Translating Amanda Gorman

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.

Nego, već, and katekizam

“Nego” and “već” are especially frequent and often do not need to be rendered as “but” or “already.” In fact they often don’t need to be translated at all, or rather their translation is a non-word in English, a sort of translation by omission or translation by silence. An example of the latter:

Samo željeznica nije trunula i urušavala se, nego je postojala onakva kakva je bila i u prethodnih stotinu godina, s redom vožnje kao svojim jedinim katekizmom.

The nego here draws contrast and one could of course render it as “Only the railroad/railway had not collapsed and destroyed itself but existed exactly as it had for the preceding hundred years….” But when this or similar nego constructions are frequent (and they are, as in the correlative construction “not only… but also,” then some variation and economizing can help move the prose along: “The railway was the only thing that had not collapsed and destroyed itself, remaining exactly as it had been for the preceding hundred years, with the timetable as its sole article of faith.”

For the last word in the sentence, katekizam, whose English equivalent would in other contexts be “catechism,” the emphasis on one (jedini) thing suggests that “article of faith” is a better solution, especially since the sentence before this implies that the RR had outlived both Hitler and the two-thousand-year-old faith in Jesus Christ.

The South, Russia, and Other Places of Occupation

A friend of mine said the other day that he never really felt he understood the deep-seated tensions of the American South until, during a year he spent as a Fulbright Scholar in Belgrade, a local man commented on his attempts to grasp that country’s deep-seated tensions by noting, “It’s hard to understand when your country has never been occupied.” There is something in this, I suppose. It is not something I have ever experienced myself, only seen from outside, and it makes me wonder about the motivations of those who continue to espouse views of the world that we find at best anachronistic, at worst barbaric and conducive to the sorts of horrendous acts of violence that make it into the news, it seems, on a terribly regular basis.

The American Civil War had a number of different causes, and reducing it to one is not very good history. A major one—for some historians the major one—was the question of states rights over the powers of a central government, a sort of proto-libertarian argument about the need for small government. It is not inconceivable that someone flying a flag over a government building today, or the guy flying one off the tailgate of his pickup I saw in the Menard’s parking lot yesterday—might have that idea in mind primarily. Unfortunately for those who might want to make this argument, the flag in question has also come to be a powerful symbol of racism and bigotry of the most basic variety, the kind of racism and bigotry that leads to murder. In combination with the flag flying over a state institution, such acts are indeed equivalent to a form of state sponsored terrorism. They should see that it is doing them no good to continue to fly it, and in fact it is counter productive to their cause. They should take it down.

But I suspect, too, that the little insight my friend gained in Serbia about occupation might be applied to the intransigence of those who would refuse to do so, or try and pretend that it and racism had not become coterminous in the thinking of any but a fringe of extremists. I am trying to imagine it, and I wonder if a history of occupation (or perceived occupation, for this amounts to much the same thing) might be able to do that to one’s head.

Not two hours before on the same day that my friend mentioned his experience in Belgrade to me, another acquaintance, a Russian who has lived in the U.S. for many years, lamented that she could no longer speak with her Russian friends. “They have all been brain-washed,” she said, “by Putin’s nationalism. They won’t admit that his Ukrainian policy is barbaric, based on an Old-World model of imperial domination. They think that he will re-create the Russian Empire.” Now this sounds crazy, and maybe unrelated, too, but the two situations share in a heritage of occupation (or perceived occupation) that may help to explain the deep-seated tensions of the two places, particularly where outside criticisms are concerned.

For example, almost exactly one hundred years ago, Russia did not exist as a country. It had been carved up into pieces by factions from inside and out. Hundreds of thousands of foreign troops—Japanese, American, Czech, British, German—occupied portions of the Russian Far East, Siberia, the Caucasus, Crimea, along with formerly Russian Imperial, present-day areas of Ukraine, Byelorus, and Estonia. This is not very long ago. Nor is the fact of occupation itself an isolated occurrence in Russia’s history. Even without claiming, as some historians have, the existence of a deep scar on the Russian psyche from the many instances of invasion it has experienced—from the Mongols to the French under Napoleon to Hitler, along with what appears by comparison a rather minor “allied intervention” during the Russian Civil War—it is not difficult to glimpse a geo-political strategy consistent with Stalin’s creation of buffer areas around the USSR in Putin’s latest maneuverings, namely in the annexation of Crimea, his attempts to forge closer ties with Kazakhstan and, at least commercially, China, and the on-ongoing war in Ukraine. These actions might be completely out of touch with our reality, but from another perspective, one that takes into account something more of Russia’s historical struggles and experiences, even in relatively recent times, they do not seem completely crazy. Desperate maybe, but not crazy.

These are probably not very original reflections that might apply to other places that have cultivated a prolonged self image of being occupied and mistreated by outsiders (e.g., let us expel the infidel from our lands). A clearer connection between Russia and the problems of institutional racism in the U.S. is provided Mary Dudziak’s Cold War Civil Rights, DudziakCoverwhich posits the following (from the book description at Princeton University Press’s website):

“In 1958, an African-American handyman named Jimmy Wilson was sentenced to die in Alabama for stealing two dollars. Shocking as this sentence was, it was overturned only after intense international attention and the interference of an embarrassed John Foster Dulles. Soon after the United States’ segregated military defeated a racist regime in World War II, American racism was a major concern of U.S. allies, a chief Soviet propaganda theme, and an obstacle to American Cold War goals throughout Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Each lynching harmed foreign relations, and “the Negro problem” became a central issue in every administration from Truman to Johnson. In what may be the best analysis of how international relations affected any domestic issue, Mary Dudziak interprets postwar civil rights as a Cold War feature. She argues that the Cold War helped facilitate key social reforms, including desegregation. Civil rights activists gained tremendous advantage as the government sought to polish its international image.”

Now Dudziak’s thesis is more nuanced than this, and her argument deeper: the supposed improvements did not have to be substantial, they only had to look good. In effect, since the motivation was largely cosmetic, the PR needed to be effective, but the problems did not really have to be fixed in any fundamental manner. They had to be glossed over. This was a book published initially in 2001, less than a decade after the fall of the USSR, and its analysis was about the Cold War, not the aftermath. But if Dudziak’s thesis is correct, what would one expect to happen in a post-Cold War U.S. with regard to race relations?

Take a look around, I suggest.