I Supported Changing the Dutch Translator of Gorman’s Poetry. Why Do I Oppose Changing the Catalan Translator?

Since I wrote this post about the controversy over translating Amanda Gorman’s poetry into Dutch, more information has come my way, particularly information about the Catalan translation being dropped.

First, what additional details have you learned about the controversy over the Dutch translation?

According to this article, Janice Deul said:

“I’m not saying a black person can’t translate white work, and vice versa,” Janice Deul told me when we met near her home in Leiden. “But not this specific poem of this specific orator in this Black Lives Matter area, that’s the whole issue.”

There, Janice Deul said that she does not have a general problem with white people translating black people’s works. She just thinks that this is an exceptional case.

While researching these blog posts, I found hundreds of comments about how horrible it is to claim that a white person can never translate a black person’s works, yet I found no one arguing that white people should never translate black people’s works. All of those arguments against having white people translate black people’s work (including editorials in respectable newspapers) are fighting a straw man. Meanwhile, I rarely find anyone arguing against Deul’s actual position: that this poem/poet is a special case. Making a good faith argument that even in this case the race of the translator should not matter is possible, especially if the poet herself takes that position. Yet those arguments are far less common than outrage over ‘a translator was forced to quit because bad people on social media will never let a white person translate a black person’ (never mind that the translator was not forced).

Good faith arguments like that would be boring. Provocative statements such as ‘ZOMYGOSH THE WOKE PEOPLE WANT TO CANCEL WHITE TRANSLATORS!!!!’ are more exciting.

Yeah, that’s a problem.

I’d like to quote Anna Guitart in Catalan > English Google translation:

I should also have read better the information about the Dutch case, which in many places was not well explained, or not at all (And that should make us think, too)… If we are able to look at it this way, I think we will see that it is not the work of translators that is being questioned, but the society in which we live. But that’s much more awkward, of course.

The bad explanation of the Dutch case in so much media does make me think. It makes me think some people want to avoid thinking about racial inequities. They dump attention on straw men to deflect attention from, say, racism in the NL publishing industry. Questioning society IS more awkward than just yelling that ‘skin color shouldn’t matter’.

Anna Guitart mentions the other new detail I learned about the Dutch case: according to this BBC article, “Although Amanda Gorman did initially agree to the Dutch poet translating her work, none of the Netherlands’ black spoken word poets were presented to her as options… Meulenhoff [the NL publisher] asked MLR if they wanted to be the translator. They said yes, and then Meulenhoff sent their profile to the American agent as their preferred choice.” So the NL Publisher curated the list of potential translators sent to Gorman and marked Marieke Lucas Rijneveld as their ‘preferred choice’. Why didn’t the NL publisher put any notable NL Black poets on their list of candidates? If an NL Black poet had been on the list, would Gorman have still chosen Rijneveld?

Enough about the Dutch case, what about the Catalan translator, Víctor Obiols? Unlike Rijneveld, he really was forced out. He’s an experienced professional translator and a musician. Everyone says he is a good translator. The only reason to drop him was his demographic profile. And he had already completed the translation. Isn’t that wrong?

I think Gorman’s agent made a mistake when they dropped Obiols. But-

HA! You do think it’s wrong!

Not exactly…


You said it was a mistake!

The situation is more complicated than that.

UGH! Not more nuance and context, please. So boring. I’d rather feel outraged.

Too bad, I’m diving into boring details.

Fine. What are your super-boring nuances, details, contexts, spaceships, metaphors, toothpastes…

I read these articles courtesy of the Catalan -> English Google Translator: “Veten el traductor al català de la poeta Amanda Gorman,” “Qui ha de traduir Amanda Gorman?,” and “Qui pot traduir Amanda Gorman?” I also read the comments.

What did you find?

Google Translate told me that the title of Gorman’s poem is “The Hill Climbing the Universe”.

I want to read “The Hill Climbing the Universe.”

The point is that Google Translate makes obvious mistakes. Which means it also makes mistakes which I don’t catch. Therefore, I might be making mistakes.

What are the most boring details?

Contracts.

The Catalan publisher commissioned Obiols before they secured the translation rights (though they had an informal promise that they would get the rights and not some other Catalan publisher). Therefore, Gorman’s representatives never approved him. They said they wanted a translator who was ‘a woman, young, activist and preferably black’ BEFORE they conferred the right to publish in Catalan.

Can publishers commission translations before they secure rights?

I am not a lawyer, but I believe the answer is yes. Anyone can commission a translation any damn time they please. Legally, I could commission someone to translate Gorman’s poetry into Lojban without Gorman’s permission. Rights only come into play when the translations are distributed (i.e. published).

But why did the Catalan publisher commission the translation before they secured the rights? Isn’t that risky?

It is risky. The Catalan publisher wants the Catalan translation to come out on the same date as the Spanish translation, April 8. But Gorman’s representatives worked on the Spanish translation deal long before they turned their attention to the Catalan deal. Therefore, the Catalan publisher wanted to have the translation ready before securing the rights.

I can see why the Spanish language deal would be a higher priority for Gorman’s representatives.

Me too. But Catalonians don’t like having this rubbed in. A lot of Catalan language media points out that the Spanish translator, Nuria Barrios, is not young, not a musician or spoken word poet, not a political activist, and not white. She doesn’t fit the “a woman, young, activist and preferably black” profile.

But she is a woman, whereas Obiols is a man.

The Catalan media overlooks that.

Everyone quoted in Catalan media thinks Obiols was dropped yet Barrios was kept because the Spanish deal was concluded before the Dutch controversy blew up. The Catalan media presents this as unfair. Why must the Catalan translation be done by someone who is “young, activist, and preferably black” when they approved a Spanish translator who is none of those things?

The Catalan media has a point.

