White translator cancels himself after criticized for translating Amanda Gorman

March 1, 2021 • 9:00 am

We’ll have a series of short takes today, as I’m unable to brain. Bear with me. Several of the items may be about race (I haven’t yet decided what to post), but of course that topic is now foremost in America’s consciousness.

The headline from the Times of London below is deeply misleading, implying that a white translator doesn’t want to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Gorman, of course became famous after reciting her poem “The Hill We Climb” at Biden and Harris’s inaugural. Truth be told, I found her poem superficial and trite (as I’ve said, this kind of verse doesn’t strike me as real poetry), but she’s only 22 or 23.

Regardless, the headline is just wrong. What the title really means is that a well known Dutch writer had already been commissioned to translate Gorman’s Inaugural poem, and had done so, but then they (note below) withdrew from the project after criticism that a white translator shouldn’t deal with the poems of a black woman.

The translator is Dutch author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who won the International Booker Prize at 29 for their novel (Rijneveld uses plural pronouns) The Discomfort of Evening. Because the Times is paywalled, I’ve put the details below, but if you have access you can see the article in this screenshot.

An excerpt

“We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation,” the 22-year-old American poet Amanda Gorman proclaimed in her celebrated performance at President Biden’s inauguration last month.

Yet this appears to be precisely what has happened to the author chosen to render Gorman’s poem into Dutch. Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, 29, the youngest person to have won the international Booker prize, has pulled out of the project after critics suggested that it was inappropriate for a white person to translate an African-American poet’s works. Rijneveld’s translation of The Hill We Climb was due to be published on March 20 by Meulenhoff, a publisher in the Netherlands.

Janice Deul, a Dutch cultural activist, said an opportunity had been missed by handing the contract to Rijneveld. “She . . . has no experience in this realm but is still, according to Meulenhoff, the ‘dream translator’,” Deul wrote in the newspaper Volkskrant.

Yesterday Rijneveld renounced the deal, saying: “I understand people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s choice to ask me.” The publisher said it “hoped to learn from the experience”.

De Telegraaf, a conservative newspaper, said that Rijneveld had “kowtowed to woke activists”.

Well, first note the publisher’s contrition, as if it had done something wrong. Or maybe it just learned to commission only translators of the same gender and ethnicity of the author they’re translating, and if you don’t do that you’ll get into trouble.

But you don’t have to be a critic of Wokeism to question what kind of mentality finds a white person unfit to translate the poems of a black person, or vice versa. Is Gorman’s poem (see link above), somehow so deeply infused with the black experience that only a black translator could do it justice? I don’t think so; read the text and see for yourself. (My German is good enough to translate it into that language, but I wouldn’t risk it.) Moreover, the prose is simple and would seem to be well within the ability of any writer fluent in both Dutch and English and who writes very well (nearly all Dutch people are fluent in English!).

Tell me if my view is off base, because of course Gorman’s poem deals with racism. But I think Deul’s objection is wrongheaded, representing a view that members of a given race are simply the only people who can translate works written by members of that race. This implies, of course, that there is a homogeneity of experience and thought, including artistic thought, within races that makes such a move necessary. Would a black translator, according to these lights, be unfit to translate the poems of Sylvia Plath? Yet reading Ibram Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist (I’m almost done), I see that this view is diametrically opposed to Kendi’s own claim that there is no such thing as “black culture.” (It’s actually hard for me to guess what Kendi would say about this translation, as he sometimes takes contradictory stands in his book.)

At any rate, this event really nothing new, as we know from the use of “sensitivity readers” for young adult literature. Still, I find it sad to think that people of one background can’t empathize with those of another sufficiently to translate a poem. But that seems to be the way the world is going.

67 thoughts on “White translator cancels himself after criticized for translating Amanda Gorman

  1. “nearly all Dutch people are fluent in English!” that is because English basically is a Dutch dialect 🙂

    1. Not really. If that were sufficient, then nearly all English people would be fluent in Dutch.

      Of course, the languages are closely related, and that makes it easier for the Dutch to learn English than, say, for them to learn Swahili or for Chinese people to learn English. The main reason that the Dutch (and Scandinavians, and Finns) are fluent in English is because they are exposed to it in movies and on television (things are subtitled, not dubbed).

      1. The Dpt of State (who know a thing or two about teaching Americans languages) have a 4 stage hierarchy of “difficulty” of languages for English speakers.

