McWhorter on Amanda Gorman’s translators

March 21, 2021 • 12:30 pm

In recent years there’s been lots of discussion about whether an author is “entitled” to write about genders or ethnicities to which they don’t belong, and it’s getting harder and harder to do that all the time. However, literature hasn’t yet discarded the idea that someone can enter into the imagination of a very different person and present their thoughts in a stimulating and imaginative way. If that weren’t the case, I as a reader wouldn’t be able to resonate with ethnic characters written by same-ethnicity authors, like Bigger Thomas in Native Son, nor would a black reader be able to resonate with James Joyce. To think otherwise presumes that people of a different group from you, say blacks, Hispanics, or women, are so homogeneous that only a writer from the same group can create such characters, or only a reader from the same group can understand them. In other words, it presumes a homogeneity of thought and imagination that people in any group deny—as they well should.

On the other hand, there are some experiences based on group membership that would be difficult to present unless you’d experienced them. Difficult, but not impossible.

And on this presumption is based a lot of cancelation. Now, however, it’s the translators as well as authors who are getting it in the neck. I’ve written previously (here and here) about how black poet Amanda Gorman was having her Inaugural poem translated into Dutch and Catalan, but the Dutch translator quit in the face of opprobrium while the Catalan translator was deemed unsuitable because he was neither young, black, or female.  In both cases case, a white translator, even if bisexual, was deemed genetically unsuitable to do the translation.

To nix translators on the same basis that you try to cancel authors is even dicier, as translation—and this is true of Gorman’s poem—requires more a sensitivity to language and rhythm than the need to have shared the poet’s experiences. Read Gorman’s poem and judge for yourself.

John McWhorter has a similar but far more thorough take on the kerfuffle than do I; as usual, he squeezes much more out of these situations than I can. And, as usual, I agree with him.  His analysis is free on Substack (but consider subscribing), and you can access it by clicking below:

As he so often does, McWhorter shows that the “Elect” (the name he’s given to the quasi-religious Pecksniffs who monitor this kind of stuff) are actually infantilizing Blacks, and he also shows how this behavior aligns with Critical Race Theory.

I’ll give just a few quotes. First he notes that Shakespeare has been translated into a gazillion languages, as has the Japanese novel The Tale of Genji, and even Alice Walker’s The Color Purple has been rendered into 25 different languages—all without any kvetching.

But now with the kerfuffle about translating Gorman, McWhorter senses a change in attitude: American black writers are now especially untranslatable by whites:

The idea is that American blackness is a special case here. The legacy of white racism, and manifestations of white supremacy still present, mean that the rules are different when it comes to who should translate a black person’s artistic statements. Our oppression at the hands of whites is something so unique, something so all-pervasive, something so all-defining of our souls and experience, that no white person could possibly render it in another language.

This is a fair evocation of what our modern paradigm on blackness teaches us. Power differentials, and especially ones based on race, are all and everything, justifying draconian alterations of basic procedure and, if necessary, even common sense.

However, note how much this portrait diminishes, say, Gorman. To her credit, she was not the one who suggested the Dutch translator be canned. After all, are we really to say that this intelligent young human being’s entirety is the degree to which she may experience white “supremacy”?

Watch out for the “Nobody said that” game. No, no one states that experience of white supremacy is all she is, but if we insist that her poetry can only be translated by someone who has experienced it, this means that the experience of white supremacy is paramount in our estimation of her. Example: we presumably don’t care if a white translator might be better at evoking other aspects of her such as her youth, her sense of scansion – what matters most is her oppression.

McWhorter goes on to discuss why blackness should “trump all questions as to artistic rank”, and finds it a rejection of “the intelligence inherent to art and its evaluation”.

And here’s an issue I raised earlier when I suggested doing blind translations of Gorman by a variety of translators and have a woke person conversant in the translated languages judge the renderings. You know that they’re not going to always pick out the black translator, much less the young black translator, much less the young, black, female translator!:

And finally, exactly what might a white translator get wrong? Where are the demonstrations of where a white translator of a black poet or novelist’s work slipped? And as to those who might dredge some up in response to my asking, what’s important is that in this controversy no one is bringing them up (at least to prominent view) and no commentators have seemed especially likely to have any examples on the tips of their tongues or iPhones. We are dealing in a hypothetical.

McWhorter winds up showing, as you’ve probably guessed, that this behavior of “The Elect” aligns with critical race theory:

This is how we are to process blackness according to the tenets of Critical Race Theory. A fashionable current among its adherents is to claim that their critics are merely misinformed churls seeking Twitter hits. But if CRT adherents cheer this decision about Gorman’s translators, they are showing that misinformation is not the only reason so many are devoting themselves to reining in CRT’s excesses. The grounds for firing these translators – and we can be sure, others over the next few weeks – are thoroughly contestable by thoroughly unchurlish people including ones who care naught about Twitter.

