by Miroslav Imbrišević
‘The man who has no imagination has no wings.’
A new paradigm has emerged in literature and acting. Imagination and artistic ability are suspect unless they are accompanied by personal experience. This is the latest prescription in the arts. Social justice activists demand authenticity, if the art in question is from or about someone who belongs to a minority. As a consequence, the art of acting may be dying out, as the persona on stage and screen must be close to who you actually are, in real life. Moreover, literature and literary translations will have to be informed by first-hand experience, rather than spring from the writer’s imagination and facility with language.
The poetry of Amanda Gorman, Joe Biden’s inaugural poet, is to be translated into Dutch. The publisher, Meulenhoff, chose acclaimed poet and novelist Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for the job. Amanda Gorman and her team approved of this choice. But there was push-back. Janice Deul, a Dutch activist-journalist suggested that the Netherlands, having been a colonial power, was home to many young black writers, and that it was therefore incomprehensible to choose a white writer for the translation. Disapproval mounted on social media, and Rijneveld withdrew from the project.
Surprisingly [or perhaps not], Rijneveld agreed with her detractors, having apparently imbibed the new dogma. Rijneveld explained on Twitter that she “understood the people who felt hurt” by the decision to appoint her. She had been interested in “the richness of the language” and considered it her “greatest task to keep her [Gorman’s] strength, tone and style.” We know from the Dutch poet herself that Gorman’s team stood by Rijneveld after the push-back on social media began. But we haven’t heard anything from Gorman herself. Does she believe that the author’s artistic vision must take precedence and that she should be able to choose her own translator, without outside interference?
In the course of her objection, Deul made a social observation: minority populations and women (who are half of the population) are often overlooked or consciously excluded. Certainly, this is something we need to be aware of. Philosopher John Rawls maintained that offices and positions should be “open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.” But if we say outright that the job should go to a minority or female writer/translator, without entering into a selection process (i.e. an open competition), then everyone else is excluded.
Barack Obama’s inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, has had white translators for many European language translations. The same is true of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. There was no outcry. Do we now need new translations for these authors? Are the existing translations somehow faulty?
Long before the furore in the Netherlands, Gorman’s German publisher (Hoffmann & Campe) appointed an ethnically mixed trio of translators: one is white, one black and one German-Turkish. All are women. The French translation has been entrusted to the Belgian-Congolese musician Marie-Pierra Kakoma.
I don’t think that being a black writer is a necessary condition for translating another writer, who happens to be black. It may help your understanding of their biography, if you have had similar life experiences, particularly if these are reflected in the writing to be translated. But the central task of a translator is to render writing from one language into another; to re-create a work of art, with as little loss of meaning as possible, maintaining rhetorical devices like metaphors and euphemisms, or replacing them if need be, and imitating the cadence and the style as closely as possible. A necessary condition for being a literary translator is that you are a “Sprachkünstler” (an artist of language) yourself. It does not matter what the colour of your skin is.
In most cases, literary translators will develop a close relationship with their authors. They will have a lot of questions about certain expressions, about intended meaning, about deliberate ambiguity, etc. And if a writer is not with us any more, then the translator needs to do some research in order to clarify such uncertainties.
Often, artists don’t want to be pigeonholed. Writers resist labels like ‘gay writer’, ‘Jewish writer’, ‘woman writer’, ‘disabled writer’, African writer, etc, because this diminishes their art. It reduces what they do to one of their personal characteristics, but their art transcends these characteristics. Such attributes should not be decisive when picking a translator. Instead, it should be facility with the relevant language that qualifies a translator for the job.
Take the British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Nagasaki. Does his biography have to be replicated for all of his translators? Do we require a German writer, who was born in Japan, if we want to translate Ishiguro’s work into the language of Goethe? Do his translators have to be male?
Should we insist that only Jewish writers can translate Jewish writers; that only working-class writers can translate working-class writers; or that only an immigrant can translate an immigrant? If we follow this logic, all artists will be constrained by their ethnicity, sex, minority status, etc. Black female writers would have to write about the black female experience and nothing else. Such prescriptions only constrict the writer’s imagination. They do not promote or sustain art.
But this is not the end of the affair. Rijneveld has now responded to the furor by publishing a poem: “Everything inhabitable.” The poem was translated by Michele Hutchison, an accomplished translator who also turned Rijneveld’s novel The Discomfort of Evening into English. Author and translator are both female, although Rijneveld identifies as non-binary. So far, nobody has complained that this should disqualify Hutchison.
The fifth verse of the poem is central:
Never having lost that resistance and yet able to see when it
isn’t your place, when you must kneel before a poem because
another person is better at making it inhabitable; not out of
displeasure, not out of dismay, but because you know
there is so much inequality, people are still discriminated against
The narrator is involved in the same fight/resistance against injustice (as the underprivileged), but the narrator recognises when another can do a better job of inhabiting (i.e. translating) a poem. So, you kneel before the poem (alluding to Christian humility and to “taking a knee”) by Amanda Gorman, because such a self-denial (i.e. withdrawing from the commission) would be a better/more effective way to fight inequality and discrimination.
The title, “Everything inhabitable,” is more ambiguous in English than it is in Dutch or German. Does it mean that writers have the ability to inhabit any perspective (“everything [is] inhabitable”), or does it refer to “everything that is possibly inhabitable,” excluding certain things (i.e. a perspective which is alien to you)? The comparative (‘better’) suggest that it is the first interpretation: everything is inhabitable, but some writers/translators are better than others when it comes to inhabiting a perspective. The question is, does being black make you the better translator? Gorman certainly didn’t think so.
It is noteworthy that Rijneveld chose a poem for her response. Why not prose? I suspect she had something to prove. The poem shows that Rijneveld is an equal to Gorman when it comes to imagery, feel for language and concern for injustice. Even though she re-affirms her decision to withdraw from the commission, the power of this poem should confound the critics. The subliminal message of the poem is that Rijneveld could have done a great job in translating The Hill We Climb.
Here is my message to any future publishers: If my novel about growing up in Germany, as a child of immigrants, ever gets published, I will not stipulate that my translators have to be children of immigrants. I don’t care whether they are or not, I only want someone who has a feel for language. I want the better translator.
In August 2020 American-Dominican actress Zoe Saldana apologised for playing Nina Simone, in a 2016 biopic. “I thought back then that I had the permission [to play her] because I was a black woman,” she said. “And I am. But it was Nina Simone. And Nina had a life and she had a journey that should have been – and should be – honoured to the most specific detail because she was a specifically detailed individual.” Saldana continued: ‘With that said: I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I know better today and I’m never going to do that again.”
From Saldana’s statements you get the impression that she felt the need to assert her blackness. Her casting in Nina came in for criticism from Nina Simone’s family: “Instead of hiring a dark-skinned, wide-nosed woman – a type generally overlooked by Hollywood, the light-skinned, slender-nosed, Dominican Saldana was given the role.” There are two assumptions here: you should only cast actors who look like the person they will be portraying, and you should cast actors who are usually overlooked (this is a ‘social justice’ issue).
Some critics focused on “her lack of both singing experience and resemblance to the singer and civil rights activist.” I don’t think that lack of experience is an insurmountable problem. There have been many actors with little or no singing experience (Lee Marvin, for example) who have won over movie audiences. Creating the illusion of resemblance is usually helped by the make-up department, but most of all by the acting: i.e. through mannerisms, deportment, and voice. Gillian Anderson doesn’t resemble Margaret Thatcher in real life, but she gives a credible performance in The Crown; Brian Cox doesn’t look like Winston Churchill, but he was praised for his acting, in the role.
It looks like Saldana was in a no-win situation. She was also criticised for trying to look like Nina Simone: she “darkened her face with make-up and wore a prosthetic nose during the shoot.” Is it an association with blackface that drives the critics? But that would be mistaken. Here is a black actress who wants to look the part. Nicole Kidman did the same when she wore a prosthetic nose, playing Virginia Woolf in The Hours.
Since 2009 Saldana has played the role of Lieutenant Uhura in the Star Trek movies, a black icon. She doesn’t look like the original cast member of the TV series, Nichelle Nichols, but audiences don’t seem to mind, because she does a good job in portraying Uhura.
Saldana’s views about acting have changed. Back in 2013 she defended taking the role: “Let me tell you, if Elizabeth Taylor can be Cleopatra, I can be Nina – I’m sorry. It doesn’t matter how much backlash I will get for it. I will honour and respect my black community because that’s who I am.” At that time Saldana took the reasonable view that acting involves pretending to be someone you are not. But then, in 2020, she no longer felt right for the role, because Nina Simone was a “specifically detailed” person (whatever that is supposed to mean). Surely, a good actor could have brought these “details” to the screen.
