United Critics of Amanda Gorman’s Poetry. It is the division of translators.


Literary figures and newspaper columnists across Europe have been arguing for weeks about what these decisions mean, making Gorman’s poem the latest flash point in identity politics debates across the continent. The discussion has shed light on the often unexamined world of literary translation and its lack of racial diversity.

“I can’t remember a translation controversy taking the world by storm like this,” Aaron Robertson, a black translator from Italian to English, said in a telephone interview.

“This feels like a watershed moment,” he added.

On Monday, the American Association of Literary Translators was in a rage. “The question of whether identity should be the deciding factor in who can translate who is a false framing of the issues at stake,” he said in a statement posted on his website.

The real problem underlying the controversy was “the shortage of black translators,” he added. Last year, the association conducted a diversity survey. Only 2 percent of the 362 translators who responded were black, an association spokeswoman said in an email.

In a video interview, members of the German team said that they too felt the debate had missed the point. “People ask questions like, ‘Does color give you the right to translate?’” Haruna-Oelker said. “It’s not about color.”

She added, “It’s about quality, it’s about the skills you have and the prospects.” Each member of the German team brought different things to the group, he said.

The team spent a lot of time discussing how to translate the word “skinny,” without conjuring up images of an overly thin woman, Gümüsay said, and they debated how to bring a sense of the gendered language of the poem into German, in which many objects – and people – are male or female. “You constantly move between politics and composition,” Strätling said.

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