.

Roger Slater 03-14-2021 07:31 PM

Yes, you did misunderstand my point. To state it more generally, I don't think that there is anyone in the Netherlands who has the same cultural background as anyone in the US. To suggest that the experience of being black is the same in any country is certainly incorrect. Not being an American is a more profound difference than not being black. Gorman's poem was fundamentally about the black experience in Amercia, where blacks were kidnapped and enslaved and remain to this day victims of that legacy. To me that is clearly different from living in a country because it offered you refuge.

I wonder what you would think if a black translator were fired because someone wrote a column claiming that she could not possibly relate to the experience of the original poet, who was white? If the chasm between them is disqualifying in one instance, isn't it precisely the same-sized chasm when viewed in the other direction? Should Gorman not get to translate Rijneveld’s poems into English?

I'd be interested to see a double-blind experiement. Let the original translator present his/her/their translation to a focus group of black female performance artists, and let the substitute translator present a translation as well. I wonder which the focus group would prefer? Are you really confident that it would necessarily be the replacement translator? I mean, it could be, but would you necessarily think it? Is it inevitable? Or would you maybe expect that the translator who is the better poet would be preferred? To me it's obvious that the better poet would be likely to create the better poem in translation.

Of course I would have had absolutely no objection whatsoever had they originally selected a young black woman to be the translator. In fact, it would have made a lot of sense and no one would have questioned it in any way. What rankles me a bit is that they didn't do that. They chose someone else. That was their choice. Gorman was fine with it. But somehow other people got into the act and told Gorman that her own choice was wrong and it was a horrible gaffe that had to be apologized for.

Kevin Rainbow 03-14-2021 08:48 PM

Rejecting an interracial combination - a black author and a white translator - based on race is a form of racism. It shouldn't be given a pass, anymore than any other manner of racism.

Julie Steiner 03-14-2021 09:37 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Kevin Rainbow (Post 462053)
Rejecting an interracial combination - a black author and a white translator - based on race is a form of racism. It shouldn't be given a pass, anymore than any other manner of racism.

But what if the preference for a Black spoken word poet as translator is based on the fact that the original choice of translator is a White poet whose original poems are not in form (Rijneveld), while spoken word poets (a field in which Black poets predominate in the Netherlands, just as in the U.S.) do have expertise working with meter and rhyme?

Isn't that a racially-influenced distinction that is not actually motivated by racism?

[Edited to add: Note that in Deul's original statement, Rijneveld's lack of experience in this field is the main objection. Race and gender identity are secondary to that. Yet race has been made the central theme of the outcry, and the importance of rhyme and meter in Gorman's work, and the lack thereof in Rijneveld's work, has not been mentioned in a single complaint I've read about the translator changes.]

Quote:

Originally Posted by Roger Slater (Post 462052)
Yes, you did misunderstand my point. To state it more generally, I don't think that there is anyone in the Netherlands who has the same cultural background as anyone in the US. To suggest that the experience of being black is the same in any country is certainly incorrect. Not being an American is a more profound difference than not being black. Gorman's poem was fundamentally about the black experience in Amercia, where blacks were kidnapped and enslaved and remain to this day victims of that legacy. To me that is clearly different from living in a country because it offered you refuge.

As someone who has occasionally volunteered with various refugee resettlement groups in San Diego, I think you have an overly rosy idea of the level of groveling gratitude that refugees can be assumed to feel for the wonderful country that has given them refuge. This essay puts it beautifully, and helped me to understand the resentment I sensed when I would rattle on to these immigrant families about how lucky and grateful I was sure they must feel to finally be in the U.S. That essay helped me to realize that I hadn't been feeling empathy at all--I had just been projecting my own feel-good fantasy onto what remained for them a very stressful situation.

I think only the specifics of pecking order nastiness by those members of dominant groups prone to be nasty to their perceived inferiors [bullies] are unique to particular cultures. The broad outlines of the bullying are the same. And pecking orders that are based on physical features that cannot be hidden or changed have far more in common with each other than other kinds of power imbalances. Whether or not a culture has a local history of slavery doesn't seem relevant [although the Netherlands certainly participated in the Atlantic slave trade]. Admittedly, this is my personal opinion, based on evidence like my father-in-law's stories of the gratuitous nastiness he was subjected to as a Chinese immigrant by jerks at the University of Montana and the University of Wisconsin at Madison in the 1950s--not areas noted for slaveholding.

Quote:

I wonder what you would think if a black translator were fired because someone wrote a column claiming that she could not possibly relate to the experience of the original poet, who was white? If the chasm between them is disqualifying in one instance, isn't it precisely the same-sized chasm when viewed in the other direction? Should Gorman not get to translate Rijneveld’s poems into English?
Roger, for the two situations to be "precisely the same-sized chasm," the fired Black translator in your version would have to be in a Black-dominant society, with a history of second-class citizenship for Whites. Where is this fantasyland, and even if you did find one, how would a White translator living in that society have any special insight into the experience of the original [White] poet's position in her own society, unless that status were also disadvantaged?

Also, if a White translator is hired and paid in addition to the fired and paid Black one, [for any reason,] I really don't see who is harmed, except the publisher who had to pay twice for translating the same work.

And yes, absolutely, Gorman should NOT get to translate Rijneveld's poems into English, since I assume Gorman doesn't know any Dutch and therefore isn't qualified. (What the heck? You seem to be bending over backwards to manufacture some sort of Bizarro World racial equivalency flipside, where there is none. I understand the hypothetical impulse here, but it just doesn't hold up to any sort of scrutiny.)

