dr. Clinton Peter Verdonschot

philosopher // aesthetician // critical theorist

Translating the oppressed: a Dutch controversy regarding The Hill We Climb (2021)

1 April, 2024
Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, 'The Hill We Climb', during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, 20 January 2021. Photograph by Carlos M. Vazquez II.

Disclaimer: this blogpost was originally written as a contribution to De Filosoof, a magazine published for an by the philosophy students at Utrecht University. It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the editors.

A Dutch controversy

On 26 February 2021, Dutch poet and writer Lucas Rijneveld announced on Twitter he was declining the offer to translate Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb. It was not entirely unsurprising, but still rather sudden; less than a week after the Dutch publisher, Meulenhoff, had announced Rijneveld as their translator. Clearly, however, Rijneveld was a bad choice. He is not a translator by trade and just a year prior he had confessed to a poor command of the English language in an unrelated interview. This alone would be reason enough for criticising Meulenhoff. Here, however, I want to focus on a particular kind of criticism that questions Rijneveld’s ability to translate the poem not in terms of his English language proficiency, but in terms of his social location.

To see why social location could be relevant at all, some context is necessary. Gorman, and her poem, gained fame at the inauguration of US president Joe Biden at the US Capitol. Only weeks before, a violent mob supporting the former (and probably future) president, Donald Trump, had marched on that location, in an effort to overturn Trump’s election loss. The mob wanted to prolong as dictatorship a government which had already been nothing short of a reign of terror, particularly for African-Americans such as Gorman herself. They failed, and with Biden taking Trump’s place, many people were permitting themselves a guarded hope for better times ahead. Gorman’s poem tapped into and amplified this hope. And hearing the poem’s hopeful words eloquently spoken by an African-American woman made the experience all the more special, the highlight of the inauguration.

By contrast, the announcement of Lucas Rijneveld as translator, even though he was approved by Gorman herself, left many in the Netherlands embittered. Activist and journalist Janice Deul put it as follows, in an op-ed published by De Volkskrant on 25 February:

[Gorman’s] work and life are coloured by her experiences and identity as a black woman. Is it not therefore — to put it mildly — a missed opportunity to hire … Lucas Rijneveld for this job? They are white, non-binary, without any experience in this area. How could they be, as Meulenhoff put it, the ‘dream translator’? [Note: at the time, Rijneveld still identified as non-binary. He has since dropped the use of female pronouns and to my knowledge, was never quite satisfied with the genderneutral ’they/them’ pronouns anyway.]

There are actually two arguments here: first, is a socio-economic argument focusing on the assymmetry in opportunities afforded to black writers and translators as compared to whites. The second is poetic/aesthetic, and focuses on the life experience necessary for translating a poem.1 Since the first argument is not controversial at all (or shouldn’t be, in any case), I focus exclusively on the second: the idea that Rijneveld as a white person, lacks the appropriate experiences, or even the appropriate identity, to be able to translate the poem.

Poetry and lived experience

Let’s start with trying to spell out the sense of this idea. The first thing to note is that Deul is singling out two aspects of Gorman’s identity which she argues are crucial for her work: her identity as a black person, and as a woman. Why would these identities be more important than others? In several interviews, Gorman has said that a major reason for turning to poetry and spoken word was because she could not pronounce several letters of the alphabet, among which the letter ‘r’, and she still often has difficulty with this:

So the more that I recited out loud, the more in which I practiced spoken word and that tradition, the more I was able to teach myself how to pronounce these letters which for so long had been my greatest impediment. 2

Knowing this, we suddenly see a deeper, darker meaning behind the following lines of The Hill We Climb:

We the successors of a country and a time

Where a skinny Black girl

descended from slaves and raised by a single mother

can dream of becoming president

only to find herself reciting for one

Gorman is talking about herself in these lines. The initial understanding here is congratulatory and optimist: reciting for a president is an honour that is comparable to becoming one yourself, an honour which, being bestowed upon “a skinny Black girl”, shows how far black women have come in the United States. Knowing about Gorman’s speech impediment, however, we can move past this understanding. Note the word ‘reciting’, which unfortunately starts with an ‘r’ but which has no obvious synonyms in the English language. Being forced to use the word ‘reciting’ while reciting for the president can then be seen as a kind of existential moment of truth within the poem, where Gorman has to confront her own impediment while a powerful white man acts as the spectator to the scene, like a Roman emperor watching an enslaved gladiator perform.

If that interpretation is sensible, does that mean that an appropriate translator of the work must, like Gorman herself, have suffered from a comparable speech impediment? That does not seem obvious. For one thing, Deul might argue that, functionally speaking, it would be enough for the translator to seek out translated words that also use the letter ‘r’. For the reader, it is then easy enough to imagine what it is like to have difficulty, or anxiety, pronouncing that word. Not so with race: being black, in this sense: the heir to centuries of white supremacist oppression, is not something one can simply imagine, nor would the presence of that meaning in the poem be preserved by simply favouring some words more than others. In fact, the way in which the heritage of white supremacy is part of the meaning in the untranslated poem, is already intangible, not manifestly present like the way a particular word is pronounced. Uncovering and understanding that meaning requires something more than mere knowledge that the poet is in this situation. It requires lived experience, an intimate acquaintance with the fullness of the experience of oppression.

