Translation, representativeness, representation

This piece is a roughly compiled and organised set of speaking notes I wrote for talks and panel discussions from March to June 2021, which prompted me to think further about the issues I first raised in “Translation is the canary in the coalmine”, a direct response to the Amanda Gorman translation debate. I am indebted in particular to insights from conversations, short and long, online and offline, over this time with Anna Strowe, Bertus van Rooy, Onno Kosters, Janice Deul, Diniz Galhos, Gea Schelhaas, Anne Lopes Michielsen, Ebissé Rouw, John Parkinson, Andi Shiraz, Raoul Markaban, Ilan Stavans, and many students, colleagues, and translators. We don’t always agree, but you’ve all challenged me to think harder. Innumerable exchanges on Twitter, and insightful panel discussions (only some of which I can cite here) further contributed to the ideas developed here. Many of the ideas of this essay are also raised, and developed from a different perspective in a forum discussion piece by Anna Strowe and me, forthcoming in Translation Studies.

Two questions: Who can translate? Who may translate?

In thinking and talking about issues of identity, subjectivity, representation and translation, I would like to make a conceptual distinction between two issues. Even though they are deeply interwoven, I think it is worth pulling them apart, in order to clarify exactly what is at stake in the discussion, and what we are actually talking about. The distinction can be captured by two questions and two keywords (see also this [forthcoming] piece by Anna Strowe and me).

The first question is ‘Who can (is able to) translate?’[1] This is a question about what kind of knowledge and skill we suppose that a translator has. It is, in many ways, a philosophical question, a question of epistemology (how we [can] know what we know) that cuts to the heart of what it means to translate.[2] This question often has a very individual focus; it is mostly construed as being about the relation between the translator and their experience, the text, and their creativity. However, in highlighting this philosophical, aesthetic and individual dimension, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that ideas about who can (is able to) translate, and attendant questions about the qualities of a good translation (or translator), are profoundly value- and norm-driven, and these values and norms are, in turn, contingent on sociocultural and ideological forces and agendas. While on the surface a ‘universal’ question, ideas about who can (is able to) translate are, in fact, profoundly socially embedded.

The keyword I use for this question is ‘representation in translation’, and the questions that arise here are ones like: How can/does the translator represent experiences that are different from their own (whether close or distant)? Are they able to, and if so, how? What kinds of yardsticks do we use to judge whether a translator has done this well (or not)? How are these yardsticks connected to larger social and ideological dynamics? And then the ethical question: Should translators attempt to represent experiences distant to their own embodied experience in the world? And if so, what degree of knowledge is seen as necessary in order to be able to translate, for different translation contexts and directions? What do differences in these thresholds tell us about power dynamics?

The second question is ‘Who has the opportunity to translate? Who may (has the possibility/permission to) translate?’ This is a question of institutional and social structures, and how they include or exclude people from a position of having the opportunity to translate. We can, therefore, never consider only who can (is able to) translate (many people can, in this sense) — but should also ask who is being allowed to translate. This is an explicitly and unapologetically social, material, political, and economic view of translation. We should take care not to think about translation only as an aesthetic or creative act (though it is always that too) — ignoring, or denying, the materiality, economics and politics of translation in favour of an idealised aesthetic or philosophical view keeps dominant structures of power and in-/exclusion intact (and, in fact, may be purposely done to accomplish this).

This second question I capture by the notion of ‘representativeness in translation’, where translation is seen as a social practice. When talking about ‘representativeness’, we don’t principally ask questions about how the translator (can) represent(s) the experiences in the text (or whether they have done so well or poorly), but rather raise questions about how the translation and publishing industry represents (or not) the diverse realities of the world we live in, and thus creates opportunities (or not) for a range of voices to express the rich diversity of human experiences.

