The recital of the poem "The Hill We Climb" was a highlight of the presidential inauguration for Joe Biden. But its translation into other languages has sometimes proven to be a contentious matter.
US youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman stole the show at Joe Biden’s presidential inauguration on January 20 when she read her powerful poem The Hill We Climb. Now, that poem has been or is being translated into a number of foreign languages, including German.
Gorman's poem was published in German on March 30 in a bilingual edition titled The Hill We Climb — Den Hügel hinauf by Hamburg-based publisher Hoffmann und Campe.
In an interview with German news magazine Der Spiegel publishedon March 6, the head of Hoffmann and Campe, Tim Jung, said the translation of a poem of such "power and beauty" that has made such an impact "means a great deal of responsibility for a publisher."
"She is an activist who works against racism, who fights for diversity in society. This gave rise to the idea of taking an unusual approach at the publishing house and commissioning three people with different expertise and experience as a team of translators," he told Spiegel.
Uproar about translators
In other parts of Europe, the choice of white translators became a point of controversy in the past month. It began in early March in the Netherlands. Marieke Lucas Rijnveld, the writer chosen to translate Gorman's work into Dutch, declined to take on the assignment following criticism of the fact that someone who was not Black had been given the job.
Rijnveld made the decision public in a tweet: "I am shocked by the uproar around my involvement in the dissemination of Amanda Gorman's message, and I understand people who feel hurt by the choice of (publishing company) Meulenhoff to ask me," said the author, who also writes poetry. And like Gorman, who at 22 was the youngest US inaugural poet in history, Rijneveld was the youngest person ever to win the International Booker Prize with the novel The Discomfort of Evening, in 2020.
One of the voices calling Rijnveld to step down was Janice Deul, an activist and journalist who wrote an opinion piece in the Dutch daily newspaper de Volkskrant about the topic.
"Nothing to the detriment of Rijneveld's qualities, but why not choose a writer who is — just like Gorman — a spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black," she wrote.
Deul suggested it was a "missed opportunity" to have given the task to Rijneveld. She also named a few other people she thought were more appropriate for the job.
The managing director of the Meulenhoff publishing company, Maaike le Noble, said in a statement that it was now "looking for a team to cooperate to translate Amanda's words and message of hope and inspiration as well as possible and in her spirit."
In mid-March, Catalan translator Victor Orbiols was dropped from the job by his employers, who said he did not have the right "profile," news agency AFP reported on March 10.
"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," he told the French news agency.
After completing the translation into Catalan, his publisher received word from the US — it’s unclear whether from Gorman’s agent or the original publisher — that he was not the right person for the job.
"It is a very complicated subject that cannot be treated with frivolity," the translator told AFP.
"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."
A diverse trio
Dutch and Catalan are not the only languages Gorman's poem will be translated into. A French version will be published in May, translated by up-and-coming Belgian-Congolese music star Marie-Pierra Kakoma, who goes by the stage name Lous and the Yakuza.
In Germany, the translation trio was chosen long before controversies in other countries ensued. The team of three women included 33-year-old activist and author Kübra Gümüsay, whose book Language and Being, exploring the role of language in respectful communication, was a top-seller in Germany.
Working with her was the Afro-German political scientist, journalist and author Hadija Haruna-Oelker, whose work includes research on migration and racism. Finally, poetry translation specialist Uda Strätling lent her talents. She has already translated works by African American author Teju Cole and poet-playwright Claudia Rankine, among others, into German.
Jung told Der Spiegel the translation trio did not cut the work into three separate parts, but rather "worked as a team and translated The Hill We Climb into German with one voice."
"This can, of course, go wrong, but it worked very well here and the result was fantastic," he said.
Correction March 4, 2021: A previous version of this article erroneously implied that German publisher Hoffmann und Campe selected three women to avoid a controversy similar that surrounding Meulenhoff's choice. The German publisher had already selected its translators ahead of the debate in the Netherlands. This error has been corrected.