Michiana Chronicles: The Translator's Village
For Israeli translation scholar Gideon Toury, translation is both an act and an event. It is both a process that requires a wide range of creative, research, interpretive, linguistic, and cultural skills as well as a singular event emerging at a particular moment in time, within specific social and economic contexts. As such, translation, as a process and as an event, contributes to establishing, reinforcing, questioning, or subverting imbalances of power.
You may have heard of the controversary surrounding the translation into European languages of Amanda Gorman’s 2020 inauguration poem “The Hill We Climb” celebrating the start of Joe Biden’s presidency. It is ironic and regrettable that a text which urges us “to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man” found itself at the heart of a debate over who can and who should translate whom, though the core issues lie less in identity politics than in the market-driven publishing industry, the lack of diversity in the field of translation, and the publishers and translators clinging to the concept of the creative endeavor – for both the author and translator – as a solitary act.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, whom the established Dutch publisher Meulenhoff had originally selected for the Dutch translation of Gorman’s text, stepped down shortly after their name was advertised. What Dutch journalist Janice Deul questioned in her opinion piece published in De VolksKrant on February 25, 2021 about this matter, was not so much whether or not a White author can translate a Black author, but that the publisher and the Dutch publishing industry at large had failed to hire and promote a wider palette of voices, as they had vouched to do. In Deul’s words to The New York Times: “This is not about who can translate but who gets opportunities to translate.” Deul also focused on genre: she provided a list of ignored Black, Dutch spoken-word poets suitable for the translation job. Following the controversy, the Dutch publisher decided to pick a team instead of a single translator, like the German publisher of Gorman’s poem. A wise decision if you ask me. I’ll devote another commentary on collaborative translation which I have practiced now for almost two decades.
Every year, only about three percent of the books circulating on the US market are translated books, mostly from imperial Indo-European languages (predominantly French, Spanish, and German) and primarily written by white, male authors. As an element of comparison, the percentage of translated books averages around 13% in France. Translated books are expensive. Not only do the publishers have to acquire the translation rights for the books, but they also have to absorb the cost of the translation. Though literary translation is not a lucrative activity, the added cost and the commercial risk involved in promoting an author who is not homegrown can make a publisher unadventurous. As a result, blockbuster books are preferred over less popular works that may be a better fit for translation to enrich national conversations on genre and style, as well as such topics as say, gender and immigration. In his 2016 essay “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” writer, translator, artist, and scholar John Keene reflects on how our vision of the world, our conversations around identity and race are limited by the lack of texts in translation, particularly Black and Indigenous voices, texts from Africa and the Black Diaspora. He images:
"What might happen if through our engagement with these translated works we were able to deepen our understanding of the conversations already underway across linguistic and cultural barriers, while also learning from them new ways to decenter Western and U.S. hegemonic perspectives about blackness and black people, which might include black Americans' participation in furthering that hegemony. Perhaps not only more translators, but more black translators, particularly from the United States, will step into the breach to undertake this work."
Because of the publishers’ reluctance to invest in international books, a well-known author is sometimes asked to temp as a creative yet inexperienced translator so as to attract more readers because, well, who knows a translator by name? It’s purely a marketing decision that alienates bona fide translators as well as the profession of translation. It should come as no surprise to many that about 86% of the literature in translation in the United States is published by small independent presses dedicated to promoting a rich diversity of voices rather than chasing corporate profits, such as Archipelago Books, Deep Velum, Europa Editions, New Vessel Press, Open Letters, Restless Books, and Transit Books.
For a long time, US publishers argued that Americans did not have an appetite for translated literature. In response, translators retorted: how could they if translations are featured as a sad plate of pickled radishes on an all-you-can-eat buffet of national literature mostly composed of processed carbs? And yet for all that, literary translators are not a culturally and ethnically diverse bunch. They cannot fix this issue on their own, though they have been trying to address this embarrassing paradox, albeit without a clear victory in hand.
Who wants a consuming job that requires a great range of skills and in-depth knowledge, pays little, and provides close to no visibility, only to end up with a drawerful of projects snubbed by a gate-keeping publishing industry? Publishers have to be on-board to provide access and decent financial compensation to a more diverse range of authors and translators. Reviewers have to educate themselves to become more conversant in literary translation as an artform and as a social-cultural event. Access to education and technology has to be widened. Linguistic and cultural diversity has to be consistently valued, celebrated, and facilitated. Our schools need more literacy and language immersion programs, bilingual books and teachers who can read and discuss them from pre-K classrooms onwards. It is financially sustainable. And yeah, it takes a village. If you’re a citizen, a parent, a fairy godparent, a consumer of literature, you are the village.
I will leave you with my motto, in my best Franco-Hoosier English: Eat local, read global.
Serge Gainsbourg: “Aux Armes et cætera” is a reggae adaptation of the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise.” It was released in 1979 and recorded in Kingston, Jamaica with the I Threes back up chorus.