IIn 1768, the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder visited the French city of Nantes. “I am beginning to know the French language and ways of thinking,” he wrote to fellow philosopher Johann Georg Hamann. But, “the more I know them, the greater my sense of alienation.”
It wasn’t just because Herder despised the French. It was also that he didn’t really believe it was possible to engage with another culture. Each town was bound by its Popular spirit or inner spirit. In each language inhabits “the whole world of tradition, history, the principles of existence: all its heart and soul.” For this reason, “I only stammered with intense effort the words of a foreign language; his spirit will escape me ”. The cultural divisions were insurmountable.
I was reminded of Herder’s letter because of the controversy last week over the translation of Amanda Gorman’s poems into Dutch. Gorman is the African American poet who stole the show at Joe Biden’s opening ceremony.
The Dutch publisher Meulenhoff proposed a translation of his work. The translator chosen for the work, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, received approval from Gorman. Rijneveld became the youngest winner of the International Booker Prize for his debut novel last year. The discomfort of the night. “Rijneveld’s language renews the world,” observed the judges, making visible “the strangeness of a child looking at the strangeness of the world.”
Non-binary, Rijneveld identifies as both masculine and feminine and uses the pronouns them and them. But Rijneveld is white. And that, for many, makes one person unsuitable as a Gorman translator. “Why not choose a writer who is, like Gorman, an artist of the spoken word, young, female, and unapologetically black?” asked journalist Janice Deul. The controversy led Rijneveld to withdraw from the project.
Many argue that the problem is not Rijneveld’s whiteness, but rather the racism of Dutch society and the marginalization in Holland of black writers and translators. There is certainly racism, and it is true that black translators are often ignored. But if the issue were simply about racism and marginalization, the argument would not have been that a black poet needs a black translator, but rather that there should be more black translators, regardless of the skin color of the writer who is translating.
The Gorman controversy echoes many other clashes over the crossing racial and cultural lines, from complaints of “cultural appropriation” to disputes over “transracial” adoptions. They all involve modern versions of Herder’s argument. For Herder, a “people” was defined primarily in linguistic terms. Today, we are more concerned with questions of racial, cultural or sexual identity. But Herder’s insistence on the meaning of the Popular spirit, and on the impossibility of bridging cultural gaps, it has been translated into the language of identity politics.
For a long time there has been a debate about the ethics of translation, about how to translate not only the words, but also the spirit of the original. However, today’s identity controversies do not concern only formal translation issues, but also the types of informal translation that we engage in every day. Every conversation requires us to “translate” other people’s experiences and perspectives, to make sense of them in terms of our own experiences and perspectives. In a world divided along lines of identity, both the possibility and the morality of such translations have been questioned. Particular cultural experiences or forms are considered to “belong” to particular groups and are off-limits to others. “Stay in your lane” is the fashionable mantra.
Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel Invisible Man it is one of the great explorations of the black experience. It is also much more than that. “The black American writer,” as Ellison put it, “is also an heir to the human experience that is literature, and this might be more important to him than his living popular tradition.”
Identity, for Ellison, was a means of engaging with the word, of entering the inner life of others. One’s experiences as a black man provided the raw material through which to understand the experiences of white workers or Jewish women. And their experiences could help them empathize with yours.
Today, however, identity is seen almost in the opposite way: as a means to protect oneself from others, to withdraw from the possibilities of making more universal connections.
I cannot judge whether Rijneveld would have been a good translator of Gorman’s poetry. But being white shouldn’t influence that judgment. Ellison’s rhetorical question: “Why should I restrict myself, segregate myself?” – applies to all of us.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism