As many of you likely already know, the publishing and translation world sails in stormy seas. I’m clearly referring to the recent case of Amanda Gorman, a young African-American poet, and the debates that arose regarding the people considered suitable for translating her publications.
The largest newspapers in the world speak of what is, in all likelihood, the most debated incident in the world of translation. From the Spanish newspaper El País to the French Le Figaro, from the Italian La Stampa to Corriere; the Amanda Gorman case was highly discussed, bringing with it controversies and struggles that go beyond the mere translation.
AMANDA GORMAN, “THE HILL WE CLIMB”
As the winner of the most prestigious prize for emerging poets in 2017, the National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman became a well-known name to the general public thanks to her presence at the inauguration ceremony of the 46th President of the United States on 20th January. The young African-American poet recited her poem “The hill we climb” at the inauguration. Poem which is a hymn for equality and unity, and not just national.
THE EDITORIAL CASE
After the American poet’s great success, many publishing houses wanted to propose the translated version of Gorman’s collection of poems.
In the Netherlands, the publishing house Meulenhoff chose to assign the translation to the young linguist and poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveldt, who decided not to proceed following various controversies. These controversies did not concern the skills or training of Marieke, who won the International Booker Prize in 2020, but her skin colour, which was considered inappropriate. Many felt that a white translator could not fully convey the messages of the African American poet, and that the opportunity to give voice to the many Dutch black translators had been overlooked.
In Spain, the publisher Univers had chosen Victor Obiols, a Catalan translator who has translated Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, among other things. After completing the translation, however, he was informed of the publishing house’s decision not to publish his work. Again, the dismissal was not based on a lack of professionalism but on an alleged incompatibility as a middle-aged white man. “They did not question my abilities, and even though I had been given the assignment early on, they replied that they were looking for a different profile. That is, a woman, young, activist and preferably black”, as Obiols himself pointed out.
A TRANSLATOR’S OPINION (MINE)
Personally, I have always agreed with my university professors who taught me that a translator’s work is at its very best when the reader fails to notice their presence.
The translator’s job is to work in that space where the language used by an author to convey their ideas is incomprehensible to certain readers.
The linguist’s task is to transpose, and in some cases rewrite, the original text, the aim is to allow the reader to understand the message. With all the nuances that the original author expressed in their native language.
This premise clearly explains my thoughts on the matter at hand. I don’t believe that the main criterion in choosing a translator concerns their background, although this may be an important factor. I believe that any professional should be judged on the basis of their training, professionalism and skills. Otherwise, no one could have translated Homer, nor the Bible. Otherwise, no woman could translate Bukowski and no man could translate the works by J.K. Rowling.
Although I fully support the fight against inequality, I believe that the best way to combat it is not by creating new inequalities. To quote the same Obiols, “I realise that there is a centuries-old wrongdoing that has been perpetrated. But deep down I, in my own small world, am suffering what black people have suffered for centuries: discrimination on the basis of race, gender and age”.
Translators translate an author’s work, they do not live the author’s life.
English translation and adaptation by Sarah Schneider