We Are Far From Polished, Far From Pristine: The Impossibility of Finding a Perfect Translator
by Kayleigh Herber
Ultimately, there is a sizeable chance that the “perfect” translator for any given book might not even be within the consciousness of the publisher because of the way the selection process typically takes place.
For a period of three days, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld was the chosen translator for Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” and its accompanying upcoming poetry collection. But the announcement of this choice made by Dutch publisher Meulenhoff on the 23rd of February 2021 was followed by an outpour of opinions on whether or not Rijneveld, a White author, should have been chosen over a translator with a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Colour) background. While some may hold the opinion that Rijneveld should have just declined the offer, many for whom translation is their main source of income are not always at liberty to accept or decline assignments merely based on whether they think another translator might be more suitable. The outpour of emotion about who can and should translate a text and why reveals a lot about how our society views translation, a craft often hidden away in fine print and the inside of book covers. The questions ultimately brought to light are, what does the hypothetical perfect translator for such a text look like or need to be able to do? This article will not dwell on whether or not poetry should be translated in the first place, nor will it spend aeons of time discussing whether the translator should be expected to refuse such commissions, as these would not merely be a question of conscience, but also a financial decision. This essay will explore the parties involved in selecting translators, as well as why the perfect translator does not exist.
The response this situation has garnered reveals that the issue here is much more complex than a White author translating a Black woman’s poem. It is probably not a secret that a vast majority of Dutch translators working on high-profile assignments are Caucasian – Elbrich Fennema and Luk van Haute translated Haruki Murakami’s works, while neither of them are ethnically Japanese. Children of Blood and Bones by Tomi Adeyemi was translated by Angelique Verheijen, also not BIPOC. However, neither translation really
caused an uproar. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad, a book about the immense struggles experienced by pre-abolition American BIPOC was translated by Harm Damsma and Niek Miedema, as was Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys. Specific choices made in especially the latter’s translation regarding the translation of the N-word were the subject of a heated debate (Nzume), but the translators’ ethnicity, though mentioned occasionally, was never really the main topic.
The translation of sensitive issues and concepts always depends on the context of the story and the publication. Translate terms surrounding these issues in a more politically correct way and it could make it seem like the text is softened compared to the original. This is not necessarily the effect to strive for when you want to give the reader a more accurate sense of the ease with which these deeply offensive terms were used during the time a story might be set. Translate it in a way that could be considered more accurate to the context of the story and it could be quite shocking because it is indeed offensive. Another translator faced with The Nickel Boys may have chosen differently, or maybe the editor or the publisher would have the final say on whether or not this text would be published as such.
The debate surrounding “The Hill We Climb” seems to be very much focused on the two individuals, Gorman and Rijneveld, while there are many more parties involved. What people were offended by, or at the very least apprehensive of, was the feeling that a White person would become a mouthpiece for a Black author, or would take some degree of ownership of a text written by a Black author. The translation of any piece of literature that deals with race should be treated with appropriate sensitivity to those issues, but a good translator of whichever ethnicity should aim to treat the text with the respect its contents deserve. Yet in the case of “The Hill We Climb” undue attention seemed to be put on Rijneveld and for the most part Rijneveld alone – it was their face that featured on many publications on the topic. However, the systemic issues of representation of minorities in the world of Dutch publishing houses seemed to escape relatively unharmed. The ethnicity of the translators of the aforementioned books did not get the attention Rijneveld received, but that is not the main point. What is more important is that fighting the translator will never be as effective as calling the system behind the case to attention.
Who gets to pick the translator?
It is relatively rare for the author to decide who translates their text. Commissioning a translator usually takes place through previously established connections. Generally speaking, a publishing house will acquire the translation rights from the original publisher if they think there is a market for a translation of a specific text. In many cases there is a pre-established portfolio of translators the publishing house works with on a regular basis, and once a collaboration has proven successful a translator may be offered other assignments by them in the future, sometimes within the same genre or perhaps even from the same author. This can help translators hone their specialisation skills. The database can grow in numerous ways: the publishing house may notice a translator’s skill in another publication, or the translator may have applied to be added to the database in a similar way someone would send an open application to a company, to name a few. Contact between a translator and a publishing house or it may be established via internships, acquaintances, colleagues or even translation scholars and teachers who could recommend promising students. Usually, a translator cannot apply for a specific translation project in the same way another person would for a job. Ultimately, there is a sizeable chance that the “perfect” translator for any given book might not even be within the consciousness of the publisher because of the way the selection process typically takes place.
In the current case, Gorman and her team were actually involved in the process, and had expressed their approval of Rijneveld’s selection under the condition that three sensitivity readers would be involved in the process. The demand for sensitivity readers was included in the translation contract, and would have been present regardless of who the final translator would end up being. It is unclear whether or not Gorman and her team were presented with other options besides Rijneveld. While the portfolio of authors boasted by many publishers is starting to feature an increasing number of diverse voices, it is still very much unclear what their portfolios of translators look like. One thing that is clear, however, is that almost all CEOs of major Dutch publishing houses are of Caucasian heritage.
