Translation is the canary in the coalmine

What the debate about Amanda Gorman’s translators is really about

Translation is the territory of paradox. One of the central paradoxes, and one which runs through popular views of translation as much as it has occupied translation theorists, is the notion that a good translation is one where the reader cannot tell that it is a translation. In other words, a translation proves its worth, its value, by rendering its translated nature invisible. This invisibility of translations (and by extension translators) is a matter of professional and theoretical contention. Translators protest against their professional invisibility — the #NametheTranslator campaign is a good example. Some translation theorists argue that this demand that translations should completely assimilate themselves to the expectations of the receiving culture reflects the receiving culture’s ethnocentrism; its unwillingness to engage with cultural difference. Despite these protestations, translators and translation have, by and large, continued to be defined by their invisibility. When readers (and even reviewers) talk about books in translation, they mostly ignore the fact that the book is a translation — except, of course, when they find something to criticise in the book, and suspect the translation of being the culprit.

This default invisibility of translation makes the intensity, the reach, and the staying power of the debate around the choice of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld as Dutch translator of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” all the more noteworthy. Translation — and more specifically, the translator — is for once finding itself shoved into the spotlight, becoming a topic of controversy in an unprecedented slew of newspaper opinion pieces and tweet-skirmishes, both in the Netherlands and abroad.

The shape that this debate has taken is revealing on a number of counts. It is important not only at the level of the debate itself (Who can and should translate, and what do we base these choices on?), but also in respect of how it reveals the concepts, views and beliefs that are held about translation, and its role in societies, by different groups of people. It also raises the question of why this case, in particular, has been the one that put translation in the global spotlight. What is it about the Gorman/Rijneveld case that has prompted a sudden outpouring of emotional and intellectual investment in translation, when most people, most of the time, give translation hardly a thought?

A careful analysis of the debate, and the positions taken within it, leads to the conclusion that it is not about translation, primarily — or perhaps even at all. The translation of Gorman’s poem (which, as Jos Joosten has pointed out, the majority of (Dutch) people would not have been aware of, much less care about, two months before the furore) has been nothing but a flashpoint for a much more fundamental contestation, a deeper cultural battle.

So what is really at stake? And how and why was translation the spark?

The commotion was prompted by an opinion piece in Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant on 25 February 2021, by Janice Deul, following on a press release from publisher Meulenhoff announcing a Dutch edition of Amanda Gorman’s poems. Deul is a Surinamese-Dutch journalist, activist and fashion writer.[1] In her original column, Deul called the choice of a white translator to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman to Dutch “incomprehensible”. The translator in question, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, is a Dutch poet and novelist, who in 2020 became the first Dutch winner of an International Booker prize for their novel De avond is ongemak (The discomfort of evening, translated into English by Michele Hutchison). Rijneveld was commissioned by publisher Meulenhoff, after a battle for the translation rights.

Deul’s critique of the choice has subsequently been substantially misinterpreted, so it is worth spending a moment on making clear exactly what it is that she said, to begin with. She highlights the mismatch between the shared lived experiences of the black Gorman and the white Rijneveld, and the lack of experience of Rijneveld (in respect of translation), and then questions why the publisher, Meulenhoff, nevertheless describes Rijneveld as the “dream translator” of Gorman. Deul’s point, though, is not principally that the mismatch in backgrounds, and Rijneveld’s lack of experience, make them unsuitable as translator. Rather it is that the decision for Rijneveld signals trust in Rijneveld’s ability to convey this culturally significant work in another language — trust which is not generally afforded to people of colour:

“Whether in fashion, art, work, politics or literature, the merits and qualities of black people are only sporadically valued — if they are even noticed, to begin with. And this is particularly so for black women, who are systematically marginalised.”

Deul’s question is why, for this particular text, in this particular context, given its significance, Meulenhoff chose not to opt for a young, black, female, spoken-word artist. Joe Biden’s choice of Gorman as reader of her own poem at his inauguration created a particular configuration of cultural value around precisely these qualities. Gorman’s visibility, as a young black woman, matters: She is part of the message. 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 choosing Rijneveld as translator, the publisher missed an opportunity to carry the importance of this visibility into the Dutch cultural space by giving a black translator the same ‘podium’ as Gorman represents. In all likelihood, Meulenhoff did not do so purposely. This does not make it any better; perhaps it even makes it worse. The choice may not reflect a conscious, deliberate unwillingness to give voice, space, and visibility to black artists in the Netherlands. But its non-intentionality may perhaps be even more damning: It suggests that the importance of the decision — the possibility, the gravity of what Gorman’s poem, and platform represents, did not even occur to the publisher. Such is the extent of the blindspot. The publisher asked the question: “Is Rijneveld a suitable translator?” rather than “Who would be a suitable (or even the best) translator, for this particular text in this context?”