Quote:

I'd be interested to see a double-blind experiement. Let the original translator present his/her/their translation to a focus group of black female performance artists, and let the substitute translator present a translation as well. I wonder which the focus group would prefer? Are you really confident that it would necessarily be the replacement translator? I mean, it could be, but would you necessarily think it? Is it inevitable? Or would you maybe expect that the translator who is the better poet would be preferred? To me it's obvious that the better poet would be likely to create the better poem in translation.
My money's on the substitute translator. And yes, I am really confident about it. Here's why:

Here are English translations of five poems by the original translator, Rijneveld. The translations aren't rhymed or metered, because neither are the originals. The translator's note says:

Quote:

Calf’s Caul is Marieke Lucas Rijneveld’s earthy portrait of a rural upbringing devastated by the sudden death of a sibling, a family governed by grief and alcoholism, and the adolescent narrator’s profound struggle to make sense of gender and sexuality. Rijneveld approaches these subjects with an almost breathless stream of consciousness that is largely unconcerned with form.
Could it be that Rijneveld's inexperience with rhyme and meter--being "largely unconcerned with form"--played a role in their willingness to resign from this commission? Is it possible that they knew they were out of their depth, since cadence and rhyme are so important in Gorman's poem?

[Edited to say: Here's the English translation of the Dutch poem that Rijneveld published in the Guardian on Saturday, regarding their decision to resign.]

Isn't it possible that a practitioner of Dutch spoken word poetry, familiar with the effective use of rhythm and rhyme, might actually be "the better poet" to translate a rhymed, cadenced poem? Even if these qualifications weren't specifically mentioned in Deul's description of a more suitable translator, I think they are strongly implicit.

Quote:

Of course I would have had absolutely no objection whatsoever had they originally selected a young black woman to be the translator. In fact, it would have made a lot of sense and no one would have questioned it in any way. What rankles me a bit is that they didn't do that. They chose someone else. That was their choice. Gorman was fine with it. But somehow other people got into the act and told Gorman that her own choice was wrong and it was a horrible gaffe that had to be apologized for.
I'd love to know what information was Amanda Gorman given by the publisher, when she was asked to make her decision regarding the Dutch translator. Maybe she was given the impression that the kinds of performance artists Deul knew of didn't exist, so she picked the best of the limited options the publisher gave her. And where was Dutch on the list of languages for which she was considering translators? Eighth? Twelfth? Maybe she was overwhelmed by that point, and just relied on the publisher's recommendation. Anyway, if she didn't know that translators who are practicing poets in a genre similar to her own exist in the Netherlands when she approved Rijneveld, now she does.

From my (White but formalist) perspective, a translator's experience working with meter and rhyme seems far more important than the color of the translator's skin, for this poem. That said, the color of the translator's skin is almost certainly a factor in the choice of meter and rhyme and performance as that person's chosen genre for self-expression.

Mark McDonnell 03-15-2021 05:33 PM

Hey Julie,

I have a few issues with your take on this. I hope to get them all out then move on.

Quote:

Do people really think that Janice Deul has no right to express an opinion about the translation of this particular poem?
I don't want to labour this point, but in her original article, where she had time and space to clearly state her position, Deul doesn’t specify that she is talking only about this one particular poem. She writes about who should get the job of translating "The Hill We Climb And Other Poems". Now, I think the commission was just for an edition of the single poem (the full collection is not coming out till autumn, I believe) but Deul clearly and specifically writes and other poems. Perhaps she just hadn't researched much. She doesn't say anything in her article about her issue being just with the inauguration poem because of its special significance, nor does she mention Black Lives Matter. She only makes these points later when she is interviewed by the BBC. I also disagree with your suggestion that "Rijneveld's lack of experience in this field is (Deul’s) main objection. Race and gender identity are secondary to that". Deul mentions all three things (spoken-word experience, race and gender) but the bulk of her focus seems centred on Gorman's youth, beauty, fashion sense and status as a role model for black women and girls. She doesn't say anything about the particular nuances of spoken word or the challenges of translating it for someone outside the field and, to be honest, doesn't come across as someone who is particularly knowledgeable about form, translation or poetry in general. It reads to me that her main objection, what she focuses on most, is that is Rijneveld doesn't share Gorman's experiences and identity. This is the bulk of her original article (Google translated from the Dutch, so a little clunky to read). After introducing herself as a fashion activist, she goes on:


Quote:

"Anyway, language and fashion. Passions I share with Amanda Gorman, the African American spoken word artist, activist and poet, who suddenly became a sensation on January 20. Not only because of her flaming recitation and her hopeful and powerfully vulnerable poem The Hill We Climb, with the chicken-skin phrase 'There's always light. If only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it', but also because of her fabulous inauguration look, complete with bright yellow Prada coat, red XXL designer hair band and braided up-do'. Her appearance inspired many. So much so that she was offered a contract with IMG Models, one of the world's leading modelling agencies. Something that was perceived by black women and girls worldwide as a legitimacy of their natural beauty. And now there is a translation of the work of the charismatic Gorman, who has now also earned a place in the Time 100 Next: the list of the leading American news magazine with influential (young) people who are the hope for the future. Among them: environmentalist Greta Thunberg, the multi-talented R&B sisters Chloe x Halle (Bailey), covid vaccine researcher Aurelia Nguyen, model and activist Paloma Elsesser and 95 other influencers, researchers, businessmen, entertainers and politicians, of whom we are probably still very going to hear a lot. 

Translation Rights
The translation rights of Gorman's work were fought over, a battle won by the widely respected Meulenhoff. The publisher will present a special Dutch edition of The Hill We Climb and Other Poems on 20 March, introduced by Oprah Winfrey and translated by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. An incomprehensible choice, in my view and that of many others who expressed their pain, frustration, anger and disappointment via social media. Harvard alumna Gorman, raised by a single mother and labelled a 'special needs ' child due to speech problems, describes herself as 'skinny Black girl'. And her work and life are colored by her experiences and identity as a black woman. Isn't it - to say the least - a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? She is white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but is Meulenhoff's 'dream translator’?

Such a vote of confidence is not often awarded to people of color. On the contrary, whether in fashion, art, business, politics or literature, the merits and qualities of black people are only sporadically valued - if seen at all. Something that applies squared to black women, who are systematically marginalized.
Nothing to the detriment of Rijneveld's qualities, but why not opt for a literator who - just like Gorman - is a spoken word artist , young, female and: unapologetically Black ?"
She then goes on to name some female, black, spoken word poets in the Netherlands who she thinks would do a better job and the article ends.


