Like many people, I was enthralled by Amanda Gorman’s poem read at Biden’s inauguration, and said so at the time. While it didn’t occur to me, why wouldn’t such a wonderful poem be translated into other languages so that people around the world could enjoy and appreciate it? Then again, it didn’t occur to me that this, too, would be turned into a controversy, another racial sinkhole.
A few years back, a white person refusing to translate a poem by a black person would almost certainly have reflected racist dismissal of the black person. But that was then. This is now.
A writer who was chosen to translate American poet Amanda Gorman’s work into Dutch has handed back the assignment following criticism that a white author was selected to translate the words of a Black woman who is the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.
The writer was no slouch, having just won the Booker Prize. But the writer was white.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who last year became the youngest writer to win the International Booker Prize with her novel “The Discomfort of Evening,” announced the decision in a Twitter post Friday.
A Dutch translation of “The Hill We Climb,” the poem Gorman recited to wide acclaim at the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden, was scheduled to be released at the end of March by publisher Meulenhoff.
“I am shocked by the uproar around my involvement in the dissemination of Amanda Gorman’s message, and I understand people who feel hurt by the choice of Meulenhoff to ask me,” said Rijneveld, who writes poetry as well as novels.
Rijneveld didn’t do anything wrong, other than agree to translate a beautiful poem into another language. But then, how dare a white person accept such an assignment, take on a job that should obviously only be done by a black person if the rules of anti-racism are to be applied?
The publisher said earlier this week that Rijneveld was the translator it had dreamed of and said that “Amanda Gorman herself was also immediately enthusiastic about the choice for the young poet.”
One of the critics of the choice of Rijneveld was Janice Deul, an activist and journalist who wrote an opinion piece in the Netherlands’ national daily newspaper de Volkskrant about the topic.
“Not to take anything away from Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not chose a writer who is — just like Gorman — spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black.”
Not just black, but unapologetically black. The short answer might be that if the races were changed, would a young, female and unapologetically black person be committing an offense by translating a poem by a white person? Well, of course not, as that’s not the way the power dynamic rationalizations works. But what if it was a poem by a Muslim? And what if the unapologetically black person wasn’t young, or, god forbid, female (which I’m reliably informed isn’t a word anyone is allowed to use anymore)?
Ironically, Gorman was in favor of the choice of Rijneveld as translator, not that her thoughts meant anything to the grievance mongers. Rijneveld did the only reasonable thing possible; she refused the assignment. Who wants to be in the center of this nonsensical controversy? Who needs this crap?
But the even grander irony is that Gorman’s beautiful poem has been twisted into a source of ugliness and anger by those who seek out offense and need to find a way, any way, to turn art into misery. If you try hard enough, feel passionately enough, you can find a reason to be offended by everything, no matter now irrational it may be. Gorman deserved better. So did Rijneveld. Yet here we are with another racial controversy to make our world just a little worse.