LE MONDE

Translating Amanda Gorman, The Absurdity Of Identity Profiling

After the young Black American poet's breakthrough at Biden's inauguration, some say her work shouldn't be translated by white non-women. One woman writer from Martinique says these critics are undermining the essence of translation.

Amanda Gorman at the Biden-Harris inauguration on  Jan. 20, 2021
Amanda Gorman at the Biden-Harris inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021
Suzanne Dracius

Efforts to translate the celebrated poem that Amanda Gorman, the young Black American poet, recited at the U.S. Presidential inauguration have sparked controversy. Some believe her works should not be tinterpreted by white, non-women translators. Suzanne Dracius, a writer from Martinique and member of the Parliament of Francophone Women Writers, writes about how this type of racial assignment undermines the entire point of translation.

-OpEd-

The uproar over the translation of Amanda Gorman's poem "The Hill We Climb" should neither rattle us nor toss us from the mountaintop that stands above prejudice, nor should it cause us to regress, reducing our progress against racism to naught.

And that is why we, the Parliament of Francophone Women Writers, demand the right to be translated by a competent person chosen for their expertise, not their identity.

The Face Of Beauty

Excessive zeal should not divert us from the steep slope we have so carefully ascended, the proud peak overlooking the ravines of racism.

In Creole, the word used for "hill" is mòn and refers to morne, an old French word for a knoll. That word goes for everyone, be they white or Black, the descendants of béké colonialists or slaves.

And yet, no French translator — even if that person were Black and a Creole speaker — would translate Gorman's "hill" as morne. Translations must take into account the particular circumstances with as much exactitude as possible. Their craftsmanship depends on their ability to reconstitute a text according to the text's own esthetic.

Regarding poetry — a word itself originating from the Greek ποιεῖν or poiein, "to create" — translation becomes an endeavor to convey the creative power of the poem, its musicality, internal rhymes, assonance, alliterations. It must recreate the poem's atmosphere, images, symbols, anaphoras and chiasmi, all of which are rife in Gorman's work.

Literary devices have no color. Or rather, they have every color. They are the face of beauty, in all its shades and nuances.

A Rainbow

Intersectionality, a dreadful word used to designate an even more appalling reality, caused no shortage of problems for the young Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld who, under pressure, withdrew from translating Gorman's poem. It boded the same fate for the Catalan translator Victor Obiols, who was considered "inadequate" and eventually disqualified by his publishing house: "They were looking for a different profile."

Critics refused to allow a "Black girl" to be translated by a "white, non-binary" person, as Rijneveld — who purposely uses two first names, female then male — is considered. Mixed in among the thousand racist heads of this atrocious hydra, there is a kind of sub-adjacent homophobia to be wary of here.

To claim, on the contrary, that any "young, female and unapologetically Black" translator would be apt to translate this African American is to insult Gorman, as if anyone can write like she does as long as they are "successors of a country and a time // where a skinny Black girl // descended from slaves and raised by a single mother // can dream of becoming president // only to find herself reciting for one."

Is anyone offended that Aimé Césaire's translator was white?

Our translators are every color, every gender, every sexual preference; in a word, a rainbow! We insist on keeping it this way.

Insulting Praise

Is anyone offended that Aimé Césaire's translator was white? What color is the Négritude movement? It is an absurd, even surrealist question reminiscent of French writer André Breton, who was dazzled yet baffled when he discovered this "great Black poet." Why "Black," for that matter? Has anyone ever heard of a "great white poet?" Breton's rhetoric veered toward the stereotype of "the learned monkey" when he added: "And it's a Black who manipulates the French language in a way that no white today can achieve." It's praise that can ring like an insult.

Conversely, what about St-John Perse — born Alexis Léger — a Nobel-prize winner from an old, white colonial family in Martinique and later Guadeloupe? Has anyone ever demanded that the translator of this béké poet come from a white, Creole-speaking ethno-caste?

An author isn't a color.

Suzanne Dracius, translation, author

French author Suzanne Dracius at a book fair in France, in 2015. — Photo: Le Parlement des Ecrivaines Francophones

It is imperative, however, that the translator possess a contextual understanding of cultural particularities, regional dialects and different levels of language in order to be as faithful to the original text as possible. Translation — mestizo, mixed by definition — is, de facto, queer, transgender.

Racial assignment (which is racist) misses the very point of translation. Tied up in identity politics, it is always absurd, but now it's burst out into the open — monstrous, criminal, promoting a delirious connection between authoritarian Kultur and DNA.

Prejudice Exacerbated

Instead of "forging a union," preconceived categorization distances us from one another and exacerbates prejudices around color and gender. But writing is universal, a rallying force, unifying without uniforming, the supreme exaltation of freedom of speech.

Racial assignment (which is racist) misses the very point of translation.

We must therefore stand up against these dangerous strains of thought that annihilate the humanist breadth contained in the art of translation, which scorns its capacity to build a bridge between two shores, two languages, two worlds.

In "The Hill We Climb," Gorman herself uses the word "bridge" — metaphorically, and in the plural. "If we're to live up to our own time // then victory won't lie in the blade // But in all the bridges we've made."

The aim of translation is here, in the subtext — is it not?

"We are striving to forge a union with purpose // to compose a country committed to all cultures // colors, characters and // conditions of man."

Universality And Diversity

It's tempting to paraphrase Amanda Gorman, replacing "country" with "world" — which we cross thanks to the bridges provided by translation.

The words are there, shimmering at the heart of the poem, anticipating controversy.

If we can't translate this Black poet because we are white and non-binary, we risk the next step of forbidding people to read it, as they wouldn't be able to understand.

Martinican and light-skinned — calazaza, as they say — I contain four-and-a-half continents within me, as does the Parliament of Francophone Women Writers, which unites women authors of all colors and countries. We champion the universality and diversity of literature.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire


According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA

Unsplash/@nemo23


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council


Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire


The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

Unsplash/@hkblind


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke


During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press


Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