Amanda Gorman and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld: is the race of a translator important?

Abby Sammons reports on the latest translation controversy

Abby Sammons
17th March 2021
Throughout history, literary translation has typically been a white space, prioritising white and Western work and forcing all else to the periphery. The recent controversy regarding the translation of inaugural poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” has forced us to reconsider the value of translation and ask important questions about the translation process: Why do we translate? Who gets to be translated? Who gets to do the translating?

The backlash that author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld has received from being chosen to translate Gorman’s work into Dutch has complicated these questions further. Identifying as white and non-binary, Rijnevel has been deemed unfit and has subsequently resigned from translating Gorman, a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”, says Janice Deul.

The Dutch publisher Meulenhoff explained that Rijneveld had been chosen by Gorman herself, her finding common ground with them since they are both young writers who came to fame early. In an article for Volkskrant newspaper, journalist Janice Deul described the decision as an “incomprehensible choice,” outlining hers and many others feelings of “frustration, anger and disappointment.” With Black people having spent thousands of years being silenced by their white counterparts, the outcry of Deul and the community is hardly unjustified, and it is clear why this could be seen as a step in the wrong direction for race relations within the world of translation.

Gorman clearly does not share the frustration of her followers in her decision, eliciting the question of whether the race of a translator matters, especially when the author picks the translator herself? For Deul and others, it is clearly important that translators of work, particularly work about the Black experience, be able to share the feelings and culture explored, to understand the emotions portrayed as well as why, how and with who those words will resonate. For Deul, the decision for a white, nonbinary person to translate the Black experience perpetuates the marginalisation of Black voices in the Netherlands and the rest of the world; another example of language, experience and culture being filtered through a white perspective.

For Deul and others, it is clearly important that translators of work, particularly work about the Black experience, be able to share the feelings and culture explored, to understand the emotions portrayed as well as why, how and with who those words will resonate.

Responding to the controversy that ensued, Rijneveld published a poem entitled “Everything inhabitable,” where they outlined their acknowledgement that they may not have been the most suitable choice. Rijneveld writes: “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.”

Since Rijneveld resigned, Catalan translator Victor Obiols has similarly been deemed unsuitable, though he argued, “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.” Whilst Obiols argument here seems to miss the point Janice Deul was trying to make regarding the race of the translator, it adds to age-old questions frequently posed in the translation world of who has the authority to capture the language of another.

Featured Image: @amandascgorman on Instagram

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