Gorman translation: identity as a skill?

The discussion about who should and who shouldn't translate Amanda Gorman continues to make waves. After heavy criticism of plans to have author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld translate a book of poems by the young black author into Dutch, she withdrew from the job. Observers question the assumption that the translation should not be done by a white person.

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Die Presse (AT) /

Having experienced discrimination is not a qualification

The Gorman-Rijneveld debate no longer seems to be about competence, laments Die Presse:

“One could argue that as a transgender writer, 29-year-old Rijneveld is well acquainted with the feeling of being an outsider. ... But that would only confirm the absurd premise that only if you belong to a certain group with a discrimination label are you entitled and able to empathise with human feelings and experiences expressed in words and convey them in a different language. ... A translator does justice to a text if they translate it well.”

Tages-Anzeiger (CH) /

Counterculture not free of racism either

Tages-Anzeiger also criticises a misguided identity policy:

“Only shared (and of course painful) experiences establish competence: this is the mantra of powerful pressure groups, the absurdity of which is easy to demonstrate. According to this criterion, the ideal translator for Amanda Gorman's texts would also have to be skinny ('skinny black girl'), a descendant of slaves and the daughter of a single mother. Basically, no 'person of colour' should translate a white author, no woman a man, no old person a young person, no living person a Shakespeare. This thinking reduces people to their membership of a group. It makes skin colour a defining characteristic of what they can and may do. Such views are in themselves not free of racist characteristics.”

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (DE) /

Never identical to the original

Translations are always only an approximation, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung points out:

“The original is one thing, the translation into another language, the result of which is automatically always a little different from the original, which must convey meaning, establish connections, imitate, is another. ... If the Gorman case has any merit, it is that it sheds light on the difficult role of translators. They work under enormous time and cost pressure and know that, despite all their efforts, they can only ever deliver approximate values. Nothing that is identical to the original.”

De Volkskrant (NL) /

Everyone can write about whatever they want

Especially when the goal is to fight discrimination, identity should not play any role, argues De Volkskrant:

“Colour, gender and sexual orientation make up part of our human identity, but they do not determine it. For centuries, however, they were thought to be decisive, with terrible consequences such as slavery, abuse of women, oppression of homosexuals. ... It is absolutely justified that there is a heated debate about this. But the aim of this debate must be to bridge the external differences between people, not to emphasise them. ... Literature is always about putting yourself in someone else's shoes. ... All writers are allowed to write about anything they want to. And the products of their imagination can be translated into other languages by all translators. It is dangerous to tamper with this.”

De Morgen (BE) /

World of literature too white

Not talking about the skin colour of authors leads to exclusion, writer and columnist Mohamed Ouaamari counters in De Morgen:

“The quality of the writing and not the colour of the skin determines what is good literature. The problem, however, is that today there's hardly any room for the writing of minorities, and that the literary sector is still as white as the cocaine that comes ashore in the port of Antwerp. ... 'Hear us, give us a full-fledged place in society,' was the message of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The Biden/Harris team listened, and gave the unknown and young poet Gorman a platform. ... However, Amanda Gorman would never have been published if she lived in Belgium or the Netherlands.”