Woke Up Time in Europe

Alarm Clock

There’s an awful lot of “woke” in the news these days. So much that it’s hard to keep up.

For example, I learned while browsing the Danish news Saturday morning that established European translators had been blocked from translating Amanda Gorman’s poem “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Shakespeare translator was too white for young star poet: “I’ve got to go out and buy some tar”, Martin Tønner, Berlingske.dk, March 13

The “Shakespeare translator” of the headline turns out to be Victor Obiols, an established Catalan poet and translator who had been hired by the publishing house Univers to translate Gorman’s poem. Only after he’d completed the translation was he informed by the Spanish agency representing Gorman that the Catalan translation would have to be made by a “young and preferably black woman.”

As Berlingske tells it:

“I’ve become a victim of the new inquisition and had better go out to buy some tar,” Obiols wrote sarcastically [on Twitter] with reference to his apparently “wrong” white skin color.

He very quickly deleted that polemic comment and others of the same caliber in acknowledgement that they would hardly contribute to a constructive debate.

A debate which is, however, important to have.

“Because the tendency to handle the question of discrimination in this way leads directly to a dangerous fanaticism,” the translator stressed in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Stampa.

Do tell.

Apparently Univers, the publisher with the rights to Gorman’s poem in the eastern Spanish region of Catalan, had been aware of Gorman’s “preferences” for her translators’ age, sex, and race. (Which I would have thought would be illegal under any number of American and E.U. laws, but I’m admittedly behind on all the hot new exemptions.)

Univers had chosen Obiols in spite of those “preferences” because of his prestigious reputation for translating English to Catalan, including the works of William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde. He was, according to an unnamed Univers insider, “considered the best qualified.”

How quaint: they thought qualifications mattered!

“I totally get that it’s a complicated discussion, where one’s got be careful not to be too cocksure,” [Obiols] tells the news bureau AFP, and continues:

“But if I can’t translate a poet because she’s a young, black, American woman from the twenty-first century, yeah, then I can’t translate Homer, because I’m not a Greek from the seventh century B.C. And I should have kept away from Shakespeare, since I’m hardly an Englishman from the 16th century.”

But wait. It gets better. So much better that it practically screams out for a Buzzfeed-style headline of its own. Something like: “The 60-Year Old Catalan Translator Was Too Old, Male, and White, But You Won’t Believe What Happened in the Netherlands!

For this part of the story we’re going to switch to CNN’s coverage:

Amanda Gorman’s Dutch translator stands down after uproar that Black writer wasn’t chosen, Jack Guy and Mick Krever, CNN.com, March 2

Let’s go straight to the lede:

Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, who won the International Booker Prize in 2020, has withdrawn from a project to translate Black American poet Amanda Gorman’s work following a backlash against the commission.

Rijneveld, who is White and non-binary, announced they were to work on the project with publisher Meulenhoff on February 23, only to say they had handed back the commission three days later.

If that second sentence has you scratching your head, that’s because CNN has, without warning you up front, chosen to deploy Rijneveld’s preferred pronouns, which are they and them.

CNN uses them throughout the article, which makes for some difficult reading, but CNN isn’t interested in clarity, they’re interested in politics. That’s why before telling you anything else about Rijneveld, they tell you that “they” is White with a capital W and “non-binary.” They don’t tell you what “non-binary” means. They don’t tell you why the third person pronouns are deployed on Rijneveld’s behalf.

This isn’t your local free alternative weekly, remember. It’s not some freaky counter-culture website. This, as the authoritative voice of James Earl Jones used to remind viewers every ten or twenty minutes, is CNN.

And this is the actual world we live in.

Not only aren’t we supposed to pretend it’s not strange, we’re not even supposed to notice it.

Critics of the appointment questioned why a White writer had been chosen to translate the work of a Black writer.

The critics don’t come off as very bright people. Presumably Rijneveld had been chosen because “they” was a celebrated author familiar with both the Dutch and English languages.

There is no history, at all, anywhere, of translators being chosen on the basis of their skin color. So the answer to these “critics of the appointment” ought to have been fairly simple: “because skin color is irrelevant to the art of translation.”

Dutch cultural activist Janice Deul questioned the move in an op-ed for Dutch outlet De Volkskrant, published February 25.

Notice how “cultural activist” is dropped in there as a qualification without giving you any hint of what it means. What kind of culture? What kind of activism? Do you think the journalists at CNN realize that “cultural activist” is empty of meaning and could apply equally to Mother Theresa and Chiarman Mao? For all the good they’ve done their readers, they may as well have called Janice Deul a “Dutch mammal.”

