• The Publishing Post

Translating and Adapting Black Writing

By Toby Smollett and Kate Williams


For those outside of the field of translation, and in particular those who are monolingual, the act of translating is often perceived as a decontextualised process. Each word in the original text is translated to the word in the target language with the closest possible meaning. If any context is assumed to be taken into consideration when translating, it is only at sentence-level and there is little attention given to the context of both the original work and the translator.


In actuality, translation is best understood as a form of adaptation, as a process of “(re-)interpretation and (re-)creation” as Linda Hutcheon states in A Theory of Adaptation. This concept of interpretation is fundamental, as it is influenced by political, social and economic trends, and in particular the position of the translator in relation to them. These contexts constantly inform the choices of the translator. One such context is race.


A specific example of race playing a role in the interpretation and translation of a text is Aimé Césaire’s adaptation of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (Une Tempête). Césaire’s translation incorporates the concept of “Négritude,” which he helped to define during the 20th century, in order to challenge colonial thought present in the original work. He made pointed choices regarding the location of the story, the race of the characters and the events of the plot in his translation.


Firstly, the island on which the primary cast find themselves is moved from the Mediterranean Sea to the Caribbean Sea, which geographically provides a more immediate link to the history of colonialism undertaken by countries such as France and England. This choice of location and its allusion to colonialism is then made more stark by the designation of racial identities to certain characters: Caliban is specifically Black and Prospero is white, and so the original master/slave dynamic becomes more evident.


"If translators inevitably draw on their own lived experiences in their work, surely a Black translator would be the best choice?"

This dynamic is also marked by a shift in Caliban’s own behaviour, such as when he rejects the name forced on to him by the colonial power. He instead demands to be called X, saying “I don’t want to be called Caliban any longer.” Such alterations throughout the work demonstrate the way in which translation is not only a specific form of adaptation, but ultimately how crucial the context of race is in this act.


Considering this, to what extent does the concept of translation as adaptation affect the publishing industry? Should publishers take a translator’s race into account when deciding who to commission to translate their books? An article published in the New York Times earlier this year discusses this exact question following the controversy surrounding the translation of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb.” Certain publishers’ choice of a white translator was criticised for failing to recognise the potential impact that this could have on the finished translation. If translators inevitably draw on their own lived experiences in their work, surely a Black translator would be the best choice?


"The Black Dutch journalist, Janice Deul, believes so, arguing that the crux of the debate is “not about who can translate, it’s about who gets opportunities to translate.”"

The principal explanation given by these publishers was the difficulty in finding a suitable Black translator, given that most translators are white. According to a survey conducted by the American Literary Translators Association in 2020, “only 2 percent of the 362 translators who responded were Black.” Is this just another example of how the publishing industry has failed to represent the voices of BAME communities? The Black Dutch journalist, Janice Deul, believes so, arguing that the crux of the debate is “not about who can translate, it’s about who gets opportunities to translate.”


"translation does not need to be reserved to those with the privilege of extensive academic training, a field which has historically favoured white voices."

The question we should really be asking ourselves, it seems, is how we dismantle the barriers preventing Black people from becoming translators, and how to promote a more diverse range of voices in publishing. In the case of translating Gorman’s poem, some creative solutions were used to overcome this issue: both the Swedish and French editions were translated by Black musicians, showing that translation does not need to be reserved for those with the privilege of extensive academic training, a field which has historically favoured white voices. In Germany, a team of three translators from a range of different backgrounds collaborated to ensure that the finished translation conveyed Gorman’s message as accurately as possible.


Evidently, there still exist many issues in the publishing industry when it comes to translating Black writing. We hope that, in the near future, more publishers will look beyond conventional methods of translating and think of translation as adaptation, in order to represent a more broader range of voices and perspectives.


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