Imagination Under Threat: New Constraints on Literature and Acting

by Miroslav Imbrišević

‘The man who has no imagination has no wings.’

–Muhammad Ali

___

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.

Literature

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3]

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.

Acting

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.[4]

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.

Notes

[1] It is not clear to me how the experience of the daughter of Muslim immigrants is relevant.

[2] Not so Toni Morrison, who sees herself as a black writer, writing for black people.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

52 comments

  1. YES! Fucking THANK YOU! Especially the whole “women writers” noise. That is so condescending and I really wish other women would stop diminishing the craft of themselves, and women as a whole, by playing into that.
    Also, in what world are women given less opportunities than men? Like despite the fact that MORE women graduate college than men, women are given the majority of scholarships. It’s a crock. Feminism is a load of nonsense. Women are not oppressed.

      1. Really? You think most of the world does less side-lining and oppression of women than Japan? Throw a dart at a world map and test your hypothesis.

        1. Wow, not sure what to call this, because it isn’t just a misinterpretation or a misreading of something which might be ambiguous or lacking in clarity. The adjectives ‘crass’ and ‘blatant’ are signposts. Try reading this again: “I suspect that the side-lining and oppression of women is not as blatant in other countries, but it’s still there.” This is a comparison: the side-lining and oppression is present in other countries, but it isn’t as ‘blatant’.

          The side-lining and oppression in other countries used to be blatant though. Take Ruth Bader Ginsberg. When she was admitted to Harvard Law School, the Dean told her: “You know you are taking the place of a man.” The oppression of women is far more subtle nowadays [‘subtle’ in this sentence functions as the opposite of ‘blatant’, by the way].

          But your comment is interesting. Are people nowadays so desperate to be ‘outraged’ that they ignore what’s actually on the page? But I am sure there are many more possible explanations. Let me assure you that I am not outraged, I am just shaking my head in disbelief.

  2. It’s interesting, becaues one of my favorite writers is James Baldwin, and Baldwin gets tricky regarding this point. My favorite novel of his is Another Country, where he very successfully writes characters male and female, black and white. Then again, none of the characters in that book have the types of stories or experiences that would classify (if I recall) as “uniquely black” or “uniquely white.” Of course, other books of his – especially his Fire Next Time essays, or even Go Tell it on the Mountain, seem like they’d be really hard for someone who isn’t black to have written (just as Giovanni’s Room would be just a bit more odd and probably less believable had a straight man had written it, and especially if we read it KNOWING that a straight man had written it).

    You bring up the case of the Dutch translator of Gorman’s poetry, and I find it as head-scratching as you do. For, here, we are arguably not even talking about the creation of art itself, but translating it between languages. Like you, I can think of no good reason skin color or ethnicity (or anything other than mastery of both languages) is a prerequisite for the job. The ONLY case I find remotely plausible is the one that wasn’t made by anyone: Gorman is black, and in the name of making sure black translators get more jobs in a world where they are likely (?) to get less, we want a black translator.” But no one made that argument. And what’s more, I have not seen a single story trying to figure out whether Gorman is on board with the decision and reason; it is almost like we are all too busy being offended on behalf of the artist that we forget the will of the artist.

    The cases that I can see some merit for is the cases of cis actors playing trans charcters. This is not to do with some idea that to play a trans character, you must know “the” trans expereince, for that would be antithetical to the entire idea of acting. Rather, it is because I suspect there are trans actors out there who have talent and are struggling for work maybe even owing to their being trans (either because their expression is too ambiguous to play, say, the rugged action hero, or becaue when you put a trans actor into a cis role, people are likely to keep reminding themselves that this is a TRANS actor.) If that’s right, I think it is generally a good idea to give trans actors some preference in casting trans roles. Not because cis actors can’t do it, but because trans actors probably get fewer roles coming their way.

