Amanda Gorman and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld

Alain Mabanckou weighs in on the pushback by some in the literary community against the selection of a white translator to translate Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb.”

The poem, which was debuted at President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony, was recently published by Penguin Random House under the titled The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem for the Country. The published version includes a forward by Oprah and is now being translated into several European languages.

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, a Booker Prize winning writer from the Netherlands, was personally selected by Gorman to translate her poem into Dutch for publication. This news sparked a recent outcry online over the fact that a Black translator had not been chosen. Rijneveld voluntarily gave up the commission.

A similar incident occurred involving Viking Books and their rejection a translation from Catalan translator, Víctor Obiols, stating that he had the wrong profile and the publishers are now seeking “a woman, young, activist and preferably black.”

Unlike Rijneveld, Obiols protested, arguing “They did not question my abilities, 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.”

As the controversy continues to spark debate online, Mabanckou to Instagram to share his thoughts on the role of translation in world literature, particularly African literature. The video, which can be found below, is in French.

Mabanckou takes the stance that discriminating against translators on the basis of race is a form of racism. He reminds his followers that several great African works of literature have been translated by white writers and that “literature flourishes because it traverses frontiers.” He concludes,

And this controversy, instead of promoting the works of she who could become one of the great poets of our time, is actually attempting to lock her into this moment of herd mentality which is incompatible with the power of literature.

Click below to listen to Mabanckou’s complete commentary in French:


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