Non-translators might not have paid much attention to the recent controversy over the projected translation of U.S. National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s first book of poetry into Dutch, but many of us who translate have been following and discussing it quite a bit. The basic story is that the contracted publisher (Meulenhoff) hired author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to do the job, a choice Gorman appears to have supported. Rijneveld announced being excited about taking on the work on social media, then some folks criticized the choice, including Dutch journalist Janice Deul, who wrote in de Volksrant, “Isn’t it — to say the least — a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? She is white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff is still the ‘translator of dreams’?” and elsewhere: “Not to take anything away from Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not choose a writer who is — just like Gorman — a spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black?” (I’m afraid I don’t know who translated these quotes from Dutch; they are in many of the English-language stories online, however, so thanks to you, invisible Dutch-English translator!) Rijeneveld resigned over the criticism, and the publisher announced that they’ll be working with a team of (as yet unnamed) others to do the work.
Rather than re-hash some of the most often repeated (and rather superficial) reactions about the pernicious cancel culture that forced the translator to resign, etc., I’ve been drawn, as always, to more fundamental translation issues in this episode.
One is an unstated but ubiquitous implication that translators, especially translators of poetry, need to have some sort of deep “simpatico” relationship with their author, even to the point of being of the same age, race, gender, political persuasion, and so on. I’m not pronouncing judgment on this idea, only pointing it out, because, as I just noted, it is often there without our perceiving it clearly. (In any case, Lawrence Venuti has critiqued it quite a bit already, and anyone interested in this line of thought should consult his books with an eye toward the use of the word “simpatico.”)
The forms that this basic notion takes are wide-ranging and can sometimes be spotted in translator introductions and afterwords. One of the most fascinating instances I have read was in Ciaran Carson’s brief preface to his translation of Dante’s Inferno, where he notes, with disarming frankness, that when he began his work, he really didn’t know any Italian, and then proceeds to make a case for his experience in the Troubles of Northern Ireland as somehow akin to those of Dante in 13th-century Florence: the implication that two poets with kindred experience trumps the mere linguistic expertise of the Italian specialist is hard to avoid.
This move, I say, is more common in poetry translations, where the persona of the translator often matters a great deal, than it is in prose, where the translator’s role is frequently erased altogether, such that we might think we are reading the words of the author, not those of the translator. It’s a fascinating kind of translation-reading magic that publishers, especially large publishers, have tended to encourage historically, often neglecting to even note the presence of a translator in the book’s creation, putting a picture of the author on the cover, not including the translator in the publicity materials, and generally doing everything they can to encourage the illusion that the work has not been filtered through another’s mind and writing practice, let alone the editing, publishing, and broad political context of the receiving culture, which transforms it into something “acceptable” (so publishers hope) to readers in that culture. Let us call this the illusion of limpidity (thanks to my friend David Depew for coining this phrase), which is especially strong in what are often thought of as canonical works of world fiction.
Poetry, however, especially the poetry of well-known authors, seems to often require more of the translator’s ethos in order to be accepted. In some ways, this is a marketing and publicity phenomenon, which is on display in the Gorman-Rijneveld case as well, as publishers are hoping to put books into people’s hands, and that won’t happen if readers and critics reject the product out of hand. This means that either the publishers need to find a well-known name in their own publishing environment whose credentials are likely to be accepted as adequate to the task (e.g., a poet refugee from East European totalitarianism translating another East European poet refugee), or they need to pick someone whose background and public persona are perceived as somehow matching that of the individual whose work is being translated. If they can do both, that is of course ideal. It’s worth noting that doing both is likely to be much easier in a place like The Netherlands or France (partly because of their colonial past) than in a place like Japan or Saudi Arabia, where the notion of “simpatico” translation, if it exists at all, is likely to take very different forms from in New York, Paris, or London. (This is probably also why readers in Japan, for instance, read translations with greater charity, as it were, knowing that the translators are almost invariably Japanese by both birth and heritage, and not having any expectations to the contrary.)
These sorts of marketing and publicity motivations, however, are for the most part, short-term attempts to capitalize on the moment. They are about selling books in the first months (it used to be years but now it’s months) of a release and getting good revues from prominent voices in important venues, which are all key aspects of the contemporary publishing business. It is in this context that the optics of who is selected as a translator for an up-and-coming artist with an enthusiastic following tend to be very important. The longer term, however, is anyone’s guess. It could be that the book becomes extremely popular in another culture over time, but that is very difficult to know, and publishers are generally not thinking about such things these days, when the idea of “building a back list” is rather rare. In the same way that time has tended to annihilate space in our hyper-commercial culture, so the timeline of what counts as success in publishing has tended to become shorter and shorter. Perhaps the time is coming when such success will happen even before the book comes out. Maybe we’re already there.
Of much greater interest to me are the embedded assumptions, in these discussions, about the skills of translators as being either portable or not, as well as a clash of sorts between those who think of translation as art and those who think of it more as a trade or vocation. The portability and vocation advocates might make a claim such that, in principle, any experienced translator should be able to translate anything by anyone. Those who claim for translation the status of art may very well cringe at such an idea, which makes it sound like all one needs is to be certified by an appropriate body, pass some tests, hit some numerical markers, while such intangibles as inspiration and poetic sensibility, which are frequently the reasons a poem ends up “singing” or not in the receiving culture and becoming part of that culture over time, cannot, in fact, be measured, let alone certified. It’s entirely possible, moreover, for one person to hold all these views at the same time. Translators are a complex lot — talking and listening at one and same time does things to you.
An additional divide, no less stark in my experience, tends to set freelance translators (those who make a living from translation) against those who have day jobs, e.g., as editors, teachers, publishers, and so on. The former rely on translation to pay the bills and often simply cannot afford to turn down a job. While they are also all (in my experience) highly ethical people who care about the social and cultural effects of the works that they translate, it is impossible to predict the long-term effects of a translation one takes on, for whatever reason. In this context, I cannot help thinking of the negative example of the distinguished translator Angelo Treves, an Italian Jew, who translated Hitler’s Mein Kampf into Italian for Bompiani in 1934. How could he know? The divide here comes at least in part from the fact that some have another job that pays the bills, which allows a kind of distance and critical stand that might not be as readily available to those who need that translation contract. It is easier for those of us with day jobs to critique the actions of those who live by translation, an often unstable and inconsistent way to make a living.
Finally, this episode has brought to mind a rather contentious exchange between Cherrie Morraga and Bob Shacochis that I witnessed at a conference on the promise of empathy at the University of Iowa in early 2002, in which Shacochis insisted he could “imagine his way” into the point of view of anyone as a way of writing a piece of fiction, including, for instance, an antebellum slave woman on a Georgia plantation, while Morraga equally insistently claimed that he could not, and if he did, he would be exploiting the suffering of people who really had experienced that imagined point of view. At the time, at least, there was no common ground. The artist claimed he could do it. The activist said don’t you dare.
While I suspect the conversation would be different today, I have found myself thinking about how a translator’s role might fit such a situation, especially when it is assumed, as the Gorman-Rijneveld case highlights, that the translator in important ways can stand in for the poet in the receiving culture, taking on not just the poet’s message but also the poet’s mission.