Translators in the UK Call for Racial Equality in Literary Translation

From Publishing Perspectives:

In what has developed as a healthy debate, the Translators Association and the Society of Authors in the United Kingdom have stepped forward to take an eloquent stand on issues of race and access to work and opportunity in their profession.

. . . .

Briefly, the translators are writing to two points deeply important to workers across all the creative industries, fully inclusive of both international book publishing and literary translation.

  • First, they argue that anyone can translate anyone. That is to say, the rejection of one or another translator based on a factor such as race is, they say, unacceptable. (If you’ve ever stopped to admire how deftly a male translator like David Hackston can handle the most sensitive work of a female author like Finland’s Katja Kettu in The Midwife (Amazon Crossing, 2016), you know what they’re talking about). The translators write, “We believe an individual’s identity should never be a limiting factor.”
  • Second, the translators are addressing “structural racism and access to publishing” on a wider scale. As they phrase it, this involves “the urgent need for more openness and opportunities in publishing, more visibility of translators of color and more proactive intervention to help dismantle the institutional barriers faced by early-career translators.”

If anything, the arrival of this inflection point represents a kind of backfire on an attempt to impose limitations on literary work. And for those of us who know translators and work with them or cover their work, the moment is exhilarating because this discussion puts them at centerstage, for once, not cordially shooed to the sidelines.

. . . .

You may recall that in the January 20 inauguration in Washington of Joe Biden as the United States’ new president, the activist poet Amanda Gorman delivered her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb.

When the Dutch publisher Meulenhoff in Amsterdam was preparing to have its Dutch edition of The Hill We Climb translated, it recommended to Gorman that the translation be made by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Rijneveld is the gifted author of De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening). Its English translation by Michele Hutchison won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The Discomfort of Evening is published in the United Kingdom by Faber & Faber, and in the United States by Graywolf.

Rijneveld, at 29, is the youngest author to have won the International Booker, and her book is the first debut effort to find top favor with the jury.

An objection to Rijneveld’s selection to translate Gorman, however, came from journalist Janice Deul in a piece at deVolkskrant. Deul, as Anna Holligan wrote from The Hague for BBC News last month, argued that a white translator for Gorman’s work was wrong.

In her column of February 25, Deul wrote, “Isn’t it—to say the least—a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? … white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff still the ‘dream translator’?” (Rijneveld identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronouns they and them.)

“Nothing to the detriment of Rijneveld’s qualities,” Deul wrote, emphases hers, “but why not opt ​​for a translator who—just like Gorman—is a spoken word artist, young, woman, and: unapologetically Black ? We … are blind to the spoken word talent in [our] own country.”

Rijneveld would end up withdrawing from the Gorman translation assignment.

. . . .

Rijneveld’s step-aside from the translation work on Gorman was followed by news that the Catalan translator Victor Obiols, as he described it, was informed that his finished translation would not be used because, being a white man, he “was not suitable to translate it,” as reported by Sindya Bhanoo at the Washington Post on March 25.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

Yet another problem facing traditional publishing. Fortunately, there is an alternative.

PG wonders whether anyone thought to ask the author of The Hill We Climb, Ms. Gorman, who she would like to have translate her poem into Dutch and whether she thought the translator should be an African-American like she is or whether a translator who is any other color that the large majority of the Dutch population would do.

PG recalls a friend he worked with many years ago who was Nigerian and had received his undergraduate degree from a Nigerian university and his MBA from a very good school in Chicago.

PG’s friend said he felt no affinity for anyone he had met in the large African-American community in Chicago. For him, the culture and values of Nigeria and the culture of the African-American community to which he had been exposed differed in many significant ways. They were not the same as all.

The roots of Nigerian culture reach back to a time when the Roman Empire was also developing. Islam reached Nigeria long before any European explorers and Christian missionaries appeared.

Suffice to say, culture and skin color/race are two different things. Russia has a different culture than France. Japan has a different culture than China. Scotland and Canada have different cultures than the United States.

So, who’s a better translator of a wonderful poem written by an African-American into Dutch – someone with a skin color other than white or someone who is experienced with the nuances of both the English and Dutch languages?

PG will conclude with an excerpt from Ms. Gorman’s poem which, to him, seemed apt for this discussion.

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and
conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.

Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb”

3 thoughts on “Translators in the UK Call for Racial Equality in Literary Translation”

  1. That is to say, the rejection of one or another translator based on a factor such as race is, they say, unacceptable.

    This always frustrates me to no end – someone will say something like this, and then, in the next paragraph – or even the next sentence state that an effort needs to be made to select more of a certain race (or sex, or pronoun, or whatever). Intentionally select one person based on their race, and you are intentionally rejecting all others of different race.

    Now, it would make sense to perhaps advocate for an American black person from the same region and background as Ms. Gorman, who is fluent in Dutch, to translate her poem. Cultural differences do matter.

    I say the “same region” purposely. “African-American” blacks are not a single culture, any more than PG’s Nigerian acquaintance is from the same culture as the blacks he encountered in Chicago. One of my wife’s and mine best friends from college – as in he is the godfather of our first child best friend – is from the Bronx. He married a woman from the Los Angeles area (not Watts, but I don’t know the specific sub-part). The marriage failed within the first year – totally different cultures for two people, both black, both born and raised in America, approximately the same education and economic class.

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  2. As is usual these days, the article rails against a problem that doesn’t exist except possibly in the smallest of minds. If I find a good translator, I don’t care (or even think about) that person’s race, religion, ethnicity, gender, etc. Nor, I believe, do most others.

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  3. This one feels to me, tiresomely, as if it’s related to “America is poorly bilingual and doesn’t understand what it takes to be fluent enough in a foreign language to translate something as complex as poetry.” I love us as a country, but having English be the lingua franca of a lot of the world means most Americans don’t need to understand what it’s like to know more than one language well enough to translate effectively.

    Maybe I’m wrong. But as a first generation American with parents who speak English as a second language, I watch most American assumptions about languages and find them puzzling. And I find it offensive that someone would think that fluency sufficient to translating poetry (!) is so easy to achieve that you should toss someone who can do it in favor of someone whose looks you like better.

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