    Lasltly, I will say that I found the Saldana/Simone example also mystifying but for a different reason. Saldana, as she says, does qualify by conventional categorization as black, just not the “kind of black” Simone was. When the shit went down, I had to look up her “ethnic origin” (trying not to gag at the absurdity of doing that) to see what the fuss was about. I had no idea – nor, I bet, did most – that she was Dominican and Puerto Rican. But then again, the idea of race is a fantastically bad one from which no good thing has ever been birthed. And this just shows the absurdity of it: when “black” comes to be a blanket term for people of African, Puerto Rican, Jamaican, and Dominican dissent, and there are “different kinds of black,” you have to wonder if the category tells us anything worth caring about. Don’t you?

    1. Thank you Kevin. As I say in my essay, I don’t believe in the ‘economic welfare’ argument for casting actors. Wouldn’t that have to apply to all minority actors – not just to trans actors?

      I think sometimes there can be good reasons not to cast according to lived experience, namely, when we are dealing with impressionable (and perhaps confused) teenagers. In the TV series ‘The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ the character of Susie becomes ‘Theo’. And it is so easy to change from girl to boy – see the dialogue at 2 Minutes into the clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=292fWuhhVuY

      The actor playing Susie/Theo [Lachlan Watson] previously came out as a lesbian, then a transgender man, and now identifies as NB’ – this suggests a certain level of confusion. What I find ‘chilling’ is that the young actor announced [at the age of 18] that they had had ‘top surgery’ [a euphemism for amputation of your breasts]. For confused teenagers, who are watching the show, everything seems so easy on Sabrina, and this is then confirmed in real life by the actor playing Theo: just chop your breasts off and this will make you free/happy.
      https://www.refinery29.com/en-gb/2019/05/234065/lachlan-watson-top-surgery-scar-interview

      Lachlan also says in the interview: ‘But how is a scar different from a tattoo? To me, it’s art.’ and ‘I’ve always loved getting scars.’ Considering how many teenage girls are ‘cutting’ themselves, such statements also give me the chills.

      1. “Wouldn’t that have to apply to all minority actors – not just to trans actors?”

        Oh, I think it could be quite justifiable, especially (or maybe even only) in the case of actors whose minority status leaves some sort of physical trace that might prevent or lessen their chances of gaining roles for characters outside of that minority group.

        Take movies or shows where there are characters who are black. It would be really odd to cast a white actor in one of those roles and figure out cosmetic ways to darken their skin. Why? Well, first, the aesthetics would arguably harder to do compared to hiring a black actor for the role. But also, becasue there are a lot of black actors who arguably have the talent and ability to plaly those roles, and I’m only guessing here, but I bet those black actors are more limited to black roles (a smaller set of roles) than white actors are by (more plentiful) white roles.

        I’m not arguing that this should be some sort of governmentally enforced policy. But I am arguing that if a director or casting agent said that they only looked at trans actors for trans roles and employed that rationale, I think it would be pretty justifaible. I also think it’d be justifiable if fans were outraged by casting a cis actor in a trans role for similar reaosns.

        I am not sure, of course, that that reasoning would extend to gay actors playing straight characters, because either can likely pull off roles designed for the other, and there would be no physical reason why gay actors would be limited to roles for gay characters.

        But yes, I can see the ‘economic welfare’ rationale applying in the case of several minorities.

        1. Kevin wrote:”I’m not arguing that this should be some sort of governmentally enforced policy. But I am arguing that if a director or casting agent said that they only looked at trans actors for trans roles and employed that rationale, I think it would be pretty justifaible. I also think it’d be justifiable if fans were outraged by casting a cis actor in a trans role for similar reasons”

          I don’t see a good justifiable reason why non-trans actors shouldn’t play trans characters. Felicity Huffman did it in TransAmerica (2005). She won a Golden Globe Award for it, and was nominated for an Academy Award (Best Actress), as well as winning numerous independent awards. But even way before that, John Lithgow played a trans character in The World According to Garp (1982). He was also nominated for an Academy Award (Best Supporting Actor).

