Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

The challenge of translating Amanda Gorman if you are white

Claiming, as an online activist has in the Netherlands, that a black poet can only be translated by another black poet is the symptom of a new and lethal censorship

Amanda Gorman reciting her poem at Joe Biden's inauguration on January 20.

The story begins with the impact of a prepossessing young woman proudly reciting the poem she has written to celebrate Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington. Amanda Gorman’s voice, confident and eloquent, read out The Hill We Climb, rising above the cold January morning to announce the end of an era – “never-ending shade” – and the beginning of a “new dawn.” Her yellow Prada coat illuminates her like a torch. The enthusiasm she arouses spreads far beyond the United States. Just two months after her performance, agreements have been signed to translate The Hill We Climb into 17 languages.

Lumen, which belongs to Penguin-Random House, contacted me about translating Amanda Gorman’s poem into Spanish. Lumen and I knew it was more than a poem: it was a symbol of the victory of light over darkness.

Barely a few weeks had passed since I delivered the translation, when Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, the Dutch writer chosen to translate Gorman’s poem into Dutch, withdrew following protests on social networks. The trigger was an article written by Janice Deul, a Dutch online lifestyle writer. Deul, who is Black, called it “incomprehensible” that a translator had not been chosen who, like Amanda Gorman, was also “a spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black.” Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a non-binary white person whose preferred pronouns in English are they/them, last year won the International Booker Prize with their first novel.

Rijneveld had been approved by Amanda Gorman, as had I, along with 15 other translators

Following Rijneveld’s decision to stand aside, Dutch publisher Meulenhoff issued a statement: “We want to learn from this by talking and we will walk a different path with the new insights. We will be looking for a team to work with to bring Amanda’s words and message of hope and inspiration into translation as well as possible and in her spirit.”

End of story? No. Rijneveld had been approved by Amanda Gorman, as had I, along with 15 other translators. What authority did Deul have to question Gorman’s judgment? None: she hadn’t even bothered to read a single verse of Rijneveld’s translation. Deul had simply invested herself with the new and fearsome power of social media. She was the visible face of the anonymous chorus of voices that, under the banner of “moral right,” bolsters its censorious supremacy with each passing day. For Deul, the quality of the translation was the least-important thing: what mattered was the identity of the translator: the color of their skin, their age, their militancy.

What happened is not irrelevant. It points, beyond translation, to the very essence of creation: imagination.

According to Deul, applying what we might call Deul logic, only whites can translate whites, only women can translate women, only trans people can translate trans people... And so on ad infinitum: only Mexicans can sing rancheras, only the Japanese can write haikus, and so on. And, of course, forget about translating Marcel Proust if you aren’t homosexual and have never tasted a madeleine.

The simple truth is that Deul is not talking about translation, she’s talking about politics. She confuses “moral right” with literary quality, ignoring the fact that imagination is what makes translation and art, in general, possible. Deul’s logic makes translators visible, when the essence of translators is to be invisible. Their voice embraces all voices. In order to be everyone, they must dissolve and be reborn; to come out of themselves in order to enter into others. Contrary to other disciplines in which the artist seeks to have a voice, a stamp, to be Someone, in translation excellence is to be Nobody. It is a matter of not being.

Applying what we might call Deul logic, only whites can translate whites, only women can translate women, only trans people can translate trans people

Gorman writes in The Hill We Climb: “We will not be turned around/ or interrupted by intimidation.”

What if Marieke Lucas Rijneveld withdrew because they did not want to be the victim of a scandal to which they were oblivious and which was likely to affect the reception of their own work as a writer? What if the publisher gave in because it feared that its own image and therefore its sales would plummet?

Deul has triumphed. Deul’s triumph is a catastrophe. It is the victory of identity politics over creative freedom, of the given over the imagination. From the pride of being who you are, we have moved on to the imperative, subject to penalization, of not being someone other than who you are: our skin has become a straitjacket. But art is hybrid, omnivorous, inapprehensible. To remove imagination from translation is to subject the craft to a lobotomy that makes it impossible to exercise.

We do not yet know if Deul’s logic will spread, if it will affect the other people hired to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem into their language. But we do know one thing: what has happened is no mere anecdote. It is symptomatic of a new censorship, lethal for translation, for art, for life.

Nuria Barrios is a writer and translator. She has recently translated James Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb,’ to be published by Lumen in April.

English version by Nick Lyne.

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS