Translators in the UK Call for Racial Equality in Literary Translation

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The UK’s Translators Association issues a statement on debates about who should translate whom–and ‘institutional barriers.’

Londoners at Kings Cross’ Granary Square on April 2, amid pandemic restrictions’ easings in the United Kingdom. Image – iStockphoto: VV Shots

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘To Level the Playing Field’
In what has developed as a healthy debate, the Translators Association and the Society of Authors in the United Kingdom have stepped forward to take an eloquent stand on issues of race and access to work and opportunity in their profession.

There are several prompts to this newly enunciated stance, and we’ll talk through them to help explicate the issues.

Briefly, the translators are writing to two points deeply important to workers across all the creative industries, fully inclusive of both international book publishing and literary translation.

  • First, they argue that anyone can translate anyone. That is to say, the rejection of one or another translator based on a factor such as race is, they say, unacceptable. (If you’ve ever stopped to admire how deftly a male translator like David Hackston can handle the most sensitive work of a female author like Finland’s Katja Kettu in The Midwife (Amazon Crossing, 2016), you know what they’re talking about). The translators write, “We believe an individual’s identity should never be a limiting factor.”
  • Second, the translators are addressing “structural racism and access to publishing” on a wider scale. As they phrase it, this involves “the urgent need for more openness and opportunities in publishing, more visibility of translators of color and more proactive intervention to help dismantle the institutional barriers faced by early-career translators.”

If anything, the arrival of this inflection point represents a kind of backfire on an attempt to impose limitations on literary work. And for those of us who know translators and work with them or cover their work, the moment is exhilarating because this discussion puts them at centerstage, for once, not cordially shooed to the sidelines.

They’re aware that the shadows aren’t quite so deep, for once: “Literary translation has had a rare moment in the spotlight” they write in their statement.

The Gorman Translation Debate

You may recall that in the January 20 inauguration in Washington of Joe Biden as the United States’ new president, the activist poet Amanda Gorman delivered her inaugural poem, The Hill We Climb (just published on March 30 by Penguin Random House/Viking, 2021).

Amanda Gorman at the Biden inauguration. Image: Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vasquez II, US Dept. of Defense. CC BY 2.0

New to many at the time, Los Angeles’ Gorman already had been named in 2017 the States’ first National Youth Poet Laureate, a title based at the Library of Congress. (Meera Dasgupta of New York City is the most recently named laureate, and the youngest, the fourth to be designated since the program’s inception.) Gorman now is 23, having had a birthday since the inauguration, in March.

When the Dutch publisher Meulenhoff in Amsterdam was preparing to have its Dutch edition of The Hill We Climb translated, it recommended to Gorman that the translation be made by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. As Publishing Perspectives readers know, Rijneveld is the gifted author of De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening). Its English translation by Michele Hutchison won the 2020 International Booker Prize. The Discomfort of Evening is published in the United Kingdom by Faber & Faber, and in the United States by Graywolf.

Rijneveld, at 29, is the youngest author to have won the International Booker, and her book is the first debut effort to find top favor with the jury.

An objection to Rijneveld’s selection to translate Gorman, however, came from journalist Janice Deul in a piece at deVolkskrant. Deul, as Anna Holligan wrote from The Hague for BBC News last month, argued that a white translator for Gorman’s work was wrong.

In her column of February 25, Deul wrote, “Isn’t it—to say the least—a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? … white, non-binary, has no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff still the ‘dream translator’?” (Rijneveld identifies as non-binary and prefers the pronouns they and them.)

“Nothing to the detriment of Rijneveld’s qualities,” Deul wrote, emphases hers, “but why not opt ​​for a translator who—just like Gorman—is a spoken word artist, young, woman, and: unapologetically Black ? We … are blind to the spoken word talent in [our] own country.”

Rijneveld would end up withdrawing from the Gorman translation assignment. They wrote a poem, themselves, in response to the situation. It’s called “Everything Inhabitable,” and you can read it, in its English translation by Hutchison at The Guardian. At one point, Rijneveld writes, in part:

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

“the point is to be able to put yourself

“in another’s shoes, to see the sea of sorrow behind another
“person’s eyes, the rampant wrath of all wraths, you
“want to say that maybe you don’t understand everything,
“that of course you don’t always hit the right chord, but that
“you do feel it, yes, you feel it, even if the difference is a gap.”

