As a presumptive translator I’m nagged by a sense of straying where I don’t belong. Where is my writ to translate into a non-native language, for example? I didn’t suck Spanish from mother’s teat. How can I possibly match what a native could do? Likely I can’t, but catch me not trying if I choose.
A poorly written and superficial article by the BBC stirs the putrid pot of who is entitled, or not, to translate whom and what.
Poet Amanda Gorman, who is Black, recited her poem “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration. (I saw it live.) Her performance was a resounding success and widely acclaimed.
Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who is White, was commissioned by a Dutch publisher, with Gorman’s sign-off, to translate Gorman’s poem into Dutch.
Janice Deul, Dutch journalist and diversity campaigner who is Black, raised objection over the choice of a White woman to translate the poem. The decision, she said, “perpetuated the marginalisation of black voices in the Netherlands.”
Among the many examples of black Dutch poets are Zaire Krieger, whose work encapsulates the challenges of being a woman of colour in a white country, Rachel Rumai who recently featured in an Afro Lit anthology and spoken word artist Babs Gons, whose Polyglot was chosen as the poem for 2021 Dutch Book Week.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld withdrew from the project to make way for someone closer to Gorman’s ethnicity and culture.
(Anna Holligan, “Why a white poet did not translate Amanda Gorman,” bbc.com, 3-10-21)
Much opportunity for venturesome translators lies beneath this controversy. Craft, in my view, should lead. Who crosses lines sought to be drawn, and how, will be of keen interest.
(c) 2021 JMN