Publishers Need More Black Translator Friends

Aaron Robertson

February is Black History Month in the U.S. – a month that is unfortunately still needed since the history of this country is still largely told in ways that marginalize African-American voices and the stories and histories of Black Americans. In the U.S. publishing world, we’ve seen a lot of statements of solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives appearing over the past year, but it remains the case that there are still very few Black publishing executives in positions of sufficient power and autonomy to set policy and priorities in the industry and houses where they work.

In this context, writer/translator Aaron Robertson‘s recent article in Words Without Borders, “Publishers Need More Black Translator Friends,” is particularly helpful in laying out some practical steps that might be taken to increase the number and scope of foreign-language books from Africa and the African diaspora that reach U.S. bookstores in English translation. I highly recommend you head over to WWOB and check it out along with their entire January 2021 issue, entitled International Black Voices on Race and Racism.

Robertson’s article is the latest (to my knowledge) installment of an important conversation about the need for more inclusion and representation in Translationland begun (or revived) on the Harriet blog of the Poetry Foundation half a decade ago with contributions by Daniel Borzutzky, Don Mee Choi, Cecilia Vicuña, Jen Hofer, Lucas de Lima, and John Keene (who weighed in with the influential article “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness”). Please check them out too!

Some of Robertson’s recommendations have to do with expanding as well as supporting communities of Black translators – starting with outreach among new generations of writers and language-learners who might find a meaningful outlet in literary translation. For aspiring and emerging translators, I would also point out that poet and translator Aaron Coleman is organizing a new community-building initiative for Black writers and translators: The Patchwork Project: A Home for Black Translators & Writers.

I am so glad to know of this ongoing work and eager to support it in the hope of seeing an ever more inclusive and representative range of voices available in English translation.

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