Why Translating Black Writers Matters

The world of literary translation is and has traditionally been very white – at least in the United States. Most of what gets translated here is by white authors, and the majority of published translators are white as well, except in the case of heritage speakers translating literature from countries with non-white majorities. There are exceptions, of course and thank goodness, but overall the diversity of the U.S. translation community in no way reflects that of the literary and general communities in which it is situated. And that’s a problem, because it inevitably means an impoverishment of perspective. It also points to injustice: inequalities of education and opportunity that play out especially in fields of cultural production that are seen as “luxury” extras in the context of our increasingly underfunded schools.

At this moment in our cultural history when the Black Lives Matter movement has forced back into the (white/not only white) national consciousness questions about the all-too-often deadly role played by white supremacy in the deep structure of our society, it’s not surprising that the writing community has responded with its own passionate investigations into the interlinkages between race, experience, and literary art. The translation world has been slower to stir, but it’s been stirring. I’ve seen pockets of really powerful activity springing up, say, around Don Mee Choi’s projects with Wave and Action Books (backed up by Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson), and the Antena project spearheaded by Jen Hofer and John Pluecker. But while these projects are vibrant and important, and the translators involved in these and related ventures often of color, the color is all too rarely black, which suggests among other things that the historically white translation world and its gatekeepers have not yet done enough to foster and support African American translators, and that there’s been generally too little attention paid to the role(s) race plays in translation. We need more, and the good news is that more is on the way, in fact it’s already here. As a board member of the American Literary Translators Association, I can attest to a broad institutional desire to encourage the growth of Translationland as a more diverse (in ways including but not limited to race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender) sphere of endeavor and inquiry. And having just peeked at the panel submissions for this year’s ALTA conference (to be held in Oakland, CA, Oct. 6-9 – not yet too late to apply for travel funding – please come!), I am heartened to be able to report a significant number of really interesting proposals that address various aspects of translation through questions of race. The official program will come out soon, and then you’ll see what I mean. (Oh, and Don Mee Choi is giving the keynote!)

John Keene, photo ©Nina Subin

But really the reason I’m thinking about this today is that writer and translator John Keene has just written an essay, “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” that is easily the single most comprehensive contribution I’ve seen to date on the question of what gets lost when we translate only work by white poets (and, by extension, writers of all genres). Keene beautifully describes what we stand to gain – in knowledge, understanding, and joy – by being able to discover, through translation, the work of non-Anglophone black diasporic authors. Translating more broadly, he argues, will make us smarter about questions of history and race in our own society as well as internationally, by letting us

have a clearer sense of the connections and commonalities, as well as the differences across the African Diaspora, and better understand an array of regional, national, and hemispheric issues. We would not be surprised, as many were after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, that there were black people in Basra and other parts of Iraq; that Pakistan has its own contemporary self-styled “Langston Hughes,” Meem Danish, and that there are long established black communities throughout South Asia; that Aboriginal poets and writers in the Pacific Rim and Oceania have articulated very similar critiques, sometimes deeply influenced by African-American and African Diasporic cultural production, of their societies; that Sri Lankan Tamil writers like Antonythasan Jesuthasan, an actor and novelist who writes under the pen name Sobashakti, meaning “Black Power,” invoke liberation-centered critiques in conversation with similar ones around the black world; or that the social and cultural experiences—including the challenges of racism and white supremacy—both French Minister of Justice Christine Taubira and Amédy Coulibaly, one of the terrorists in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, have faced in their lives mirror what we might find among black peoples across the globe.

Keene has done the math on the works currently being translated from the world’s most commonly-translated languages – figures that are not always what you might expect. You might be surprised, for instance, to see how proportionally little is being translated from Chinese. His argument is interspersed with beautifully translated snippets of poems in several languages that offer persuasive glimpses into the worlds he is proposing we take note of and make accessible to English-language readers. His call to publish works by Black authors from around the globe is nothing short of a manifesto that asks all of us – as members of the translation community – to examine the choices we make and support as we decide which works to translate into English.

Keene’s essay was published on the Poetry Foundation’s blog Harriet as part of an extraordinary series on writing, translation, migration, whiteness, blackness, and darkness ingeniously curated by Daniel Borzutzky. The other installments of this conversation, by Don Mee Choi, Cecilia Vicuña, Jen Hofer, and Lucas de Lima, are all important contributions in their own right and very much worthy of your attention. Lucas de Lima’s essay in particular, “Poetry Betrays Whiteness,” dovetails powerfully with Keene’s as he goes beyond the question of what to translate to speak of how. “How can I, as a scholar and translator, support the legacies of writers like [Miriam] Alves and [Adão] Ventura?” de Lima writes, speaking of two Afro-Brazilian poets being translated by someone who counts as “of color” in the U.S. and as white in Brazil. “How do I not only fly in solidarity with them but also honor their visions of flight? […] Respectability politics, tokenization, and ‘diversity’ do not redress this history [I incarnate]—they are the divide-and-conquer tactics by which race is deftly managed, our movements co-opted and undermined.  When only a chosen few gain from the work of many, solidarity crumbles.  When I am rewarded for my anti-racism, it usually means I’m being used.”

These are complex issues and crucial, long-overdue conversations, and I look forward to seeing these topics further discussed within the unitedstatesian translation community – including at this year’s ALTA conference, where I expect questions of translation and race to play a pivotal role. The deadline for travel fellowship applications for emerging translators is May 9, so act quickly if you’d like to come and need help getting there.

And one more thing: who’s going to start the new publishing house or book series or journal or website specifically devoted to promoting translations into English of the multilingual African diaspora? If you are already involved in (or know of) a related project, please post a link in the comments below.

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