          It’s actually not very different from gay or straight actors playing opposite roles. There is no physical reason either. It’s just a question of: Is it done well, and do they do that character justice, or does that trans character trade on negative or misleading stereotypical tropes?

          I’m not even against white actors playing black characters (e.g. Robert Downey Jr. in Tropic Thunder 2008) or vice versa (e.g. Wayans brothers in White Chicks 2004). Now these are of course comedies, but again, context is everything. That said, I might draw the line at Al Jolson in the Jazz Singer (1927), so let’s hope there’s not an exact remake of that — notwithstanding the 1980 remake starring Neil Diamond (an awful, but not racist movie).

          1. How can you tell the story of Al Jolson and omit depicting his use of black face? Not to mention his obvious benign naivety in the context of being a creature of his time and the respectful pathos and soul of black culture he poignantly emoted juxtaposed to the Jewish experience. In his private life he was a great friend and spokesman to and for his black colleagues. But, of course, he is now vilified and there are those that will excise this instructive period of Americana. Like I tell some of my black friends, lighten up a little.

        2. I’m as sick of fan outrage as I am calling out. Whenever I see people behaving this way, I always ask the same two questions: “Who are you? Do you matter in some way?”

    2. I could not more categorically disagree with your second to last paragraph. And I can’t imagine the effect if it’s logic was applied more generally.

        1. Yours. This one.

          “The cases that I can see some merit for is the cases of cis actors playing trans charcters. This is not to do with some idea that to play a trans character, you must know “the” trans expereince, for that would be antithetical to the entire idea of acting. Rather, it is because I suspect there are trans actors out there who have talent and are struggling for work maybe even owing to their being trans (either because their expression is too ambiguous to play, say, the rugged action hero, or becaue when you put a trans actor into a cis role, people are likely to keep reminding themselves that this is a TRANS actor.) If that’s right, I think it is generally a good idea to give trans actors some preference in casting trans roles. Not because cis actors can’t do it, but because trans actors probably get fewer roles coming their way.”

          1. Ah. Would you give me a sense of why you disagree with it or what the disagreement is? Miroslav wasn’t convinced either, so I tried to elaborate my reasoning there. The only thing I’d readily concede if challenged at the moment is WHETHER it is true that, say, trans actors or black actors are more constrained by what roles they can often get owing to physical appearance. If that turns out false – and I’m only guessing it is true – may case would be weak.

          2. “I said what is wrong with it in my comment.”

            Not that I can see. Here’s what I see: “I could not more categorically disagree with your second to last paragraph. And I can’t imagine the effect if it’s logic was applied more generally.”

            Is it just that latter point? that doing it would have a bad effect on (I assume) art if applied generally? I am ot sure I see how a company confining itself to, say, trans actors for trans parts or black actors for black parts would make art (in this case, film) appreciably worse.

          3. Yes, it is the latter point. And the two examples you give are not the only two that would obtain, were the logic applied more generally.

            I also just find it intrinsically objectionable. The point is not that the physical characteristics of an actor or actress should never be relevant in casting, but rather that it would not cut according to group identities, in the way the logic you suggest would do it.

          4. Dan,

            I’m afraid the part about employment is an extremely valid point. At least it has been historically and often lamented by black and minority actors. Let’s face it that the dominant white culture as embodied in Hollywood has often been blind to these considerations and only motivated by profit and keeping white asses in the theater seats. This has always been a struggle of supply and demand. It is only now shifting to be more inclusive with greater awareness and the realization of untapped profits to be had in a “browning “ and more accepting demographic. It is definitely something to give serious consideration to without necessitating a mandate that cripples the creative expression. And we cannot dismiss profit.

          5. As I indicated, I have no difficulty with particular cases and particular choices, being made under particular circumstances, but I don’t see how any general extension of the underlying principle could fail to violate core liberal values that I believe must be protected.

