Dispute in the Netherlands: can a white person translate their words?



Amanda Gorman (22) has known the world since she read her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of US President Joe Biden this January. Now a dispute has broken out as to who should and can translate it from English.

A dispute has broken out in the Netherlands over who can best translate Amanda Gorman’s poem (here at Joe Biden’s inauguration in Washington DC): a white or a black person?


Amanda Gorman roused everyone at Joe Biden’s inauguration with her poem “The Hill We Climb”. At 22, she was the youngest ever spokesperson for a US president to be sworn in.

Her work is now being translated into other languages ​​- which caused a discussion in the Netherlands that is now being taken up internationally. The background: The renowned Meulenhoff publishing house had commissioned Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to be more than just a promising talent for translation from English. Rijneveld’s novel “De avond is ongemak” (“What to sow”) won the prestigious Booker Literature Prize last year – another world premiere at the age of 29.

“Shocked at the excitement”

The American was enthusiastic about the choice for the translation, according to Meulenhoff-Verlag just a few days ago. But meanwhile Rijneveld has given back the order – a reaction to the massive criticism that the texts of the black Gorman should not be translated by a white person. She was “shocked by the excitement,” said Rijneveld, who feels as non-binary, i.e. neither male nor female.

The discussion was started by a column by the black journalist in which she called the election of Rijneveld “an incomprehensible decision”. This is because Gorman’s work and life are shaped by her experiences and her identity as a black woman. Rijneveld, on the other hand, is white and has no experience with black spoken word art. She pleaded for the translation of Gorman’s texts to be chosen by a person who was familiar with them and who was also “young, feminine and self-confidently black”.

Empathize with the content

Many people followed this line of argument on social media. When translating, it’s not just about language, but also about empathizing with content. Or, as the Afro-German translator Marion Kraft puts it in “Deutschlandfunk” in a nutshell: “In a white majority society, can a white translator actually find their way into the experience of a black author or have the linguistic sensitivities available in order not to agree Points to be hurtful to a part of the readership? ».

Opponents like the translator Carsten Sinner counter this: If you think this through to the end, “Blacks cannot translate books by whites, only communists books by communists and only misogynists misogynist authors”. Thus this line of argument leads to a dead end.

The last word in this discussion is unlikely to have been said yet. Perhaps both camps will be reconciled for the time being by the fact that Rijneveld had admitted on an earlier occasion that her English was not in great shape.

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