I don't have any issue with Deul expressing these opinions. Whether I agree with them or not, they’re reasonably expressed. I don't agree that "Most people are upset NOT about what Janice Deul actually said, but about bad-faith characterizations of it". I know people here have have been responding to the take in the Barrios opinion article I posted, but really I don't think it's what Deul did or didn't say, or whether she has been misinterpreted, that has "upset" people. People are free to express any opinion they like (within reason) and they do on social media every day. People wouldn't be "upset" about it, or even have heard much about it, if she hadn't been successful. That's the point. It's the increasing power of social media outrage in forcing publishers and artists to capitulate to its whims that disturbs people.

I agree there's some straw-manning in the Barrios article. Deul doesn't actually say that she thinks only black writers should translate other black writers etc. But I think it’s unfair to suggest that the reasons for Barrios’ possible hyperbole are “in order to enlist others in battling a perceived threat to her own livelihood as a translator”. Barrios is a successful, widely published writer and poet and I give her the benefit of the doubt that what she is writing is sincerely felt rather than motivated by her bank balance. I also think it unlikely that she would genuinely fear that her income from translating would be massively affected if it suddenly became the norm that she could no longer translate black writers. If anything, putting her head over the parapet to criticise this decision is more likely to lose her work. Also, that slippery slope Barrios alludes to is already being slid down. The notion of "staying in your own lane" regarding what is acceptable subject matter in literature is increasingly commonplace among ID politics inspired social media users. It's what led The Nation to apologise for publishing a poem for the first time in its 80 year history when Anders Wee dared to write a persona poem from the pov of a homeless black man.

You sidestepped Roger's hypothetical about Gorman translating Rijneveld, calling it Bizarro World because Gorman doesn't speak Dutch. What about a more generalised hypothetical. Following a social media campaign, a black, Dutch translator is pressured to step down from translating a collection by a white Midwestern farmer poet. Some campaigners claim it's because the poet wrote mainly in form and the translator mainly in free verse but the original essay prompting the uproar mainly focuses on the poet's status as a role model for working-class Mid-westerners and his strong white identity which no other group could possibly identify or empathise with. What do you imagine yours and the general response would be? Quite rightly, one of upset and indignation I would imagine. Because investing whiteness with quasi-mystical properties is something that only neo-Nazis and white supremacists do. Of course, I understand that historically oppressed and marginalized groups will justifiably be invested in a sense of their identity more than historically privileged groups, but I don't think it is something that should reasonably begin affecting editorial decisions.

I also wonder if Rijneveld really "voluntarily stepped down after sympathising with Deul's position" as you say, or if in fact they felt they had little choice after the social media outpouring of "pain, frustration, anger and disappointment" at their having got the job. To stubbornly dig in could risk them being labelled at best unfeeling and at worst racist. Given the nature of social media mob pressure, it's naive to think this was a completely free choice. I do also wonder if feeling "anger" and "pain" at the idea of a young, non-binary, Booker Prize winning author translating Amanda Gorman, simply because they have the wrong skin colour, or are not part of the spoken word scene, is a reasonable response. I'm aware this might not be a fashionable opinion.

Now, I could be very wrong here but I've started now so in for a penny...I find the notion of "The Hill We Climb" being “sacred to many Americans, but particularly to Black Americans” a bit hard to swallow. I have a problem with sacred texts in general, and I find the idea that all black Americans, or even the majority, see it like this to be a little patronising. Certainly it was a powerful and iconic moment, but is "sacred" pushing it? I’m sure many Americans, white and black, now look back at the inauguration with affection but see the moment for what it was beyond the symbolism: a talented, ambitious young woman getting a big stage with a crowd-pleasing poem and an incumbent administration disassociating itself from the previous, horrendous one in a very media savvy, striking way with a young, black, “modern” voice. The whole idea that there is something special, something sacred, in Blackness, or in any part of a person’s identity over which they have no choice, so that their inner essence and experiences can only be apprehended by someone sharing that identity, is the racial equivalent of the idea that there is something mystical in femininity. And where femininity is dogged with the Madonna/whore dichotomy, white notions of Blackness can be dogged by the sacred/profane dichotomy. I think it’s time we realised we are all just people, equally flawed and pained and bumbling through life and equally capable of the very best and worst of humanity. Art should be about recognising this common humanity and frailty. Again, very unfashionable opinions no doubt and probably informed by my privilege as a straight, white man. And I do mean that genuinely, even though it probably sounds sarcastic.

As to the hypothetical question of whether Rijneveld would have been a good translator of Gorman’s poem, when I read their “response poem” after they stepped down I was struck by two things. The first was how ambivalent it was. The way I read it, they seem to spend the first four stanzas of the six stanza poem expressing their deeply held belief in the notion of empathy in art, of being “able to put yourself / in another’s shoes, to see the sea of sorrow behind another / person’s eyes”, of decrying (in the first stanza) “pulpit preaching…the Word that says what is / right or wrong”, of the need to “face up to all the bullies and fight pigeonholing with your fists raised” and “all of humankind’s boxing in”. This, along with the telling title, reads to me like someone very much of the mind that translation in poetry is an art that transcends racial boundaries and embraces the common humanity of the human race. That having a young marginalised white woman translate the words of a young, marginalised black woman would actually be a positive thing and the deluge of social media criticism was not something they instinctively agreed with. It’s only in the last two stanzas that the poem turns and begins to sound like more an “apology”. And the poem is at its weakest and most prosaic here, like it was written under some form of mental duress. And tellingly, they end on the unifying, defiant note that people should “straighten together our backs”. I felt quite sad reading it.

