Can a black poet only be translated by a black woman?

Can a black poet only be translated by a black woman?

Can a black poet only be translated by a black woman?

It often happens that debates from the Netherlands emerge, for linguistic reasons, also in Flanders. Since the end of February, a controversy has raged around the Dutch translation of the text of the African-American poet, Amanda Gorman. A translation that was entrusted to a white woman.

Her voice, we are now many to recognize it: that of Amanda Gorman who, thanks to her incredible performance during the inauguration of Joe Biden last January, is today known throughout the world. The 22-year-old then recited her poem, entitled “The hill we climb”. A very inspiring text which marked the spirits, and through which Amanda Gorman wanted above all to convey a message of hope and unity.

But in the Netherlands, it is the division that this poem ended up sowing. At issue: the choice of translator for the Dutch-speaking version of this work. The Meulenhoff publishing house asked author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to take care of it. But this choice is far from having pleased everyone.

A renowned Dutch writer

Marijke Rijneveld is nevertheless considered to be THE literary discovery of recent years in the Netherlands. The young author has written two successful novels. One of them was even the first Dutch book to win the prestigious literary prize of the International Booker. Marijke Rijneveld has also already published two collections of poems.

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For the Meulenhoff publishing house, it was therefore a tailor-made candidate. Amanda Gorman and her team had also given their consent.

“Too white for a black woman’s poem”

In the eyes of some, however, Marijke Rijneveld is “too white” to be able to live this text with empathy, and to best transcribe the emotions and the experience that it embodies.

One of the first criticisms on this subject was made by Dutch journalist and activist Janice Deul. In a column published by the Volkskrant, she indicates that this translation should have been given to an artist similar to the original designer, i.e. young, female, and black. A profile that certainly exists, but which she believes too often remains in the shadows. On social networks, the controversy sparked heated discussions.

The debate then took place in Flanders, where the subject has also caused much ink to flow. In an opinion published in De Morgen, the writer Mohamed Ouaamari denounces in particular the fact that today there is no place for feathers from immigration, and that the literary sector remains still and always as white than the cocaine that arrives in Antwerp.

An indignation in turn criticized

What is quite remarkable is that this controversy has not really confronted conservative opinions with progressive opinions, but quite different progressive voices, with on the one hand those who believe that whites cannot understand the lived experiences of the people. black people, and on the other hand those who find this reasoning extremist and counterproductive.

Some intellectuals in the north of the country have called the critics totalitarian activism, discrimination on the basis of skin color that would be outright racism. Many other opinions abound in the same direction: it is the quality of the work that takes precedence. And excluding certain profiles is not a way to create the necessary diversity.

The importance of the profession of translator

Speaking of the quality of the work, we also heard very different opinions from all the others. Like that of the translator attached to the House of Representatives, Bert De Kerpel who says the real reason why Marijke Reyneveld is a bad choice is simply because she is not a translator. For him, the job should be entrusted to a translator specializing in American history, a connoisseur of poetry and with a perfect command of English – whatever, therefore, his gender or his skin color.

The poet and translator Samuel Vriezen believes that “it is not the text that needs to be translated, but the authorAnd this is where the Dutch publishing house, he says, made a mistake.

Whatever the nature of the error, if it can be considered as such, it has been rectified, since in the face of an outcry Marijke Reyneveld decided to give up this translation. The Meulenhoff publishing house has meanwhile let it be known that it had learned lessons and that it was now seeking to form a team to best transcribe Amanda Gorman’s message.

It should be noted that the French-speaking version, edited by Fayard, will not be produced by a translator, but by a young Belgian-Congolese artist, since it is the singer Lous and the Yakuza who has been chosen.

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