        Dutch is at number 1 – easiest – along with French and Italian and Spanish etc, ranging through the continents up to Japanese as the hardest at number “4+” (I’m happy to say as a Japanese speaker). 🙂

        So yes, Dutch is not a far stretch for English speakers but it doesn’t reduce how impressed *I* am at least at our European friends’ command of English and the embarrassment at our own monoglot status.

        NYC (formerly of Tokyo)

        1. If you want Funny I recommend ‘Lyrical Laria, in Dutch and Double Dutch” by John ‘o Mill (a notorious atheist, btw, he died in 2005). Four samples from memory:

          Three greedy guys in Brocklehurst
          ate so much boar a coal with worst
          that one got sick,
          another got the hick,
          and the other gulzy freightsack burst.

          A silly young fellow from Singapore
          married a maiden and her moer,
          it was a mistake,
          as later on blake,
          so he passed them on to the skillaboor.

          A love-crazy lady in Brixum
          was such a fanatic young bliksem,
          that men coming near
          all sidder with fear,
          for she grabs and she bites and she licksum.

          or, for the class struggle, so badly betruelost (neglected) by the woke:

          Why do us chaps in overalls
          never get no bitterballs?
          ’cause wetholders in city halls
          eat up all the bitterballs
          and generals when the bugle calls
          and actors when the curtain falls.
          scarlet tarts in box and stalls,
          old tovercalls with parasols.
          Why not us chaps in overalls?

    2. No – I realize you jest, but the various Frisian languages & English nest together, Dutch & Flemish are the next closest along with Platt Deutsch.

      Fom again?! Arrgh!

      Dom 😩

  2. To avoid being hypocrites, the woke should call on all people of colour to stop playing music by white composers. That is obviously cultural appropriation, and there is no way that they can understand the lived experience of a white composer.

    And homosexual people have to stop interpreting art by heterosexual people, and vice versa.

    1. I am highly amused at the thought of Christians not being allowed to sing White Christmas, Holly Jolly Christmas, and Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer (to name a few). 🙂

      1. Irving Berlin’s “Easter Parade” has always struck me as the most ironic. Evens the score for Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin trial, I spoze. 🙂

      1. From now on, only Jews can translate the Old Testament, and only Greeks can translate Homer. The New Testament was written in Greek by Jews; I don’t know what we’ll do about that one.

  3. Agree with you that the race requirement makes little sense.

    However it does seem weird that they’d pick an award-winning author with no translating experience to do translation. Is this normal? Wouldn’t the publisher be better off picking an award-winning translator? I’ll admit, though, that I’m ignorant about the book-and-poem-translation industry. Maybe there’s no such thing as an award-winning translator, and getting good authors is how it’s done.

    1. If it were a novel, I’d agree with you. In this case, the text is very short, and as Jerry notes above almost any Dutch person could translate its sense, so the publisher’s marketing angle was to have a famous author.

  4. I recently read Darwin’s Sacred Cause and was extremely impressed by the case that Adrian Desmond and James Moore made for Darwin’s long delay in publishing his books. It is not an easy book to read: chock full of quotations and notes, but these make, I think, an unassailable case for Darwin’s conviction that we are all one species. (The delay was because he needed an explanation, sexual selection, of why adjacent groups such as the San and the Xhosa looked so physically different.)
    He would surely have been appalled at the woke adoption of the same view as the slave traders whom he so vehemently opposed.

  5. The attack on the translator Rijneveld was first published in Volkskrant, which in English (if I may translate) means “People’s Newspaper”. At first glance I misread the title of the paper as Volksrant, leaving out the second “k”, which actually seems more appropriate!


  6. Truth be told, I found her [Amanda Gorman’s] poem superficial and trite …

    I dunno, I kinda liked it — but then, I’m a fan of internal and slant rhymes, both of which her poem made use of. (FWIW, linguist John McWhorter said he “savor[ed]” it, too.)

    Anyway, I liked Gorman’s poem at Biden’s inauguration better than the one Maya Angelou gave at Bubba’s in ’93.

    1. I don’t like her poem but my objection extends to the genre of hortatory poetry. Some people get off on that sort of stuff. Guess I’m a spoil sport because I don’t, so some consider me unpatriotic. But I’m not that fond of oratory, either. People praised Obama’s oratorical skills to the high heavens. I wasn’t moved; I was bored. Gimme some crazy Trumpatory.