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.

Many responses, in the Dutch and international news media and on Twitter, however, immediately fixated on a particular interpretation of the identity argument, reflecting at best a complete disregard of context, and at worst a wilful misreading of the arguments made by Deul. These contributions interpret Deul as arguing something like “only black translators can or may translate black authors” — a point she never makes. The two dimensions of the identity angle (the ‘may’ [i.e. permission] and ‘can’ [i.e. ability] arguments, as I will call them) are worth differentiating. Luc van Doorslaer, writing in the Belgian paper De Standaard (1 March), focuses on the ‘may’ dimension of this argument (similar arguments are made by Assita Kanko in De Volkskrant on 2 March, Kenan Malik in The Guardian on 7 March, Mridula Nath Chakraborty in The Conversation and Nuria Barrios in El País on 12 March. I focus on the article by Van Doorslaer, a professor of translation studies, as exemplary of this line of argument).

Van Doorslaer characterises Deul’s points as the “dictatorship of identity thinking”, reflecting “totalitarianism”. Apart from the fact that Deul only indirectly raises the question of identity in her argument, and does nothing more than ask for more representativeness, more diversity, more inclusivity in the publishing industry (hardly totalitarian), Van Doorslaer’s formulation here is ironic, given the asymmetries of power at stake in this debate. Groups who one would reasonably expect to feel the need to foreground the importance of identity are those who have traditionally been marginalised; if you are in a position of privilege, you don’t have to worry about how your identity will affect your opportunities, or will impose structural limitations on your access to resources. As the default, you are safe in the assumption that you can compete openly based purely on ability for access to resources and opportunities. You can assume a level playing field. In contrast, if you have to fight for fundamental recognition of your identity as valid, and deserving of equal access to resources and opportunities, you know from the outset that there is no such thing as a level playing field.

Van Doorslaer’s piece (and similar ones by Barrios and Chakravorty) sets up a straw-man argument that has little connection with Deul’s original points. He claims that the “disturbing march of identity thinking” is a creative dead-end, leading to a situation in which, for example, white people will not be ‘allowed’ to write about apartheid; black people will be ‘required’ to write only about ‘black experience’ — and only black translators will be ‘allowed’ to translate black authors. This line of argumentation is evident across social media and in the comments sections of newspapers framing the debate in terms of ‘cancel culture’ and ‘reverse racism’, and finds its ultimate absurdist reduction in histrionic claims and clickbait headlines of “the end of translation” and “a new and lethal censorship”: This now means no one can translate anyone (because no one has the same identity). A comment by the Catalan translator of Gorman, Víctor Obiols, whose contract was retracted by the publisher in the wake of the furore, exemplifies the extreme of this reductionism:

“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.”

Barrios (the Spanish translator of Gorman’s poem) argues along the same lines:

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.

This misses the point entirely. The question raised by Deul 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? A place on the podium? A prize? An interview or column in the newspaper? The exclusions, historically and contemporary, along race and gender lines, among others, are clear. The point is how institutions, like publishers, can work towards more inclusivity.

This ‘sub-’line of the identity argument (who ‘may’ translate) is (also) not about translation. It sets itself up as a defense of freedom, of diversity, of the right to inhabit another’s skin; it sees ‘activism’ (used here pejoratively) as an impoverishment of the richness of human creativity and the ability to share in diverse experiences, a “disservice to the human imagination”. And yet, ironically, it displays a profound lack of ability to place itself in the shoes of others. As Hendrik Vos points out in a subsequent article in De Standaard (7 March): Someone unable to see how important representation is to groups who have lacked such representation, clearly lacks the ability to ‘inhabit’ the experience of others that they so strongly advocate for for themselves. Ultimately, what proponents of this line of argumentation demonstrate, more than anything, are anxieties about challenges to privilege — privilege so ingrained that it can afford to be wholly self-unaware. Johan Fretz, in his column in Het Parool on 27 February, highlights another important dimension of this: In shifting the terms of the debate, reframing it away from the original points of critique of Deul, valid, pertinent questions and critiques raised by people of colour are swept away by blithely designating these as nothing more than ‘identity politics’ or ‘wokeness’[2] — a way for white people to claim the discussion space, dismissing both the experience and perspectives of people of colour, and shutting down any space for self-reflection and conversation.

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:

“A translator will make choices based on their life experience and their identity (so yes, race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, socio-economic background, disabilities… will matter), and so will the fluidity of these.”

