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.

Communication, Literature, Translation

A couple of readers of a recent post of mine objected to my claim that literature makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication. I suspect this is a simple case of miscommunication, not a disagreement about principle.

Interpersonal communication makes use of a wide and rich spectrum of sensations, an extensive range of meaning-making tools. Consider proximity, as in how close you stand to someone; or volume, or pitch, or tone, or speed. You touch someone on the shoulder or take him by the lapel of his jacket. You breathe so he can smell your breath. You make eye contact, or look down, or over his shoulder, or raise your eyebrows, or snap your fingers, or shrug. You use words that don’t seem to mean anything at all like “you know,” or “I mean,” or “like,” as if you’re just affirming that there are two of you talking and you’re both living beings — yes, you’re alive, yes, I’m alive, here we are both alive, having this conversation. This list can go on.

Literature makes use of none of these, or rather when it uses any of these, it does so “on purpose.” Of course literature cannot help but be a form of communication, but it’s a remarkably narrow and rather deformed slice of it. As a result, by contrast to the various forms of natural language, it is characterized to a very high degree by artifice and convention.

This is what I mean when I write, “Translation combines interpretation and writing in really interesting ways, but it makes very little use of the common tools of interpersonal communication, especially when the author of one’s text has been dead for over a hundred years.” Okay, the hundred years comment is slightly facetious, but only slightly since death does have a tendency to make interpersonal communication difficult.

This narrow and hyper-conventionalized form of communication (literature) requires some very different interpretive skills than those used in everyday encounters. We internalize these pretty quickly when we begin to read and sometimes forget they’re there. But their presence jumps out again the moment we try to write literary texts, and this is true of translators as well. They might be able to read and understand a work as well as any native speaker, but when they try to create a new work in a different culture’s literature, they need to be able to manipulate not just everyday language but language amid the very specific conventions of literature in the receiving culture, and they need to be able to do so in ways that will be perceived by members of that culture as artistic without being artificial.

What form of expertise, then, would be most appropriate for judging the success or failure of a translated literary work? This is an important question, one that another reader has suggested is a fault in my argument: “A physicist who reviews a book on physics […] and discusses details that the lay reader has no way of checking is also making ‘an implicit argument from authority, which says listen to me because I know something you don’t.’ Isn’t that part of the point of reading reviews, to learn something from a reviewer who knows things you don’t? It would seem that the implication of your theory is either that books should never be reviewed by specialists or that such specialists should never refer to their specialist knowledge.” I see this criticism and begin to find it compelling, until this reader concludes, “I can’t for the life of me see how readers are poorly served by explaining ways in which translations misrepresent the original book.”

If we were discussing misrepresentations or outright semantic errors, then I would be on board. But that has not been the issue in these posts. Interpretive differences, like those that often surface in comparisons among multiple published translations of the same text, are not misrepresentations, they are interpretive differences. There is a monolithic quality to the “original book” in the comment above. The original book, original poem, original story, or play, or literary essay is not a unitary thing. It wasn’t even a unitary thing for the receiving culture at the time of its first appearance, and now we are recreating it for other audiences in other times and places. As a result, it grows and accumulates cultural resonances for new audiences, and its meaning grows. A big part of this growth happens in the rebirth we think of as translation. We might want an answer to questions such as which one of these is the “most accurate” or the “closest to the original,” but these kinds of questions are all based on a false assumption about the ontological nature of the source text, and about what translating that source text into another language might mean.

An example: The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground uses the word “wicked,” where other translations have “spiteful” or “nasty.” Asking which of these words is the most accurate without engaging in a thorough examination and commentary of the entire translated work in the receiving culture mistakes both the nature of the source and the interpretive and creative processes at the heart of translation. The fact is that all these words are possible translations of the word “zloi,” which in effect contains and suggests aspects of them all. This individual lexical item, which occasions a choice in the receiving culture, could become a fascinating inroad to the whole text as part of an extended analysis, but reducing its polyvalence in the service of an interpretation whose ultimate goal were to pronounce judgment on the quality of the whole translation would be a mistake, as would believing such an interpreter’s authority were somehow sacrosanct because she or he happened to be able to read the word zloi and those surrounding it in the source text.

To be clear, I am excluding outright errors (where the translator has clearly not understood the source language) and deliberate manipulation (where the translator has willfully made the text into something else, e.g., an updated version of The Inferno replete with contemporary figures in their appropriate circles of hell). This is not a discussion of misrepresentation. As a result, no one is being called in to tell us what is the “true” or “most accurate” or “authentic” or “ideal,” because this monolithic, unitary, most accurate version does not exist anywhere in reality. And this is the source of much confusion where judgments about translations are concerned. Thinking that it does exist would be like thinking that there is one correct interpretation of any artistic work and that you could write that version down somehow, capturing the entirety of it in other words than those in which it was first expressed. The irony of ironies of such a mistaken conception is that the supposed original itself doesn’t come into existence (in the mind) until someone creates a translation.

I’ve been writing exclusively about the problems associated with reviewing translated literature in this particular manner, on the basis of this kind of implied or explicit expertise, rather than suggesting better ways to do it. Like most criticism delivered without alternatives, this has invited all sorts of imaginary alternatives “implied” by my criticism, of the sort, “Your theory would seem to imply that….” This post is already long, so in a future one I’ll provide an example or two of how reviews of translated works for a general reading public can help to expand our understanding of translation, translated works, and the work of the translators who make them.