What’s Missing from the Controversy over Who Translates Amanda Gorman into Dutch?

What’s missing from the controversy over who translates Amanda Gorman’s poetry into Dutch?


Okay, now that I have the answer, I’m leaving without reading the rest of this post.

Suit yourself.

You don’t care?

I can’t force you to read the rest of this blog post.

Fine, I’m curious enough to keep reading. What are we talking about?

Amanda Gorman picked Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who won the Booker Prize, to translate her poetry into Dutch. A bunch of NL Black people-

What’s ‘NL Black’?

‘NL Black’ is the Dutch equivalent of ‘African American’. Anyway, they complained about this choice of translator, and Rijneveld withdrew.

Because Rijneveld is white?

Not just because they are white-

But many people breathlessly say that evil mean people on social media forced Rijneveld to quit because it’s wrong for a white person to translate the work of a black poet!

Yeah, that’s what people think when they miss the context.

What is this missing context?

First, I know nothing about spoken word poetry, NL Black people, Dutch poetry, and English > Dutch translation. I didn’t even know the term ‘NL Black’ until I did research for this blog post. I’m still missing a lot of the context.

Hurry up and give me the context already!

One of the most prominent critics of Gorman’s choice of Rijneveld as her Dutch translator was Janice Deul. Since I could not find a human translation of opinion piece, I ran it through Google Translate.

It’s ironic that you had to use Google Translate to get a translation of an inflammatory essay about literary translation.

If any of you know of a human translation of this opinion piece, please comment, because I suspect Google Translate isn’t conveying all the nuances. (If you can read Dutch, please share your thoughts in the comments).

My understanding is that Janice Deul’s argument is ‘Rijneveld has no experience as a translator or with spoken word poetry, so why were they chosen over NL Black people who, unlike Rijneveld, are spoken word poets? Because the NL publishing industry ignores NL Black spoken word poets. The NL publishing industry does not take NL Black poets seriously because they are black.’

I see two components here: Rijneveld isn’t qualified because they don’t know about spoken word poetry, and that NL publishers make it harder for NL Black than NL white (is that the right word?) poets to get published.

Doesn’t Deul say that no white person can translate a black poet?

No, she does not say that. Or at least I think she doesn’t, Google Translate might be failing me. I think she wants NL black poets to have an EQUAL chance at getting published as other Dutch poets, and she thinks that NL publishers are currently prejudiced against them.

And I found more context: according to this piece (which I also ran through Google Translate), Rijneveld said that their English isn’t good. Part of the furor on Dutch social media was over why Gorman chose a translator who admitted to having bad English.

Yeah, that’s weird.

BUT I don’t know what Rijneveld’s English ability actually is. I’m not sure that their self-deprecating remarks should be taken seriously. However, that Rijneveld’s English skills (or lack thereof) is even part of the discussion shows that, at least among Dutch speakers, the discussion is not just ‘white person translating black person is bad’. (It’s thanks to the Atlanta Black Star that I know about this part of the discussion).

If the NL publisher had chosen a white translator with a solid translation background who was also a spoken word poet, the controversy would be smaller, probably too small to make a splash among English-speakers.

Didn’t Gorman choose Rijneveld herself? Shouldn’t the choice of a BLACK WOMAN about HER OWN POETRY be respected?

Yes to the first question.

Are you suggesting that BLACK WOMEN’S choices about THEIR OWN POETRY should be DISRESPECTED???!!!

Only because you asked me a loaded question.

Yes, I believe it’s good for writers to have input into translation. But should that input be absolute? Does Amanda Gorman know much about NL Black people or Dutch spoken word poetry? Did she carefully consider the NL spoken poetry scene and decide that it would be better to have a translator with no professional translation experience or who was unfamiliar with spoken word poetry? Or did she just see that Rijneveld won the Booker prize?

So what if Gorman only cares about the Booker prize? So bloody what? IT’S HER CHOICE! Maybe she believes that attaching the prestige of the Booker Prize to her poetry will spread her message further than any NL Black spoken word poet could? Who are YOU to second-guess her?


Good point.

Amanda Gorman, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry.

But there is one person whose choice matters even more than Gorman’s.

Janice Deul?

No. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld.

But they chose…

… to quit the translation project. Gorman did not force them. The publisher did not force them. Deul did not force them. They chose to quit.

But people keep on saying that Rijneveld was forced!

No, Rijneveld was not forced. Social pressure played a part but… nobody, and least in English-language media, seems to consider the possibility that Rijneveld sincerely does not want to do this translation. A little pressure was enough to make them quit, which implies they have… private misgivings. Maybe they lack confidence in their English. Maybe the prospect of researching spoken word poetry overwhelms them. Maybe they are angry about NL publishers giving NL Black spoken word poets a hard time. Or maybe they preferred all along to focus on their own writing, but felt bad about saying ‘no’ to Gorman when she asked them to translate her poetry.

You don’t know that.

You’re right, I don’t know that. Only Rijneveld and whoever they confide in know their real thoughts. For what it’s worth, they wrote a poem about this controversy.

Sara, you don’t even like Amanda Gorman’s poetry!

I’m underwhelmed, but I’m not a fan of spoken word poetry. I accept the opinion of spoken word fans that she’s great, just as I accept the consensus that Pride and Prejudice is a great novel even though it bores me to tears. Heck, I would rather listen to Amanda Gorman perform her poetry all day than sit through the audiobook of Pride and Prejudice.

Some racial justice issues are more urgent, such as preventing the amputations of black people.

So why did you write this post?

Most people who are commenting on this controversy in English use it to promote their pre-existing worldview. People who already believed “white people can’t understand black people” look at it from that angle. People who already believed “woke activists want to deny white people opportunities” or “woke activists want race essentialism and cultural segregation” look at it from that angle. We all distort the story to fit our views.

I am no different. The axe I grind is context matters. My opinion of this controversy changed as I learned more about the context. I don’t especially care about this controversy; I use it to illustrate that context matters. Because I have another blog post coming next week…

All this is just a prelude to another blog post?

Yep. In this post, I was an outsider who did research to get a partial context. In the next post, I am inside the context. Stay tuned.

4 thoughts on “What’s Missing from the Controversy over Who Translates Amanda Gorman into Dutch?

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  3. Pingback: I Supported Changing the Dutch Translator of Gorman’s Poetry. Why Do I Oppose Changing the Catalan Translator? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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