The ‘rooms’ of translation: Representativeness first

Both of these are important and complex questions, and profoundly interrelated. But, in my view, the heated (and often very polarised and reductionist) debates that have recently circulated about translation and identity (i.e. questions about who can and should translate; about translation and representation) arise, in the first instance, because of a lack of institutional and social representativeness. Philosopher Olúfémi O. Táíwò, in an essay titled “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference” uses the concept of the ‘room’ (partly literally, partly metaphorically) to refer to the spaces in which decision-making happens, and from whence influence emanates: “Being in these rooms means being in a position to affect institutions and broader social dynamics by way of deciding what one is to say and do. Access to these rooms is itself a kind of social advantage…”

The rooms of publishing, we know, are not diverse: The people who are in decision-making spaces, in the spaces where opportunities are created, spaces of power, do not reflect the diversity of the world about which decisions are being made. Táíwò points out that those who are most affected by social injustice are least represented in such rooms — and when people from such groups do make it into these rooms, it is “precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room”.

To me, the principal question at this juncture in time is the material one: How do we radically change the rooms in which publishing and translation happen? Who is in the room, and who is not? What is needed, I think, are practical, material, goal-oriented plans for changing these structures, along the lines that Táíwò identifies in his discussion of what a constructive implementation of standpoint epistemology[3] would look like:

“It would focus on building and rebuilding rooms, not regulating traffic within and between them — it would be a world-making project: aimed at building and rebuilding actual structures of social connection and movement.”

I propose that if this can be accomplished, as aspirational as it seems, at least some of the controversy over who can/should translate will be defused: If decision-making spaces become more diverse, discussions about translator choices will be infused with a greater range of views, the networks that extend out from rooms will be more varied, and a greater diversity of translators will gain access to opportunities in the field of cultural production.

In this, conformity cannot be the price to be paid for access to these rooms — in other words, gaining access to such rooms should not be predicated on emulating the behaviour, the judgements, the tastes, of those already in the room, to ‘show worthiness’ of being in the room. The nature and composition of the rooms themselves need to radically change, rather than the process being a gradual one of seeking and gaining entrance on the well-established conditions of the existing rooms.[4]

Representation: What kinds of knowledge(s)?

Having set out some of these ‘first principles’, I want to dig a bit deeper into ideas and questions around the complex relation between representation and representativeness. First, it needs to be made clear that no one (or hardly anyone) is arguing that a translator must have absolute identity with the author. That is a false framing of the arguments about representation that have been put forward, and a false framing that leads to — or is even designed to lead to — a dead end, shutting down conversations about questions of power in translation. The fact that so many respondents have misconstrued the argument in this way (deliberately or not), is in itself telling: There is, evidently, a much deeper cultural contestation at play, which I think boils down to the fact that those who have traditionally benefited from the existing structures are reacting against what they perceive as a threat to this status quo.

Let’s put such misrepresentations aside, and instead focus on a question that I think is worth debating: The question of how we decide what kind of knowledge can be responsibly and ethically acquired in translating. Translators pride themselves in their ability to ‘slip into another’s skin’ — to learn about ‘the Other’,[5] to inhabit ‘Otherness’, to use their imagination and creativity, and research skills and writing skills, to recreate an experience in a new language. The question I want to ask is twofold: Are there kinds of knowledge where we (as humans generally), or translators, specifically, think we ought to say: “I don’t have the experience to understand this and write about or translate it, it is unrealistic to assume that I can acquire this knowledge, and it would be unethical for me to say that I can?” And, what is the role of power in this?

It strikes me as particularly interesting, and important, to reflect on the kinds of knowledge involved. Most ethical codes for translators have a clause of the kind that suggests that a translator should only undertake work for which they have the requisite knowledge and expertise. It is widely held that some areas of translation are specialised, and cannot just be undertaken by anyone; think about medical or legal translation. In these cases, a translator, as a professional, is expected to step back and say: “I don’t have the knowledge or expertise; it would not be ethical for me to undertake this work.” But we don’t expect translators to do that when it comes to certain kinds of experiential knowledge (the formulation is from an opinion piece by Şebnem Susam-Saraeva) — which it is assumed that everyone can ‘acquire’ (though there is a power dynamic to these assumptions too, as I set out below). We could think of any number of examples — Susam-Saraeva discusses, for example, a book detailing women’s experiences of giving birth — and it is, in fact, a worthwhile exercise to consider different scenarios and note the degree of one’s comfort or discomfort with these. Many translators, however, see no need for caution in this respect, confident in their view that there is, and should be, absolutely no question about whether they would be able to ‘imagine’ this experiential knowledge, with or without ‘learning about it’. And it is, of course, not just translators. Authors do the same: In a recent interview with Dutch author A.F.Th. van der Heijden about his new novel Stemvorken (about a love affair between two women), the interviewer asked whether the author was hesitant “to descend into the female psyche” (‘huiverig voor om af te dalen in een vrouwenziel’).[6] His answer, of course, was a firm no — “Helemaal niet”.