Gorman describes herself as a “skinny black girl,” said Deul.

“And her work and life have been colored by her experience and identity as a black woman. Is it — to say the least — not a missed opportunity to hire Marieke Lucas Rijneveld for this job?” she added, pointing out that the Dutch writer has “no experience in this area.”

Rijneveld has no experience in the area of being Amanda Gorman, no. No qualifications at all, really, apart from her Booker Prize and whatever oppression points people get for being non-binary and making everyone violate the English language when speaking of them.

Does Deul suppose Homer’s work and life were not colored by his experience and identity as a blind man? Must one be blind to translate Homer?

“Nothing to detriment of Rijnveld’s qualities, but why not choose a writer who — just like Gorman — is a spoken word artist, young, female, and unapologetically Black?,” said Deul.

Deul seems to be saying: “Why should quality or competence be the most important consideration? Why not choose a translator based on demographics?”

Surely there are dozens of Dutch authors that have won one of literature’s most prestigious prizes, and surely many of them are spoken word artists, young, female, black, and not just black but unapologetically black, right? Or at least one or two of those things that Rijneveld is not?

According to an English-language Dutch website, in August of last year “Marieke Lucas Rijneveld became the first Dutch author to ever win the International Booker prize, with their novel The Discomfort of Evening.”

So the number of Dutch authors to have won the International Booker Prize is apparently one. Although it’s a one that must be spoken of in the plural, so maybe that’s part of the confusion: maybe Deul thought one of the many Rijnevelds was in fact a young black female spoken word artist?

But Rijneveld didn’t react with Obiols’s indignation. It’s hard to say how Rijneveld reacted, because at this point the CNN text becomes essentially incomprehensible. (As a reminder, Amanda Gorman is the American poet; Meulenhoff is the Dutch publishing house that had commissioned Rijneveld.)

“Amanda’s team have said that they still stand behind Meulenhoff’s choice and I thank her for the trust that has been placed in me. What interests me is the richness of language,” they wrote.

“They” is, of course, Rijneveld.

“I happily devoted myself to translating Amanda’s work, in which I saw the greatest task as keeping her power, tone, and style. But I am well aware that I am in a position to think and feel like that, where many are not. I still wish that her ideas reach as many readers as possible, and opens many hearts.”

What do you think Rijneveld means when “they” says: “I am well aware that I am in a position to think and feel like that, where many are not?”

I ask sincerely, because it makes no sense to me. Does Rijneveld actually think that there are thoughts and feelings that some people aren’t in a position to experience?

Do you think Rijneveld put any thought it into the implications of that premise? Do you think the CNN journalists did?

This is a writer, I remind you, writing about the translation of a poem from English to Dutch. And the writer is saying, “I’m in a position to believe that the job of a translator is to keep the author’s power, tone, and style, but many people are not in a position to share that belief.”

Why not? Just what sinister forces are out there preventing anyone, anywhere, from believing (or thinking or feeling) such a thing?

Gorman retweeted Rijneveld’s tweet revealing the commission when it was announced on February 23.

CNN has contacted Gorman’s representatives for comment.

Meulenhoff said it understood Rijneveld’s decision in a statement published on Twitter on Friday.

“We want to learn from this, through dialogue, and we are going to walk down a different path with the new insights,” said Maaike le Noble, Meulenhoff general director, in the statement.

“We are looking for a team to work with to translate Amanda’s words and message of hope and inspiration as best as possible, and in her spirit.”

The idea that a a general director of a publishing house actually said, “We want to learn from this, through dialogue, and we’re going to walk down a different path with the new insights,” is grotesque, chilling, and sad.

Publishers are in the business of words. When even they begin using the wishy-washy ambiguities of post-modern meaninglessness to say something as simple as, “We screwed up, we’ll try again,” then we’re in trouble.

The idea that a team is required to translate Gorman’s poem is also intriguing. Perhaps Maaike le Noble is thinking she can skate by with one young translator, one female, one (unapologetically) black, and one who’s a spoken word artist. And who knows, maybe she’s onto something.

But CNN isn’t done yet:

Gorman is the US youth poet laureate and was one of the breakout stars of Biden’s presidential inauguration.

As well as moving onlookers in Washington and around the world, the Los Angeles native also impressed with her vivid fashion choices.

Gorman later signed with IMG Models, one of the world’s biggest modeling agencies, which represents fashion heavyweights like Kate Moss and Gisele Bündchen.

You know who else got signed by IMG after the inauguration? Vice President Kamala Harris’s step-daughter Ella Emhoff.

How many seats at that inauguration were reserved for modeling agency scouts, I wonder? And why wasn’t Bernie Sanders signed after wowing the world with those now-iconic mittens?

