Amanda Gorman’s Catalan translator removed for having the “wrong profile”

March 11, 2021 • 11:00 am

Today I’m just going to report on things happening in a climate of Wokeness. I hardly need comment on them because they’re similar to things that have happened before. Take today’s posts as a documentation of the balkanization of society—and not just in America.

As I reported on March 1, a Dutch translator lined up to put the poetry of Amanda Gorman—who spoke at the Inauguration—into Dutch had to drop out after critics suggested it was inappropriate for a white person to translate the poems of a young black woman.  Even Gorman approved of the translator, who, though they were white (the translator uses plural pronouns), was also “non binary”. Shouldn’t that rung on the oppression ladder count for something in this crazy world? Nope; it’s all based on skin color.

Now it’s happened again. As the Guardian reports, a poet who was to translate Gorman’s work into Catalan was deemed unsuitable because his “profile” (read: skin color and perhaps sex or age) was wrong. In this case the translator was fired rather than quitting in the face of social (justice) pressure.

Click on the screenshot to read:

An excerpt:

The Catalan translator for the poem that American writer Amanda Gorman read at US president Joe Biden’s inauguration has said he has been removed from the job because he had the wrong “profile”.

It was the second such case in Europe after Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld resigned from the job of translating Gorman’s work following criticism that a black writer was not chosen.

“They told me that I am not suitable to translate it,” Catalan translator Victor Obiols told AFP on Wednesday. “They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black.”

Look at all the criteria he had to meet: age, sex, race, and degree of activism! If you read Gorman’s Inaugural Poem, “The Hill We Climb“, which is neither linguistically, intellectually complex, nor subtle, you’ll know that what’s required here is simply a sensitivity to poetry and the ability to translate from one language to another.

Not only that, but Obiols had already translated works from English into Catalan, including Oscar Wilde and Shakespeare—writers that are surely more difficult to tackle than is Gorman.

Obois was supposed to translate “The Hill We Climb” into an apparently standalone version, with a foreword by Oprah Winfrey, when he got word that “he was not the right person”. It’s not clear who made this decision. Obois didn’t go gentle, as opposed to the Dutch translator:

“It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity,” said Obiols, a resident of Barcelona.

“But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”

Yes, an obvious point, but a good one. Likewise, Ezra Pound would have been deemed unsuitable to translate old English and Chinese poetry into modern English, but he did a fantastic job: those translations are some of his finest work. Read “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter.”

You could find innumerable cases of translators who differed in ethnicity, age, race, sex, and so on from their subjects, but who did great jobs. Constance Garnett (1861-1946), an English woman, was and is still famous for her translations of Russian literature, and it was through her translations that I became acquainted with the works of Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol (she translated 71 books of Russian literature, and some of them were big ‘uns!). Her work is sensitive and poetic. But she was neither male nor Russian, so fie with her!

There are only two possible reasons for rejecting a translator in a case like this. The first is purely ideological: you have to find a translator that aligns with the writer for reasons of social justice, perhaps as a form of reparations or literary affirmative action. The second has to do with quality: one could claim that political/racial/sexual alignment is necessary to do a good job of translation. I think that reason has been amply disproven, leaving the first reason—the Woke one—as the only plausible alternative.

If you want more evidence, I propose this experiment: find a black female activist Catalan translator (good luck with that!) to translate Gorman’s poem into English, as well as a number of other translators: young Catalan white women, non-Catalan white women, old Catalan black women, Catalan women who are not activists, Asian women who speak Catalan but aren’t activists, and so on. Then put all the translations side by side in a blind study and see if neutral Catalan-and-English speaking observers, judging by the translation alone, can pick out the one poem translated by the wholly “appropriate” translator. I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t be able to do it.  And if that failed, it shows that you can’t argue that only the properly aligned translator can do justice to the original poem.  Clearly, the first explanation: compatibility with Wokeness, is more plausible. It’s also ridiculous.

I have yet to see a full explanation from the Translation Cancelers of exactly why differences in ethnicity, age, race, and sex are necessary for an Amanda Gorman translation. They just use the word “inappropriate”.

h/t: Jez

49 thoughts on “Amanda Gorman’s Catalan translator removed for having the “wrong profile”

    1. The shocking truth is they should have had all these considerations BEFORE choosing someone. That would have been fine. They have a perfect right to choose whoever they like to translate, but it is remarkably rude to choose then drop someone in public.

  1. Conspicuous by her absence from this conversation is Amanda Gorman herself. Why didn’t the Guardian reporter or for that matter any other reporting on this issue and the Dutch issue see fit to contact Gorman to get her opinion?

    1. I am kind of hoping that she’ll speak out against this madness at some point. Particularly if she approved this translator the same way she approved the Dutch one, it’s got to peeve her at some level that her own choices are being overridden.

      1. Her or her agent are said to be asking for this. In my opinion, Gorman is just a posh model/influencer victim of wokeness that represent the many absurdities of these modern times.

  2. And I guess that because CK Scott Moncrief was in the military and British….he may not have been permitted to translate Proust into English.

    (Although I think Moncrief was gay.)

