Translating Amanda Gorman

Is experiencing white supremacy all she is? And if not, why do her translators have to be people just like her?

Our racial reckoning has put many new ideas afloat. One of them is that a black female poet’s work should only be translated by other black female people. Or at least black people.

And so, a Dutch translator had the assignment of translating new American youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman’s work withdrawn, and now a Catalan translator has had his translation of her Inauguration poem, which he had already completed, denied publication.

The logic is supposed to be that only someone of Gorman’s race, and optimally gender, can effectively translate her expression into another language. But is that true? And are we not denying Gorman and black people basic humanity in – if I may jump the gun – pretending that it is?

After all, we all know that overall, a vast amount of translation is happening all the time, and always has, by people quite unlike the original authors. The Anglophone experiences Tales of Genji as rendered by someone not Japanese. We experience the Bible through the work of people quite thoroughly un-Mesopotamian.

Notice I didn’t mention Shakespeare translated into other languages. According to the Critical Race Theory paradigm that informs this performative take on translating Gorman, Shakespeare being a white man means that white translators of his work are akin to him, while non-white ones, minted in a world where they must always grapple with whiteness “centered,” are perfect bilinguals of a sort.

But Murasaki Shikibu and the authors of the Bible were not “white,” and yet we see no crime in experiencing their work mediated through whites’ translation. And no, it isn’t that those books are from the past but that now we are walking on into a brave new world. When the next white scholarly specialist in China offers a translation of Confucius or even a modern Chinese work of fiction, we will hear not a thing about “appropriation.”

Yet a Dutch or Catalan translator of Amanda Gorman cannot be white. To highlight what a very right-now pose this is, recall that Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has been rendered in 25 languages including Chinese, and no one has batted an eye.

Again, some will try that even this needs to be revisited (i.e. a black spoken-word poet daughter of African immigrants in Berlin should do a new German translation of The Color Purple because it would sound more like what Alice Walker, um … wrote? … felt? … is?) and that Gorman provides us with an opportunity to start doing things the right way.

But the question is this: why is it that being black American renders one especially untranslatable by whites?

The idea is that American blackness is a special case here. The legacy of white racism, and manifestations of white supremacy still present, mean that the rules are different when it comes to who should translate a black person’s artistic statements. Our oppression at the hands of whites is something so unique, something so all-pervasive, something so all-defining of our souls and experience, that no white person could possibly render it in another language.

This is a fair evocation of what our modern paradigm on blackness teaches us. Power differentials, and especially ones based on race, are all and everything, justifying draconian alterations of basic procedure and, if necessary, even common sense.

However, note how much this portrait diminishes, say, Gorman. To her credit, she was not the one who suggested the Dutch translator be canned. After all, are we really to say that this intelligent young human being’s entirety is the degree to which she may experience white “supremacy”?

Watch out for the “Nobody said that” game. No, no one states that experience of white supremacy is all she is, but if we insist that her poetry can only be translated by someone who has experienced it, this means that the experience of white supremacy is paramount in our estimation of her. Example: we presumably don’t care if a white translator might be better at evoking other aspects of her such as her youth, her sense of scansion – what matters most is her oppression.

It goes further. Are black women’s experiences of white supremacy from one nation to another identical? Consult more than one interview with black Nigerian Chimamanda Adichie to find the answer. To assume that a black Dutch daughter of Surinamese immigrants in Amsterdam is “black” in the same way as Amanda Gorman, with the same experiences, background sentiments, assumptions, etc. is dehumanizing of diversity among people of color. Not to mention localist, parochial – although I understand the white publishers’ urge to show that they are doing the “work” by figuring that the “supremacy” their kind exert worldwide occasions the same plain old ache anywhere it lands.

But even more. The Catalan translator, Victor Obiols, has translated to acclaim Oscar Wilde and yes, Shakespeare, and is not just a poet but a lyricist. He has also translated a book about Miles Davis with his non-black self! Suppose he is the better artist than the presumably black and young translator the publisher taps instead? We are to assume that the translator’s blackness trumps all questions as to artistic rank. This is a view willfully numb to the discrimination, the sensitivity, the intelligence inherent to art and its evaluation. That is, the art to which Gorman is devoting a career and a soul. And all for what?

Acknowledging that racism exists.

And finally, exactly what might a white translator get wrong? Where are the demonstrations of where a white translator of a black poet or novelist’s work slipped? And as to those who might dredge some up in response to my asking, what’s important is that in this controversy no one is bringing them up (at least to prominent view) and no commentators have seemed especially likely to have any examples on the tips of their tongues or iPhones. We are dealing in a hypothetical.

Here’s an illustration of the peril – and emptiness – in hypotheticals like this. Samuel L. Jackson claimed in an interview about about Get Out that Daniel Kaluuya, as a British rather than American black man, was incapable of accurately portraying how a black man actually feels when encountering a police car. This was invaluable in two ways.

First, note that Jackson wants to split hairs even more than our publishers, so that you have to be black American to “translate,” as it were, a black American experience – despite that Brits Idris Elba and Thandie Newton do pitch-perfect renditions of black Americanness to no complaint.

But second, note that we seek for Jackson to show just where Kaluuya fell short – and obviously, he couldn’t. Could those disqualifying the Dutch translator – nonbinary, for the record, and thus likely well-versed in what it is to be “different” and even mistreated – seriously point out just how they were going to go wrong? If Obiols ever shows us his Gorman translation, where in it will anyone be able to say that he chose terms or rhythms or nuances too “white”? We might also keep in mind that he is Catalonian – he has known, in relation to Spain, certain matters having to do with subordination and threatened otherness. But no matter.

This is how we are to process blackness according to the tenets of Critical Race Theory. A fashionable current among its adherents is to claim that their critics are merely misinformed churls seeking Twitter hits. But if CRT adherents cheer this decision about Gorman’s translators, they are showing that misinformation is not the only reason so many are devoting themselves to reining in CRT’s excesses. The grounds for firing these translators – and we can be sure, others over the next few weeks – are thoroughly contestable by thoroughly unchurlish people including ones who care naught about Twitter.

The grounds for these dismissals are a posture, handy for those with a need to show that they understand what white supremacy is, while turning a blind eye to their reduction of Gorman to a thin, pitiable abstraction. Onward indeed.