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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  1. David Shook says:

    Great post, Susan. Something I’ve been thinking a lot about.

    Phoneme isn’t dedicated exclusively to promoting translations from the African diaspora, but we are committed to publishing as many translated African writers as possible. In addition to Cameroonian novelist Inongo-vi-Makomè’s English-language debut /Natives/ (from the Spanish, tr. Michael Ugarte) and Burundian novelist Roland Rugero’s /Baho/ (from the French, tr. Christopher Schaefer), we’ll be publishing the graphic novelist duo of Cameroonian Eyoum Ngangué and Ivorian Titi Faustin’s /An Eternity in Tangiers/ in the fall (from the French, tr. André Naffis-Sahely) and Richard Ali A Mutu’s novel /Mr. Fix-It: Troublesome Kinshasa/ in the winter (from the Lingala, tr. Bienvenu Sene Mongaba). We’re keen to publish more work from African languages, and we’ve just partnered with Bakwa Magazine in Cameroon to help translate the winners of their inaugural Short Story Competition.

    I’d love to hear from translators working in African languages, and I’m always eager to read new submissions!

  2. David Rade says:

    Read with interest, Susan, your excellent piece on WHY TRANSLATING BLACK WRITERS MATTERS. Those translations do matter and often are marginalized when it comes to finding attention in review publications and libraries. Works in translation by authors from the African Diaspora has been an editorial interest for Swan Isle Press for several years, and we’ve been privileged to publish three authors of African heritage from Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, and Peru. Also, been privileged work with two wonderful scholars and translators in advancing our books to publication, Michael Ugarte at University of Missouri-Columbia, and Emmanuel Harris II at University of North Carolina-Wilmington. I also appreciate David Shook’s comment.

    Malambo by Lucía Charún-Illescas (Peru); translated by Emmanuel Harris II (Univ. of North Carolina-Wilmington). A novel.

    Over the Waves and Other Stories | Sobre las Olas y Otros Cuentos by Inés María Martiatu (Cuba); translated by Emmanuel Harris II (Univ. of North Carolina-Wilmington). A collection of short stories from Havana.

    Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo (Equatorial Guinea); translated by Michael Ugarte (University of Missouri, Columbia). A novel.

    Shadows of Your Black Memory by Donato Ndongo will be issued in a new paperback edition early this fall. All of our books are available through The University of Chicago Press.

  3. Marci Vogel says:

    Thanks, Susan, for the thoughtful post, and for the invitation to conversation. Thanks, too, David Shook and David Rade, for helping to put all this good work into the world. One of the collections coming out from Action Books (Spring 2017) is Ivorian poet Josué Guébo’s collection, Mon pays, ce soir, translated by my colleague at USC, Todd Fredson. Excerpts can be found here, at Matter: A Journal of Political Poetry and Commentary, along with a contextual essay, “Til Death Do Us Part: Approaching Josué Guébo’s My Country Tonight. Recently returned from the Ivory Coast, Fredson writes about Ivorian oral traditions and the experience of translating the work of Guébo, Tanella Boni and Azo Vauguy as part of « The poetics of the étrangère » commentary series at Jacket2. Joining the convergence, Jen Hofer and John Pluecker’s stellar Antena project is highlighted in this post on Cardboard House Press’ Giancarlo Huapaya. Finally, Fredson’s translation of Guébo’s collection, Songe á Lampedusa, is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press in 2017. Thanks again, Susan, for setting so many wheels in motion!

  4. Roland Glasser says:

    Great post, Susan, and very apposite, since I would really like to see a greater diversity among translators, let alone among what is published – and yes, I know those are quite different thngs, and no, I’m not suggesting we need black translating black, and white translating white, to put it crudely, and of course that relates to a much wider issue of diversity across arts (for reasons which are possibly not exactly the same in the UK and US). So I’m really looking forward to some of those panels at ALTA!

    One interesting publishing house is Cassava Republic, which is based in Nigeria and has just opened an office in London and is looking to set up distrbution in the US. They’ve been going ten years and publish both genre and literary fiction, and also have a romance imprint – the founder realized there was a huge appetite for Harlequin/Mills & Boon type stuff, but that it was all white characters! They are also really keen to diversify into publishing translations, both from English into native African languages, and from French and Portuguese (the two main African colonial languages) into English. I’ve met the founder, Bibi Bakare Yusuf, and her colleague Emma Shercliff, and they are both lovely and positive and switched on to too diversity issues of all kinds.

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