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)
Here's the sequel (another translator gone)
And here's a take from a third translator (written, presumably, before the news about the second translator [second link] came out) .
Can't open the third one without subscribing to the journal - a quick summary?
Hi Annie. Strange, it works fine for me. Probably easier if I just paste the article.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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