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White translator removed from Amanda Gorman poem, amid controversy in Europe

Amanda Gorman, 22, became the youngest poet to participate in a presidential inauguration on Jan. 20 at the inaugural ceremony for Joe Biden. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to a poet and a translation as Danish rather than Dutch. The article has been corrected.

A Catalan translator has been removed from a job translating the poem by National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman that she presented at President Biden’s inauguration because, as a White man, he did not fit the “profile,” AFP reported.

The move by Barcelona publisher Univers marks the second instance of controversy in Europe around the choice of a White person being chosen to translate “The Hill We Climb” by Gorman, who is Black, and at 23 became the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history.

Translator Victor Obiols told AFP on Wednesday that Univers had commissioned him last month to translate Gorman’s work into Catalan, a language spoken in Spain and Andorra. After he completed the job, the publishing house informed him he “was not the right person,” he said.

“They told me that I am not suitable to translate it,” Obiols told AFP. “They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably Black.”

“It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity,” he continued. “But if I cannot translate a poet because she is a woman, young, Black, an American of the 21st century, neither can I translate Homer because I am not a Greek of the eighth century BC. Or could not have translated Shakespeare because I am not a 16th-century Englishman.”

Obiols said he would still be paid for his work. Univers did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

Earlier this month, an author quit a job translating Gorman’s poem into Dutch following objections to their appointment by Dutch publisher Meulenhoff because they were not Black.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a 29-year-old winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize, said they were thrilled to be chosen because “at a time of increasing polarization, Amanda Gorman shows in her young voice the power of spoken word, the power of reconciliation, the power of someone who looks to the future instead of looking down,” the Guardian reported.

But some critics questioned why the opportunity had not gone to a translator with experiences more similar to Gorman’s, given that the craft is also an act of interpretation.

“Isn’t it — to say the least — a missed opportunity?” Dutch journalist and activist Janice Deul wrote in a piece in de Volkskrant, according to the Guardian. “They are White, nonbinary, have no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff are still the ‘dream translator’?”

Deul asked why instead a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black” — like Gorman — was not commissioned.

“I’m not saying a Black person can’t translate White work, and vice versa,” Deul told the BBC. “But not this specific poem of this specific orator in this Black Lives Matter area, that’s the whole issue.”

Quinsy Gario, a Black Dutch spoken word artist, agreed. “The Dutch language needs to have a conduit, a person that’s been able to push to the same extent as Amanda Gorman did, and connect to a local understanding of what those words mean, and how those words can resonate,” Gario told the BBC.

Meulenhoff said Gorman herself had approved Rijneveld’s appointment, though no Dutch Black spoken word poets were among the options, according to the BBC.

After Rijneveld’s resignation, the publishing house’s general director, Maaike le Noble, said the company wanted “to learn from this by talking and we will walk a different path with the new insights,” according to the Guardian. “We will be looking for a team to work with to bring Amanda’s words and message of hope and inspiration into translation as well as possible and in her spirit,” he said.

Rijneveld said in a statement on Twitter that they were “shocked by the uproar surrounding my involvement.”

“I had happily devoted myself to translating Amanda’s work, seeing it as the greatest task to keep her strength, tone and style,” they continued, according to the Guardian’s translation. “However, I realize that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not. I still wish that her ideas reach as many readers as possible and open hearts.”

This report has been updated.

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