Let us fight to change who guards the literary gates, not who translates our works

A year ago, young Amanda Gorman wore itThe hill we go up New US President Joe Biden. When that poem was translated into Dutch, there was a heated debate about who was most suitable for it. Writer and columnist at MO* Chika Unigwe looks at the debate: What makes a good translation, and how does it create space for diversity in the literary scene?

aManda Gormans opening poem US President Joe Biden shocked the world exactly one year ago. I looked at her—that confident girl, with dreadlocks stacked high on her head—and I was intrigued. Every word in her poem touched me deeply, as if it was engraved in my heart. Many others felt the same way.

It is not often a poem written by a relatively unknown poet who has experience in spoken word the whole world. Praise this young woman, and for good reason.

A new star was born, and everyone wanted a piece of it.

The impact her poem had was likely a combination of two things: the relief that Donald Trump was not returning to office and the way the poem aggressively handled events in the United States, especially after the January 6 storming of the Capitol.

Gorman has become a symbol of the new United States on the horizon: the United States with the first-ever female Vice President of Lon and the United States where the threatening chaos of control has been successfully averted. The United States was poised to shine again, ushered in an inauguration poem that accepted both the challenges and opportunities of an imperfect nation.

When the day comes, we ask:
Where can we find light in these endless nights?
The loss we keep
Waves are still waiting.
We braved the belly of the beast,
(…)
And before we know it,
The dawn was upon us.
However we managed it
Yet we survived and watched
a nation not broken,
But it only turned out to be incomplete.

(Translated by Zaire Krieger)

A new star was born, and everyone wanted a piece of it. Soon, Gorman’s book contracts and translation rights to The hill we go up.

Don’t be less realistic

One of these rights went to Holland, and a very bright and very capable young writer in Dutch, Marijke Reinfeldt, were asked to translate the poem for Meulenhof (by the way my former publisher). Rijneveld was honored to accept this request, but was later forced to withdraw due to criticism from a number of black voices – most notably activist Janice Deol in de Volkskrant.

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This criticism relates to a request by a white writer to translate the poem in a black voice, which quickly became iconic. According to Deul, Rijneveld was not a “thin black girl,” but she was “white, not bi and has no experience in the field.”

How many similar experiences with the author of the work does a translator need to ensure that it will be a good translation?

I wish Dulles would still be critical of the fact that writers of color – as far as the Netherlands – have not been given the same opportunities as their white colleagues. This is a valid argument, but it is different. I share Deol’s frustrations in a world where white privilege exists, but I don’t agree with her that the only person capable of translating Gorman’s words is a skinny black girl.

Will that be a skinny black girl from the United States? A skinny black girl whose ancestors were slaves? Someone raised or single? How many similar experiences with the author of the work does a translator need to ensure that it will be a good translation?

Translation does not mean rewriting or imitating the writer. Translation means expressing sensibilities at work.

I’ve read translated biographies where the translator took charge of the “I” of the biographer and made himself so invisible that I didn’t wonder if what I was reading wasn’t viewed through the lens of someone other than the writer. I’ve read translated interviews, and the power of the interviewee’s personal experiences has never been less realistic to me because they weren’t the specific experiences of the interviewer.

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I am fortunate that my work has already been translated by white men and Jews and white women who cannot pronounce the names in my books. Thanks to them, the stories I wrote in English reached readers who do not read English, to the farthest corners of the world. We read translated literature and don’t take the time to question whether the translator has the same ideology or the same experiences as the characters or writer.

Edit and move

Literature, like other forms of art, frees us to imagine worlds other than our own. I read Enid Blyton’s work in Nigeria and was transported from hot and dusty Enugu to the green English countryside. When we dive into a literary work, we put ourselves in the shoes of the characters we read about.

I often remind my students of using sensory details, to show and not tell them when they write about feelings, so that readers can better empathize with the world they – the book – make. I remind them that the works that move us most have moved us precisely because the writers have succeeded in doing so. And when we read translated works that move us, it is because the translators have captured and formulated the author’s vision.

Perhaps Meulenhof should have consciously given the opportunity to translate Gorman into an underrepresented talent – and he could be a North African writer for all that I care about. But the fact that Rijneveld is neither skinny nor black is shorthand and it’s definitely not a good reason not to let her translate other great talent works.

It is impossible to have useful diversity in books when there is no diversity among editors.

In the US and UK there are debates about the very whitewashed world of publishing, and they certainly fit the Low Countries, where interaction with the “other” is most problematic (and I’ve written about this problematic history many times before). But for any victory to continue, our struggles and demands as black, indigenous, and color writers must be consistent and meaningful.

When the gatekeepers who decide what to publish, when your agent, editor, and publisher are white, and when their worldview is white, writers allowed in and books that see the light of day are more likely to be the world’s viewpoint. Editors often buy books based on what they think will sell well. It’s just a personal thing.

It is impossible to have useful diversity in books when there is no diversity among editors. In 2020, Barnes & Noble Library launched its disastrous work Various Editions where they are simply put black faces On the covers of classics by white authors. The hashtag #PublishingPaidMe went viral in June of last year, revealing the huge differences between the progress white authors have had versus their colleagues of color.

Let us fight to change who guards the gates, not who translates our work. And one day we will find the change we seek, because as Gorman reminds us:

… there is always light,
If we had the courage to see it
And if we have the courage to be so.

This column has been translated from English by master’s students at the Virtual Translation Office (KUL Campus of the University of Brussels at KUL). Translation by Axana Dumoulin and revision by Elmo Geeraerts.

Megan Vasquez

"Creator. Coffee buff. Internet lover. Organizer. Pop culture geek. Tv fan. Proud foodaholic."

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