National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman (Los Angeles, 1988) became a world-wide celebrity two months ago, after her reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” during President Joe Biden’s inauguration (on 6th January). I am not particularly interested in assessing her quality as a poet, which I find rather overvalued, but on criticizing the appalling decision taken to dismiss the work of her Catalan translator Víctor Obiols, on whose defence I am writing this post (and no, I have never met him). Allow me to explain the details of the case.
Gorman will publish later this year a poetry collection with the title of her inauguration poem, which is eagerly awaited. Her Dutch publishers, Meulenhoff, announced early this month that writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld had been chosen to be Gorman’s translator (I’m following among other sources https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/01/amanda-gorman-white-translator-quits-marieke-lucas-rijneveld). Rijneveld, 29, the youngest winner of the International Booker prize for her debut novel The Discomfort of Evening, and a non-binary person very much aware of the pressures of public opinion, seemed a very good choice. They did welcome the commission, mentioning in a tweet Gorman’s “power of reconciliation” as a major point in their decision, but subsequently withdrew from the project, after a remarkable tweetstorm.
This was unleased by Janice Deul, a black Dutch journalist and activist, who published an article in Volksrant, arguing that, as a white person, Rijneveld was not the best choice to translate Gorman. She asked (or demanded) that the publishers choose someone like the American poet, that is to say, young, female and “unapologetically Black” for the task. Many others echoed her complaint and, as noted, Rijneveld abandoned the project, subsequently writing in their Twitter account that “I had happily devoted myself to translating Amanda’s work, seeing it as the greatest task to keep her strength, tone and style. However, I realise that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not. I still wish that her ideas reach as many readers as possible and open hearts.” Later, she published a (not very good) poem in The Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2021/mar/06/everything-inhabitable-a-poem-by-marieke-lucas-rijneveld) about the experience, claiming that even though she has always resisted judgement in this case she feels “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,/ what you want is fraternity (…).” As I write, two weeks after the uproar no other Dutch translator has been appointed.
Víctor Obiols, an experienced translator known also by his artistic name Víctor Bocanegra (he’s a poet and musician), was vetted by Gorman’s agents five days ago when he had already handed in his Catalan translation of her forthcoming book to publishers Univers. Speaking to Jordi Nopca for the Catalan newspaper Ara Obiols declared that he was told that Gorman’s agents wanted “una dona amb un perfil d’activista i, si pot ser, d’origen afroamericà” (“a woman with an activist profile and, if possible, with an African-American origin”). Author Nuria Barrios is so far translating with no problem Gorman’s poem for Lumen into Spanish but Univers are still seeking a new translator, having paid Obiols for a translated text that will never be published.
Obiols told global news agency AFP that this “It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity. But 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.” He made, however, a more biting comment on his Twitter account when he wrote that (my translation) perhaps Gorman’s agents think that “a translator into Catalan who is also black–perhaps a woman with roots in Western Africa and raised in Catalonia–might have much more in common with a Los Angeles Afro-American, with a Harvard degree, who is also a model.” In fact, the agents’ request that Gorman be translated into Catalan by an African-American, if possible, only shows an appalling ignorance of Catalonia’s own black population and a US-centric bias that can never go well with translation.
I was not going to write about this ridiculous, absurd affair but I read an article in El Confidencial (https://www.elconfidencial.com/cultura/2021-03-13/amanda-gorman-traductores-espanoles-hablan_2990284/ ) calling for some sort of action to protect the translators. I am not myself a professional translator but I have done some translating, and I feel immense loyalty to this group of always unfairly treated professionals. Without translators there is no intercultural communication and the last thing they need is being disrespected for their personal identity. Yes, I’m calling what Amanda Gorman’s agents are doing a profound disrespect, particularly because both in the Dutch and in the Catalan cases the translator was already at work or done. The payment Obiols has received is not sufficient apology for the slap in the face he has got for not being young (a sign of ageism), a woman (of androphobia) and African-American (of racism). Spanish legislation guarantees that no person can be discriminated by reasons of identity in the job market, and what has happened with Obiols is, in my view, illegal. It is, besides, idiotic, for Gorman’s agents have no guarantee that a translator closer to her identity will produce a better translation.