  3. My S.O. is a professional interpreter (referring to speech) and translator (referring to documents). Very much at the top of her game; she was chosen by JP II several years ago to be his interpreter when he had a conclave with the presidents of several South American countries. And she translates highly technical documents for healthcare providers, engineering and agricultural concerns, and the entire panoply of alphabet-soup state and U.S. government agencies.

    Her reaction to this sort of thing is a certain relief that we’re getting toward retirement age, and she won’t have to deal with this bullshit much longer. In the meantime, she does have an unmistakable amount of notably indigenous features in her mixture; maybe that might give her a little protection from the terminally woke.

  4. Not sure what the “roolz” say about swearing, but this is fucking stupid. As far as I can tell, all this stuff is not Amanda Gorman’s doing, but if she is a poet then her task is to translate her feelings into poetry in such a way that we can experience them for ourselves. In fact, as our host admirably points out in his series of letters with Adam Gopnik, this is broadly what art of all kinds does. It partly enables us to share the artist’s feelings, and partly activates empathy so that we experience these feelings ourselves. If she has done her job well, the reader will know and feel what she knows and feels, as will the translator. So the translator she needs is not someone like herself – young, gifted and black – but just another human being who has understood and felt her poetry, and has the artistic skills to convey those same thoughts and feelings into a different language. As both a professional translator and an amateur poet, I have to admit that Amanda Gorman’s poem strikes me as a little callow and somewhat lacking in subtlety of form or content, and would honestly not present an enormous translation challenge, but she’s young and has plenty of time to develop her voice. But if I were her I would rather have my poem translated by a fine wordsmith, regardless of her or his position on the intersectional ladder, than by someone who just happens to share the same demographic characteristics as myself.

    1. “…a little callow and somewhat lacking in subtlety of form or content, and would honestly not present an enormous translation challenge…”

      What we’re apparently not supposed to say out loud is why anyone would consider the poem of particular interest, inviting translation in the first place. Is anyone going to read it, in English or any other language, except as a curiosity in that it somehow became part of the inauguration in the first place?

      1. Who knows? As I say, I personally don’t find the poem itself of great quality (and there are plenty of great black poets out there in the world, starting with Derek Walcott), but I guess that if Amanda Gorman goes on to develop her poetry, it might constitute an interesting example of juvenilia.

        1. She’s a celebrity in Prada. A publicist. A model. None of those things are bad. Maybe that’s how it should work now.We are not discussing the quality or her work but her age, ethnicity, outfits… and a polemic with the people involved in the phenomena via translation.

  5. … the balkanization of society …

    You’re appropriating from the locus of my distant patrilineage.

    Have your people call my people to discuss reparations.

    1. I thought ripping Washington and Lincoln off buildings was bad but now I see Looney Tunes is on the chopping block. No more bugs or pepe la pew. Kids of today and the future are on the way to permanent third class.

      1. It’s annoying, but all those cartoons were on the chopping block for excessive violence in the ’80s, and they survived. I expect the only change to Bugs’ availability in the near future is going to be us oldies having to get used to donwnloading the content rather than buying DVDs (and before that, VCRs) of it.

        1. Back then, it was conservative Christian crusaders and the Tipper Gores of the world who were trying to take down such things, with their “think of the children” rhetoric. They were decidedly uncool. The difference now is the enormous support from academia, media, celebrity/pop culture, and the corporate world for the people pushing these new campaigns. In the 80’s, being against violent video games, cartoons, crass music lyrics, etc. wasn’t “cool.” But being part of Woke campaigns now isn’t just considered “cool,” it’s considered mandatory in a lot of places and spaces, and it has a hell of a lot more cultural, media, academic, and corporate support.

  6. That a Black woman who was Catalan would be the best translator could only be based on the assumption that the key fact of the black experience is skin color, not where one grew up, went to school, or lived. This is a typically American myopia; the unexamined expectation that life everywhere else is liked America. Presumably, people who are not black, but who are native English speakers, can’t really understand the poem either.

    1. Thank you. There are not really going to be any African American native Catalan speakers…or plain few, anyway…and they are unlikely to be working on translating poetry if there are any. I’m about done with all this nonsense, and everyone should respond to these events with: O F Off. There are REAL injustices happening in the world, and people waste their efforts on these idiocies.

        1. I’ve never seen a (living) person who met the description “black”.

          My point was, people in Europe with similar levels of skin pigmentation as the poet are unlikely to have had similar life experience unless, perhaps, they had come from America originally. Supposedly the idea is some kind of shared or similar life experience, which seems a strange thing to ask of someone expected to translate a work into their own local language from another one.

            1. No, that was my point, really. I know I was kind of meandering, so my point wasn’t clear. Sarcasm is hard to convey in print, at least without emojis, so I apologize. I was meaning to imply that the “requirement” for someone to have shared background or experience or whatever with the poet was a pipe dream or at best unlikely.

              My sense of humor isn’t always very great.

  7. I like the idea of the blind translation study – the publisher should use a similar process to blind auditions for orchestras. The results could be interesting!