  3. Gorman’s poem:

    It is the reductio ad absurdum of the identity cum standpoint nonsense. It is also an astonishingly bad poem with too many ideas, too many images, verbose and prosy. She’s young and that’s eminently fixable. I fear that fame will be ruinous for her and encourage her poetastery. The problem for her is that as a protected person she will not get much honest criticism.

  4. The case of Marieke Lucas Rijneveld actually has several layers.

    In her literary work, she apparently never showed affinity with the type of poetry Amanda Gorman writes. Moreover, she has admitted in the past that her English is below par. There were good reasons to criticize the choice Meulenhoff made. More than one onlooker got the impression that Rijneveld wasn’t chosen because of her qualities as a translator. It’s not forbidden to feel that she benefitted from “privilege”.

    But where did the privilege come from? She won a Booker prize of course, but perhaps there’s another reason: Rijneveld identifies as non-binary.

    It’s possible (and even likely in my opinion) that Meulenhoff wanted to make a clever commercial move: inviting a well-known young author and showing at the same time its woke credentials. If this analysis is correct, Rijneveld indeed had privilege, not because she is white but because she belongs to a woke category that’s quite hot nowadays.

    Alas! The privilege-calculator of Meulenhoff got it wrong. They forgot to tap the skin color-key. I pity Meulenhoff. You want to do The Right Thing and then it explodes in your face.

  5. Another instructive case we coud bring in is the novel American Dirt, about the journey of fictional Mexican (if memory serves) immigrants. The book caused an uproar among a certain type of person who is likely to be angry at Zoe Salana, etc too.

    But the issue there was NOT particualrly that a non-immigrant Jeanine Cummins wrote the book. It was more about (a) Cummins’s effort to make more of her Mexican ancestry than it really bore out (I think one of her grandparents was from Mexio); and (b) the allegation that she just got stuff wrong about the (ilegal) immigration process (which brings up to me questions about whether there is “a’ singular process one can get things wrong about, but what evs).

    So, in cases like this, it seems like (as with rules against cultural appropriation) the rule USED to be “don’t be a dick; treat your subjects and their cultures/identities with respect.” I can get with that rule, and think those who don’t follow it SHOULD be called out. But now the rule seems to have crept into “just don’t.” And yes, I worry about the state of art forms if “stay in your ethnic/gender/sexuality/whatever lane.” Some artists have success staying in their lane. Then there is Zadie Smith, James Baldwin, etc.

    1. I’m really sick not just of “calling out,” but of people thinking that they have some kind of authority to do so, beyond self-importance.

      Seems to me the best reply to being “called out” is a quick “fuck off”.

      1. What authority does someone either need or claim when they ‘call out’ another? If I see someone doing something I believe to be wrong, do I have to wait until I have some authority to be confident that I can ‘call them out”? I always thought that a ‘callout’ was simply voicing when one thinks that someone else is doing something wrong.

        And, OF COURSE a potential response is “Fuck off.” Why wouldn’t it be? I’m not suggesting that the act of calling someone out effectively shuts down the other’s ability to shrug it off or do anything short of grovel “You got me!”

          1. I bet you would do that only if the thing you saw others doing wrong wasn’t something you regarded as terribly important. I doubt you would wait to call someone out if you witnessed them sexually harassing another just because you didn’t believe you had moral authority over them.

          2. Don’t waste your money. You’ll lose it.

            I don’t “call out” anyone. If I see a crime, I may report it to the proper authorities or I may intervene myself, depending on the situation. But I don’t go around “calling out” people for what I take to be moral offences. And if I did, I’d expect to get punched in the face or at least told to fuck off and mind my own business.

            People are allowed to be immoral jerks. And no one needs a bunch of self-important, self-appointed moral deputies going around “calling them out.”

          3. “I don’t “call out” anyone. If I see a crime, I may report it to the proper authorities or I may intervene myself, depending on the situation. But I don’t go around “calling out” people for what I take to be moral offences. And if I did, I’d expect to get punched in the face or at least told to fuck off and mind my own business.”

