Do translators need to resemble the authors they translate?

To render an author’s voice with justice. That is the role of the translator. But does this representative task demand a certain resemblance with the author? If so, to what extent? While the issue is not a new one, it recently became subject to heated debate. Other than fueling discussions between propagators of universalism and defenders of diversity, it raised the complex question of legitimacy in translation.
Agnieszka Ziemiszewska for the UNESCO Courier

Lori Saint-Martin
Professor of literary studies, essayist, novelist, conference interpreter and literary translator.

As the conjunction of at least two languages and two cultures, translation and diversity are inseparable. Translation remains a profound experience of otherness, even when the person translated is culturally similar to us. Many translators, after having fallen in love with a book written by someone ‘racially’ and culturally very different from themselves, have looked for a publisher willing to take on that author’s text in the new language. This is one reason why many of them were upset by the 2021 controversy over the translation of a poem by Amanda Gorman. 

Let us briefly recall the facts: when the Dutch publishing house Meulenhoff announced the choice of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – a young non-binary person who had just won the International Booker Prize with their first novel – to translate The Hill We Climb, the poem read by Amanda Gorman at US President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, a journalist, Janice Deul, asked why the publisher had not rather chosen a young black woman instead. Rijneveld quickly announced they were withdrawing from the project, while many outraged literary figures demanded the right to translate, without restriction, people very different from themselves. 

These protests – which were predictable and, in a sense, understandable (albeit not very nuanced) – quickly nipped the debate in the bud. However, I personally believe that the question is highly complex. Neither the rhetoric of rights (‘I have the right to translate whoever I want’), nor the language of identity diktats (‘only a young black female poet should translate another young black female poet’) is able to provide a definitive answer.

For some people, to ask the question, ‘who can translate whom?’ is to play politics at the expense of literature. But they make it sound as if the world of translation is perfectly fair and harmonious, or rather was, until the wolf of diversity entered the fold. But this is not true – the publishing world, which includes the world of translation, is riddled with power struggles that the Amanda Gorman affair at least had the distinction of bringing out of the shadows: gender relations, ‘race’ and class relations, geopolitical relations. 

An illusion of diversity

The abundance of translations among the ‘new titles’ on display in bookshops gives us the false impression of having access to works from all over the world, when, on closer inspection, the ‘diversity’ of this world is really rather uniform – a few languages, a few countries, an international elite, some dominant individuals. Until very recently, the history of translation has been one of white privileged males translating one another or being translated by women.

Until very recently, the history of translation has been one of white privileged males translating one another

As in the past, translation today is entangled with relations of domination between North and South, between ‘races’, languages and cultures, whether hegemonic or not. Racialized women authors from across the border who reach us in translation generally belong to a globalized elite writing in the language of the former colonizer (English, Dutch, French, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, etc.), published in New York, in London, in Paris. For every Indian woman author translated from Hindi, Marathi, or Malayalam, for example, there are dozens, if not hundreds, translated from English. Even within a minority, oppressed or marginalized, complex hierarchies emerge. While a black American woman writer may experience racism at home, abroad she benefits from the global hegemony of her country. She is far more likely to be translated and disseminated internationally than a black woman who lives on the African continent and writes in, say, Wolof. To be lent cultural capital, you must already possess it. 

Although it is difficult to obtain aggregate statistics, it appears that men are translated more than women. At the height of the Latin American boom, almost no women writers were being translated, and a generation of important women authors (Cristina Peri Rossi, Luisa Valenzuela, Elena Garro, Silvina Ocampo) remained in obscurity. Between 2011 and 2019, around 26 per cent of the fiction or poetry translated in the United States was written by women. 

I can already hear the apostles of the ‘great universal literature’ (a notion manufactured and maintained by those who dominate) declaring that it is the best writing that should be distributed in the world. But who makes the editorial choices, if not those who are already dominant? What the apostles of absolute freedom for translators often forget to mention is precisely just how white the translation community is. In the United States, a study conducted by the Authors Guild in 2017 found that 83 per cent of working translators were white and 1.5 per cent were black or African-American. 

Breaking out of self-segregation

The profession therefore needs to open itself to new and more diverse translators, instead of remaining the preserve of white people. Much has been said about the importance of role models for discriminated groups – if people ‘like you’ have never written, you will find it hard to imagine yourself as a writer. Similarly, if the vast majority of translators are white and middle class, how can a person of diversity imagine getting into the field? 

That said, affinities are not always based on identity – they can be based on style, voice, or subject. Other deep points of connection can create the energy needed for translation. One of my works of fiction was translated into English by a person from Québec much younger than me, and into Spanish by an Argentinian man who was slightly older. I never thought they were disqualified by being men or different to me in other ways. 

The Franco-Congolese novelist, Alain Mabanckou, has an amusing saying about choosing a translator – “For me, it doesn’t matter what colour the cat is, so long as it catches the mouse.” Others might find the cat’s pedigree fundamental. Some people from dominated or marginalized groups prefer to be translated by someone like them, while others will be happy to accept someone ‘non-diverse’. 

In the next few years – and it is still in its infancy – we will witness the emergence of translators from minority or marginalized groups and backgrounds. But as competence is not only based on identity variables, we should avoid confining people to ‘their’ group, unless they prefer to devote themselves to it exclusively. 

Finally, let us return to the ‘case’ of Amanda Gorman. Without saying that no white person would ever have been able to translate her well, I do believe that – in this emblematic and highly mediatized case – the choice of a young female black translator would not only have been a magnificent symbolic and political gesture, but also a gesture of support for diversity. 

More generally, partly out of concern for social equity, it is important to translate less privileged and more diverse writers. To allow other voices, stifled by the barely revised colonialism of the past, masquerading as globalization, to be heard.

Translation shakes us up, it shifts the centre and disturbs the dominant ideology

We translate (and we read translations) so as not to find ourselves in an artificial, violent ‘self-segregation’ created by erasure and exclusion. Translation shakes us up, shows us that we are not the centre of the world. It shifts the centre and disturbs the dominant ideology. At its best, it is diversity itself, the world, worlds, at our fingertips.

Translation: from one world to another
April - June 2022
Subscribe Courier