The first point I’d like to make here is to reiterate that, in principle, as Van der Heijden indeed points out, after Harry Mulisch, literature is the domain of freedom (‘de literatuur is het rijk van de vrijheid’). But in emphasising this, we again cannot forget that the material reality is that who gets to write (or translate) about/for/on behalf of whom is not an equal playing field, and against this background, the ease, confidence, and non-reflexivity with which claims about the ability, and even the right, to ‘slip into’ the experience of a personhood that is radically ‘Other’ to oneself, is an attitude that should be questioned. These two things — the principle of freedom, the reality of inequality — are both true, and the relationship between them deserves acknowledgement and careful engagement.

At this particular intersection, debates about translating what is ‘Other’ to oneself overlap significantly with similar debates about writing, as Andi Shiraz shows in an excellent essay entitled ‘Nuance is the New Black’. I am grateful to Shiraz for pointing me to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda), in the introduction of which Rankine and Loffreda critique this paradigmatic “language of rights” that so often comes up in writers’ as much as translators’ responses to the question of whether they can write or translate experience that is radically ‘Other’. I quote two full paragraphs from this introduction, because it conveys, to my mind, exactly the epistemological problems that the argument of the free and unfettered imagination (and the ‘craft’ of the writer [or translator]) obfuscates:

“The matter of craft comes up clearly when we encounter the various tropes that white writers take recourse to repeatedly when race is on the table. These tropes are typically heartfelt; but their repetition should be taken as a sign. Here’s one: “The imagination is a free space, and I have the right to imagine from the point of view of anyone I want — it is against the nature of art itself to place limits on who or what I can imagine.” This language of rights is as extraordinary as it is popular, and it is striking to see how many white writers in particular conceive of race and the creative imagination as the question of whether they feel they are permitted to write a character, or a voice, or a persona, “of color.” This is a decoy whose lusciousness is evident in the frequency with which it is chased. The decoy itself points to the whiteness of whiteness — that to write race would be to write “color,” to write an other.

But to argue that the imagination is or can be somehow free of race — that it’s the one region of self or experience that is free of race — and that I have a right to imagine whoever I want, and that it damages and deforms my art to set limits on my imagination — acts as if the imagination is not part of me, is not created by the same web and matrix of history and culture that made “me.” So to say, as a white writer, that I have a right to write about whoever I want, including writing from the point of view of characters of color — that I have a right of access and that my creativity and artistry is harmed if I am told I cannot do so — is to make a mistake. It is to begin the conversation in the wrong place. It is the wrong place because, for one, it mistakes critical response for prohibition (we’ve all heard the inflationary rhetoric of scandalized whiteness). But it is also a mistake because our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are. They are not some special, uninfiltrated realm that transcends the messy realities of our lives and minds. To think of creativity in terms of transcendence is itself specific and partial — a lovely dream perhaps, but an inhuman one.”

To a large degree, one could change ‘writer’ for ‘translator’ in the above (or ‘race’ for ‘gender’; ‘white’ for ‘male’, etc.) — the parallels are striking.