Besides BIPOC translators possibly not being on every publisher’s radar, the notable amount of time that has passed also seems to suggest there could be a relative scarcity of BIPOC translators with this specific specialisation. At the time of writing this essay, a month has passed since Rijneveld handed back the commission and the new translator for “The Hill We Climb” has yet to be selected. This speaks volumes about the difficulties of finding an experienced translator which would tick every box for every party involved – the publisher, the author, the readers as well as the translators themselves. Yet, most of all it reveals the result of a very complex net of factors such as longstanding systemic equality issues both in education and publishing. If Meulenhoff made a conscious decision not to work with someone who has translation experience or translation credentials, the more logical choice would indeed be a Dutch spoken word artist with a BIPOC background. Perhaps Meulenhoff thought Rijneveld was simply more marketable, being a recent Booker Prize alumnus
While progress is definitely being made – the portfolios of authors featured by publishers are growing more and more diverse – to say that there is still a lot of ground to be covered in terms of racial equality in the publishing world would be an understatement. The publication of the Dutch edition would have been an incredible opportunity to mirror the significance of Amanda Gorman’s performance at Biden’s inauguration. Meulenhoff could have used this opportunity to increase BIPOC visibility in Dutch publishing ventures the way Gorman’s performance provided BIPOC visibility at a major political event. It is up to publishers to have an intersectional portfolio of translators as well as authors, and to be mindful of its gaps in representation like any other company is, but also to make a conscious effort to broaden cultural participation. However, it is up to society as a whole to make sure that there is diversity to be added to said portfolio.
What are the characteristics a publisher could look for in a translator?
Finding the right translator involves more than just selecting someone who has a good grasp of the language the text is written in. Sufficient mastery of both languages involved in the process may seem like a very straightforward demand, yet in this case it may not have been at the forefront of the publisher’s mind. During a televised interview in Dutch talk show M., Rijneveld admitted to not having read the translation of their own book as their English is not great. Despite the fact that they are a skilled author of novels and poetry – another skill a publisher could consider when selecting a translator – should Rijneveld have been offered the job in the first place when we look at their CV, which is full of lauded poetry yet void of published, well-received translations or other translation credentials?
Besides having mastered at least two languages, a translator needs to be aware of the cultural context. A translator may specialize in or prefer translating British-English literature, American-English or even Canadian-English literature. Though all three involve translating an English text, culturally these are quite different. “The Hill We Climb” is not just a spoken word poem in English, but it is heavily America-centric. This specific text alone already demands an understanding of references to historical events from the American slave trade and to the specific structure Martin Luther King’s poetic “I Have a Dream” speech (Gorman ll. 95-100) as well as the storming of the US Capitol on the of January 2021 (ll. 55-6) . The translator also needs to have an understanding
of (Afro-) American pop culture, as it alludes to Lin Manuel Miranda’s rap-musical Hamilton on multiple occasions (ll. 64, 43-5), yet recognize that the latter is also a Biblical reference (ll. 43-5). Not every translator of English literature would automatically be qualified to translate “The Hill We Climb”.
In this case perhaps even more than in some others, the translator also needs an extraordinary sense of sound and structure. “The Hill We Climb” would benefit from having a translator with experience within the area of spoken word poetry, a genre of which the essence is by its very definition harder to capture on paper. It features many instances of homonymy, alliteration, rhyme, and wordplay, and having a translator who knows what to look for and has experience with these concepts in Dutch spoken word poetry would hopefully benefit the end-product.
Reducing the selection of a suitable translator to a simple game of matching a translator to the author they share the most traits with, whether that be socio-cultural status, race or any other trait, is a false framing of issues, as well as damaging to the practice of literary translation as a whole. There are not many Elizabethan playwrights x around x nowadays x that would qualify to translate
Shakespeare’s texts, and following the logic behind this framing of the problem, none of those would ever be translated. Furthermore, by expecting people only translate what is most familiar to them, we risk losing a world of wealth concealed in books written in languages we do not comprehend. Each author, translator, and reader – even those who may seem similar on the surface – will bring something uniquely their own to a text. We must be mindful of the necessity of translations and the way they allow people broaden their horizons and experience different cultures despite the initial language barrier. It is not merely a question of who can and may translate certain texts, it is a question of the knock-on effects of systemic equality and visibility issues. There are some amazing translators who will do a great job, especially if the aforementioned qualifications are taken into account during the selection process. The search for someone who does not exist – the mythical perfect translator – should not become a reason to not translate texts altogether. It would be a tragedy indeed, to see so many voices silenced.
Kayleigh Herber is an MA Literary Translation (EN-NL) graduate currently working as a freelance translator. She specialises in texts that incorporate more than one (eye-)dialect of English and literary fiction. Her other interests include the metatext and real-life context of historical fiction as well as contemporary multi-media poetry on women’s issues.
Photo by Kayleigh Herber
Gorman, Amanda. “The Hill We Climb.” Performance transcript. 20 Jan. 2021. Capitol Hill, Washington, DC.
Nzume, Anousha. Ebissé Rouw & Marian El Maslouhi. “Trigger Warning: Racisme, het n-woord & tatta ontbijt.” DIPSAUS podcast. 22 Juni 2019