The grounds for these dismissals are a posture, handy for those with a need to show that they understand what white supremacy is, while turning a blind eye to their reduction of Gorman to a thin, pitiable abstraction. Onward indeed.

I still think that you can address this problem scientifically, using a variety of translators of different races, ages, ethnicities, and so on, and then have a Wokey person judge the translations for their conformity to what they see as Oppression Poetry.  Would a failure to pick out the “right” translators shut them up? I don’t think so, for Wokeness is immune to reason.

35 thoughts on “McWhorter on Amanda Gorman’s translators

  1. When creatively identifying with each other across demographic lines becomes the #1 sin in the arts, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement fought for. It is particularly disheartening that those who ludicrously call themselves “progressives” are leading the rollback.

  2. I agree. If you write sensitively about an ethnicity, gender or race, it shouldn’t matter what what ethnicity, gender or race you belong to. What should matter is the quality of the writing.

  3. Via Yelp, Los Cachorros Taqueria in Redding looks like a good bet. Their menu has birria but not birria tacos though I don’t see why they wouldn’t make some for you.

    1. I think this comment wandered in from the other thread – but I’m here for all of the birria content.

  4. There is a classic science-fiction story by Gerald (or H.F.) Heard called “the Collector”, which attempted to enter the mind of a giant squid. My own organization, the Cephalopod Liberation Front,
    will of course lead protests against this story, demanding that only an actual squid be authorized to publish stories on such subjects. If there are any statues or plaques commemorating Gerald Heard in
    his birthplace London, or in southern California where he ended up, we will of course demand that they be dismantled.

  5. McWhorter’s post is great. He shows that the given reasons for canceling a translator make no sense in their own terms. But he doesn’t go further: if these cancellations are not justified wrt race and gender, then what are the underlying reasons for canceling a translator (or other artist)? I can’t help thinking it’s about money and professional opportunity: the Elect are not trying to avoid harm to their members; they are trying to set aside job$ for their members. In addition to resembling a religious cult, the Elect also seem like a guild. I see this guild behavior in the diversity-and-inclusion consulting industry, and in the establishment of diversity administrators in institutions and businesses. These consultants and administrators don’t seem to accomplish much to improve the lives of other Black, indigenous, or LGBTQ people, but the positions provide good jobs and income for a few well-educated middle-class representatives of those groups (plus camp followers like Robin DiAngelo). Maybe that’s the best we can expect from such efforts. And maybe that view is too cynical.

    1. Indeed, Mike. DEI training burgeoned into a fully fledged industry last year, and it seems to be here to stay for the foreseeable future. Note this from “American companies spend around $8 billion annually on diversity training, but training alone is insufficient. The cost to create and implement a comprehensive DEI program can range from $25,000-$450,000. Many companies lack the resources to hire a DEI consultant and work with outside counsel to create their own programs.”

  6. That poem is all about the perspective of an American black person. What the Woke are rather overlooking is that, a black Dutch person would likely be a first- or second-generation immigrant from Somalia or similar, and thus have a vastly different history, culture and “lived experience” compared to an American black person. So the request makes no sense even in its own terms (or is this simply the woke failing to realise that the rest of the world is not necessarily like North America?).

    If the request is then for a young, black, female, US-born-and-bred poet who happens to be fluent in Dutch … then I suspect they’re rather narrowing down the field.

    1. “If the request is then for a young, black, female, US-born-and-bred poet who happens to be fluent in Dutch”

      Oh, to make a good literary translation you need to be much more than “fluent” in the target language. It’s one of those cases where, just like with, say, scientific translations (though for slightly different reasons), a translation degree and a few years’ experience – and even living for a few years in a country speaking the language – just won’t cut it.

  7. Should be noted that Gabriel Garcia Marquez felt that the English translation of “100 Years of Solitude” was better than what he wrote in Spanish. (Not the only book he translated by Garica Marquez.)

    The translator was Gregory Rabassa,who was born in Yonkers to Cuban parents. Perhaps as a great of an intersectional leap.

    The odd thing, is of course, that the language of her poem is English….which is the primary language of much of the “white” world.

  8. If only black translators can translate black writing because of their ‘shared experience’ why should we expect a white audience to understand the writing in the original or the translation?

    Should white people pay any attention to John McWhorter? Or Barack Obama? Or go to see films with black actors? Mix and match the ethnicities/characteristics as you wish.

    And once that is straightened out, who will write Science Fiction and Fantasy stories?