Connected with this notion of ‘can’ come other aspects of experience relevant to the task of translating Gorman’s work: For example, experience with the genre of spoken-word poetry (which Rijneveld does not have), or experience as a translator and proficiency in the source language (English is, by Rijneveld’s own admission, not their strength).

Given that these relevant experiences clearly did not figure in the choice for Rijneveld as translator, what did? An article by Jos Joosten in Neerlandistiek, published on 27 February, highlights another dimension — one deserving of far more attention than it has been given in the discussion. Joosten points out that the debate is no literary matter at all, but a “cynical commercial conflict”: Meulenhoff took an interest in Gorman for commercial reasons after she shot to fame because of her performance at Biden’s inauguration, and gained the translation rights after a bidding war between eight publishers. Likewise, Meulenhoff’s choice of Rijneveld as translator had nothing to do with either their translation skills (Rijneveld is no translator), or (as Meulenhoff ostensibly claimed) Rijneveld’s affinity with the fight for equality (given that Rijneveld is non-binary and has been outspoken about mental health issues).[3] Rather, it was simply the case that Rijneveld brought with them the cultural ‘capital’ and visibility and prestige of a recent Booker prize winner: A commercial win-win for the publisher, thus. As Joosten laconically (and correctly) points out: The actual translation was merely a side-matter.[4]

These are the main lines of the debate. After all the spilled ink, where do they leave us? Canan Marasligil, in an article on the politics of literary translation, prompts us to think about the framing of the debate in the media. For example, when Rijneveld signalled their withdrawal from the project in a tweet, headlines were quick to frame this primarily as their “quitting” as a consequence of shock at the uproar. This added fuel to the fire of those viewing Rijneveld as the victim of ‘cancel culture’, ‘political correctness run rampant’ and the ‘onslaught of identity politics’. Rijneveld themself, though, pushed back against this construal, most outspokenly in a poem published in De Volkskrant on 6 March, subsequently translated to English by Michele Hutchison. In this, Rijneveld highlights their agency, their choice, and positions themself as an ally and not a victim: Understanding that while all textual experiences and worlds are, of course, in principle inhabitable by all — in situations of injustice, it matters who gets to inhabit. (And, as Saskia Pieterse has argued in De Volkskrant (10 March), being able to ‘inhabit’ the world of the Other may signal emphathy, but it does not lead to equality. And may just as well reflect paternalism.)

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.

Why does it matter who translates? It matters because translation is more than a skill, or an art; is more than the text on the page. Translation is part and parcel of the cultural, ideological, and economic forces in society. Translation is the canary in the coalmine. And once we acknowledge this profound embeddedness, we must not only acknowledge the responsibility of translation, but also its imaginative possibility. What Deul was advocating for in her original piece was not the shutting down of imaginative possibility in pursuit of political correctness, but precisely asking publishers to actively work towards the opening up of imaginative possibility, by creating space for a greater diversity of voices.

The story continues, with news that the Catalan translator of Gorman’s poem has been asked to step back. Before we continue simply circling along the same hyperbolic arguments, 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. It is a moment to consider how we shift the discourse from victimhood, to solidarity; from ‘dictatorship’ to care. Instead of another round of frenzied commentary, driven by the algorithmic engines of online outrage and clickbait, we might do better by thinking on how to put in action this conclusion by Marasligil:

“Amanda Gorman’s poetry falls into the category where the political context matters greatly, and the translation of her poetry is a possibility to break through the ‘frozen state’ of many identities, elevated and silenced at the comfort and benefit of the dominant gatekeepers. As we breathe new languages into her experience and imagination, we should care to create space for inclusion and recognition.”

Notes

[1] At the same time, the press release prompted criticisms from the professional translation community, of the fact that a professional literary translator was not chosen for the task. In the subsequent debate, this issue became largely backgrounded; it is worth further unpicking.

[2] It should be noted that ‘woke’, now often used pejoratively or dismissively, has a long history grounded in the civil rights movement in the USA, used to denote an awareness of injustice, from where it was taken up into the Black Lives Matter movement.

[3] A related argument that may be raised here is that the publisher’s defence is premised on treating the fact of being an Other to the dominant culture as equivalent: All Others are the same; if you are an Other in respect of gender identity, you are sufficiently qualified to speak on behalf of all other Others. This, in itself, signals the ‘invisibility’ of complex issues of diversity, representativeness and intersectionality in the decision, highlighted above.

[4] In this respect, it should also be noted that Meulenhoff presented Rijneveld as their choice to Gorman’s team; they did not signal possible black translators. Claims that Gorman chose Rijneveld are not correct; it is the case that her team approved the choice offered by Meulenhoff.

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

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