            I can see a case for that in many contexts. But in other contexts – if I think a media company is making a bad because immoral choice – it may be the best way to make the call-out in public and see if others might do the same. That is, I can register an individual complaint to the company, but I doubt it would come to as much or be as effective as if I try to get some sort of social media campaign going to let others know about the decision I think is immoral and see if I can get enough of them to agree. Movie (and media) companies will likely be move more by public callouts than private complaints registered “to the proper authorities.”

            Have you ever protested anything, Dan? Do you condemn all protests? If yes to the former or no to the latter, what is a protest but a big callout?

          4. In protests one is generally acting as a citizen against some public wrong or injustice, for example, Bush 2’s decision to invade Iraq or against the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

            That seems different than playing moral police, that is, going around condemning other individuals for their actions which one deems to be immoral or wrong. I agree that if one sees a crime being committed, one should call the police, but if I see a neighbor or anyone else behaving in an immoral way, say, being sexist to his wife or behaving like an asshole as a parent or making racist comments or not wearing a mask during a pandemic, then I agree with Dan that I’m not the moral police and in fact, it’s probably better than there are no moral police, just a police force which deals with real crimes.

  6. I am surprised about Amanda Gorman’s silence. Does she approve of replacing translators who ‘don’t fit the profile’? Or does she not want to get involved in a public row [or has she been advised not to do so]?

    1. My guess – and it is a guess – is that she knows she has nothing to gain from inserting herself into the mix. Either she believe the ‘canceling’ decision was right – in which case, she is getting what she wants and why risk doing anything other than let people infer that you endorse the decision by staying silent? OR, she probably doesn’t see the decision as materially affecting anything she cares about – getting her poems translated – and, if that, doesn’t want to risk evoking anyone’s ire by inserting herself into (what may be to her) a trivial matter.

  7. The points about employment equality are not specific to the arts, or any single episode. They rely on statistical facts about workplace representation of different groups, from which we can infer biases in hiring. The assumption is that skin color or amputation is uncorrelated with acting ability, or that if it is, this is due to lack of opportunity. No-one is attacking the casting of Hamilton (AFAIK). As to lighter skinned versus darker skinned actors, this has been a sore point for decades, quite aside from its effects in everyday life.

    As to authenticity, this is partly tied up with cultural background and, dare I say it, appropriation. That is, liberal versus communitarian.There is something to the Romantic view of the uniqueness of the artist, including the very interesting idea of the voice of the translator, especially for poetry. But not the whole story for many.

  8. Translators are employers of the original writers and their publishers. As such, they are under demands that their employers think will effect their market. On the other hand, writers themselves are the final judges on the content they produce, and whether they want that content to conform to a given market, or whether they want to risk effectively generating their own market by following their ‘muse,’ so to speak, writing what they will as they will, and finding sympathetic publishers somehow and sympathetic readers.

    Writing and publishing are commercial enterprises. We have developed a lot of talk denying this, but ultimately we are discussing markets and profitability.

    As to the question of “personal experience,” I learned a long time ago (from Lou Reed, whose autobiographical lyrics are actually few and far between), that personal experience doesn’t make very interesting reading – actually, it’s pretty boring. A good writer doesn’t bother with his or her own story, but always find stories to tell that are interesting in themselves. Melville exhausted his own experiences after a single book, started getting dull and redundant, then wrote Moby Dick. Whom did Dostoevsky murder to write Crime and Punishment? What experience did Voltaire have before Candid? Whitman celebrates experience, with a passion, but very few of those reported in Leaves of Grass are really strictly his own. And when precisely was Shakespeare the Prince of Denmark?

    Agatha Christie was the most popular British mystery writer of the 20th century – she wasn’t a short fat Belgian with a mustache, as I recall….

