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English translation: Janice Deul’s opinion piece about Gorman/Rijneveld





Haidee Kotze



Just now·5 min read



Photo by Roger Neve

What follows is an English translation of Janice Deul’s opinion piece (in Dutch) published by De Volkskrant (25 February 2021), carried out with her permission. The article prompted widespread debate; the interpretations of many of the subsequent contributors to this debate raise questions about their engagement with the article itself. This translation aims to make the original opinion piece accessible to a wider audience.

There are differences between the submitted and published versions of the article. The original title proposed by Deul was “Be the light, not the hill” (in English, following the line from Gorman’s poem); this title was not used by the newspaper. The newspaper instead opted for “A white translator for the poetry of Amanda Gorman: incomprehensible”. The original introduction submitted by Deul was likewise not used:

At the end of March, Meulenhoff will release a Dutch version of Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb’. A special edition, translated by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. A missed opportunity, according to journalist, activist and lover of literature, Janice Deul.

The newspaper replaced it with:

Nothing against Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, but that writer is not the best person to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Black spoken word artists matter, also our own home-grown ones, argues Janice Deul.

Deul also used, throughout the original text, the capitalised form ‘Black’; this was only retained in a few instances in the published text, as below.

Here is a translation of the published text, which remains as close to the Dutch original as possible.

OPINION A white translator for the poetry of Amanda Gorman: incomprehensible

Janice Deul, 25 February 2021

Nothing against Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, but that writer is not the best person to translate the poetry of Amanda Gorman. Black spoken word artists matter, also our own home-grown ones, argues Janice Deul.



I consider myself lucky with the loves of my life. And among these I also include family, friends, and the person with whom I have shared the front door of our little historic building for decades now. But let me keep it professional. In which case, I end up with two loves: writing and fashion. My love for writing long predates my love for clothes (something many find strange, given my fashion activism). That’s also why I studied Dutch linguistics and literature at Leiden University (back then, it still had the prefix ‘Rijks’). And the renaming of that area of study to ‘Dutch Studies’ a few years ago I still find a downgrade. Anyway, language and fashion. Passions I share with Amanda Gorman, the Afro-American spoken word artist, activist and poet, who, on 20 January this year, became an overnight sensation.

Not only because of her fiery performance and her hopeful and powerfully vulnerable poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ — with its goosebumps-inducing phrase “There’s always light. If only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it” — but also because of her fabulous inauguration look, complete with bright yellow Prada coat, XXL red design hairband, and braided up-do. Her appearance inspired many. So much so that she was offered a contract with IMG Models, one of the leading global modelling agencies. Something that black women and girls all over the world saw as a legitimisation of their natural beauty. And now a translation of the work of the charismatic Gorman is on its way — she who in the meantime also garnered a place in Time 100 Next: the leading American news magazine’s list of influential (young) people who represent hope for the future. Among them: climate activist Greta Thunberg, the multi-talented R&B sisters Chloe x Halle (Bailey), covid vaccine researcher Aurelia Nguyen, model and activist Paloma Elsesser and 95 other influencers, researchers, businesspeople, entertainers and politicians who we are likely to hear much more of.

Translation rights

There was a battle for the translation rights for the work of Gorman, a contest won by the widely respected Meulenhoff. On 20 March the publisher will release a special Dutch edition of ‘The Hill We Climb’ and other poems, introduced by Oprah Winfrey and translated by Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. An incomprehensible choice, in my view and that of many others who expressed their pain, frustration, anger and disappointment via social media. Harvard alumna Gorman, raised by a single mother and labelled a ‘special needs’ child as a result of speech impediments, describes herself as a ‘skinny Black girl’. And her work and life are coloured by her experiences and identity as black woman. Is it then — to put it most mildly — not a missed opportunity to commission Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? They are white, non-binary, have no experience in this area, but yet are, according to Meulenhoff, the ‘dream translator’?

A similar vote of confidence is not often afforded to people of colour. Quite the contrary. Whether in fashion, art, business, politics or literature, the merits and qualities of black people are only sporadically valued — if they are noticed, at all. Something that applies even more so to black women, who are systematically marginalised.

Local talent

Nothing to the detriment of Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not choose for a writer who — just like Gorman — is a spoken word artist, young, female, and: unapologetically Black? We are captivated by Amanda Gorman — and for good reason — but we are blind to the spoken word talent in our own country. Not to be found, you say? I can share a few names from my personal network. A list that is therefore nowhere near complete: Munganyende Hélène Christelle, Rachel Rumai, Zaïre Krieger, Rellie Telg, Lisette MaNeza, Babs Gons, Sanguilla Vabrie, Alida Aurora, Pelumi Adejumo. All talents who enrich the literary landscape, and who often fight many years for recognition. What would it be like to let one of them take on the task? Wouldn’t that make Gorman’s message more powerful?

Agents, publishers, editors, translators, reviewers in the Netherlands, broaden your view and step into the 2020s. Be the light, not the hill. Embrace the people who are only marginally represented in the literary system, open your eyes to genres that have traditionally not been included in the canon, and don’t let your ego win out over art. Talented people of colour also need to be seen, heard and cherished. Publish their work too, hire them too, and compensate them appropriately. Black spoken word artists matter. Also the homegrown ones.

Janice Deul is an activist, journalist and curator, and advocates inclusion in fashion, media, arts and culture.


Haidee Kotze

@HaideeKotze

Professor of translation studies at Utrecht University, linguist, writer, poet.









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