    1. That’s one of the contradictory horns of CRT pointed out by McWhorter. That is: white people CAN’T understand the black experience. To even pretend we could, or try, is racist. Rather white people must simply “receive” the claims about black experience (and the inferences and occlusions they contain) like communion, with a silent bow and a nod of assent.

  9. First of all, I love McWhorter’s books. I’m currently reading Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.

    No one person has the “100% correct” view because even a well-researched conclusion can be flavored (even unwittingly) by one’s own perceptions and experiences. This is why every one of us can read our nation’s Constitution and read something slightly different into it.

    So if we begin cancelling writers because they aren’t of the race that they are writing about, then we shouldn’t write about anything other than our own experiences. How can we write about the Spanish Inquisition if we didn’t live in that time and place or if we’re not Catholic?

    In my opinion, we’re freaking out over dents in the boat rather than the gaping hole that’s allowing all the water in.

  10. Deciding who can write about what is censorship.

    Joyce evidently should not have crossed ethnic boundaries by including Jewish or English or Protestant characters in his writing: wouldn’t have left him much interesting material though. The different ethnicities are the whole POINT of what he was writing about.
    Joyce was translated into Italian by Italo Svevo, an Italian Jew and an accomplished writer himself. and a close personal friend of Joyce. Obviously according to CRT, Joyce should have been translated only by an expatriot Irishman, fluent in Italian and Dublin slang but having been born to an Irish Catholic family but having transitioned to atheism in late adolescence.

    Having worked as a translator for years I would make the following comments:
    you can usually only translate competently into your own native language (unless you are truly bilingual).
    if the source is in slang or “ethnic”, the translator has to decide what the target ethnic slang should be.
    poetry is virtually impossible to translate convincingly. Even if you manage to do a reasonably good job, the translation doesn’t resemble the original in an aesthetic sense, it has an identity and sound of its own.

    1. I do not find any evidence that Svevo had ever translated Joyce into Italian. There are plenty of web sites in Italian about their friendship but apparently no words about a translation by Svevo. Bye the way, Italian was not Svevo’s first language. He mentions in a novel the difficulties of writing in a language that is not the same as that one speaks everyday.

      1. Quite right yourself! Svevo didn’t translate Joyce apparently. A fondly held misconception of mine now demolished. An Italian friend of mine who teaches in Trieste mentioned maybe 35 years ago (and probably believed himself) that he did (or when my Italian was not so good that I may have misunderstood). I never tried reading Joyce in Italian so never saw a translation either.

        My mother was born and grew up in the suburb of Dublin where much of Ulysses took place, so I know the area pretty well: Sandymount/Irishtown across the bay to Joyce’s Tower in Dalkey.

        Italy still has quite a lot of proper dialect forms, where Britain has mostly accents with some local slang (though there are Welsh and Gaelic in some places). I remember a group called Pitura Freska with a song in Venetian dialect about going to a Pink Floyd concert in Venice (1989) (stile ska italiano).

        1. A new Italian translation of Ulysses was published last year. It is supposed to be great. I bought it but I have not yet dared to start reading. In English it would be impossible for me; I needed a few times the dictionary to read Dubliners. Umberto Eco said that translating means saying almost the same thing: I wonder in which measure this is feasible with Ulysses.

          When I was studying in Zurich I was living 300 meters away from a house In which Joyce wrote parts of Ulysses.

          1. I heard it said that Finnegan’s Wake is easier to read in Italian, because the translator was forced to make an interpretation of sense and meaning which an English reader is required to do for himself. There are many words in the original which do not exist, or which are used in a context which is not intelligible. I gave up on Finnegan’s Wake, but Ulysses is difficult but broadly understandable.

            I spent only two hours in Zurich waiting for a plane connection, with a Greek (my girlfriend) and an Irish co-passenger who got progressively more and more stocious (drunk). We had to “convince” him to board the plane since he wanted to stay in the bar and drink. The air hostess was good enough to steer him onto the plane. Quite a Joycean episode itself on my own “oddysey” from Dublin to Athens.

            You might like the play “Travesties” 1974 by Tom Stoppard: it is set in a library in 1917 Zurich with the main characters being James Joyce, Lenin and the Dadaist poet Tristan Zara.
            The “travesties” concerned are of perception and memory, language and truth of history…….. but is also extremely funny.

            The play was, I believe, only staged once in Italy, and strangely enough a friend of mine played the part of Joyce: he told me that there is a 15 minute monolgue towards the end that is extremely difficult to memorise.

  11. Hmmmm. I suspect they are not too far from telling us that non-POC are not allowed to read or listen to anything done by POC as we would not be truly capable of understanding it from their perspective and it would be wrong to do so. It befuddles me this divide and conquer strategy and see no prospect of a happy ending.