The above argument by Rankine and Loffreda highlights the interweaving of the material and the historical, and the creative and philosophical — forcing us to acknowledge, at least, that the latter is, in some way, contingent on, related to, the former. I would like to return, again, to the material, economic, institutional and historical perspective (reiterating the emphasis that I place on representativeness). In a recent panel discussion between author and translator Lawrence Schimel and artist, poet and translator Layla Benitez-James, hosted by Jennifer Arnold, Schimel talks about power dynamics in translation into English, using the metaphor of a pyramid: At the top of the pyramid are those with the most power (in short, and simplified: white, cis, male, high socio-economic status, elite educated). It is an undisputed fact that both historically, and in the contemporary world, the European and Anglophone publishing industry is dominated by white and largely upper-middle class, educationally privileged creators and decision-makers (publishers, editors, authors — and translators). Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek, in an article in The New York Times, have shown that between 1950 and 2018, 95% of books published by large major publishers like Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster were written by white people. In his fascinating recent book Redlining Culture: A Data History of Racial Inequality and Postwar Fiction So shows that this inequality is not only the case at the level of people, but this also permeates all of the content of what is published: There is a distinctive centering of ‘white experience’ in the literary works. This work focuses on the content of what is published, and on author profiles — but the profiles of employees in the publishing industry show the same lack of diversity. For example, in the UK, according to the 2021 Publishers Association’s Diversity Report,

“representation of people from Black, Asian, and minority ethnic groups has remained around 13 percent since 2017. Three percent of respondents identified as Black or Black British, 6 percent as Asian or Asian British, 3 percent as having mixed or multiple ethnicities, and 1 percent of respondents identified as belonging to another minority ethnic group”.

While some may want to argue that, by this measure, the publishing industry is more or less proportionally representative of the broader UK racial and ethnic demographic, this crude numerical comparison does not tell the full story. It does not tell us, for example, in what kinds of positions these people are employed, and, importantly, whether these positions are ‘in-the-room’ decision-making positions. The report itself also shows that this notion of representativeness becomes more problematic when one shifts the demographic basis of the proportional comparison away from the national one — which raises a fundamental question of what, exactly, an appropriate basis for a proportional view of representativeness is: local, national, international? This question becomes even more pressing when one considers translational dynamics, specifically, which, by definition, cross national boundaries.

Such a broad-strokes view also does not account for other intersecting factors. For example, in the UK publishing industry middle-class backgrounds are vastly over-represented compared to the general population — highlighting the important point that diversity is not just about race and gender, but also about class and education. A study by Claire Grossman, Stephanie Young and Juliana Spahr (“Who gets to be a writer”) shows that literary prizewinners in the US are becoming more diverse in terms of race — but what matters far more than race is educational background: Those with degrees from elite institutions were far more likely to win prizes.[7] While correlation does not equal causation, the fact that decision-making spaces in publishing are not diverse is clearly closely linked to the lack of diversity in who and what gets published (see also this recent interview with So) — and who is chosen to translate. What gets to be represented is biased in similar ways to who gets the opportunity to represent (in translation as much as writing), and dismissing causation in this correlation leaves unanswered the question of why the imbalance in what is represented exists if writers (and translators), as is so often argued, are free to imagine everything and inhabit every possible ‘Self’.

There is a further problem to this innate non-diversity of the decision-making spaces of publishing and translation, which is not just that certain voices are excluded, but also that the parameters for deciding what ‘Other’ voices are included, and how, is profoundly shaped by the ideas, expectations, concepts, stereotypes, ideologies of dominant groups. This has the effect of narrowing down, flattening out, and reducing the range and diversity of experiences of people (in this case, writers or translators) who are from other groups to some kind of stereotype that ‘fits’ the expectation of the dominant culture. This is done under the camouflage of ‘world literature’ — as translator and editor Nicholas Glastonbury has pointed out in a fantastic essay on this topic, titled “Translating against world literature”:

“The process of publishing winnows out an inordinate number of writers whose works deserve global readership, allowing the very narrowest of exceptions to maintain the false image of World Literature as a planetary utopia of multicultural harmony.

[…]

Everybody means well, but that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Because no matter how well intentioned everyone might be, no matter how much editors and translators may sermonize on the importance of introducing new and urgent (always urgent, for some reason, despite the glacial process of going from English-language rights being pitched to the finished thing landing on bookstore shelves) voices to English readers, the game is rigged, the deck is stacked, and the status quo of World Literature is fundamentally predicated on the inequality of languages and literatures.”

