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To Translate or not Translate:  That Shouldn't Be The Question

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

16 March 2021

A row has recently broken out around the US poet Amanda Gorman and translations of her poems into different languages.  Gorman gained international fame after reading a poem at Biden's inauguration in a much-lauded intervention, though some have questioned the artistic merits of her poem.

The first case that came to light was when the white translator of her works into Dutch was forced to quit.  The translator was forced to quit despite being chosen by Gorman herself.  The translator, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, is a winner of the prestigious International Booker Prize.  She too is part of the Wokerati and describes herself under the fiction of being Non-Binary and despite her skill as a writer constantly abuses the use of pronouns, using Their, a plural form, which is not applicable to a single person.  However, she was forced to resign as a translator.  Journalist and activist Janice Deul led critics with a piece in Volkskrant asking why Meulenhoff had not chosen a translator who was, like Gorman, a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black."(1)

It is obvious that a writer who has experience of something may write a better piece, drawing upon their experience, but it is not a given.  The quality of a written piece needs to be looked at in terms of its quality as a written work.  Direct experience of events or situations does not necessarily make for good literature.  Most writers have little direct experience of what they write about.  How could they?  If we take Shakespeare as an example, what experience did he have of merchants in Venice, princes in Denmark or kings fighting with their daughters?  Or take modern novelists.  What experience do most of them have?  Are they members of the communities they write about?  The simple answer is no.

Translation, as most cheapskate companies who try to get away with using google translator find out to their cost is not a mechanical or technical process, particularly with literature.  The translation is also a literary creative work, where not only the translator's knowledge of the language is at play, but also their own creative skill in that language and some knowledge or ability to imagine the setting, but it is primarily a linguistic creative endeavour.  Rijneveld obviously has some talent in her native language as a winner of the International Booker Prize, perhaps less experience as a translator.  But the idea that a translator of Gorman's works should be young, female and unapologetically Black is just ridiculous, though Rijneveld ticks two of those boxes, her Non-Binary fantasy notwithstanding.

Rijenveld went on to write a poem about the furore.  The poem fails on many levels, perhaps because it is rushed, but it is an ode to Wokerati Identity Politics and consists of Rijneveld abjectly apologising and crawling on hand and foot for what she had done, or as she puts it in the poem, bending a knee.  She could not do otherwise as she asks the same of others in relation to so called Non-Binaries.

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 (2)

The issue didn't end there.  It resurfaced in Catalonia where an experienced Catalan translator who had translated Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde despite not being a Tudor sponsored playwright himself nor indeed a gay middle-aged Irishman with a quick tongue and a fondness for younger men.  As The Guardian reported his ability to translate these great writers is not in question

'They told me that I am not suitable to translate it,' Catalan translator Victor Obiols told AFP on Wednesday. 'They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black'.(3)
They did not indeed question his abilities as he is an accomplished translator.  On this point, Obiols unlike Rijneveld did not get on a knee but instead made the point "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.” (4)

He was not a young black woman, just a very good translator of a minority language which suffered decades of repression under the Franco dictatorship and has been constantly hounded and persecuted to varying degrees by the "democratic" regimes that followed.  The language has suffered greatly and many Catalans still do not speak it as their main language and those who do speak it, may do so with errors.  One of the major efforts of successive Catalan regional governments and cultural bodies has not only been to encourage Catalan writers but also high-quality translations of foreign literature and even of cinema and TV.  When many Spanish language productions were labouring under the bad translations and dubbing practices inherited from the dictatorship, TV3 was producing high quality translations for subtitled TV.  But it matters not, Gorman ticks the Wokerati's boxes on this issue and that is all that matters.

Though she doesn't tick all boxes.  She was privately educated in California and went on to study at Harvard, an experience that not only sets her apart from her erstwhile translators but actually from almost the entire black population of the US.  Moreover, she is a supporter of Biden and no doubt will one day write a poem about the bombing of Syria or when Biden and Harris get into the swing of it, they will no doubt bomb with gay abandon Pakistani and Afghan weddings with the same zeal as Obama.  And Gorman can write a poem about it all.

The Identity Politics and Wokerati sense of outrage at everything has had an insidious effect on politics, women's rights and now they seek to attack culture, something they see as a product that is owned and not a vision that is shared or an attempt to communicate.  As others have pointed out if only a black translator can understand a literary piece by a black author, then no white reader could understand a black author and vice versa.  No one outside of Colombia could possibly understand Gabriel García Márquez, who has generally been translated by non-Colombians. The Wokerati presume that all blacks have the same experience: they do not.  Victims of US imperialism in Africa do not have the same experience of being black as people such as Gorman, despite her writings on the African Diaspora.  Her willingness to endorse Biden, is the clearest possible sign of that.

As for Gorman's future.  What will she do when they want to translate her works into Icelandic or Farsi?  How many black translators are there of those languages? There may well be some, though few in number, I would imagine, how good are they?  And do they translate literature or are they specialised in some other field of translation?  It matters not to me, as I can read them in English, but I won't.  Gorman is on my must never read list.  A person whose contribution to culture must already be in doubt.


(1) The Guardian (01/03/2021) 'Shocked by the uproar' Amanda Gorman's white translator quits

2)  The Guardian (06/03/2021) Everything Inhabitable: a poem by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

(3)  The Guardian (10/03/2021) 'Not suitable': Catalan translator for Amanda Gorman poem removed

(4)  Ibid.,

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