    The most popular American mystery writer of the 20th century, Mickey Spillane, put the matter simply – it’s all about the cash. What, you say? Spillane wasn’t a very good writer? Agreed. That’s the whole point. Writing and publishing are commercial enterprises. Approaching these questions with clear sight and an open mind demands we bear that in mind.

    The rest is aesthetics – and aesthetics butter no parsnips.

  9. I did want to make a last remark – concerning writers who do feel as though they have something serious or interesting to say – such writers will not give a merry fuck what social pressure might be brought to bear on their writing – they will have to find their own way to their own markets, assuredly, but if they surrender to such pressure, they will be wasting their time and their readers’. Say what you have to say or shut up.

  10. The ‘lived experience’ doctrine has limitations. As I said, if there is no actor available who has the right background, then the project might have to be shelved, or we resort to the tried and tested method: acting. We face similar problems with the availability of translators. There will be languages where none of the translators ‘fit the profile’. Either we put the project on hold until a ‘suitable’ translator appears, or we appoint someone from the group of available translators. If we choose the latter approach, then we are guided by the idea that disseminating art is more important than to follow the ‘lived experience’ doctrine.

    As David [https://theelectricagora.com/2021/03/12/imagination-under-threat-new-constraints-on-literature-and-acting/#comment-17529] has pointed out, there may be a misguided notion of appropriation in play here. Is the translator appropriating something from another culture and profiting from it, thus depriving the original creators of what rightly belongs to them? Well, the author usually wants their writing to be disseminated into other languages/cultures; the process of translation is author-driven. Thus, it would be ok for translators to ‘profit’ from their translation work. Of course, the irony is that translators are notoriously badly paid.

      1. David Duffy:
        I followed through that link to the ‘conversation’ article. When I came to the paragraph heading ‘translation is domination’ I kept reading to find out what sort of counter intuitive reason might be proffered. None that made any sense was my assessment. Yes of course lawyers will mine the small print in any language but literary translation which was the ostensible subject of the essay must be seen as a homage. Gorman’s poem would be bad in any language that was true to the original. That is not a political statement. To imagine that it is shows the decline of rational discourse when infected by the virus of political sectionism.

        1. I think this was a more general remark rather than specific to the original example. After all, resistance and diplomacy weren’t directly relevant either, despite the (I thought, unsuccessful) attempt to tie in the latter.

        2. Translation isn’t always domination, but it can be used in this way. The example given in the Conversation article are treaties with indigenous people – the translation mis-respresents the substance of the treaty.

          The question is: does the attitude of the conqueror, invader and coloniser persist to the present, when it comes to translating literature? Is there a danger that a non-minority translator will take the opportunity to dominate the discourse by giving the translation a certain spin? Not normally, because your average translator doesn’t have an ideological agenda – but it is conceivable, e.g. when there is a historical dispute. Take the relationship between Korea and Japan. A Korean novel about the occupation by the Japanese, referring to Korean women (forced to be military sex slaves by the Japanese army) as ‘sex slaves’, will likely be translated as ‘comfort women’ into Japanese. This has been the preferred euphemism in Japan, and I suspect this hasn’t changed. By using this language you can take charge of the (historical) narrative. But instances like this will be rare, mostly related to historical conflicts between states/ethnic groups (think Balkans!).

  11. “Melville exhausted his own experiences after a single book, started getting dull and redundant, then wrote Moby Dick.”

    Let me do what people love to do on the internet and point out this is completely wrong. Melville wrote Typee and Omoo based on personal experience, then wrote White Jacket very popular in its day, then wrote several critically acclaimed short stories and novels (Confidence man among them), then turned to epic poetry and finally did Moby Dick, which was also based on his personal experience on board a whaler. The fact is most novelists can only write “What they know”. Which is why many of them author a couple good/great books and then decline in quality. They don’t have the imagination to create stuff they don’t know.