This is at the root of what Glastonbury, in an interview with writer and translator Anton Hur, has called the “trauma porn industrial complex”: Books from ‘Other’ cultures are selected for publication because they fetishise or exoticise the suffering of the ‘Other’; foreground a fictionalised and reductive representation of ‘the Other’ that serves the interests, economically and ideologically, of the dominant culture — a representation that is often exaggerated further in translation. In this frame, every book by an author from any of these backgrounds carries the weight of having to represent the experience of ‘the Other’, packaged in predetermined ways for consumption by the dominant-culture audience, meeting their often stereotypical expectations of this ‘Other’ — instead of allowing scope for the same range of diverse experiences that are allowed to authors from the dominating cultures, those at the top of Schimel’s pyramid.

The irony that emerges here is striking: Some authors, those in positions of power, are assumed to be able to, and allowed to, write all experiences; others, not in positions of power, are assigned a particular experience that is ‘their’ domain, and that is all the industry is interested in. The same danger, then, exists for translation, where translators from marginalised backgrounds are considered only for works about ‘their’ background, rather than being considered for the same range of possible translations as translators from non-marginalised backgrounds would be.

While starting out discussing questions of representation and reflecting on different kinds of knowledge in translation in this section, I have already, inevitably, returned to the question of representativeness. It is the structural or material problem of a lack of representativeness in institutional spaces, in rooms, that cause authors and translators from marginalised backgrounds to be corralled into ‘carrying the burden’ of representation — they have to ‘stand for’ a group, and are restricted to ‘standing for’ a group, in a way that is not expected of non-marginalised authors or translators.[8]

Representation: Rights, responsibilities and risks

To return to the axiom of the creative freedom of writers and translators: Let’s, in principle, accept that everyone can write or translate everyone; that shared lived, embodied experience is not a prerequisite to ‘slip into another’s skin’. But with rights come responsibilities; in this case an ethical responsibility to consider whether you truly are the right, or best, person for a translation. You, as a translator, may of course be able to do it, even without sharing a frame of reference or experience with the text or author. But in some cases, you may want to consider whether there is not someone else who could do it better; even, someone else who, in this moment, should do it, on ethical or moral grounds, rather than you, considering the structural inequalities and lack of representativeness. This, I think, is what Marieke Lucas Rijneveld expressed in their poem after stepping down from the Gorman translation (translated to English by Michele Hutchison):

“Nooit het verzet kwijtgeraakt, en toch inzien wanneer
het niet jouw plek is, wanneer je moet knielen voor een gedicht
omdat een ander het beter bewoonbaar maakt, niet uit onwil,
niet uit verslagenheid, maar omdat je weet dat er zoveel
ongelijkheid, dat er nog steeds mensen achtergesteld…”

“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…”

This is a difficult position, one where ethics and economics (amongst other things) collide. (Literary) translation is a precarious industry, and it might well be that of the reasons why translators hold on so strongly to that professional identity of being able to learn and understand a text, to transform it into a creation in a different language, is because that confidence in one’s own skill is what neoliberal capitalism demands.[9] But, this is only a partial explanation — one could well argue that many well-known translators can hardly be seen to be subject to such economic constraints (though perhaps it is less about actual economic constraints, and more about an internalised mindset that is its ultimate product). There is, I think, much more reflection needed on this professional identity of translators, and how it construes the limits of knowing in particular ways.

If we accept the right, and the responsibilities, of the creative freedoms of translation, we must then also accept that it comes with risk, and stories of translators confident that they could get there by research and got it ‘wrong’, abound. At this point, however, the question of the values that underpin our views of translation, and their social and ideological conditioning, arises again. The two Fs demanded of ‘good’ translation (faithfulness and fluency) take on radically different permutations, depending on what is being translated, what language it is being translated from and into, and what dominant discourses at a particular time are. Translating from minoritised languages into dominating ones, like English, allows for playing fast and loose with faithfulness — but not so much with fluency (the translation must never read ‘like a translation’; the ‘invisibility’ of the fact of translation, its indistinguishability from an ‘original’ is the goal to aspire to). However, different standards apply when translating from dominating languages (or when translating ‘great’ works of literature): Here the demand for faithfulness is a principal concern. Neither of these tendencies are inherently ‘right’ or ‘good’, but they are in part in conflict. The worrying point, and the one that we cannot afford to ignore, is that the resolution of the conflict consistently patterns with a power differential. The norms for what a good translation is, are determined by the ideological forces in society, not by each new case of translation. Examples of this abound: From the “translational tinkering” in the English versions of Murakami’s novels (the topic of David Karashima’s Who We’re Reading When We Read Murakami), to the reframing of Arab women’s writing in translation to English to fit Western stereotypes — and many more. In terms of fidelity to the ‘experience’ encapsulated in a book, the threshold is set very high for ‘Others’ to represent and translate ‘Our’ experience, but rather lower for ‘Us’ to translate the experience of ‘the Other’.