The afterlife of the poem

Now, however, I become dissatisfied with the conception of poetry that seems to be in play here. If it is the case that the poem speaks of an experience of oppression that can only truly be preserved by translators who are acquainted with that experience, one may ask whether those un-acquainted with the experience could ever understand this poem to begin with. Surely, if the preservation of meaning in translation requires familiarity with oppression, then this is because that familiarity is required for grasping that meaning. But if that is the case, then people who are not oppressed, could not truly understand the poem. Conversely, if those people who are oppressed, are already intimately familiar with what the poem is trying to say, then the poem would hold nothing new for them. It would be enough for them to simply take note of the fact that the poem is about racial oppression. In neither case, it seems, is there any reason to actually engage with the poem.

The preceding problem may be generalised to a question of poetic form and the kind of meaning that could belong to it uniquely: why bother saying anything poetically if one can also communicate the same thing in a different way? Conversely, if there is a kind of meaning that belongs to poems uniquely, what cognitive capacities could we draw on in order to understand poetry? Isn’t it ridiculous to posit some kind of special ‘poetic sense’, a third eye that allows us to discern poetic meaning and it alone?

It is considerations like these that lead Walter Benjamin to argue that “no poem is meant for the reader” (Benjamin 1997, 153). Since the meaning of a poem to a reader, its ‘message’ in other words, can be ’taken away’ from it, it must be something that is inessential to the poem itself: “What does a poem ‘say,’ then? What does it communicate? Very little, to a person who understands it” (Benjamin 1997, 151). You might think that this makes understanding a poem a rather mysterious affair, but wait until you consider how even more difficult it becomes to translate a poem. A translator works on the words used by a poem; the only thing they can do, it seems, is to consider what a poem communicates.

Benjamin’s solution is to argue that what is essential to a poem is its life, and, like we recognise the essential liveliness of an organism by way of its expressions (which are not themselves alive), we come to understand a poem by way of its translations (even though its translations are not themselves essential). The task of the translator, then, is one of keeping the poem alive, continuing the survival, or afterlife,3 of the poem.

That might sound like a menial job, until we take the comparison with organic life literally, as Benjamin says we should (Benjamin 1997, 153). Since our only access to life (save, perhaps, our own) comes through its expressions, we must take Benjamin to argue that a poem’s translations likewise provide our only possible form of understanding it. We can see this quite vividly with poetry written in dead languages (such as Ancient Greek tragedies), but in a sense it holds for poetry from living languages too. After all, what keeps languages (and living things in general) alive, are processes of *re-*production and if anything, translation counts as one of those processes.

A Frysian controversy?

Can Benjamin help us understand translation issues regarding The Hill We Climb? Recall that we arrived at the notion that a translation of a poem about racial oppression should be undertaken by someone acquainted with the lived experience of racial oppression. Around the same time that the Meulenhoff affair made the national news, Friduwih Riemersma (a white, cis-gender woman) was almost done with her own officially licensed translation of the poem into West Frysian.4 When the outrage directed at Meulenhoff led to questions regarding the choice of Riemersma as translator, Riemersma herself made the claim that she was an indigenous minority and, as such, was quite familiar with (cultural) oppression. Though obviously there is no question of racial oppression here, Riemersma’s claim was not wholly without merit. Consider the following lines from the poem:

That is the promised glade The hill we climb If only we dare It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit it’s the past we step into and how we repair it

Being American is about repairing one’s past. It isn’t strange to me that this idea should find an analogue in the idea that being Frisian is about rekindling the life of one’s own endangered language, a heartfelt, but quite possibly futile effort. It’s nothing to do with white supremacy, of course, but it is about repairing one’s past. In fact, with Benjamin we might say: just as Gorman was, in her way, healing her country with hopeful words at Biden’s inauguration, so too a Frysian translation reproduces that hope in a way that, for instance, a Dutch translation could never, simply because Frysian confronts a danger of extinction. All the same, De hichte beklimmen wy was eventually completed with the help of a black sensitivity reader, Michelle Samba, and that’s probably just as well. Nevertheless, I think the point stands: the only kind of lived experience that could be relevant for a poem, is the one expressed within it, the life of the poem itself. After all, the kind of life and death struggle evoked by the Frysian translation is a matter of the poem, not the translator specifically. In principle, therefore, anyone capable of grasping that life, should be capable of reproducing it.

Bibliography

Benjamin, Walter. 1997. “The Translator’s Task.” Translated by Steven Rendall. TTR: Traduction. Terminologie. Rédaction 10(2):151-65.

Gorman, Amanda. 2021. The Hill We Climb: An Inaugural Poem. With a foreword by Oprah Winfrey. New York: Random House.


  1. See also the rest of the article in De Volkskrant, “Opinie: Een witte vertaler voor poëzie van Amanda Gorman: onbegrijpelijk”, Volkskrant.nl (25 February 2021). ↩︎

  2. Catherine Clifford, “Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman used writing to overcome a speech impediment she had as recently as college”, CNBC (21 January 2021). ↩︎

  3. Benjamin speaks both of Überleben as well as Fortleben and uses them in a qualitatively different sense from the word ’life’, Leben↩︎

  4. Onno Falkena, “Eerste exemplaar van Amanda Gormans ‘De hichte beklimmen wy’ gepresenteerd in het Provinciehuis”, Omrop Fryslân, (11 February 2022). ↩︎