Is literary translation in the 21st century about cultural appropriation and totalitarian terror, identity politics and intellectual racism practiced by creative writers, publishers, public intellectuals and translators themselves? The recent acrimonious debate about who should translate the African American poet Amanda Gorman’s widely publicized poem, “The Hill we Climb”, is absolutely unprecedented, as far as I know. Gorman read the poem during President John Biden’s Inauguration ceremony held on 20 January, 2021.
In fact, I just learnt that Gorman’s poem is now featuring as Number1 on the USA Today’s bestseller list. Also, Gorman is on the cover page of the VOGUE magazine. Intriguingly, on the Vogue cover, the 23-year-old Harvard graduate, therockstar poet Amanda Gorman is introduced as “wearing a Louis Vuitton blanket styled as a dress, clinched with a wide and intricate gold belt. The garment’s vibrant pattern is inspired by African textiles and designed by Virgil Abloh- Louis Vuitton’s first Black artistic director.”
It seems transnationalism has overtly led to identity politics stamping itself on not just the person, also not just on the appropriateness of the textiles worn, but also on the appropriateness of the designer’s identity rather than competence. It is therefore not surprising that if identity politics has penetrated both texts and textiles then all the recent brouhaha about appropriate translators, in terms of skin colour and gender, for the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poetry, is only to be expected.
Historically, it has been the accepted norm that the creative writer enjoys complete media visibility. Historically again, the translator of a literary work remains invariably invisible. This recent debate about the appropriate translator is a complete paradigm shift, opening up perhaps an emerging area of discourse regarding the multinational translation industry.The debate not only propels the translators to the centrestage from the margins, but attention is drawn to the race, gender, skin colour and location of the translators.
In fact, on 25 March, 2021, The Washington Post carried an article titled, “Who should translate Amanda Gorman’s work ~ That question is ricocheting around the translation industry”. Two translators who were initially commissioned to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem were later subjected to adverse criticism as they had no affinity with Amanda Gorman, the African American youngwoman,in any way.
The Dutch nonbinary translator Maricke Lucas Rijneveld’s appropriateness as translator of Gorman’s poem was questioned and the translation was not accepted for publication. Similarly, the Catalan translator Victor Obiols found that his translated version could not be accepted. “as a white man was not suitable to translate it.”
Irked by such a myopic and uninformed response about the art and craft of translation, Victor Obiols responded with caustic wit, “They have told me that I am not suitable to translate it…But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”
Alain Mabanckou a Congolese writer and professor at UCLA stated, “When the only way of looking at the world is through the lens of identity politics, then we have moved into a space that is contrary to what literature is about,”. He further elaborated, “Literature is destined to liberate us, to change the way in which we see the world and to transport readers on previously uncharted adventures, to delineate the contours of a world in which fear gradually recedes into the background and the ‘other’ is invited into our hearts.”
This fracas about shared identity of creative writer and translatorhas led to vociferous arguments about identity politics, cultural politics and intersectional complexities of location, race, religion, colour, gender and sexuality. Quite remarkably, very little attention however has been directed towards the training, education, experienceand skills of the translators. This contention has transpired now as an intellectual turf war of unabashed cultural totalitarianism as translators and even writers are being assessed according to their acceptability as native informants.
The translated versions produced by professional translators may be considered unreliable if the translator’s skin colour, heritage language, denoting their home language once known as mother tongue, are different from that of the writer of the original literary text. This objection can appertain to a poem, a play, a short story or a novel. The translation theorist Susan Bassnet had stated, “Translation is, of course, a rewriting of an original text. All rewritings, whatever their intention, reflect a certain ideology and a poetics and as such manipulate literature to function in a given society in a given way.
Rewriting is manipulation, undertaken in the service of power, and in its positive aspect can help in the evolution of a literature and a society. Rewritings can introduce new concepts, new genres, new devices, and the history of translation is the history also of literary innovation, of the shaping power of one culture upon another. But rewriting can also repress innovation, distort and contain, and in an age of everincreasing manipulation of all kinds, the study of the manipulative processes of literature as exemplified by translation can help us toward a greater aware ness of the world in which we live.”
When the purpose of translation is to traverse beyond borders and boundaries and familiarize and sensitize cultures about diverse lesser-known cultures, such parochial restrictions express a form of counterracism. A demand for personal passports and visas of the translator, rather than the merit of the translator is a destructive mode that challenges the skilled translators, who are being asked to check whether there’s a match or mismatch between the skin colour, gender, location and race of the original writers and their translators.
Sadly, it seems, cultural globalisation and more importantly transnationalism have shrunk our perceptions instead of broadening them. In his widely-cited essay “World Literature” (Visva Sahitya, published in 1907) Rabindranath Tagore had made some path-breaking assertions about cultural fragmentation and cultural territorialization. Tagore repeatedly emphasized in this essay thatthe primary aim of translation is too deterritorialize. The purpose of translation has always been to introduce the translated textto those who are curious about unknown cultures and unknown people.
Therefore, such discourse can merely consolidate intellectual territorial terrorism, which can even invade library shelves, research topics and teaching curriculum. Can South Asian researchers work on the literary texts written by South East Asian writers? Can an African student translate Shakespeare or even the poems of Carol Duffy? Should a Chinese scholar translate Tagore? The counter-discourse too is quite riveting.
This is about linguistic skills and identity. A few Anglo-Saxon white male scholars claimed that their translations of the works of the poet Rabindranath Tagore were by far more qualitatively superior than the English translations of Tagore’s literary texts by Indian scholars. The white translators argued that as the linguistic skills in the target language English were acquired skills by the Indian translators and as the translators were not native speakers of the English language, inevitably there lingered a sense of inadequacy in the English versions translated by the native translators.
They argued that the white translator’s translated version did not include such lapses, as he was a native speaker of the English language. Therefore, identity politics in the domain of translation is not new, but with time, instead of any resolution about such often myopic personalized assertions of racial pride and prejudice, the issues seem to have become far more problematized in the present times.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is former Professor Dept. of English, Calcutta University)