      1. As a licensed dinosaur, I guess I’m entitled to say that I didn’t find one single line in Gorman’s poem moving, resonant or particularly memorable. Compare what she declaimed at the inauguration with Laurence Dunbar’s ‘Sympathy’, from which Angelou got the title of her own memoir _I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings_ :

        I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
        When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
        When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
        And the river flows like a stream of glass;
        When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
        And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
        I know what the caged bird feels!

        I know why the caged bird beats his wing
        Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
        For he must fly back to his perch and cling
        When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
        And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
        And they pulse again with a keener sting—
        I know why he beats his wing!

        I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
        When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
        When he beats his bars and he would be free;
        It is not a carol of joy or glee,
        But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
        But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
        I know why the caged bird sings!

        No comparison. None. ‘I know why he beats his wing!’ — migod, it would break a heart of stone.

    2. I kind of liked it too. It’s not fine art, but then what are the chances of any given creation made by commission for a specific topic turning out to be exceptional art, even from the best of the best? It doesn’t happen very often.

      1. … what are the chances of any given creation made by commission for a specific topic turning out to be exceptional art …

        Sistine Chapel ceiling’s okay, I guess, if you go in for that sorta thing. 🙂

        1. I’d up that to more than okay. 🙂 I was actually thinking of LdV as I was writing that comment, as a case in which the artist did achieve something great.

          A better comparison might be looking at songs in our modern era written by accomplished artists for specific events. Off hand I can’t think of any great ones, though there must be some. I can think of several mediocre at best ones though. How many Bond songs are any good? Live & Let Die and Nobody Does It Better (my favorite) are the only ones I can think of that could possibly be called “great.”

          1. If I ever have to listen to “Candle in the Wind” again, I might stuff Elton in a limo with Dodi Fayed myself.

          2. Modern Bond songs are pretty bad, but many of those from John Barry’s era were pretty good: “Goldfinger,” “Thunderball,” the instrumentals of “From Russia With Love” and “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” “You Only Live Twice,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” and “A View to a Kill.”

          3. Darrelle already mentioned Macca’s magnificent “Live and Let Die” as one of the best Bond songs, so I didn’t feel the need to include it in my supplementary list.
            After John Barry left the series in the late 80s the quality of the scores and themes dipped.

        2. Yes. I think most of the Baroque music we know was commissioned, Handel’s ‘Watermusic’ or ‘God save the king’ immediately come to mind. Most of Bach (note his Brandenburg concertos were written to obtain a post, which -unbelievably- he did not get), Scarlatti, Charpentier, etc ,etc, were commissioned works.
          Not all of it though, I think (I might be mistaken) that Bach’s famous ‘Toccata and Fugue in D minor’ or Rameau’s “Rappel des Oiseaux’ were written just for the pleasure of the composer.
          Two of the most beautiful pieces of music I know.

          And more contemporary: Wiliams’ track for Schindler’s List? Commissioned!

          1. Yes, it really looks like Janice Deul would have wanted to do that translation job herself. As a ‘black’ journalist she felt she was entitled to it, it seems. Plain jealousy appears to be the main motive here. Not really uplifting, IMMO.

          2. Sure, but these are all the greats that have survived the filtering process of centuries. And many of them while commissioned were less restricted topically.

  7. The writer/translator, in their tweet about this, explained that Amanda Gorman’s team had approved of their selection as translator. Gorman’s team was looking for a person who has a connection with Gorman, and apparently it was found that Rijneveld met the criteria, as their work is about inclusivity and gender equality. Gorman’s team, Rijneveld says, still supports the choice … The Dutch publisher even said that “sensitivity readers” with different backgrounds would proofread the translation. But people complained, mostly that in this way, good, Black translators could not get the job.

    1. The German news magazine Der Spiegel wrote that Amanda Gorman herself also immediately responded enthusiastically about the choice of Rijneveld as translator.

      I find it very disturbing that an unknown Dutch activist manages to get
      so easily drown out the original author’s approval of the translation of her poem.

    2. For ‘Sensitivity Readers’ substitute ‘Censorship Officers’ and you get a much better idea what’s going on. Polite euphemisms tend to cover up ugly things.

  8. According to the news in the Guardian, it’s even worse:

    1. the problem apparently was that the chosen translator was not a clone of Amanda. Janice Deul complained that the translator was not a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”. She even complained for the fact that the translator was non-binary, whereas Amanda is a female… (And being 29 years-old did not qualify as young enough: Amanda is 22.)
    The fact that the translator was Amanda’s own choice seems to be irrelevant. (Could this lead to Amanda being cancelled as well?…)

    2. The mea culpa of the original translator is rather painful to read (the ‘original sin’ is there):
    “I understand the people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s [Dutch publishing house] choice to ask me”
    “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 realise 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 wonder if the people who create these rackets would even go to the trouble of reading the translation.

