“Whitewashing” Uproar Fallout: Dutch Translator of America’s National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman Resigns

The UK’s Guardian reports:

The acclaimed author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld has pulled out of translating Amanda Gorman’s poetry into Dutch, after their publisher was criticised for picking a writer for the role who was not also Black. 

Dutch publisher Meulenhoff had announced Rijneveld, winner of the International Booker prize, as the translator of the Joe Biden inaugural poet’s forthcoming collection, The Hill We Climb, last week. But the move quickly drew opprobrium. Journalist and activist Janice Deul led critics with a piece in Volkskrant asking why Meulenhoff had not chosen a translator who was, like Gorman, a “spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”.

Click here for the Guardian’s full text. 

This news item caught my eye, partly because I translate fiction into English for a living. I have brought 5 contemporary Chinese novels to the English-speaking world, and all but one were penned by women whose protagonists narrate in the first person throughout. 

I recall an awkward moment in the year 2000, I believe, when I attended the American Literary Translator Association’s annual get-together in San Francisco. 

I was rather excited, as I had just won a contract to translate Wei Hui’s Shanghai Baby (上海宝贝) . When I casually mentioned this to a renowned female translator as we watched a performance, she quipped, “Oh, you’re the lucky one.” 

“Why so?” 

“Most publishers would allot that contract to a woman.” 

I found her comment unnerving. After all, I was fresh from two decades as a business journalist in China, and – despite a solid command of contemporary Mandarin, and having lived in Shanghai during the late 90s when the novel was set — I was not at all confident that I could turn out a winning rendition.

But not having been raised as a girl, at the time a fitting riposte did not slip off my tongue. 

“My” Shanghai Baby (interview) went on to become a best seller in Hong Kong and Singapore in the early 2000s, and is still in print and occasionally available at international airports and bookstores.   

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2 thoughts on ““Whitewashing” Uproar Fallout: Dutch Translator of America’s National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman Resigns

  1. Absolutely ennervating nonsense. Why should a translator be excluded from working on Amanda Gorman’s poem, to make it available in Dutch? Because she’s white is the simple answer. There used to be a word for this – racism. And the mob that drives the furore is led by those who need racism because they are, by themselves, racist and, without that odious referential, are likely to have little to offer.

    Thank you, America. This whole nonsense, which is in patently racist, was incubated in America. I mean this leftist identity politics demonstrative lunacy. What next? Female translators should be excluded from working on male authored books in languages where they have expertise? Queer male translators must be hounded from bringing out text authored by a straight female novelist? What i see here is ridiculousness writ large.


    1. Many thanks for your comment, Richard.

      Two things come to mind:

      1) If Gorman initially supported the commissioning of the Dutch translator, which is implied in the Guardian article, will Gorman now speak out on this matter?

      and 2) It seems a real pity that the Dutch translator has now resigned, so she will not have the chance to show she has what it takes to render Gorman’s work equally powerfully in Dutch. In my eyes, this is ironic, because Gorman strikes me as a feisty, spirited individual who would never have let anybody’s tweet dissuade her from writing any verse she felt like writing.


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