    1. Short hand, and as such somewhat inaccurate, but hardly “completely wrong.” One can certainly argue over the literary sucess Melville enjoyed in his novels between Typee and Moby Dick. These do not include The Confidence Man, BTW which was a later novel than MD, in the period Melville struggled with the colossal commercial – and critical – failure of Moby Dick (it sold only a hundred copies, if I remember correctly, mostly in England). Moby Dick brings together a large number of literary and journalistic influences – among the former Hawthorne and Shakespeare, among the latter reports of the sinking of the Essex and the hunt for the albino Mocha Dick. But most importantly, although certainly Melville incorporates what he had learned from his own experiences, MD is no longer the story of Herman Melville, but that of Ishmael and Ahab, and of all the lost souls sailing on the Pequod; as well as that of the whaling industry itself and the culture surrounding it, and even of the whales themselves.

      “The fact is most novelists can only write “What they know”. Which is why many of them author a couple good/great books and then decline in quality. They don’t have the imagination to create stuff they don’t know.” That only tells us why most novels are not on a par with a work like Moby Dick.

      As to your other comment: I was quite enamored of Mickey Spillane’s novels when I was young. But comparing the sloppy purple prose of his narcissistic narrators with the clarity of precision of the prose with which Hammett studies character seems to me to compare A Big Mac with a well-cooked steak. And it’s not entirely fair to Spillane, who never intended to write well or achieve literary respect. He was an avowedly commercial story-teller who sought to make a good living entertaining his readers, and he achieved this quite well. Spillane’s novels can be very entertaining. Are they as significant as Hammett’s best? I personally do not find them thus. But this may be just a matter of taste; politics having little to do with it. I still think fondly, even admiringly, of Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s first two novels, and am still saddened, disgusted, and disheartened by his later rabid anti-Semitism and collaboration with the Nazis. Does his later idiocy detract from the literary achievement of Journey to the End of the Night? I personally don’t think so; but there are a lot of authors whose works linger under shadows cast by their misguided politics, left or right. I have trouble respecting Brecht, knowing that his ends his career as apologist for the East German dictatorship; but Three Penny Opera still remains incisive and entertaining.

      Spillane began as a comic book writer, he remained a comic-book writer in essence his whole career, he never aspired to be anything other than a commercially successful comic-book writer, and he achieved that. His stories are entertaining, let them be as such. For deeper reads, I prefer writing that doesn’t offer easy answers, such as that of Hammett’s.For even deeper reads, I go to works like Moby Dick, where I enveloped in a world I’ve never been to before, struggling even to find the right questions to ask.

      After a tortuous inquiry into the probable zoological classification of the whale, Ishmael tells us that it’s just a big fish. I know that a whale is not a fish; But I haven’t asked the real question Ishmael is answering. Sometimes I know what it is; sometimes I don’t. So I’ll have to read the novel again, see what I can up with….

      1. Great reply. I like Spillane’s prose but I wouldn’t say it was better than Hammett’s. Your description of it being more “Pulpy” is spot on, though I wouldn’t call it “sloppy” This is based on his first 4-5 books.

        Obviously, Hammett wrote one great novel, “The Maltese Falcon” while Spillane never wrote anything as good (few have). My only problem with Hammett is his prose can be so lean as to leave out characterization and emotion. One can impute it, but its often missing. And in the end, I prefer Chandler to Spillane or Hammett. He brought the wisecrack and the wry comment to the Detective novel and he’s “hardboiled” dialogue has been copied and parodied ever since. The people in his novel’s come alive to a larger extent than Hammett.

  12. what the purpose of writing stuff like “Vomit” or “Trump lost get over it”. This isn’t twitter.

  13. Final remark. Spillane was a very good writer. Almost as good as Hammett. But he wasn’t a commie, he was anti-communist. So, the liberals/Leftsts who make up the literary establishment and English professors hate him. I, the Jury and Kiss me Deadly and One lonely night are great reads up there with Red Harvest and The Glass Key.

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