In the space of less than two months, Amanda Gorman has gone from being a respected young literary voice to arguably the world’s most famous living poet.
It’s a measure of how quickly that fame has come that you don’t even need to ask how it was attained. By the time her reading at Joe Biden’s inauguration was complete, she was a literary superstar. You can argue whether or not it was earned, but that’s wholly irrelevant: There it was.
In her poem “The Hill We Climb,” the message was one of (you guessed it) unity, and not just on a national scale: “We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. / We seek harm to none and harmony for all. / Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: / That even as we grieved, we grew.”
The Dutch don’t seem to have taken that message to heart.
In that ostensibly tolerant corner of Europe, a battle is currently raging over how Gorman’s poetry will end up making its way to the Dutch market. Gorman had already picked a translator for her forthcoming collection, also called “The Hill We Climb” — and a high-profile one at that. The decision wasn’t quite met with harmony, however, because the translator was white.
According to The Guardian, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld has taken herself off the translation project after an outcry prompted by a black journalist and activist over the decision.
First, Rijneveld’s bona fides: In 2020, she became the youngest winner of the International Booker Prize for her debut novel, “The Discomfort of Evening,” at age 29. In literary prize-mad Europe, this is a big deal.
Furthermore, if you want to check off identitarian boxes, Rijneveld self-identifies as non-binary — not quite transgender, but “in between.”
“As a small child I felt I was a boy, I dressed like a boy and behaved like a boy, but children at that age are still neutral in their gender,” she told The Guardian. “In adolescence, when the separation became clear, I dressed like a girl and became a girl, then at 20 I went back to the boy I was at primary school.”
But black? No. And that’s one of the problems Dutch activist/journalist Janice Deul had with the decision by Dutch publishing house Meulenhoff to give the translation job to Rijneveld.
“An incomprehensible choice, in my view and that of many others who expressed their pain, frustration, anger and disappointment via social media,” Deul wrote in a piece for the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant.
“Isn’t it – to say the least – a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? They are white, nonbinary, have no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff are still the ‘dream translator’?”
Meulenhoff, Deul said, should have chosen a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black.”
In a statement last week, Rijneveld announced she was pulling out of the project, saying she was “shocked” by the blowback.
— Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (@MLRijneveld) February 26, 2021
“I am shocked by the uproar surrounding my involvement in the spread of Amanda Gorman’s message and I understand the people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s choice to ask me,” Rijneveld wrote in her statement. “I had happily devoted myself to translating Amanda’s work, seeing it as the greatest task to keep her strength, tone and style.
“However, I realize that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not. I still wish that her ideas reach as many readers as possible and open hearts.”
I’m sure those ideas of unity, harmony and reaching out our arms to one another will “reach as many readers as possible and open hearts” now that the Dutch translation of Gorman’s poetry is mired in racial controversy. Good work.
“We want to learn from this by talking and we will walk a different path with the new insights,” a spokeswoman for Meulenhoff said in a statement. “We will be looking for a team to work with to bring Amanda’s words and message of hope and inspiration into translation as well as possible and in her spirit.”
I’ve read a Google translation of Deul’s piece in de Volkskrant; unless a major argument has been missed in the digital translation, the only point Deul makes that’s remotely substantive is that Gorman is a spoken-word artist, whereas Rijneveld works mostly in prose. This is fair, but not insurmountable — particularly given Rijneveld is the most accomplished young Dutch literary figure out there. (This is part of why Gorman chose her, given both achieved fame at an early age.)
Furthermore, this point isn’t expounded upon — mostly, one suspects, because Deul isn’t writing about that. She lists a group of black Dutch spoken-word artists who could take the job, but never quite makes an argument they’d be better suited for the job beyond the fact their skin color is the same as Gorman’s.
“Harvard alumna Gorman, raised by a single mother and labeled a ‘special needs’ child due to speech problems, describes herself as a ‘skinny Black girl.’ And her work and life are colored by her experiences and identity as a black woman,” Deul wrote, according to a Google translation, before wondering if giving the job to Rijneveld represented a “missed opportunity.”
Is it? Is the argument she’s making that a black woman in the Netherlands has the same experiences as a black woman in the United States? The world gets smaller by the year, but it hasn’t gotten so small that a Dutch black woman would have unique insight into a translation job because she shares melanin with Gorman, a black woman from a different culture thousands of miles away.
This is to say nothing of the fact Deul is removing agency from another black woman — Gorman — because she doesn’t feel the poet herself is qualified to pick her own translator.
The piece closes with a naked appeal to make the translation of Gorman’s work about sending a message, not about producing the best translation possible with the best author available.
“Agents, publishers, editors, translators, reviewers from the Netherlands, broaden your horizons and join the 2020s,” Deul wrote. “Be the light, not the hill. Embrace the people who are barely part of the literary system, have an eye for the genres that are traditionally excluded from the canon, and do not let your ego prevail over art. Also talent of color should be seen, heard and cherished. Also publish their work, hire them too and make an appropriate compensation. Black spoken word artists matter. Even if they are homegrown.”
This sounds wonderful, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the finished work. Instead, it’s identitarian squabbling — the opposite of unity, of “harmony for all,” of all that stuff.
Think what you want about Amanda Gorman’s partisan poem at Biden’s inauguration, which was never as magnanimous as billed. Her message still deserves better than this racist, virtue-signaling contretemps, a self-aggrandizing public tiff that flies in the face of everything Gorman’s words are supposed to stand for.
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