Amanda Gorman’s poetry united critics; it’s dividing translators

The New York Times
New YorkWritten By: Alex Marshall ©️ 2020 The New York TimesUpdated: Mar 27, 2021, 05:41 PM IST


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It began in February when Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands, said it had asked Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a writer whose debut novel won last year’s Booker International Prize, to translate Gorman’s poem into Dutch.

Hadija Haruna-Oelker, a Black journalist, has just produced the German translation of Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb,” the poem about a “skinny Black girl” that for many people was the highlight of President Joe Biden’s inauguration.

So has Kübra Gümüsay, a German writer of Turkish descent.

As has Uda Strätling, a translator, who is white.

Literary translation is usually a solitary pursuit, but German publisher Hoffmann und Campe went for a team of writers to ensure the translation of Gorman’s poem — just 710 words — wasn’t just true to Gorman’s voice. The trio was also asked to make its political and social significance clear and to avoid anything that might exclude people of color, people with disabilities, women or other marginalized groups.

“It was a gamble,” Strätling said of the collaborative approach.

For nearly two weeks, the team debated word choices, occasionally emailing Gorman for clarifications. But as they worked, an argument was brewing elsewhere in Europe about who has the right to translate the poet’s work.

“This whole debate started,” Gümüsay said, with a sigh.

It began in February when Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands, said it had asked Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a writer whose debut novel won last year’s Booker International Prize, to translate Gorman’s poem into Dutch.

Rijneveld was the “ideal candidate,” Meulenhoff said in a statement. But many social media users disagreed, asking why a white writer had been chosen when Gorman’s reading at the inauguration had been a significant cultural moment for Black people.

Three days later, Rijneveld quit. (Rijneveld declined an interview request for this article.)

In March, the debate reignited after Victor Obiols, another white translator, was dropped by the Catalan publisher Univers. Obiols said he was told his profile “was not suitable for the project.” (A Univers spokeswoman declined to comment.)

Literary figures and newspaper columnists across Europe have been arguing for weeks about what these decisions mean, turning Gorman’s poem into the latest flash point in debates about identity politics across the continent. The discussion has shone a light on the often unexamined world of literary translation and its lack of racial diversity.

“I can’t recall a translation controversy ever taking the world by storm like this,” Aaron Robertson, a Black Italian-to-English translator, said in a phone interview.

“This feels something of a watershed moment,” he added.

On Monday, the American Literary Translators Association waded into the furor. “The question of whether identity should be the deciding factor in who is allowed to translate whom is a false framing of the issues at play,” it said in a statement published on its website.

The real problem underlying the controversy was “the scarcity of Black translators,” it added. Last year, the association carried out a diversity survey. Only 2% of the 362 translators who responded were Black, a spokeswoman for the association said in an email.

In a video interview, the members of the German team said they, too, felt the debate had missed the point. “People are asking questions like, ‘Does color give you the right to translate?’” Haruna-Oelker said. “This is not about color.”

She added: “It’s about quality, it’s about the skills you have, and about perspectives.” Each member of the German team brought different things to the group, she said.

The team spent a long time discussing how to translate the word “skinny,” without conjuring images of an overly thin woman, Gümüsay said, and they debated how to bring a sense of the poem’s gender-inclusive language into German, in which many objects — and all people — are either masculine or feminine. “You’re constantly moving back and forth between the politics and the composition,” Strätling said.

“To me it felt like dancing,” Gümüsay said of the process. Haruna-Oelker added that the team tried hard to find words “which don’t hurt anyone.”

But whereas the German translators were happy to engage with the identity politics, others expressed frustration at the translator departures and their implications. Nuria Barrios, the translator of the poem’s Spanish edition, who is white, wrote in the newspaper El País that Rijneveld's stepping down from the project was “a catastrophe.”

“It is the victory of identity politics over creative freedom,” she wrote, adding: “To remove imagination from translation is to subject the craft to a lobotomy.”

Some Black academics and translators have also expressed concern. “There is a tacit idea that we are supposed to be especially concerned about the ‘appropriateness’ of a translator’s identity in the particular case of blackness,” John McWhorter, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, said in an email.

Other differences between writers and their translators — such as wealth levels, or political views — were not sparking concern, McWhorter added. “Instead, our sense of ‘diversity’ is narrower than that word implies: It’s only about skin color,” he said.

Couching the discussion in terms of appropriateness was “really ridiculous,” said Janice Deul, a Black Dutch journalist and activist who on Feb. 25 wrote an opinion piece for De Volkskrant, a Dutch newspaper, calling Rijneveld’s appointment “incomprehensible.” The following day, Rijneveld resigned.

“This is not about who can translate, it’s about who gets opportunities to translate,” Deul said. She listed 10 Black Dutch spoken-word artists who could have done the job in her article but said all of them had been overlooked.

The one opinion missing in all of this is, of course, Gorman’s. Viking is releasing “The Hill We Climb” in the United States on Tuesday. Apple TV Plus on Friday began streaming her interview with Oprah Winfrey, but she has not commented on the debate her work has spurred. Her spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Gorman, or her agent, Writers House, which represents the translation rights, appeared to have influence on who was selected. Aylin LaMorey-Salzmann, the editor of the German edition of “The Hill We Climb,” said that the rights owner had to agree to the choice, which had to be someone of similar profile to Gorman.

Irene Christopoulou, an editor at Psichogios, the poem’s Greek publisher, was still waiting for approval for its choice of translator. The translator was a white “emerging female poet,” Christopoulou said in an email. “Due to the racial profile of the Greek population, there are no translators/poets of color to choose from,” she added.

A spokeswoman for Tammi, the poem’s Finnish publisher, said in an email that “The negotiations are still going on with the agent and Amanda Gorman herself.”

Several European publishers named Black musicians as their translators. Timbuktu, a rapper, has completed a Swedish version, and Marie-Pierra Kakoma, a singer better known as Lous and the Yakuza, has translated the French edition, which will be published by Editions Fayard in May.

“I thought Lous’ writing skills, her sense of rhythm, her connection with spoken poetry would be tremendous assets,” Sophie de Closets, a publisher at Fayard, said in an email explaining why she chose a pop star.

Issues of identity “should definitely be considered” when hiring translators, de Closets added, but that went beyond race. “It is the publisher’s responsibility to look for the ideal combination between one given work and the person who will translate it,” she said.

Haruna-Oelker, one of the German translators, said one disappointing outcome of the debate in Europe was it had diverted attention from the message of Gorman’s poem. “The Hill We Climb” spoke about bringing people together, Haruna-Oelker said, just as the German publisher had done by assembling a team.

“We’ve tried a beautiful experiment here, and this is where the future lies,” Gümüsay said. “The future lies in trying to find new forms of collaboration, trying to bring together more voices, more sets of eyes, more perspectives to create something new.”