  8. What a bunch of mentally 3 year old, squabbling, spoiled, asshole brats.

    Quite apart from the value or otherwise of that particular poem, of which I am and likely will remain unfamiliar, I cannot imagine something like the final movement simply not existing of Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde”, entitled “Der Abschied”, to me the greatest piece of its kind, because a bunch of shitheads wouldn’t want the classical Chinese poems translated into German by the wrong people.

    The finale of Beethoven’s 9th might be a more familiar analogue, though I know nothing about the lyrics there. At least we’d have the (superior!) 1st three movements of it, though not Mahler’s earlier five.

    Same topic but different point, don’t these inauguration ceremonies for UFSSRian presidents remind you of the coronation nonsense of royalty in Britain?–even with no crowd allowed. The new temporary name for the behemoth just to the south of me is ‘Union of Former Slave State Republics’, not being in my more usual cheerful mood. I recall the Beatles’ “…back in the…,back in the…, back in the FSSR…”. No purple person or monster better translate Lennon/McCartney into Antarctician dialect, or I’m likely to pee my pants now that I’ve just escaped from diapers! So there!

  9. Using Artificial Intelligence to do translations like will become more compelling. Presumably, if the Woke call for a Black, Catalan-speaking AI, one can be produced with the proper mindset and lived experience.

    1. But if an AI creates a poem, would it be culturally appropriate for a human to translate it then into another language? I suspect artificial intelligence would have no trouble with that, but we may also create artificial stupidity.

  10. A black Catalan woman (they exist) would not know what it means to be a black American woman. Therefore she could not translate either. Nobody can translate anythink, people should read only in their language and possibly only in their town’s dialect.

    1. That’s a good one. There is a philosophical argument for that in Quine’s “Word and Object”, for example.

      I would say that Gorman, though maybe closer, wouldn’t know what it “really” means to be another kind of black American woman: one that is poor, didn’t study abroad, don’t have a career etc. so she shouldn’t be taken as an exemplar of her ethnicity from the USA.

  11. “There are only two possible reasons for rejecting a translator in a case like this. The first is purely ideological […]The second has to do with quality […]”
    You leave out a third reason, pecuniary mendacity, as was the case of the Dutch translation: Janice Deul hoped to get the job herself and hence attacked Marieke Rijneveld for being white, trying to get her cancelled, and implying she should have gotten the job. Plain jealousy, in other words.

    A translation can only be judged on the quality of the translation. No other criterion should be acceptable. I think your proposed experiment is a great idea.

  12. They are trying to raise an entire generation of people believing that we simply can not understand one another if we happen to have a different skin color.

    As if that is going to end well.

  13. I guess it hasn’t occurred to the woke that if they go down this path, it means society will only be allowed to hire old white guys to translate/read/etc.90% of European literature from the past thousand years. This ‘must be ideologically and culturally like the author’ thing is a double-edged sword.

    1. Oh, they won’t bother to do that. They’ll just cancel the entire corpus of English literature.

    2. eric

      They’d just find a way to special plead around that, as they did with racism “New Rules, black people and POC can’t be racist, only white people” e.g. “New Rules, POC have had to endure so many years of European culture pushed on us, only POC will do the translations now to be commensurate with our Lived Experience.”

  14. … Obiols had already translated works from English into Catalan, including Oscar Wilde …

    There is only one thing in life worse than being translated by Obiols …

  15. “Look at all the criteria he had to meet: age, sex, race, and degree of activism”. I have no idea of the details of Spanish anti-discrimination law but I would be fairly certain that the first three of those criteria would constitute unlawful discrimination in most countries and possibly the third. Be nice to see someone sue.

  16. These “woke” kids need to grow up and learn that they can’t always get what they want. But if they can find “a woman, young, activist and preferably black”, then good for them.

  17. BROTHER this steams me! I’ve spent the better part of my life learning Japanese and Russian and have over the years translated both written and oral stuff into and out of English. To think I had no “right” to is deeply insulting. (I am not racially either).

    Soon even learning foreign languages will be “cultural appropriation”.

  18. I love the blind experiment! 🤓👍
    I think to improve female representation some orchestras now audition behind a curtain but the person being tested has to walk in barefoot as otherwise they could hear if the shoes were ones with heels…

    1. As noted here recently, the woke want to do away with the screens because the results of the blind auditions are not diverse enough.

      That clearly shows that the lack of diversity is not due to the orchestra (although there were such problems in the past, which led to the blind auditions in the first place), but occurs further down the chain.

      Some could argue that a diverse orchestra is per se better. That is not true. Some could argue that even if it is not the fault of the orchestra, making it more diverse with players who are not as good is worth it in the long run because it will provide more role models. I have my doubts as to whether role models are that important in career decisions. Even if that were a vaild argument, some will have to face the (true) criticism that they are there not because of ability but because they belong to the right group. And of course people technically better from the wrong group are shut out, no matter how enlightened they are.

      In short, the blind translation won’t work, because the woke are not interested in the quality of the translation, but rather in having it translated by someone who is woke enough.

  19. ” . . . a poet who was to translate Gorman’s work into Catalan was deemed unsuitable because his “profile” (read: skin color and perhaps sex or age) was wrong.”

    WHO are these people who so hold? Someone name names.

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