Amanda Gorman blew a lot of peoples' minds when she performed her poem "The Hill We Climb" at the inauguration of President Joe Biden. The poem itself almost immediately became a bestseller, and her forthcoming debut children's book was soon coveted as well.
So naturally, the publishing world saw some international opportunities with Gorman's work. But that's where things got complicated. As The New York Times detailed, Gorman's poem posed a problem with translators, who saw a myriad of social and political challenges in transforming her words into a foreign language. Translation are rarely literal, and are more often issue of "interpretation" — and how one individual personally interprets a text across both languages and cultures can have a tremendous impact on how readers of that translation receive and perceive that text. As The Times explains:
A translator's main task is to capture the nuance and feeling of a language in a way that you could never achieve with Google Translate, and most translators have long happily wrestled with questions of how to faithfully translate works when they are about people completely unlike them.
"No good translator denies they're bringing their own experience to a text," Mr. Robertson said.
In a video interview, the members of the German team said they had certainly done such wrestling to make sure their translation of the text — about a weary country whose "people diverse and beautiful will emerge," — was faithful to Ms. Gorman's spirit.
The team spent a long time discussing how to translate the word "skinny" without conjuring images of an overly thin woman, Ms. Gumusay said. They also debated how to bring a sense of the poem's gender-inclusive language into German, in which many objects — and all people — are either masculine or feminine. A common practice in Germany to signify gender neutrality involves inserting an asterisk in the middle of a word then using its feminine plural form. But such accommodations would be "catastrophic" to a poem, Ms. Strätling said, as it "destroys your metric rhythm." They had to change one sentence where Gorman spoke of "successors" to avoid using it, she added.
"You're constantly moving back and forth between the politics and the composition," she said.
"To me it felt like dancing," Ms. Gumusay said of the process. Ms. Haruna-Oelker added that the team tried hard to find words "which don't hurt anyone."
Even something as simple as translating Gorman's self-description of her Blackness is rife with loaded connotations and complications. Does a White or Asian translator possess the full cultural grasp to figure out how, exactly, to transform "Black" into German, for example, while still capturing all of the nuances beyond color that are implied by the English usage of the word? The answer is: it's complicated, and made even more so by the limited number of translators available to choose from.
By way of personal example: a friend of mine served as producer for the recent radio play adaptation of Mike Lew's Tiger Style!, a play about Asian-American experiences. The producing company provided an ASL interpretation of the story for those who couldn't enjoy the audio version … but it would, admittedly, be weird to make a D/deaf or hard of hearing person watch a non-Asian person interpret this explicitly Asian story in sign language.
Meanwhile, there are languages where the literally translation of a phrase like "black man" can colloquially refer to the Devil. In order to accurately translate Gorman's poem with its references to her Blackness, a translator would need to understand and accommodate all of that cultural context. And that's no easy task!
There are no easy answers to these kinds of translation issues, but I think the article from The New York Times does a good job at articulating the myriad arguments and nuances involved.
Amanda Gorman's Poetry United Critics. It's Dividing Translators. [Alex Marshall / The New York Times]
Image: DOD Photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)
(Full disclosure: I also write for Wirecutter, which is owned by the New York Times Company, which also publishes The New York Times.)