The scope of acting seems to have narrowed. You need permission from self-appointed guardians of authenticity to take certain roles. Halle Berry apologised for considering the role of a transgender man; similarly, Scarlett Johansson. James Corden played a gay man in The Prom. One critic called the performance “gross and offensive, the worst gayface in a long, long time.” Actor Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings) defended his decision to play a gay character: “Actors are actors – whether playing gay characters or in other roles.” And Mortensen joked: “I apologise to all the proctologists for casting David Cronenberg,” who plays a colorectal surgeon in the movie. Australian actress Kate Blanchet, having played a lesbian in Carol (2015), was equally defiant: “I will fight to the death for the right to suspend disbelief and play roles beyond my experience.” She explained that it is a mistake to “expect and only expect people to make a profound connection to a character when it’s close to their experience.” Contrast this with Kristen Stewart’s view: “I would never want to tell a story that really should be told by somebody who’s lived that experience.”
Some younger writers would agree with Kristen Stewart’s take on telling stories. Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel prize in literature, recently said that he is “worried that less established authors were self-censoring by avoiding writing from certain viewpoints or including characters outside their immediate experiences.” Ishiguro’s first book was written from the perspective of a woman. Are only women allowed to write from the female perspective and only men from the male perspective? His latest novel, Klara and the Sun, is narrated by a “little girl AI robot.” As Ishiguro explained, “Novelists should feel free to write from whichever viewpoint they wish or represent all kinds of views.”
So, what we are confronted with is a new understanding of the art of acting: If you want to portray someone who belongs to a marginalised group, then you need to belong to this group, and only actors who have had a particular experience may portray that experience. This means that only a disabled actor may play a disabled character; only a gay actor may play a gay character; etc. If we take this to its logical conclusion, then only a working-class actor from the Gorbals (a rough area in Glasgow) may play a Glasgow gangster from the Gorbals. If no such actor is available, then we would presumably need to shut down the project. And should we not insist that only real aliens may appear on Star Trek next to Saldana, playing Lieutenant Uhura? The idea that people can only play themselves means that the art of acting – which is the art of inhabiting a role – will die out. When actors seek authenticity, they spend time with the kinds of people with whom they are not familiar, whether ex-prisoners, the homeless, migrants, etc., or they do other relevant kinds of research. If we insisted on these new casting principles, we would lose out on performances like those of Leonardi DiCaprio in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.
Bigotry, Economics, and “Authenticity”
We encounter racists, misogynists, anti-Semites, homophobes, etc. in all walks of life. Ironically, the resulting injustice is often the subject matter of art. But overlooking certain artists may not always be the result of bigotry. Publishers may choose translators who are themselves well known writers (like Rijneveld). This is a safe bet (they can write), and their profile might increase readership. We find the same financial incentives in Hollywood. A well-known actor might secure the finances for a movie, and later this will increase box-office earnings.
The social justice argument has two strands: economic welfare and authenticity. There are few roles for actors who belong to minority groups. Why not give the role of an amputee to an actor who is actually an amputee? If the role goes to a non-minority actor, then they are taking away somebody else’s livelihood. Secondly, it is claimed, that only a disabled actor can bring the story of an amputee to life (recall Kristen Stewart). But this reasoning is mistaken. The actor best suited for the role should get the part, whether they belong to the relevant minority group or not, and regardless of whether or not they have had similar experiences. Furthermore, actors are not chosen in order to provide employment, they are chosen because they are the best fit for the part. Casting decisions are not a tool for social policy. Neither actors not writers/translators are “fungible goods.” You cannot exchange them at will. In literature and in acting, we should be guided by artistic ability.
The “authenticity” argument subverts a central premise of art, which is imagination. If a writer (or translator) may not write from a different perspective and an actor may not inhabit a role, which is far removed from his or her own life, then art suffers, and we, as lovers of art, lose out.
Just one more thing. If my novel makes it to the big screen, then I’d be happy with Viggo Mortensen playing me in my later years as a philosophy teacher, even though our biographies are miles apart, because he is a great actor.
 It is not clear to me how the experience of the daughter of Muslim immigrants is relevant.
 Having read both the German (which is closer to Dutch than English) and English translation, and having looked at the Dutch original, I have made some small adjustments to the English version by Michele Hutchison. And I think we can safely say that the discrepancy about gender identity between author and translator didn’t spoil Hutchison’s translation.
 There is one exception to my reasoning on acting, which is rooted in past injustice. Because of the history of slavery and particularly the 19th century minstrel shows, white actors should not play black characters.