Who should translate Amanda Gorman?

The American poet's agents ask for "a woman with an activist profile and, if possible, a woman of African descent". Is this an absurd demand? Does a translator have to look like the author? Can a translator be vetoed on the basis of race or gender? Does positive discrimination have to be defended?

6 min
Amanda Gorman. ERIN SCHAFF / EFE

BarcelonaPoetry can still change the world. Or, at the very least, shake it forcefully, as has happened this week after Víctor Obiols explained that his Catalan translation of The hill we climb, by Amanda Gorman, which he had just submitted to Univers -a label of Enciclopèdia Catalana- had been vetoed by Writers House, the author's American agency: "They felt that, despite my CV, my profile was not the right fit". The person the representatives are looking for is "a woman with an activist profile and, if possible, of African descent".

These statements have opened several debates around the facts three weeks before the 723-word poem hits the bookstores (in the United States, the first edition will be of 1.5 million copies, and for the moment it will be published in 17 other languages). Who is entitled to translate Amanda Gorman's poem? How does a publisher work when assigning translations? To what extent can an agency influence the choice of translators? Should positive discrimination be applied when it comes to assigning who translates an author into another language?

"All this controversy has nothing to do with translation, but it affects it fully", explains Dolors Udina, winner of the National Translation Prize in 2019. Udina has translated more than 200 works into Catalan, including those by J.M. Coetzee and Ralph Ellison. "I understand wanting to give a voice to African-American people and wanting to give minorities a chance, because sometimes majorities tend to look down at minorities. These are demands that make sense and that should make us think, because as Catalans we are also part of a minority", she adds. Born in Los Angeles in 1998, Amanda Gorman is a poet and activist: she deals with oppression, marginalisation and racism in North American society from a feminist point of view. Her first poetry compilation, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, appeared in 2015, when she was only 17 years old.

The writer, communicator and activist Desirée Bela-Lobedde, who has just published Minorías (Ediciones B), explains that asking that "the person who translated Gorman's poem be of African descent is a very political gesture, the establishment of a quota in a system where quotas don't work". Bela-Lobedde recalls one of the recurring questions: Are there translators of African descent into Catalan? And she changes it: "I can't know if there are, because I don't know what job opportunities they have". She adds that "for some time now policies of positive discrimination have been applied to women" and that "now the same should happen with race or ethnicity". The writer considers that society should normalise "the intention of favouring a group that has historically been discriminated against".

Cover of the American edition of the book by Amanda Gorman

Putting yourself in the other person's shoes

Arnau Pons, translator, poet and essayist, admits that he understands "Víctor Obiols' anger, because he was working on the text and he is not a racist". For him, the issue is more general: "The problem we have in this country is that it's hard for us to put ourselves in the other person's shoes. In the United States there is a lot of racism against African-Americans. It's not just the memory of the violence of slavery, this violence is still present in the streets, there is structural racism. Gorman is a young woman who gives voice to a collective and one should be sensitive enough to understand what she represents and symbolizes and the fact that she wants to give voice to other translators. I don't think it's about witch-hunting or vetoes, but about empathizing with a minority. I understand that your agents are looking for women close to their struggle and that there has to be parity. If in the end most of the people who translate Gorman in Europe are middle-aged white men, I'd say we have a problem". Laura Huerga, editor of Raig Verd, intones the mea culpa: "We don't have to be afraid to say it: our publishing catalogues are racist and perpetuate the inequalities of society".

Ignasi Moreta, editor of Fragmenta, thinks it's appropriate to talk about vetoes and censorship in a case like the translation of Víctor Obiols. "Translators must be chosen for their competence", he says. "Any criterion that is not strictly literary, even positive discrimination, is perverting everything". Moreta believes that it is normal that the subject generates controversy: "Some of us rebel against extra-literary demands, others, from a progressivism that seems to me to be misunderstood, believe they have every right in the world to put these conditions on the table".