It’s a wonderful world, truly, the best of all possible worlds. I celebrate it. We should all celebrate it—preferably while walking unapologetically down a different path with new insights.

That last paragraph was cheap. It was an easy out. It’s fun to be snarky, and almost all of these people and organizations described in the articles cited above are worthy of all the mockery that can be fired in their direction, but because this stuff is real and has actual consequences, I think it’s necessary also to state some things very plainly and in simple, straightforward language.

These people are monsters.

The Spanish agency that rejected Victor Obiols’s translation on racist grounds. The Catalan publishing house that didn’t respond by dragging that agency straight to court. The “non-binary” Rijneveld who withdrew “their” translation after pushback from a “cultural activist” whose thinking is entirely racist and sexist. The weak-kneed Dutch publishing house Meulenhoff and their vaporous director Maaike le Noble with her cowardly “different path.” The journalists at CNN who (unlike their peers at Berlingske) reported on all of this nonsense uncritically, and without including a single contrary point of view in their article, shredding the English language in compliance with a radical political agenda that would, if carried to its logical conclusion, make all communication basically impossible.

These aren’t good-hearted people erring on the basis of good intentions, which is what I used to think (or at least hope).

They’re monsters and they’re doing terrible things. Grotesque things. Things that, in the aggregate, are breaking western civilization… which is not surprising, in that many of them will tell you that’s exactly what they’re trying to do.

That includes both the people making the insane demands and the spineless post-modern idiots caving into them without a peep of resistance. Not just caving in, mind you, but apologizing for having acted on the assumption that, in this case, the art of translation was a writerly art requiring knowledge of the source and target languages

And the Crazy Mixed-Up Case of the Wrong Translators is not the only case out there. It’s one drop in a deluge.

The New Inquisitors want to fight racism by being more racist, to fight sexism by being more sexist. We must submit to fictions for fear of being called racist by racists, or sexist by sexists, or haters by hate-mongers.

Let’s go back to Victor Obiols, the Catalan translator. You may remember that he “very quickly deleted” his angry and emotional tweets because he felt “they would hardly contribute to a constructive debate.”

It’s bittersweet that he thinks the New Inquisitors have any interest in constructive debate. They don’t. If you disagree with them, you’re the monster, and you must be destroyed. And Obiols seems to suspect as much, even as he tries to pretend it away: “The tendency to handle the question of discrimination in this way leads directly to a dangerous fanaticism.”

He’s entirely right but he’s being unnecessarily delicate. The dangerous fanaticism is already out there: its tread-marks are on his back.

And as the end of the Berlingske article makes clear, Obiols is not unfamiliar with dangerous fanaticism.

Victor Obiols emphasizes that, as a Catalan linguist of his generation, he understands better than most what it means to be discriminated against.

“My language was virtually banned during the Spanish dictatorship,” he said, referring to General Francisco Franco’s far-right and Spanish nationalist regime, which lasted from 1939 to 1975.

“Quite frankly, I am now again the victim of discrimination, which in this case is based solely on race, gender and age.”


“I am considering writing a letter to [Amanda Gorman]. First, I want to ask if she has signed off on all this. I doubt it, because it doesn’t benefit her,” explains the Catalan translator and continues:

“Secondly, I would like to say that I do not belong to the Ku Klux Klan. On the contrary, I’ve always defended civil rights. I am a member of an NGO that builds wells in Burkina Faso, and good friends with the African-American author and feminist Bell Hooks.”

Victor Obiols clearly doesn’t fully understand what he’s up against. It’s understandable: he seems like a decent guy, and I think decent people have a hard time understanding the full extent of the awful powers now arrayed against them.

The New Inquisitors don’t care whether or not he’s experienced discrimination of any kind in the past. They don’t care whether he belongs to the Klan or whether he defends or opposes civil rights. They don’t care about good deeds or personal friendships. None of that matters.

He’s white, he’s male, he’s sixty years old.

That makes it impossible, by their reasoning, for him to genuinely understand anything said by someone non-white, non-male, and “young.” Just as a white, non-binary author can’t understand anything said by someone who isn’t white or non-binary.

Do you see the logic? Do you see where it leads?

Do you see the terrible poison implicit in the idea that we’re only capable of understanding one another to the extent we resemble one another? Do you see the awful primitivism of it? Did we not just spend decades struggling to overcome precisely that kind of backwardness?

Do you want apartheid, or worse?

Because that’s where it leads. That’s the road we’re on. Not forward, but backwards. Not progressive, but regressive.

It’s not a different path to wander along with new insights.

It’s the road to hell.