Another point to be made in respect of this question of ‘risk’ is that translated books are read by a multiplicity of readers. A translator who has chosen to translate a text removed from their lived, embodied experience may well find that readers who do share that lived experience with the text, or author, are critical of the translator’s choices. Whose knowledge carries more weight, here? Whose experience, whose expertise? It may be worth considering, in this respect, the root of both ‘experience’ and ‘expertise’: The Latin experiri, which carries within it the meanings of trying or attempting; experiencing or going through; and doing — all of which, to my mind, rest upon the notion of being-and-doing in the world.

Thinking forward: What can institutions do?

When we consider these issues, we need to be explicit about the fact that there are power differentials involved; historical and present realities of oppression and exclusion; historical and present realities in which dominated/marginalised groups of people have not had or do not have a voice; where their stories have been appropriated by dominating cultures. This is crucial. Those who have set out the argument that translation ought to be seen as the domain of unfettered imaginative exchange, a crossing of borders in pursuit of our common humanity, blithely gloss over the fact that those patterns of exchange have never been equal; those borders that translation is meant to cross, exist often in the first instance to keep ‘Them’ out from the spaces that define ‘Us’; and ‘common humanity’ is happily ignored by those in power when it serves their purposes. Yes, in an ideal world it would not matter who translates who; but in the profoundly unequal world we live in, where some have the opportunities to speak, and have also used those opportunities to claim the stories of others for their own purposes, it does matter.

I emphasise again that this is not just a question of race: It speaks to all situations in which members of a more powerful group get the opportunities to ‘speak on behalf of’ (also in translation) members of a less powerful group. Even if we think that concepts like ‘secondary witnessing’ (a framework proposed by Susam-Saraeva) is a useful way of describing such interactions, we still also have to ask: Why are these particular people institutionally granted the opportunity of speaking/translating (on behalf of others), and others not? What are the dynamics in terms of the pyramid of power? Who is in the room, shaping how opportunities to translate, to speak, are distributed? Which returns me to my earlier point: The representativeness of the rooms is the key.

Ultimately: The imagination belongs to everyone. That is not the question. Who gets to exercise that imagination, on behalf of whom, in translation, is. This is a material, social, institutional question. Institutions are made up of human beings, agents who have the power to act. Change the group of human beings, and you change the institution — and the potential vectors of action. A truly transformative vision of the rooms, the decision-making spaces, of publishing and translation is therefore needed. In my view, such a transformative vision is one in which training institutions (like universities, amongst others), publishers, and other organisations work together to create a publishing and translation industry that is truly diverse at all levels — right up to the decision-making spaces. This means attending to a number of challenges, at the same time. First, we must ensure that university and other training programmes for translation are not just accessible to all, but actively promote diversity: In terms of languages offered, texts taught, and teachers. The old adage that you cannot be what you do not see, holds here too. While short courses and development programmes of course are essential (for all translators), I would caution against a paradigm in which ‘diversity’ is seen exclusively as the business of short courses, mentorship and summer schools only, apart from universities, other higher education institutions or whatever ‘mainstream’ paths into translation as a profession exist in a particular place. This promotion of diversity is not a sideshow or window-dressing exercise; it needs to be hardwired into a radically new system.