  12. Think about what the ethic McWhorter is criticizing means for e.g. translations of the Iliad and Odyssey, or the Epic of Gilgamesh, or, for that matter, Heidegger’s Being and Time. If we insisted that no one except an Ionian Greek speaker belonging to the warrior culture of pre-Classical Greece could legitimately translate the Iliad and the Odyssey and bring any value to the effort, or that only an Akkadian scholar early in the second millenium BCE should dare to attempt to render the poem in modern English, the conclusion would have to be that the greatest literature of the seriously ancient world should not be made available to any 21st century reader in *any* modern language.

    As for Being and Time, by the reasoning McWhorter is (brilliantly) criticizing, presumably only a German philosopher with an active Nazi party membership in the pre-WWII and wartime era who had enthusiastically collaborated in the Third Reich’s purge of Jewish scholars — i.e, someone who shared much of Heidegger’s by now very well documented history in the 1930s and ’40s—should attempt the task; or, failing that, at least some *neo* Nazi philosopher. But what I heard from friends in philosophy departments was that the translation by Macquarrie and Robinson—neither of whom share a single one of these qualifications—was so good, and shed so much light on what Heidegger’s thinking was, that Germans who could read English invariably preferred to read the English translation over the frequently impenetrable original. Go figure, eh?

  13. Commenter #5 is exactly right about the “guild behavior in the diversity-and-inclusion consulting industry, and in the establishment of diversity administrators in institutions and businesses.” The boodle involved is perfectly consistent with the religious character of the guild’s doctrines, a fine mimicry of the pardoner racket popular in late medieval times. Pope Pius V cancelled the sale of pardons and indulgences in 1567, but new hustles along these lines keep turning up. Why, perhaps the connection between guilt and gelt is fundamental to the social dynamic of religion, any religion.

  14. AC Harper has it right, if it requires blackness to properly understand a black person’s writing then white people can never understand it.
    What a fool Biden was to have a black person write and perform a work to the whole nation when only @13% of them could understand it!
    White people need art by white people, obviously. Yes that might sound like jim crow and segregation, but that is what the elect are telling us.
    Hence I spurn the elect, as racists – in the old definition of the word.

  15. Congratulations, Woke People. You have taken a young poet’s debut on the national scene and turned it into a clown show. Despite her apparent talent, she now has an asterisk beside her name that will be very difficult to remove. I’m not sure how complicit she was in this ill conceived distraction, but to the extent that she was, she has sabotaged her own message by aligning it with an ideology that is widely and rightly held in contempt.

    1. If I understood correctly, Amanda Gorman herself selected Marieke Rijneveld. It was Janice Deul, a Dutch/Surinamese trans ‘woman’ (that’s what I gather), a “Fashion & culture activist / lifestyle journalist / columnist / curator / moderator”, who started the uproar.
      And it was Marieke Rijneveld herself who withdrew after Janice Deul’s ridiculous (IMMO) attack. In this fracas Amanda Gorman is as innocent as a little white dove ( 🙂 )

        1. Well, Surinam is American, more so than the US (Vespucci never visited North America), but yes: no African USian, nor a biological woman, for that matter.

          1. My mistake. I thought Surinam was in Africa. All the same, I think the point still holds. Amanda Gorman’s “lived experience” is likely to be very different to that of somebody from Surinam.

  16. I was sort of thinking of this as a case of advocacy, as when someone hires a personal injury attorney. The attorney is not tasked with ensuring a fair result. The attorney is supposed to press every advantage on behalf of the client. Or at least that is my limited understanding of the relationship between attorney and client.
    In this case, there are unlimited numbers of self-appointed advocates. They don’t need to consult with or heed their client’s wishes. They don’t need to share any proceeds with the client. They don’t have to adhere to any sort of professional code of ethics. They don’t need any particular qualifications.
    Importantly, I don’t see any mechanism in place for them to ever stop, except for the basic human tendency to resist bullies.

    I think I can comfortably assert that translating poetry or humor is a practice that requires very good language skills, which cannot easily be replaced with the correct racial heritage. “Coel” pointed out in earlier comments that a Black Dutch translator would be unlikely to have much connection with African-American culture. This is likely true for a large number of languages.

    The poem in question is written in proper English. Not really identifiable American English, from my reading, although there are strong American themes. There are no AA vernacular or Gullah expressions. Some paraphrasing of the Constitution, “Belly of the beast” and “vine and fig tree” are of Hebrew origin. I think those and other historical references are quite deliberate, and should be recognizable as such in translations. The ability to recognize and gracefully translate those references cannot be inherited.

  17. >What a fool Biden was to have a black person write and perform a work to the whole nation when only @13% of them could understand it!


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