Millions of Americans heard 23-year-old Amanda Gorman recite her moving poem The Hill We Climb at President Biden’s inauguration on January 20.
The poem has now been translated into 17 languages, and all of the translators were approved by Gorman herself. But now, one translator has dropped out and another was let go after mounting criticism.
Gorman approved both Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a White Dutch nonbinary translator, and Victor Obiols, a Catalan translator, to translate the poem. Neither translator was accused of doing a poor job, but controversy over who should translate the poem began when a Black Dutch writer argued that a translator who isn’t a Black female spoken word artist like Gorman shouldn’t translate her work.
John McWhorter, a linguist and professor at Columbia University, disagrees. He said Gorman’s racial identity shouldn’t be a determining factor in who translates her poem.
“There’s a sense that when it comes to Black people’s relationship with White people, then all bets are off,” McWhorter said. “And suddenly we can’t imagine that person’s artistic statement being rendered in another language appropriately by someone who isn’t of her color and hasn’t had those particular kinds of experiences, as if they utterly define everything that she is.”
Translating a poem and other types of literature is an art form that differs from transcription. Artistic translations rely strongly upon interpretation and portraying the right concepts.
For Nuria Barrios, a Spanish translator, the ultimate goal is for translators to embrace all voices. “In order to be everyone, they must dissolve and be reborn; to come out of themselves in order to enter into others.”
Obiols agrees. “If I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, Black, and an American of the 21st century, then I cannot translate Homer because I am not a Greek, or Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”
“The soul of a Black person isn’t the racism they experience at the hands of White people, but rather the essence of who they are,” McWhorter said. “The idea that it all hinges on this particular issue of how it feels to not be White is an extremely artificial perspective on what it is to be a human being, including a Black human being.”
McWhorter added that Black translators should be given more work, but not just because they are Black. And they shouldn’t be chosen over someone who is more experienced for the project.
He thinks one solution would be to allow multiple translators to interpret the poem. Readers can then experience their visions of the poem and assess whether race and shared experience creates better or truer interpretations.
“The idea that you turn down somebody in late middle age who has translated all sorts of things, including ones having to do with race and racism because they’re not somebody who themselves is Black and hasn’t suffered racism in the sense that the poet has—that’s just too simplistic,” McWhorter said.
Read Full Article from NPR (DC) (03/26/21)
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