The translators interviewed in El Confidencial try to take the hullaballoo with some humour that can hardly disguise the sinister overtones of the case. Mercedes Cebrián jokes that she can only translate short-sighted persons, being one herself, but finds the situation a story out of Black Mirror, the kind of scary situation that can quickly snowball and that benefits nobody except a “maddened Puritanism” (my translation). Another translator, Isabel García Adánez, points out that this attitude only harms the author, who can find herself in a ghettoized literary circle. I must say that I have been tempted to email Gorman’s agents to explain the damage they are doing to their client’s reputation in Catalonia with this misguided positioning but, well, let them learn the lesson. I am also thinking of the new Dutch and Catalan translators and how they will feel knowing that they have been picked up because of their skin colour and not their professional value. No doubt, this may be an opportunity for an aspiring translator who happens to be a black young woman to make her professional name, but the circumstances are, to say the least, dubious.
Translators are, most obviously, persons, not machines, and their personalities are part of the translation process. Translator and theorist Laurence Venuti has even asked for translation to be considered a literary genre, and translators a type of writer. I quite agree with his view, for it is obvious to me that readers in countries like Spain, where everybody reads translations, seem to believe that translators are an irrelevant part of the process of intercultural communication. Each translator has their style and no two translations can be alike, but, of course, one thing is saying this and quite another is claiming that the translator’s identity must match that of the author. I know, of course, of cases in which the work of a woman has been substantially altered by her male translator; a most famous instance is that of H. M. Parshley’s generally very poor 1953 translation of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex into English, only corrected with Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier 2009 version. I think, however, that translators are on the whole a particularly open-minded set of professionals; it is hard for me to think of someone with no empathy devoting their lives to translating the words of others. There is, I believe, a generosity in this that has been woefully overlooked in the Gorman case.
I always say that in controversial cases what one needs to do is to consider the opposite to correctly gauge the offense. Now suppose that a young, African-American, female translator had already completed her translation into English of Víctor Obiols’ poetry (remember he is a poet?) and that he asked his agents to reject it, replacing her with a white, middle-aged man like himself. That would be immediately read as an outrageous act of combined sexism and racism, and that is what it would be. As Obiols notes, Amanda Gorman is, besides young and African-American, a beautiful woman with a modelling contract with IMG Models. If we go down the identity path, it could be argued that her translator should also have the experience of being physically very attractive for, surely, being a great-looking woman is not at all the same as being plain (as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre comments on). Where, then, does identity stop? Could a plain, old black woman translator understand Gorman as her agents wish? Which factor should predominate: age, age, race? How about beauty, class, nationality?
The growing racial separatism is, in short, racializing persons and situations that should not be racialized. Interracial collaboration will always be necessary (how many female black translators is Gorman going to find in, say, Russia or China?), which is why I think that the wrong stance has been taken. As happens, Dutch publisher Meulenhoff did mention that Amanda Gorman had selected Rijneveld to be her translator. What offended Janice Deul was not really the choice but that the publishers described Rijneveld as a “dream candidate.” Her opinion noting that Rijneveld, though not a bad choice, was not at all the perfect one became magnified by social media ranting into a general opinion that Rijneveld was an inacceptable choice. What went wrong in this case, then, is that a) Meulenhoff bowed down to social media frenzy, b) Rijneveld did not stand her ground as she should have done, c) Gorman never gave her opinion. For all we know, she is disappointed but her Twitter account makes no mention of the Dutch or the Catalan translations. The lack of comment is, of course, a comment in itself suggesting that Gorman is failing to be aware of what her misguided agents are doing on her behalf.
Hopefully, this is yet another storm in a tweetcup, but it does hurt to see translation and translators treated in this awfully ignorant way. My recommendation to Gorman is that she changes agents, not translators, as quickly as possible before too much damage is done and her “power of reconciliation” evaporates.
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