artsPublished 12th March 2021
A writer hired to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb” into Catalan said he has been removed from the position by publisher Univers.
Victor Obiols, whose previous work includes Catalan translations of William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde, told CNN Thursday that the commission was initially approved by Gorman’s representatives, but they later decided he wasn’t right for the job.
It is the second such case in Europe in the past month, after a Dutch writer stepped back from their commission in February after anger that a Black writer was not chosen.
Although Univers has not yet responded to CNN’s request for comment on its decision, Obiols said Gorman’s representatives were looking for “someone matching the profile of the original writer.”
“I think this is a reflection of the dynamics of muting or not promoting what is politically incorrect,” he said, explaining that the Barcelona-based publisher informed him of the decision after he had delivered the translation.
CNN has also contacted Gorman’s publisher, Viking Studio, and its parent company, Penguin, for comment.
Gorman is the US youth poet laureate and was one of the breakout stars of US President Joe Biden’s inauguration, where she read “The Hill We Climb.”
The publisher’s decision comes shortly after Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld handed back a commission to translate Gorman’s work, following a backlash from critics who questioned why a White writer had been chosen to translate a Black writer’s work.
Obiols told CNN that he thought the decision to revoke his commission was down to the pressure of US social movements.
“I understand the political dimension of the decision,” he said. “I feel solidarity with women and Black people.”
Obiols said authors or their agents have every right to choose a translator, but the latest move feeds into a wider conversation around creativity.
“There is a debate about whether the circumstances of a work of art is part of this work of art, or whether it should be judged by the content itself, independently of the circumstances (or) identity of the author,” he said.
‘Not easy to choose translators’
Catalan, an official language alongside Spanish in the region of Catalonia, is spoken by more than 9 million people in eastern and northeastern Spain, as well parts of France and Italy.
Ananya Jahanara Kabir, a professor of English at King’s College London, told CNN Thursday that translation “is a way to carry across experiences that are private, intimate and products of specific histories and cultural experiences, into another sensibility.”
Deep historical injustices against people of African heritage, and their continuing repercussions, mean it isn’t easy to choose translators for Gorman, Kabir said.
“But decisions to drop translators because of racial and/or gender difference miss opportunities for transcultural healing and understanding,” she added in a statement. “These are opportunities for people who are neither African American nor female-identified to recognize and struggle with their historical burdens and make that struggle their own process of learning.”
“It’s a pity if in the search for redressal we forget literature’s function of opening and crossing borders, of teaching us to become porous to the others’ traumas, resistance, and joy.”
Last month, Rijneveld, winner of the International Booker Prize in 2020, withdrew from a commission to translate Gorman’s work into Dutch.
Rijneveld, who is White and non-binary, announced on February 23 that they were to work on the project with publisher Meulenhoff.
Gorman retweeted Rijneveld’s tweet revealing the commission, but Rijneveld said they had handed back the assignment three days later.
“I am shocked by the uproar around my involvement in the spread of the Amanda Gorman’s message, and I understand the people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s decision to ask me,” wrote Rijneveld.
Meulenhoff said it understood Rijneveld’s decision and was looking for a new team to translate Gorman’s work.
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