The second thing that struck me was how easily I could hear the poem in my inner ear with the recognisable rhythms and cadence of spoken word poetry, with its long, flowing, incantatory sentences and rhetorical repetition of “Never lost that”. I think they would have been a fine choice.

I echo what Roger said here:

Quote:

Of course I would have had absolutely no objection whatsoever had they originally selected a young black woman to be the translator. In fact, it would have made a lot of sense and no one would have questioned it in any way. What rankles me a bit is that they didn't do that. They chose someone else. That was their choice. Gorman was fine with it. But somehow other people got into the act and told Gorman that her own choice was wrong and it was a horrible gaffe that had to be apologized for.
Ultimately, I see this as another example of publishers and artists being pressured into bad, anti-art decisions by fashionable notions of identity politics which have zero impact on the actual lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged in society, of which people of colour make up a significant number.

Here’s Rijneveld’s poem:

Everything inhabitable

Never lost that resistance, that primal jostling with sorrow and joy,
or given in to pulpit preaching, to the Word that says what is
right or wrong, never been too lazy to stand up, to face
up to all the bullies and fight pigeonholing with your fists
raised, against those riots of not-knowing inside your head,

tempering impotence with the red rag in your eyes, and
always announcing your own way with rock-solid pride,
watching someone reduced to pulp and seeing the last
drop of dignity trickling away, you are against craniometry,
against bondservice, against all of humankind’s boxing in.

Never lost that resistance, that seed of wrestling free, your
origin is dressed in mourning attire, your origin was fortunate,
it had an escape route, not that your experience is aligned,
not that you always see that the grass on the other side may be
withered and less green – the point is to be able to put yourself

in another’s shoes, to see the sea of sorrow behind another
person’s eyes, the rampant wrath of all wraths, you
want to say that maybe you don’t understand everything,
that of course you don’t always hit the right chord, but that
you do feel it, yes, you feel it, even if the difference is a gap.

Never lost that resistance and yet able to grasp when it
isn’t your place, when you must kneel for a poem because
another person can make it more inhabitable; not out of
unwillingness, not out of dismay, but because you know
there is so much inequality, people still discriminated against,

what you want is fraternity, you want one fist, and maybe your
hand isn’t yet powerful enough, or maybe you should first take the hand
of another in reconciliation, you actively need to feel the hope that
you are doing something to improve the world, though you mustn’t
forget this: stand up again after kneeling and straighten together our backs.


Anyway. Here we go again. All the best to you, Julie.

Martin Elster 03-15-2021 11:20 PM

From: The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity by Douglas Murray

We are going through a great crowd derangement. In public and in private, both online and off, people are behaving in ways that are increasingly irrational, feverish, herd-like and simply unpleasant. The daily news cycle is filled with the consequences. Yet while we see the symptoms everywhere, we do not see the causes. Various explanations have been given. These tend to suggest that any and all madnesses are the consequence of a Presidential election, or a referendum. But none of these explanations gets to the root of what is happening. For far beneath beneath these day-to-day events are much greater movements and much bigger events. It is time we began to confront the true causes of what is going wrong. Even the origin of this condition is rarely acknowledged. This is the simple fact that we have been living through a period of more than a quarter of a century in which all our grand narratives have collapsed. One by one the narratives we had were refuted, became unpopular to defend or impossible to sustain.

The explanations for our existence that used to be provided by religion went first, falling away from the nineteenth century onwards. Then over the last century the secular hopes held out by all political ideologies began to follow in religion’s wake. In the latter part of the twentieth century we entered the postmodern era. An era which defined itself, and was defined, by its suspicion towards all grand narratives. However, as all schoolchildren learn, nature abhors a vacuum, and into the postmodern vacuum new ideas began to creep, with the intention of providing explanations and meanings of their own. It was inevitable that some pitch would be made for the deserted ground. People in wealthy Western democracies today could not simply remain the first people in recorded history to have absolutely no explanation for what we are doing here, and no story to give life purpose. Whatever else they lacked, the grand narratives of the past at least gave life meaning.

The question of what exactly we are meant to do now – other than get rich where we can and have whatever fun is on offer – was going to have to be answered by something. The answer that has presented itself in recent years is to engage in new battles, ever fiercer campaigns and ever more niche demands. To find meaning by waging a constant war against anybody who seems to be on the wrong side of a question which may itself have just been reframed and the answer to which has only just been altered. The unbelievable speed of this process has been principally caused by the fact that a handful of businesses in Silicon Valley (notably Google, Twitter and Facebook) now have the power not just to direct what most people in the world know, think and say, but have a business model which has accurately been described as relying on finding ‘customers ready to pay to modify someone else’s behaviour’. Yet although we are being aggravated by a tech world which is running faster than our legs are able to carry us to keep up with it, these wars are not being fought aimlessly. They are consistently being fought in a particular direction. And that direction has a purpose that is vast. The purpose – unknowing in some people, deliberate in others – is to embed a new metaphysics into our societies: a new religion, if you will.

Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds (pp. 8-9). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.
. . . . .

When Martin Luther King Jr addressed the crowds from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on 28 August 1963, he appealed not only to foundations of justice in the founding traditions and principles of America; he also made the most eloquent defence anyone has ever made about the right way in which to treat other human beings. He spoke not only after centuries in which black Americans had been first slaves and then second-class citizens, but in an era during which racist laws were still on the statute books in American states. Racial segregation laws including anti-miscegenation laws were still in place, able to punish couples from different racial backgrounds who had fallen in love.

It was Dr King’s great central moral insight that in the future about which he dreamed his children should ‘one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character’. Although many people have attempted to live up to that hope and many have succeeded, in recent years an insidious current has developed that has chosen to reject Dr King’s dream, and insist that content of character is nothing compared to the colour of someone’s skin. It has decided that skin colour is everything.

—Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds (p. 142). Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Julie Steiner 03-16-2021 04:35 AM

Martin,

Suggesting that race doesn't or shouldn't matter, or wouldn't if racial, ethnic, and gender minorities weren't making such a big deal about it, overlooks the fact that these identities usually ARE noticeable and DO matter, a lot, both to others and to ourselves. They are central to our first impressions of others and to our sense of belonging within a wider community, through bonds sometimes strengthened by cultural factors like religion, language, music, dance, food, etc.

Claiming that people are somehow doing something wrong when others choose to identify them as Other and choose to treat them differently because of that, rather than judging them by the content of their character, seems unrealistic at best, and victim-blaming at worst, if that treatment is negative.


Quote:

Originally Posted by Mark McDonnell (Post 462101)
I don't want to labour this point, but in her original article, where she had time and space to clearly state her position, Deul doesn’t specify that she is talking only about this one particular poem. She writes about who should get the job of translating "The Hill We Climb And Other Poems". Now, I think the commission was just for an edition of the single poem (the full collection is not coming out till autumn, I believe) but Deul clearly and specifically writes and other poems.

No, you're not wrong, Mark. I was wrong. The Hill We Climb and Other Poems is the name of the collection due out in September. (An edition of "The Hill We Climb" is being released as a single poem in March.)

There goes my thesis that the commissioned translation project was for a single poem. (Although the March release will be of a single poem.) And that Deul was only talking about a single poem.

Quote:

I also disagree with your suggestion that "Rijneveld's lack of experience in this field is (Deul’s) main objection. Race and gender identity are secondary to that". Deul mentions all three things (spoken-word experience, race and gender) but the bulk of her focus seems centred on Gorman's youth, beauty, fashion sense and status as a role model for black women and girls. [...]
Okay, you've persuaded me of that, too. Thanks for taking the time to construct a solidly evidence-based argument.

Quote:

I don't have any issue with Deul expressing these opinions. Whether I agree with them or not, they’re reasonably expressed. I don't agree that "Most people are upset NOT about what Janice Deul actually said, but about bad-faith characterizations of it". It isn't what she did or didn't say, or whether she has been misinterpreted, that has "upset" people. People are free to express any opinion they like (within reason) and they do on social media every day. People wouldn't be "upset" about it, or even have heard much about it, if she hadn't been successful. That's the point. It's the increasing power of social media outrage in forcing publishers and artists to capitulate to its whims that disturbs people.
Oh. Thanks for the correction.

Quote:

I agree there's some straw-manning in the Barrios article. Deul doesn't actually say that she thinks only black writers should translate other black writers etc. But I think it’s unfair to suggest that the reasons for Barrios’ possible hyperbole are “in order to enlist others in battling a perceived threat to her own livelihood as a translator”.

Barrios is a successful, widely published writer and poet and I give her the benefit of the doubt that what she is writing is sincerely felt rather than motivated by her bank balance. I also think it unlikely that she would genuinely fear that her income from translating would be massively affected if it suddenly became the norm that she could no longer translate black writers. If anything, putting her head over the parapet to criticise this decision is more likely to lose her work.
Aw, dang it, I was straw-manning Barrios, wasn't I?

Well, this is awkward.

Thanks for calling me out on it in such a calm, kind way. Not that I would have expected any different from you, but it's a rare gift to receive such courteous correction these days. ​

Quote:

Also, that slippery slope Barrios alludes to is already being slid down. The notion of "staying in your own lane" regarding what is acceptable subject matter in literature is increasingly commonplace among ID politics inspired social media users. It's what led The Nation to apologise for publishing a poem for the first time in its 80 year history when Anders Wee dared to write a persona poem from the pov of a homeless black man.
Roxane Gay had a helpful, nuanced series of Tweets (since taken down, but it was quoted in a blog here) on the concept of "staying in your own lane":

Quote:

The reality is that when most white writers use AAVE [African American Vernacular English, as in Anders Carlson-Wee's homeless POV poem] they do so badly. They do so without understanding that it is a language with rules. Instead, they use AAVE to denote that there is a black character in their story because they understand blackness as a monolith. Framing blackness as monolithic is racist. It is lazy. And using AAVE badly is lazy so I am entirely comfortable suggesting that writers stay in their lane when it comes to dialect. The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and…effort. There was none of that in this poem.
Mark, I know that you have very strong feelings on this point with regard to the creation of characters in drama and comedy, as well as in personal poems. You see possible empathy-building through those portrayals, while I see only the perpetuation of cartoonish stereotypes rather than of genuine understanding. We've already failed to persuade each other on that point.

But I still think that people in privileged groups should not try to speak for people who have traditionally not had opportunities to make their voices heard, but who may be perfectly capable of speaking for themselves now. However well-intentioned the White person is who tries to speak on their behalf, they still don't get to speak while he or she is speaking. And wouldn't firsthand witness be more accurate, anyway?

That was the problem (as I see it--after having just gotten the above problem wrong) with the 40-page poem in Poetry, by the white poet whose white narrator occasionally quoted the banal racism of his white grandmother. White guys, collectively speaking, have had plenty of opportunities to have their views heard on everything, and when they are given 40 pages in which to blather away on race, no one else can get a word in edgewise.

Quote:

I also wonder if Rijneveld really "voluntarily stepped down after sympathising with Deul's position" as you say, or if in fact they felt they had little choice after the social media outpouring of "pain, frustration, anger and disappointment" at their having got the job. To stubbornly dig in could risk them being labelled at best unfeeling and at worst racist. Given the nature of social media mob pressure, it's naive to think this was a completely free choice. I do also wonder if feeling "anger" and "pain" at the idea of a young, non-binary, Booker Prize winning author translating Amanda Gorman, simply because they have the wrong skin colour, or are not part of the spoken word scene, is a reasonable response. I'm aware this might not be a fashionable opinion.