Rijneveld’s step-aside from the translation work on Gorman was followed by news that the Catalan translator Victor Obiols, as he described it, was informed that his finished translation would not be used because, being a white man, he “was not suitable to translate it,” as reported by Sindya Bhanoo at the Washington Post on March 25.

The UK Report on Race and Ethnic Disparities

The release late last month of the Boris Johnson government’s report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities has added new heat to the discussion.

In the translators’ statement, they write, “In the week [in which] the UK government has published a high-profile report playing down the impact of structural factors on ethnic disparities, which many will take as a signal to do nothing, to maintain the status quo, it is more important than ever that we find ways to change the environment in which we work.”

This 258-page report, published on March 31, was keyed on the 2020 summertime Black Lives Matter protests, which fielded an enormous presence in the United Kingdom as well as in the United States and elsewhere. Even as the world daily watches the trial of a white police officer charged with killing the Black George Floyd of Minneapolis, the UK commission’s views have been roundly attacked in many quarters.

As NBC News’ Adela Suliman wrote, the commission “found that although more needs to be done, Britain should be seen as a ‘model for other white-majority countries.’ That conclusion has provoked fury from critics who have branded the report ‘divisive’ and a ‘missed opportunity’ for the United Kingdom, which saw tens of thousands protest across the country last year condemning racism and championing the Black Lives Matter movement.”

Chris Hughes at Bloomberg writes in an opinion piece today (April 6), “Cue Boris Johnson’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. Led by educational consultant Tony Sewell, this has generated a storm by concluding that the concept of ‘institutional racism’ is overused and distracts from other factors that contribute to racial inequality.”

BBC News’ tight summary of five points from the report cites:

  • “Children from ethnic-minority communities did as well or better than white pupils in compulsory education, with black Caribbean pupils the only group to perform less well
  • “This success in education has ‘transformed British society over the last 50 years into one offering far greater opportunities for all
  • “The pay gap between all ethnic minorities and the white majority population had shrunk to 2.3 percent overall and was barely significant for employees under 30
  • “Diversity has increased in professions such as law and medicine
  • “But some communities continue to be ‘haunted’ by historic racism, which is creating ‘deep mistrust’ and could be a barrier to success”
‘Transparency, Accountability and Inclusivity’

The statement the Translators Association has published is led by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, William Gregory, Sawad Hussain, Rosalind Harvey, Rebecca DeWald, Vineet Lal, Marta Dziurosz, Natasha Lehrer, Kari Dickson and Christina MacSweeney.

“Literary translation has long been dominated by word-of-mouth recommendations, with opportunities afforded too often to those with connections as well as financial and educational privilege.”Translators Association

“This debate reminds us of the importance of extending opportunities to a much broader intake of emerging translators, including translators of color and translators from communities, backgrounds, or identities who have been and continue to be marginalized and under-represented in the publishing landscape,” reads the statement from the association and the Society of Authors, the writers’ union that houses the organization.

“At the Society of Authors, we are committed to improving inclusivity in publishing and in literary translation, while recognizing that much remains to be done to level the playing field. We are listening and learning, and exploring ways we can achieve more through our SoA-wide inclusivity network, and in partnership with other organizations.”

The piece includes further readings in the discussion that has developed around the Gorman translation question, and it lists some initiatives the translators feel are representative of moves being made in the right direction.

“It is time to improve transparency, accountability, and inclusivity in publishing processes,” the translators assert. “This means hiring diverse editorial staff, and freelance translators and editors, but it also means much earlier interventions in the training of translators, as well as outreach in schools to dismantle implicit barriers to language learning and literature.”

And these singularly essential workers in literature—whose intelligence lies in an ability to stand between worlds and voices and texts—may well be among the publishing industry’s most adept observers of bias and balance, of discrimination and diversity, of excuses and expectations.

They take it right to that fundamental service they provide of being the torch-bearers for the work they know should be translated and the beneficiaries of its success: “Literary translation has long been dominated by word-of-mouth recommendations, with opportunities afforded too often to those with connections as well as financial and educational privilege.”

As quiet a sector of world publishing as translators may seem usually to inhabit, this is a fine moment for them to have spoken up. And an important time to listen to them.


More from Publishing Perspectives on translation is here,  more from us on diversity and inclusion is here, and more on the UK market is here

More from us on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on publishing is here

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.

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