Poet Amanda Gorman recites her verses at Biden's inauguration ceremony

A singular case

The case of the translation of The hill we climb is not the most usual when it comes to negotiating with agencies and authors' representatives. Obiols was working on his version, which he called El turó que enfilem, for "three weeks", he explains, because "the publisher wanted to publish it before Sant Jordi" (April 23). The fact that it was not accepted by the agency that represents the author will not prevent the translator from being paid for his work. Univers plans to commission a new translation and launch the book in a bilingual edition with a preface by Oprah Winfrey on April 8, the same as the Spanish edition, published by Lumen.

"There are authors and agencies that ask you to approve the translator before signing -explains Laura Baena, from Edicions de 1984-. You send the CV of your proposal and they can agree or not. In general, what they look for is the translator's track record, not other questions, such as whether he or she is a man or a woman". Edicions de 1984 has had no problem getting Núria Artigas to translate the South African Trevor Noah or the American Avni Doshi, or Esther Tallada to translate William Faulkner into Catalan. "The most important thing is to choose the best person to do the job, who feels comfortable with the registers", she adds. "A case like Gorman's, taken to the extreme, can lead you to think that if you don't share some very specific characteristics with the author you're translating, you wouldn't be authorised". Jordi Martín Lloret, translator and editor of Més Llibres and Animallibres, reminds us that, despite the fact that "authors and agents can set whatever conditions they want", a translation is "one of the most beastly exercises in empathy there is", because "not only do you transmit a message, but also a way of thinking, you have to put yourself in the other person's shoes". "To say that you can only translate for people with a profile similar to yours is disrespectful to the profession", he says. Martín Lloret recalls that among his translations is that of What I loved (Allò que vaig estimar), by Siri Hustvedt, a novel written by a woman narrated from a man's point of view.

Cover of the Catalan edition of Univers

Has the time come to rethink inertia?

The translation for Lumen will be signed by Nuria Barrios. Born in Madrid in 1962, she is neither an activist nor of African descent. In an article in El País she recalled the Dutch precedent. At the end of February, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld announced that she would translate the poem. Gorman herself applauded the initiative, but at the same time it prompted an article by journalist and activist Janice Deul to De Volkskrant in which she found the choice "incomprehensible": "A spoken word artist should have been chosen, [someone] young and proudly black". Rijneveld declined to translate the book and has even written a poem in support of Gorman. Barrios, on the other hand, warned of the implications of this withdrawal: "Deul had invested herself with the new and fearsome power of social media. She was the visible face of that anonymous chorus that, under the banner of moral right, strengthens its supremacy with each passing day". And she pointed in yet another direction: "It is the victory of identity discourse over creative freedom, of what is given to us over imagination".

The poet, translator and journalist Míriam Cano considers that the debate on Catalan translation "is interesting because it is an opportunity to rethink how we translate and certain inertias, how translators are chosen and why they are chosen". Focusing on the case of Gorman, she adds: "With these conditions, Gorman makes visible and gives an opportunity to women who perhaps would not have been the first choice of publishers, women who perhaps, otherwise, would not have had a chance". Along these lines, the poet and translator Laia Martínez y López recalls that Patti Smith asked for "someone related to music" for the translation into Catalan of Auguries of Innocence (Auguris d'innocència), a requirement that she fulfils because she is one half of the electronic music duo Jansky. "Gorman's poetry is very political and oral, and she therefore asks herself how her text will be defended in other languages", she continues. "It is coherent that she thinks that a woman activist and a woman from a discriminated group will be better able to act as a spokesperson for her poetry. Hers is a pamphlet poem which, if it is not spoken, does not make much sense". The translator and narrator Carlota Gurt reminds us that "the private is political": for "a question of historical justice" it seems "licit" that someone like Gorman should want a woman and activist to translate it. However, she also recalls that "most texts are translatable all over the world" and that "the poem itself, The hill we climb, is not particularly special for demanding all this".

Desiré Bela-Lobedde warns of the virulence of some of the commentary these days in relation to Gorman. "It goes from concrete issues to racist comments. This is what I find worrying", she says. These debates will be reopened as people of African descent come to places of prominence. It's about being able to address them in a reasoned way, without opening the door to racism.