Now, I could be very wrong here but I've started now so in for a penny...I find the notion of "The Hill We Climb" being “sacred to many Americans, but particularly to Black Americans” a bit hard to swallow. I have a problem with sacred texts in general, and I find the idea that all black Americans, or even the majority, see it like this to be a little patronising. Certainly it was a powerful and iconic moment, but is "sacred" pushing it? I’m sure many Americans, white and black, now look back at the inauguration with affection but see the moment for what it was beyond the symbolism: a talented, ambitious young woman getting a big stage with a crowd-pleasing poem and an incumbent administration disassociating itself from the previous, horrendous one in a very media savvy, striking way with a young, black, “modern” voice. The whole idea that there is something special, something sacred, in Blackness, or in any part of a person’s identity over which they have no choice, so that their inner essence and experiences can only be apprehended by someone sharing that identity, is the racial equivalent of the idea that there is something mystical in femininity. And where femininity is dogged with the Madonna/whore dichotomy, white notions of Blackness can be dogged by the sacred/profane dichotomy. I think it’s time we realised we are all just people, equally flawed and pained and bumbling through life and equally capable of the very best and worst of humanity. Art should be about recognising this common humanity and frailty. Again, very unfashionable opinions no doubt and probably informed by my privilege as a straight, white man. And I do mean that genuinely, even though it probably sounds sarcastic.
No worries, Mark. Maybe I am being patronizing and presumptuous by saying Black Americans may be more likely than Americans of other races to feel a special connection to this poem, but I don't think so. If your objection is only to the word "sacred," these essays don't use that word, but they sure come close:

Quote:

Her cadence steady, so sure yet measured, a sort of melodic sermon like Maya Angelou. [...] Amanda was a theologian in the truest sense of the word — she was making divine possibilities intelligible and offering an alternative world of love, freedom, hope and joy. Theology is not just speaking or wrestling; it is also helping us dream a little bit of the future God has for us. It is pondering the actual, imagining the possible.

(Danté Stewart in Religion News)
Quote:

“Only that which has form can snatch one up into a state of rapture,” wrote the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. “Only through form can the lightning-bolt of eternal beauty flash. Without form, in any event, a person will not be captivated and transported. To be transported, moreover, belongs to the very origin of Christianity. The Apostles were transported by what they saw, heard, and touched.”

Amanda Gorman transported me. I believed in the light and the goodness and the vision of holiness Ms. Gorman laid out because she offered it to me as music and image and breath. I would not believe in what is good and true if it were shouting at me, deadpan, no color or image in its offering.

Erika Rasmussin in America Magazine
Granted, this kind of language is not entirely unexpected in venues like Religion News and America Magazine (a Jesuit publication).

Quote:

As to the hypothetical question of whether Rijneveld would have been a good translator of Gorman’s poem, when I read their “response poem” after they stepped down I was struck by two things. The first was how ambivalent it was. The way I read it, they seem to spend the first four stanzas of the six stanza poem expressing their deeply held belief in the notion of empathy in art, of being “able to put yourself / in another’s shoes, to see the sea of sorrow behind another / person’s eyes”, of decrying (in the first stanza) “pulpit preaching…the Word that says what is / right or wrong”, of the need to “face up to all the bullies and fight pigeonholing with your fists raised” and “all of humankind’s boxing in”. This, along with the telling title, reads to me like someone very much of the mind that translation in poetry is an art that transcends racial boundaries and embraces the common humanity of the human race. That having a young marginalised white woman translate the words of a young, marginalised black woman would actually be a positive thing and the deluge of social media criticism was not something they instinctively agreed with. It’s only in the last two stanzas that the poem turns and begins to sound like more an “apology”. And the poem is at its weakest and most prosaic here, like it was written under some form of mental duress. And tellingly, they end on the unifying, defiant note that people should “straighten together our backs”. I felt quite sad reading it.
I think your assessment is reasonable, and I, too, sensed sadness and loss in the poem, along with the desire to unify.

I found the link to the Rijneveld's poem just after having posted, and although I realized that it torpedoed many of my conjectures, I thought it would be helpful to the discussion to include it. But I didn't have any more time to spend, so I just cut it, pasted it, and turned it red so people wouldn't miss it.

Quote:

The second thing that struck me was how easily I could hear the poem in my inner ear with the recognisable rhythms and cadence of spoken word poetry, with its long, flowing, incantatory sentences and rhetorical repetition of “Never lost that”. I think they would have been a fine choice.
I don't know. Maybe your ear is better than mine. I'm still not quite convinced that Rijneveld would have done as good a job or better.

Over the past twenty years, I've posted any number of really cringeworthy attempts at translating rhymed, metered poetry to the Translation Board here. And a handful of decent ones. And two or three good ones.

I know that in large part, my verse translation failures have been due to unique personality and processing flaws that make it difficult for me to perceive what the original poet was thinking and feeling. Which in turn makes it nearly impossible to convey the same with any degree of success. And also I am often reluctant to sacrifice things like perfect rhyme, when doing so might be the only way to preserve another aspect of the poem that is more important. But I am vain enough to think that for the most part, my failures have been due to the fact that rhymed, rhythmic translations are just really difficult to do well. Such a high-visibility performance poem, or set of poems, doesn't seem like an ideal learn-on-the-job opportunity for someone who almost never works in form.

But maybe I'm wrong, and Rijneveld's translation would have been brilliant. it seems that no one will ever know.

All I know is that whoever the substitute or substitutes are will now have a nearly-impossible-to-please audience judging their work.

Quote:

Ultimately, I see this as another example of art being forced into bad, anti-art decisions via the dictates of fashionable notions of identity politics which have zero impact on the actual lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged in society, of which people of colour make up a significant number.
I don't quite follow your gist about identity politics having zero impact on the lives of the poorest and most disadvantaged in society. Or do you mean that the "anti-art decisions" make no difference to these people's situations?

Thanks again for your time and thought, Mark, and if you don't have the time or energy to engage with this right now, feel free to take a break and come back to it in a few days or weeks.

I think you added another paragraph in the middle after I started replying, so apologies if you've changed other things that I didn't notice. I'll go back to look at what you said in the morning.