I recognize that Gorman, through her representatives, has the right to put conditions on the choice of translators, and the Catalan publisher did not give them a chance to approve/disapprove of Obiols. But, in this case… I think they should have just approved Obiols.

Why?

First, because Catalan is a minority language, it’s difficult to keep Catalan poetry publishers viable (they only plan to print 5000 copies of Gorman’s book, they will not make much money). For that reason, publishers of minority languages should receive more leniency. Gorman’s representatives did the opposite: they treated the Spanish publisher, not the Catalan publisher, with leniency.

Second, despite my ignorance of Spanish politics, even I know Catalonians are sensitive to how they are treated differently than Castillians. I would not want to display any apparent prejudice towards Catalonians relative to Castillians. But Gorman’s representatives did just that.

By the way, Barrios (the Spanish translator) sharply criticised Rijneveld for quitting (as if they don’t have the right to quit) and said some unkind things about Deul and attempts to remedy racial inequities. I personally think, given Barrios’ comments, it’s unfair that is still the official Spanish translator while Obiols, whose comments show a most positive attitude towards activism to remedy racial inequities, was dropped.

Maybe you shouldn’t read that much into comments you got from Catalan > English Google Translation.

True, I might be misreading Barrios’ comments. Also, the Catalan media might have cherry-picked quotes which make Barrios look bad.

Third… many people complain that this is an example of Americans imposing their politics on the rest of the world while ignoring the opinions of non-Americans. Maybe, just maybe, some black Catalonians privately communicated with Gorman’s representatives as requested they intervene. But then why didn’t Gorman’s representatives say so? I suspect Gorman’s representatives made this move without checking how Catalonians, including female, young, activist, and/or black Catalonians, feel.

Isn’t this American political poetry? Isn’t imposing American politics on the translation of American political poetry… appropriate?

Some professional Catalan translators quoted in Catalan media think it’s appropriate. All translators are sympathetic to Obiols (he got dropped after he completed the work despite being competent, any translator can recognize that that sucks), but some (not all) of them think it’s valid to impose political conditions on political poetry. Some professional translators think that this shakeup might be beneficial for Catalonian society. I’m actually surprised by how positive the Catalonians are about this (even in the comment sections).

Maybe that’s because Catalonian culture can handle this controversy better than Anglophone cultures.

Maybe. In English, there are a lot of snarky comments like ‘Catalonians know about oppression, of course [white] Catalonians can translate Gorman as well as black people.’ Ironically, some Catalonians ARE saying that, because of their own history, they understand why Gorman’s representative would impose this condition, and that maybe they should think about how they can be more inclusive.

Are there black Catalonians?

Yes, many West Africans have immigrated to Catalonia, and their children are native Catalan speakers. I don’t know whether any are qualified to do this translation.

Given that the translator had already finished the work, I don’t think he should have been dropped UNLESS Catalonians objected to him, just as some Dutch people objected to the choice of Rijneveld. It is hubris to assume that American politics apply everywhere else in the world, and I understand why many people commenting on this, in both Catalan and English, feel unseen.

But then they would have to listen, be humble, and decide on a case by case basis.

What’s wrong with that?

It’s difficult.

Look, I suspect that Gorman’s representatives just wanted to prevent another Dutch controversy. They decided to make changes in the translation deals which had not already been concluded. Perhaps they know even less about Spanish/Catalonian politics than I do and thus had no idea that treating the Spanish and Catalan translations differently would look bad.

Expecting American literary agents to know about Spanish/Catalonian politics is excessive.

That’s why they should ask people knowledgeable about Catalonian society first. In other words, listen before they impose decisions.

The lesson people should take from the Dutch controversy is listen to the communities you’re impacting. Excluding NL Black poets from a translation project which seems like a perfect match for an NL Black poet has a bad impact on that community, which is why they spoke up. After they spoke up, Rijneveld listened to them and that solved the problem.

Gorman’s representatives did not learn that lesson. In a perverse way, they seem to agree with the people who say that ‘woke politics forces white translators to avoid translating poets of color’. They let the critics of ‘woke culture’ define the ‘woke’ position and then, because they seem themselves as ‘woke’, they followed the caricature. They based their decision on the uninformed garbled version of the Dutch controversy which is circulating in English language media.

This is the thread which connects this post with my prior two posts. The Dutch translation controversy would not have happened in the first place if the NL publishing industry was better at listening to NL Black people. When they started listening, the controversy was resolved. If the media actually listened to female Homericists (professional or amateur), they would not make patronizing remarks which leave female Homericists feeling unseen and othered. If Gorman’s representatives learned something about Catalonian politics, they would probably find a way to assuage Catalonians about unequal treatment of the Spanish and Catalan translations instead of looking like Americans imposing their politics on people they know nothing about.

You afraid of something in particular.

Yes. I’m afraid this will decrease the translations published in English.

How?

Gorman is so famous she’s going to be published in these languages despite these controversies. Most writers don’t have that clout. I’m concerned that English-language publishers are going to become more skittish about publishing translations. If that pushes them to hire more translators from marginalized backgrounds, good. If they check how marginalized communities react to translation choices, good. But I doubt Gorman’s representatives did that kind of check, which means I doubt the English-language publishing industry in general is going to listen. If they follow the ‘woke’ caricature of insisting on translators matching the demographic profile of the original writers without consulting impacted communities…

I suspect that, instead of hiring translators from marginalized background, or checking how marginalized communities react to translation choices, they’ll just refuse to publish translations. A publisher is much more likely to be criticized for choosing the wrong translator or doing a translation wrong than for not publishing a translation at all. They are not thinking about what is best for these marginalized communities (which might be publishing more translations). They are just trying protect their image.

Sara, you’re overreacting.

I hope I am. Too few translations are published in English; I don’t want them to become even fewer.

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