A white Dutch author has stepped down from translating U.S. Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s work into the Dutch language after a supposed “uproar” the job didn’t go to a Black person. However, not everyone is upset about it.
Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, 29, a white writer that made history in 2020 as the youngest person and first Dutch author to win the International Booker Prize, announced being “honored” to be selected by Dutch publisher Meulenhoff to translate some of Gorman’s work on Twitter Tuesday, Feb. 23.
They included Gorman’s now historic poem she recited for President Joe Biden’s inauguration, “The Hill We Climb,” and her poetry collection of the same name.
“At a time of increasing polarization, Amanda Gorman shows in her young voice the power of spoken word, the power of reconciliation, the power of someone who looks to the future instead of looking down. When I was asked to translate all I could do was say yes and get behind her,” Rijnevald tweeted. Gorman retweeted the announcement of what Rijneveld called “wonderful news.”
However, not everyone was happy about it. Black Dutch activist and journalist Janice Deul took issue with Rijnevald not being Black and aired out her frustrations in an op-ed in “de Volksrant.”
“An incomprehensible choice, in my view and that of many others who expressed their pain, frustration, anger and disappointment via social media,” Deul wrote in Dutch, here translated to English. “Isn’t it — to say the least — a missed opportunity to [have hired] Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job? They are white, nonbinary, have no experience in this field, but according to Meulenhoff are still the ‘dream translator’?”
Deul then added, “Not to take anything away from Rijneveld’s qualities, but why not choose a writer who is — just like Gorman — [a] spoken word artist, young, female and unapologetically black?”
Deul was joined by several others in criticizing Rijneveld including a Twitter user identified as Maarten Steenhagen, who states he is a philosopher in his bio and user @pepperonina, a self-described media scholar.
“All I could do was say yes and get behind her”. Really? Why couldn’t you have declined and suggested to Meulenhoff that there are more appropriate translators of Gorman’s poetic voice, and then ‘get behind’ her?” Steenhagen wrote.
“‘Polarization’ is a rather perfunctory response to the critique coming from Dutch Black circles about this news. The point is: NL Black writers/spoken word artists have a hard time finding NL publishers, let alone being read, being heard, being reviewed by mainstream NL media.”
Rijnevald stepped down from the project three days after her initial announcement and wished Gorman well in getting her work translated.
“I am shocked by the uproar surrounding my involvement in the spread of Amanda Gorman’s message and I understand the people who feel hurt by Meulenhoff’s choice to ask me,” Rijneveld tweeted in Dutch, here translated to English. “I had happily devoted myself to translating Amanda’s work, seeing it as the greatest task to keep her strength, tone and style. However, I realise that I am in a position to think and feel that way, where many are not. I still wish that her ideas reach as many readers as possible and open hearts.”
Deul released a statement to Rijneveld, tweeting, “Thank you for this decision.” However, many – including other Black people – came to Rijnevald’s defense, saying it didn’t matter the translator’s skin color if they were skilled enough to do the work.
“Since when is one narrow-minded, opinion journalist an ‘uproar’? I honestly don’t think most black people care who translates works into whatever. It’s just translation — requires skill, not talent — and certainly not melanin,” author @AlanHurstJr tweeted.
“I don’t think “the world” knew or cared about this, but a lot of people are not psychologically equipped to realize 1000 twitter weirdos is not worth getting upset about.” added user @@PulpCantos.
“I must say we the black people are not the ones complaining about s–t like this,” @peg_asus80 wrote.
Others questioned how extreme the backlash was to begin with. “I want to see the ‘backlash.’ Silly things like this drown out the REAL issues,” user @neorevolution tweeted.
Meulenhoff said Rijnevald had been selected by Gorman herself, who was “immediately enthusiastic” to have another young, successful writer work on her translation. They said Rijnevald resigned on her own and released a statement saying the situation was a teachable moment for them.
“We want to learn from this by talking and we will walk a different path with the new insights,” said the publishing house’s general director Maaike le Noble. “We will be looking for a team to work with to bring Amanda’s words and message of hope and inspiration into translation as well as possible and in her spirit.”