‘Translating is about articulating the sensibilities of a work’

Let’s fight to change who does the gatekeeping, not who does the translations of our works

© Konstantinakos Tsanakas

Chika Unigwe

A year ago, the young Amanda Gorman recited her The Hill We Climb for the new US President Joe Biden. When that poem was translated into Dutch, there was a heated discussion about who was most suitable for this. Author and MO* columnist Chika Unigwe looks back on the debate: what makes a translation good, and how do you create room for diversity in the literary landscape?

Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem for President Joe Biden shook the world. I watched her – this confident young girl with her locs piled high atop her head- and I was completely mesmerized. I felt every word of her poem as deeply as if she had inscribed it in my heart. Many people felt the same way too.

Rare for a poem by a relatively unknown poet whose expertise was spoken word, Gorman’s poem went viral. Accolades poured in for this young woman. Deservedly so.

The impact her poem had was arguably a combination of two things – relief that Trump wasn’t being re-inaugurated, and the way the poem spoke powerfully to events in the US especially after the capitol riots of January 6.

Gorman became symbolic of a new America on the horizon: an America with its first woman, first person of color vice-president and one where the chaos that had threatened to engulf it had been successfully sidestepped. America was ready to shine again, ushered in by an inauguration poem that acknowledged both the challenges and potentials of a nation that isn’t perfect.

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry,
a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast,
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken,
but simply unfinished.

A new star was born and everyone wanted a piece of her. Soon, book deals came in for Gorman and translation rights for ‘The Hill We Climb.

No less real

One of those rights came from the Netherlands and the very brilliant, very qualified, also young Dutch writer, Marijke Rijneveld was asked to translate by Meulenhoff (my previous publishers). Rijneveld was honored to accept but she was later forced to pull out because of criticisms raised by some Black voices – most notably activist Janice Deul in de Volkskrant – about the appropriateness of asking a white writer to translate what was fast becoming an iconic poem by a Black voice. Per Deul, ‘Rijneveld wasn’t “a skinny Black girl”’, but ‘They are white, nonbinary, have no experience in this field.’

Translation isn’t about reliving the experience of the writing or impersonating the writer. It is about articulating the sensibilities of a work.

I wish that Deul’s criticisms had been limited to the fact that BIPOC writers – for as far as they exist in Holland – do not get the opportunities their white colleagues get. That is a valid but a different argument. While I share Deul’s frustrations about a world where white privilege exists, I do not agree with her that the only person capable of translating Gorman’s words is a skinny Black girl.

Would that be a skinny Black girl from the United States? A skinny Black girl whose descendants were enslaved? One raised by a single mother? One with locs? How many similar experiences with the author of a work does a translator need to have to be trusted to translate well?

Translation isn’t about reliving the experience of the writing or impersonating the writer. Translation is about articulating the sensibilities of a work. I have read memoirs in translation, the translator taking on the “I” of the memoir writer and rendering themselves invisible so that I never questioned the “I” of what I was reading as the “I” of the writer.

I have read interviews in translation and the power of the personal experiences shared by the interviewed have never seemed to be any less real for not being the particular experiences of the interviewer.

I have been lucky to have my works translated by people who share nothing with me but our humanity: white males, Jews, white women , translators who cannot pronounce the names in my books and thanks to them, stories that I have written in small corners of the world in English have made it out to readers who do not read English. We read literature in translation and we never stop to wonder if the translator shares the same world view, the same experiences as the characters or the writer.

Liberate and move

Literature, like all art, frees us to imagine worlds different from ours. I read Enid Blyton as a child in Nigeria and was transported from the stifling heat and dust of Enugu to the verdant English countryside. When we inhabit a work of literature, we live in the skin of the characters we are reading about.

I often remind my students to use sensory details, to show and not to tell when writing about emotions (especially) so that readers can better immerse themselves in the worlds they – the writers- are creating. I remind them that the works that move us the most do so because the writers have managed to insert us in the world they’ve created. And when we read works in translation and are moved by them, it is because the translators have captured and articulated the author’s vision.

It is impossible to have meaningful diversity in books when there is no diversity in editors.

Perhaps Meulenhoff should have been intentional about giving the opportunity to translate Gorman to an underrepresented talent – and that could be a male north African writer for all I care – but the fact that Rijneveld is neither skinny nor black is reductionist and certainly not a good reason not to have them translate the work of another huge talent.

The debates about publishing being very white that are going on in the US and the UK are certainly true of the lowlands where the interaction with the ‘other’ is a lot more problematic (and I have written about this problematic history several times) but for any victory to be long-lasting, our fights as BIPOC writers and our demands have to be consistent and meaningful.

When the gatekeepers who decide what gets published and what doesn’t, when your agent, your editor and your publisher are white, when their world view is white-centric, then the writers who are let in and the books that get to see the light of day are likely to be those that are palatable to that world view. Editors often buy books based on what they think will sell. It is as subjective as that. Impossible then to have meaningful diversity in books when there is no diversity in editors.

In 2020, Barnes and Noble rolled out its disastrous Diverse Editions where they simply put Black faces on the covers of classics written by white authors. Last June, the #PublishingPaidMe hashtag went viral and revealed the huge discrepancies between the advances white authors got versus their BIPOC colleagues.

Let’s fight to change who does the gatekeeping, not who does the translations of our works. And one day we will find the change we seek, because, as Gorman reminds us,

there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.’

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