Translation is the canary in the coalmine

The choice of translator, in this case, is similarly part of the message. It’s about the opportunity, the space for visibility created by the act of translation, and who gets to occupy that space.

In sum, Deul’s critique centres not on whether Rijneveld can or may translate Gorman. It makes no claim that only black translators can translate literature by black authors; it draws only a brief link between the notion of identity and good translation (i.e., that a translator can only do justice to a translation if they share the experiences of the author). Instead, it is a call to the publishing industry in the Netherlands to seek out opportunities to broaden participation, to work towards the visibility of talented black writers (and translators) as much as they do for white writers like Rijneveld. Such visibility itself has meaning; it contributes to the cultural value or significance of the text — as exemplified by Gorman herself. It is not just the (translated) text that produces meaning, but also the people who are seen in its producing. Pieter Vermeulen, writing in De Morgen, puts it succinctly: The relevance, the impact, the meaning of “The Hill We Climb” has everything to do with the visible identity of the writer and the speaker.

The question is not principally about who ‘may’ (who has permission) or even ‘can’ (is able to) write or translate particular experiences. The question is who is, institutionally, given the space to articulate this experience, to participate, to be visible. Who gets to have a seat at the table?

The other ‘sub-’line of the identity argument focuses less on who ‘may’ translate, and more on who ‘can’, from the perspective of identity or shared experience. This is to a marginal degree raised by Deul, but foregrounded much more strongly in subsequent contributions to the debate. These arguments do, to some degree at least, connect with a philosophy of translation itself, raising questions about to what degree familiarity with the lived experience encoded in and expressed by a text is a prerequisite for translation — the focus of a recent forum discussion in the journal Translation Studies, around an article by Şebnem Susam-Saraeva titled “Representing experiential knowledge: Who may translate whom?”. It is pointed out by Ingrid Glorie (in Voertaal, 8 March), and reflected in, for example, a summary article for BBC News by Amanda Holligan (12 March), highlighting (in reference to a conversation with Quinsy Gario, a black Dutch spoken-word artist) the importance of “embodied knowledge and the cultural baggage that come with being black” for translating Gorman. Writer and literary translator Canan Marasligil makes a similar point:

This is a good moment to consider the relative simplicity of what was, and is, asked for: Greater care and inclusivity, from publishers and other gatekeepers of the literary industry, in how decisions about who translates particular texts are made. It is simple, and it is important.

In a situation of systemic racial inequality and lack of diversity in representation in all domains, including the arts (also in the Dutch translation industry more narrowly) one ethical action (among many possibilities!) in the fight against injustice, where visibility matters, is to make space for another, to give up one’s seat at the table. Not because one is a victim, but precisely because one chooses to act in solidarity. So that the table may, eventually, become bigger, and more inclusive, with more seats for everyone. Marasligil argues for the importance of shifting the framing to that of care: Deul “rightfully challenged the publisher’s choice in a context of ongoing systemic racism against non-white Dutch voices, and especially black ones”; in short, critics of the choice demanded that publishers, and society, care about racism, and act upon that care. Rijneveld’s poem suggests that they understand the implications of such care, and shows how the act of stepping back is also an act of solidarity.



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Haidee Kotze

Haidee Kotze

Professor of translation studies at Utrecht University, linguist, writer, poet.