    I guess mentioning the ultimate goal of poetry as a universal language will be deemed a “white-something” statement these days.

    The current paradox of anti-racism activism as a form of increasing the divide(s) and burning any bridges one may attempt to build (and I’m sure that Amanda Gorman didn’t chose the translator in order to build bridges – she very likely didn’t even think for a second on the skin colour when making her choice).

  9. This has been doing the rounds in the Dutch news for a while, so I can give some extra context. First of all, the Dutch publisher asked Gorman herself if she approved of their choice of translator, and she did. I’m not sure if this is mentioned in the article but it seems to be a very important point. It’s Gorman’s poem, why does anyone else feel they have the right to weigh in on her decision on who should translate it?

    Secondly, the funny (or perhaps tragic) thing is that the publisher (Meulenhoff) originally asked this person to translate because they wanted to score woke points with the twitter crowd. They mistakenly thought that there is actually something to this intersectionality malarky, so they explicitly tried to find someone belonging to some kind of minority. Being non-binary, in this case. They even declared that black ‘sensitivity readers’ would go over the translation before publication.

    But as everyone who dives into this stuff always finds out soon enough, it’s just good old fashioned racism. Skin color is the only thing that matters. You can never win with these lunatics. The Telegraaf may be a sensationalist newspaper at times but they got this one spot on.

    1. Not sure it’s just racism. I think your “you can never win” comment hits closer to the mark. No matter who they had selected, the woke crowd would’ve found something to complain about. As long as woke society gives social cred to armchair quarterbacks, every play – no matter how good – will be critiqued.

  10. Agree her performance was celebrated as it says in the article. Don’t really agree that the poem should be celebrated as I thought it was truly awful. “Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest,..” What kind of wording is that?

  11. … critics suggested that it was inappropriate for a white person to translate an African-American poet’s works.

    Screw that noise. As the great Louis Armstrong said, after being the first American popular musician permitted to tour behind the Iron Curtain, when reporters met him at the airport to ask him what he made of audiences there: “Cats is cats, man, anywhere you go.”

  12. Presumably Google Translate’s AI can match any identity characteristics that you want to project onto he/she/it/they/them.

    Als de dag komt, vragen we ons af:
    waar kunnen we licht vinden in deze oneindige schaduw?
    Het verlies dat we dragen,
    een zee die we moeten doorwaden
    We hebben de buik van het beest getrotseerd
    We hebben geleerd dat stilte niet altijd vrede is

    Problem solved?

  13. Following on from this bastardizing of humanity wokeness, none except black can read this poem.
    Or, it must be read to me by…. Oh fuck it, I’m just to biracial and likely to discombobulate any meaning from it anyway.

    1. Yes. Deul’s objection implies that literature is inaccessible to those from different backgrounds, that Seamas Heaney can’t translate Beowulf until he’s lived the life of an Anglo-Saxon warrior and grappled with the occasional monster.

      1. So it is possible to make a case that a white person can’t translate a text written by a black person about the experience of being discriminated as a black person.

    1. Ha, I love it!

      (since maybe not many here will get it: the female in the cartoon says she was chosen because she is black and young and female and a spoken word artist. Sigmund asks how she will do it. Put it through Google Translate. As demonstrated a few comments above!).

  14. Once again, it’s the targets’ immediate and abject capitulation that is most depressing. As for Janice Deul, sounds like she was pissed off she hadn’t been offered the gig herself. Her main thing seems to be “fashion activism”. A recent tweet: “Loved lecturing on #Culturalappropriation for the Out of Fashion ‘Sustainable Fashion’ course by Milano research agency #ConnectingCultures. Let’s discuss more often and let’s make this a mandatory subject of fashion and art school curriculum.”

    So she’s keen not only on preventing some things, but making others mandatory. All the usual stuff.

  15. My wife happened to play the song “Colors of the Wind”, sung by the protagonist in Pocahontas, to one of my daughters earlier this evening, and now I’m in trouble for pointing out, ironically, that it was written by two Jewish men and performed by a Jewish woman…! My attempts to place the blame at the feet of the Woke have fallen on deaf ears, but then as a white, middle-aged bloke what should I expect? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colors_of_the_Wind

    True story, in case you’re wondering…!

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