Sheesh, it's 3am here now. I keep telling myself not to do stuff like this. I'm sure you know the feeling, Mark!

conny 03-16-2021 01:09 PM

Appropriation is most harmful to minorities, which is mostly why it’s
so offensive. And anti-art, no question. No black Hamlet maybe?
not many minority roles in Shakespeare. No openly gay people
Allowed either I suppose. Even no women come to that, considering
all the female roles were originally played by men.

what worries me most is that if that’s the game its only a matter of time
Before some English fascist will try and plant his big, white fascist flag
on the English language itself. We own the language: It’s ours: and no
One else can play with our ball. If you’d like to go and find your own
Language then fine, but we own this one because, well, we’re English....

Julie Steiner 03-16-2021 01:40 PM

Dave, if someone were to claim the English language as English-only, would they have to give all the loanwords and calques back? Heh.

And if we're getting technical, the casting of Hamlet wouldn't be just restricted to Whites, but to Whites of Danish ancestry, in which case a lot of White English actors would still be out of a job.

Seriously, though, I don't see why no Black Hamlets would be allowed. There's a long tradition of resetting Shakespeare in modern times, the 1920s, etc., in which multicultural casts make sense. And also a very long history of women playing Hamlet, including women of color. It's way too late to put that genie back in the bottle.

I'm pretty sure we won't be seeing any more blackface White Othellos for awhile, though. However long that tradition is. Current casting and costuming decisions are less a matter of whether a White actor can do justice to the role, and more about the troubling history of blackface. And to a lesser degree, about giving non-White actors Shakespearean leading role opportunities, which have not been available to them until relatively recently.

Speaking of cultural appropriation, there's a reason we've yet to hear Danes complain about exaggerated ethnic stereotypes in Hamlet, or Scots complain about them in Macbeth. Or Greeks about depictions in A Midsummer Night's Dream. Etc. And that reason is that exaggerated ethnic stereotypes of Danes, Scots, Greeks, etc., aren't there. The anti-Semitism in the depiction of Shylock is, but so is Shylock's humanizing speech. Whether those two things really offset each other is debatable, of course.

In recent years, I've attended two productions of Mozart in which the libretto's sexism and/or cultural appropriation was obvious. Both productions chose to present those depictions as in the original had had them, but with significant pauses added for the audience to softly hiss or throat-clear after the now-offensive lines. I thought that this expression of solidarity by the audience made these productions far more meaningful and engaging experiences for everyone, including the women and the members of the appropriated culture, than censorship or tinkering would have.

Mark, here's the bit I missed in your post--probably due to an editing error on my part rather than a later addition:

Quote:

You sidestepped Roger's hypothetical about Gorman translating Rijneveld, calling it Bizarro World because Gorman doesn't speak Dutch.
I called Roger's hypothetical a Bizarro World situation not because Gorman doesn't speak Dutch, but because Whites in both the United States and in the Netherlands are pretty much the default, and Blacks in both are the exception. Or one kind of exception. Definitely not the default, anyway.

Quote:

What about a more generalised hypothetical. Following a social media campaign, a black, Dutch translator is pressured to step down from translating a collection by a white Midwestern farmer poet. Some campaigners claim it's because the poet wrote mainly in form and the translator mainly in free verse but the original essay prompting the uproar mainly focuses on the poet's status as a role model for working-class Mid-westerners and his strong white identity which no other group could possibly identify or empathise with. What do you imagine yours and the general response would be? Quite rightly, one of upset and indignation I would imagine. Because investing whiteness with quasi-mystical properties is something that only neo-Nazis and white supremacists do. Of course, I understand that historically oppressed and marginalized groups will justifiably be invested in a sense of their identity more than historically privileged groups, but I don't think it is something that should reasonably begin affecting editorial decisions.
In order to engineer a truly equivalent situation, you'd first have to reverse which race is the majority and minority in each country, and then reverse the races of the poet and the two translators. But reimagining the racial composition of two entire countries is so unwieldy that at that point the thought experiment ceases to be a meaningful exercise at all.

BTW, in my view, there is absolutely nothing wrong with White people taking pride in their own race or ethnicities or religions or other cultural signifiers. It's only when they feel the need to sneer at, suppress, exclude, or discriminate against other people's races or ethnicities in order to feel secure about their own--which is what neo-Nazis and White supremacists do--that I have a problem with White pride.

conny 03-16-2021 02:54 PM

Yes, exactly. I was kinda joking obviously, in poor taste, but
All that is true.

As a serious point though my worry is things being seen as
One thing or the other. Appropriation works both ways, which I
don’t think anyone has said yet. Yes, we claim something as our
Own: but...we also decide that something else is yours. That’s the
Dangerous bit imo.

Things are kind of at that point now. Everything with a little flag
on it. novelists, poets, acting roles, plays. I think the phrase is...
stay in your lane....which is a goddam depressing thought.

Julie Steiner 03-16-2021 04:09 PM

Personally, I think the following factors should be considered when determining whether getting out of one's lane is acceptable, or even commendable:

1. Goodwill vs. Selfishness. Does the artist's main motive in attempting this representation seem to be that of promoting deeper or broader understanding? Or does the artist seem to be more motivated by a desire to exploit a trendy or exotically novel theme for profit (monetary, political, or notoriety/publicity-wise)?

2. Enough Respect to Do One's Homework. Has the artist done the proper research to make sure that the depiction does not mis-represent any aspects of the other culture, gender, etc.? Or is the artist simply relying on readymade clichés and unexamined stereotypes?

3. The Fairness of Any Implied Broader Implications. Are the strengths and flaws of these fictional characters--and yes, all fictional characters must be flawed in order to have any verisimilitude or interest--likely to be taken as applying to others with the same cultural or gender traits? And if so, is that a fair implication?

4. Quality of the Resulting Work. Obviously it's much easier to look kindly on a depiction if it is part of something excellent.

