Millions of Americans heard 23-year-old Amanda Gorman recite her moving poem "The Hill We Climb" at President Biden's inauguration on Jan. 20.
By one count, the poem has now been translated into 17 languages, all of the translators approved by Gorman herself. But now, one translator dropped out and another was let go after mounting criticism.
Gorman approved both white Dutch nonbinary writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld and Catalan translator Victor Obiols to translate the poem. Neither translator was accused of doing a poor job, but recent controversy over who should translate the poem began when a Black Dutch style writer argued a translator who isn’t a Black female spoken word artist like Gorman shouldn’t translate her work.
Linguist and Columbia University professor John McWhorter disagrees. He says Gorman’s racial identity shouldn’t be a determining factor in who translates her poem.
“There's a sense that when it comes to Black people's relationship with white people, then all bets are off,” he says. “And suddenly we can't imagine that person's artistic statement being rendered in another language appropriately by someone who isn't of her color and hasn't had those particular kinds of experiences as if they utterly define everything that she is.”
Translating a poem and other types of literature is an art form that differs from transcription. Artistic translations rely strongly upon interpretation and portraying the right concepts.
In an editorial for El País, Spanish translator Nuria Barrios gave a striking defense of translators, saying the ultimate goal is for them to embrace all voices.
“In order to be everyone, they must dissolve and be reborn; to come out of themselves in order to enter into others,” she wrote.
Obiols shared similar sentiments to Barrios. He told the Agence France-Presse, a Paris-based international news outlet, that, “If I cannot translate a poem because she is a woman, young, Black and American in the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer, because I am not Greek in the eighth century. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”
The soul of a Black person isn’t the racism they experience at the hands of white people, but rather the essence of who they are, McWhorter says. While experiencing racism is a small part of it, it’s not a complete picture.
“The idea that it all hinges on this particular issue of how it feels to not be white is an extremely artificial perspective on what it is to be a human being, including a Black human being,” he says.
He adds that Black translators should be given more work, but not just because they are Black. And they shouldn’t be chosen over someone who is more experienced for the project.
He thinks one solution would be allowing multiple translators to interpret the poem. Readers can then experience their visions of the poem, he says, and also assess whether race and shared experience creates better or truer interpretations
“The idea that you turn down somebody in late middle age who's translated all sorts of things, including ones having to do with race and racism because they're not somebody who themselves is Black and hasn't suffered racism in the sense that the poet has, that's just too simplistic,” he says.
This segment aired on March 26, 2021.