Who is allowed, can and should translate whom and how does the literature business deal with diversity? A look back at the Amanda Gorman debate.
Before Amanda Gorman’s much-acclaimed inauguration poem is now published in German on Tuesday under the title “Den Hügel hochauf”, it is worth returning to the starting point of the debate, which was conducted with great vehemence under the question “Are white blacks able to translate?” is and is still being carried out after the writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who was initially earmarked for the Dutch Gorman translation, resigned from the commission.
The opinion piece by the Dutch author Janice Deul, which appeared in the daily newspaper on February 25th Volkskrant appeared and was the big catalyst of this debate can easily be found on the net. You can have Google or Windows quickly translate it into German (a footnote in a translation debate).
The result reads bumpy, but you understand what it says there, and when you read that you have to be somewhat surprised. Because there is no mention at all of the fact that only blacks should translate blacks. And of the fact that whites “are not allowed” to do that, especially not.
Rather, Janice Deul describes the translation assignment to the young, white, non-binary author Rijneveld as a “missed opportunity” to put a black spoken word talent in the spotlight. Deul quotes a few names and then writes: “How about if one of them did the job [also die Übersetzung] would do? Wouldn’t that make Gorman’s message more powerful? “
You have to seize opportunities
Deul is writing what any diversity officer would say by now: You have to take advantage of the opportunities offered by the translation assignment for this poem if you really want to achieve equal opportunities and equality.
So it is about a missed opportunity in the effort to attract attention and visibility and by no means an identity culture war. To hold onto this does not mean at all to diminish the criticism of essentialist conceptions of culture. It is wrong and dangerous to start from identitarian communities of people and from there to derive the claim that the author and translator must belong to the same group. But that wasn’t Janice Deul’s point at all.
In a comment on her text, she once again expressly stated: “I by no means claim that a black person cannot translate a white work or vice versa.” She is all about this specific poem by this specific author in this Black Lives -Matter context.
You can still criticize and question that. But is it disappointing that the great impetus of the Gorman appearance in front of the American Capitol should not be used to draw attention to the diversity in Dutch society, is it not simply understandable?
Heavy artillery in the debate
In any case, the heavy artillery that was brought up in the debate – the danger of “apartheid on the bookshelf” was invoked, Rijneveld’s return of the order reminded observers of the self-accusations in Stalinist show trials, racism against whites was attested in many places – plentifully applied, if one actually reads Deul’s text.
The Catalan translator Victor Obiols, who, unlike Rijneveld, by no means voluntarily resigned from the translation assignment, but from whom the assignment was subsequently withdrawn by the American agent Amanda Gorman, makes a more nuanced statement. “If I can’t translate a poet because she is a young black woman, an American of the 21st century, I can’t translate Homer either because I’m not a Greek of the 8th century BC,” he says on the one hand.
On the other hand, Obiols also thinks: The translation in times of identity politics is “a very complicated topic that cannot be treated lightly”. And the Spiegel he said he was disappointed, but respect the “symbolic gesture” of refusing the translation again.
Different voices can also be heard from the German translation scene, which is well networked with one another and where the debate is widely discussed on the website of the Toledo translation program, for example from Frank Heibert. We phone after the translator of such literary greats as Don DeLillo, Raymond Queneau and Richard Ford, his new translation of George Orwell’s classic “1984” has just come out, an in-depth dispute in the Gorman / Rijneveld case in the online section of Tell-Review published.
Do not reflexively forgive for identity
During the phone call, Frank Heibert is very clear: “Translations should not be assigned based on identity, and certainly not reflexively.” That would be diametrically opposed to the work experience of translators, which is precisely to put themselves in foreign perspectives.
However – and this is where the interesting debates could begin – both sides, i.e. both the publisher’s side and the translator’s side, have to consider very carefully which translator is best for the respective text appropriate, and there are many factors to consider in making this decision.
Heibert counts: Expertise in the respective genre is important. The same is true of curiosity about the intellectual background of the text. Biographical backgrounds, the question of gender, all of this can play a role, and shared experiences can also do it. In this context, Frank Heibert speaks of “short empathic paths”. They can help with a translation. For Heibert, in the end, the linguistic and stylistic skills and translation competence are the decisive criteria.
All of these points are by no means new, and they have nothing to do with identity politics, but are the black bread of careful publishing work, as it is often cultivated in German-speaking translators – despite low pay, by the way.
Lack of translation experience
In his text for Tell Frank Heibert comes to the conclusion, after weighing many factors, that Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, from a technical point of view, actually “probably not” would have been the right translator: The 29-year-old Dutch author, who did the English translation in 2020 Her debut novel “The Discomfort of Evening” won the International Booker Prize (German under the title “Was man sät” at Suhrkamp), there is a lack of translation experience.
In addition, Rijneveld herself admitted that her English is by no means solid. It was a celebrity decision to give her the translation job.
Janice Deul also saw the latter and from there drew the conclusion: if celebrity decisions were made, why not make a black author prominent? The point that Heibert makes, on the other hand, is different: Good translations need competent translators, and what competence exactly means needs to be clarified in each individual case, close to the text and its specific circumstances.
That is definitely spoken in the direction of identity-political activists. But at the same time in the direction of the majority society. Because Heibert does not want to push this point before the political debate about equality and more diversity in society. “The awareness of discrimination has become stronger,” says Heibert in the telephone conversation, “it is important to implement that.” And when asked who is best suited for which translation, this awareness must also be taken into account.
“More diversity in translator casting”
For him, this also means that diversity has to be an issue within the translation scene. His Tell-Heibert closes the article with the phrase: “Equal opportunities not only for black translators, but for all previously excluded translators: we simply achieve greater diversity in translator casting, regardless of the question of equivalent identities.”
At this point, at the latest, you can see that in the Gorman / Rijkeveld case two different aspects overlap: the specific aspect of whether the decision to assign the translation differently was appropriate, and the efforts to use appropriate ways of dealing and speaking in a situation in which the literary business begins to open up for an expansion of the speaker positions.
Translation skills, case-by-case checks, diversity – these are the keywords that end up if you don’t want to lose sight of this situation in this case. And maybe these are points that one can agree on beyond all identities.
Of course, some things in the literature business are now getting more complicated. But just as a reminder: It was not long ago that there were widespread complaints that in German-language literature it was mainly white SME perspectives that had their say. The debates that are pending are perhaps simply more fruitful.