An example of an artist who has successfully gotten out of his lane is Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel-prizewinning author of books with unreliable narrators who are obviously different from himself in various ways, such as the painfully repressed English butler in The Remains of the Day and the eventually stoic Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go. Even Ishiguro has had some misses along with his lane-changing hits; some of his choices definitely work better than others. But when he gets it right, it's great.

And there are of course many other such artists. Wally Lamb's eerie inhabitation of an obese female narrator in She's Come Undone comes to mind. And yes, body size is an identity.

Perhaps others can add to this list of successful lane-changers, or add to (or subtract from) this list of guidelines.

The factors are somewhat different when evaluating a publisher's or producer's decisions. But I've yammered on long enough and will let others discuss those if they wish.

Martin Elster 03-16-2021 07:17 PM

Quote:

Perhaps others can add to this list of successful lane-changers ...
Outside of literature:

Aaron Copland, who wrote Billy the Kid, Rodeo,, the music for the film The Red Pony, and other well-known works (including Appalachian Spring and El Salón México). Much of his music had the flavor of cowboy music, even though he was not a cowboy but a Jewish boy from Brooklyn. “The open, slowly changing harmonies in much of his music are typical of what many people consider to be the sound of American music, evoking the vast American landscape and pioneer spirit.” (Wikipedia)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Copland

George Gershwin, who wrote Porgy and Bess, and was another jewish kid from Brooklyn. “Porgy and Bess was first performed in Boston on September 30, 1935, before it moved to Broadway in New York City. It featured a cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring artistic choice at the time. After an initially unpopular public reception, a 1976 Houston Grand Opera production gained it new popularity, and it is now one of the best-known and most frequently performed operas.” (Wikipedia)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Gershwin

And these 9 Black composers who changed the course of classical music history:

https://www.classicfm.com/discover-m...music-history/

Max Goodman 03-16-2021 09:02 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Julie Steiner (Post 462146)
Perhaps others can add to this list of successful lane-changers

William Styron, The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Successful? It was controversial even at the time. But many felt it was successful. I should probably reread it before weighing in, but I remember being moved and impressed, as I have been with most of Styron's work.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Co..._of_Nat_Turner

We might also include Sophie's Choice, as Styron wasn't personally touched by the Holocaust.

conny 03-17-2021 09:32 AM

Jack London, writing as a wolf. lol.

not just different lanes, but different zip codes.

Julie, do you see white, male poets as a collective? or any
type of poets as a collective? i find it slightly depressing to
be lumped in with the guy you describe a couple of posts
back.

i've certainly heard recently (again) the whole dead-white-guy
meme cropping up. i assume a lot of poetry teaching these
days is racially sensitive, not to say selective.

Matt Q 03-17-2021 09:55 AM

I'm going to find it more depressing when I'm lumped in with the dead white male poets.

Martin Elster 03-17-2021 11:53 AM

When you become a dead white poet, you won't know it.

Julie Steiner 03-17-2021 12:05 PM

LOL, Matt!

Dave, I don't think that there's a monolithic White male perspective (despite my earlier post's phrasing implying otherwise), and I don't think we've already heard so many white White male voices that we don't need to hear any more.

But those voices certainly do get heard more than others, in most poetry venues. (I'll post the most recent VIDA Count at the end of this post, to illustrate the gender identity disparity in major American literary publications.)

And I am rather tired of hearing certain patterns and tropes presented by White male poets. Just as, presumably, you (and I) are also tired of certain patterns and tropes presented by trying-to-be-woke-and-not-always-succeeding White feminists like me.

It's like any other well-worn theme: The love poem. The cancer poem. The implicitly self-congratulatory poem about the magic of poetry-writing. The immigrant grandmother hagiography poem. The "my mostly-comfortable pandemic experience" poem. The angry feminist poem (which is, alas, the bulk of my poetic output, most of which I will never show to anyone because it so rarely rises above self-therapy and cliché).

So, too, the "I'm a White man, and I have something to say about racism" poem.

None of these genres are necessarily doomed to be mediocre. But the bar is definitely set a lot higher before they are considered great, or even good. "Make it new" and all that.

The latest VIDA Count:
https://infogram.com/2019-main-vida-...h7g6kwr139j6oy
FAQ about their methodology:
https://www.vidaweb.org/faq/

conny 03-17-2021 12:28 PM

yep, that's all fair comment.

i'm also weary of all that stuff. but labels also. no one seems
to be able to make an announcement about anything cultural
anymore without telling me the colour of the artist/novelist/
poet/actor. its very draining. for many of the reasons already
mentioned on this thread.

Martin Elster 03-18-2021 02:55 PM

Quote:

Originally Posted by Julie Steiner (Post 462146)
Perhaps others can add to this list of successful lane-changers.

Charles Harrison, 87, Designer Who Reshaped the View-Master, Dies
Dec. 5, 2018

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/05/o...ison-dead.html

George Washington Carver

https://www.history.com/topics/black...hington-carver

Martin Elster 03-18-2021 10:28 PM

Julie, you may find this interesting:

https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p...as-antiracists

https://www.persuasion.community/p/j...the-neoracists

Jim Moonan 03-19-2021 07:18 AM

.

"Julie, you may find this interesting"

https://johnmcwhorter.substack.com/p...as-antiracists

https://www.persuasion.community/p/j...the-neoracists



Martin, I'd lost track of this discussion but came back to see these articles by John McWhorter you've linked. I think he has his finger on the root problems we face in this hyper-charged hate-filled society where it feels danger is lurking everywhere waiting to pounce on anyone who doesn't submit to their suppression (I'm talking about the neo-antiracist movement that McWhorter speaks about in the article). I've heard him speak on NPR a number of times and he's always enlightening.

I'm hoping McWhorter and those like him have the president's ear. —More than that, I hope he finds a way to galvanize his ideas/views to confront the cancel culture vultures and the neo-antiracist movement that have hacked American discourse and jeopardizes American civil rights progress (and erodes the American Constitution) for decades to come if they are not stopped. Leave them out on an island with the far-right and let the center rejuvenate and flourish.

.


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