As far as publishers and other institutions are concerned, I think that it is key to move from a perspective where diversity is seen as something that is promoted at entry levels only, in programmes or mentorships for emerging translators. While it is the case that there is a lack of diversity among translators themselves, and this lack needs to be addressed from the ‘bottom up’ — it should not remain there. The structures themselves will not change, until that diversity has grown upwards to become a standard feature of the decision-making spaces.

Only then will the rooms be transformed, and truly diverse. Only then will we stop thinking about inclusion as something ‘We’ do, an ‘outreach’ activity to those outside the rooms aimed at including those who fit ‘Our’ definition of the room, on ‘Our’ terms, and start thinking about inclusivity and representativeness as a standard feature of the ‘we’ in institutional rooms. Only then will ‘identity’ and ‘representation’ cease to be the flashpoints in conversations about literature and translation that they are now, because the representativeness of institutions, a true diversity of bodies and voices, will allow for the expression of multiple imaginations, all shaped in unique ways by unique experiences. It will allow for verdant, vital, diverse representation, instead of reducing the debate to the arid claims of ‘rights’; it will allow us to “change the terms of [the] conversation, to think about creativity and the imagination without employing the language of rights and the sometimes concealing terms of craft”. Rankine and Loffreda are talking about writing, here, but the same change in the terms of conversation about translation is needed, too — a change that is intimately connected to a change in the rooms of translation and publishing more broadly. This may seem an idealistic vision, and certainly, the notion of representativeness is a complex and multidimensional one that does not allow for facile, easily quantifiable answers. The fact that it is a complex and contested notion, however, is no reason not to engage with it; understanding representativeness, agreeing that it is in principle important, is fundamental to the endeavour of transformation. Ultimately, such change can be brought about if it is founded on openness, a clear strategic vision, and a collective commitment to the work needed for radical transformation.[10] What we cannot afford to do is to accept the complacency of the status quo, a complacency that, we should be clear, serves the interests of those who benefit from keeping rooms as they are.

[1] Can is a highly polysemous modal verb, able to capture ability, possibility and permission. ‘They can translate’ may express all three of these meanings: They are able to translate, it is possible that they will translate, they may be allowed to translate. This polysemy could, itself, be seen as an index for the difficulty of separating these dimensions of translation — and may, also, be one of the reasons why debates on this topic have so often seemed to be at cross-purposes: Respondents assign different meanings to can. In this article, I consciously narrow down can to its ability meaning, for the purpose of clarifying the terms of the argument.

[2] This does not apply only to literary translation, although that is the scenario that I have in mind most here.

[3] Standpoint epistemology is based on the assumption that knowledge stems from social position, specifically that “one’s social position relative to systemic power confers additional insight or access to knowledge(s) that allows the oppressed to understand both oppression and the society or systems it operates within better than the privileged are able to” (New Discourses). It is strongly associated with the work of feminist theorist Sandra Harding.

[4] I am indebted for this point to Bertus van Rooy, who raised it in an initial response to this text.

[5] I used the terms ‘Other’ and ‘Self’ (and related terms) in single quotation marks to reflect their contingency, and the fact that they may have shifting and variable referents, depending on the context.

[6] Even if the question is meant ironically, the formulation is, in itself, telling.

[7] One could argue that this exemplifies a situation in which access to the ‘room’ is predicated on conforming to the elite terms of the room, without challenging those terms themselves.

[8] Similar points are made in this great panel discussion between Bruna Dantas Lobato, Anton Hur, Paige Aniyah Morris, Aaron Robertson, and Jeremy Tiang), and a blogpost by E. Lily Yu in Locus, exploring how the demand of ‘authenticity’ is applied only to writers from marginalised backgrounds.

[9] This is a point made to me by Anna Strowe.

[10] This process is, for example, very slowly, underway in the South African publishing industry. The 2018–2019 Publishers’ Association of South Africa (PASA) annual industry survey shows increasing racial representativeness in the publishing industry; for example, nearly half of editorial staff are Black; and across other departments (e.g. design and production, marketing), ratios are 60% and more Black. This represents a significant change that has been effected over a period of 20 years, post-1994, even if still not representative of the national demographic, and even if significant inequalities remain that cannot be captured by this (superficial) quantification.

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

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Haidee Kotze

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