The rejection of at least two ‘white translators’, to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb”, hit the news today. Two more thoughts on that.
It surely appears reasonable to remove white people from the job to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem, and put young black female translators in charge instead. Besides the persisting importance to give more voice and visibility to underrepresented groups, there is a lot of truth to the expression and trouble of “walking in some else’s shoes”. There will always be elements of racism impossible for white people to comprehend. Above all when they are expressed and discussed between the lines of a poem.
There is certainly the need for certain groups to stay silent about particular problems, and rather listen. This is also why I won’t talk about most of the complex issues related to this particular story. However I would like to bring up two more issues of moral-progressive concern, which I believe should be considered in this conversation.
The first is a simple problem of argument. If we argue that whites should not aim to translate African American poems, then the argument — on a purely logical level — may as well be inverted by some. And then we are right back to where we started years ago.
The second point concerns the hopefulness for a greater reciprocal understanding. A translation is, among the many things, an attempt to profoundly understand the nature of a text and its author. Giving African American texts to white Europeans could hence be a functional move within the process of social change. It could be a chance to give new insights to some groups about the pain other groups live with. Part of this is certainly already done by the simple diffusion of those texts and, I belief, many will now argue that the real problem lies with the potential false interpretation and misrepresentation of the translated copies.
Leaving aside the argument that any translation might be considered a misrepresentation (a “tradere”) of its original, the question in play is whether this hope for a greater reciprocal understanding through the profound mechanisms of a translation, is powerful enough to have a positive impact on the greater picture.
An idealistic suggestion might be, in this specific case, instead of debating mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion, to focus on a fruitful collaboration that unites different groups within this work. Use Gorman’s text to let people from different backgrounds and groups figure out together about how to accurately represent her compelling words in different languages, and make them comprehensive for different cultures and histories. It might be worth the money.