Time for racial equality in literary translation

1 April 2020

A statement from the Translators Association and the Society of Authors.

Literary translation has had a rare moment in the spotlight last month following criticism by Janice Deul of Dutch publisher Meulenhoff’s decision to commission author Marieke Lucas Rijneveld to translate Amanda Gorman’s ‘The Hill We Climb’ (published in De Volkskrant on 25 February, English translation by Haidee Kotze published at Medium, 18 March). 

The ensuing discussion about structural racism and access to publishing has at times been marred by speculation and acrimony, and we condemn the hurtful, racist comments expressed in some quarters. We have heard calls to limit who can translate whom, for translators to be chosen on the basis of their identity.

At the Society of Authors we believe an individual’s identity should never be a limiting factor. But this debate has reminded us of the urgent need for more openness and opportunities in publishing, more visibility of translators of colour and more proactive intervention to help dismantle the institutional barriers faced by early career translators.

Race and class strongly influence who has access to work in the arts, and who gets excluded or overlooked. In the week the UK Government has published a high-profile report playing down the impact of structural factors on ethnic disparities, which many will take as a signal to do nothing, to maintain the status quo, it is more important than ever that we find ways to change the environment in which we work.

The controversy around commissioning translators for the work of Amanda Gorman has been a timely reminder of the need to identify and confront barriers within education, academia and publishing processes to enable equitable access to publishing generally, and literary translation in particular.

It is time to improve transparency, accountability and inclusivity in publishing processes. This means hiring diverse editorial staff, and freelance translators and editors, but it also means much earlier interventions in the training of translators, as well as outreach in schools to dismantle implicit barriers to language learning and literature.

Literary translation has long been dominated by word-of-mouth recommendations, with opportunities afforded too often to those with connections as well as financial and educational privilege.

This debate reminds us of the importance of extending opportunities to a much broader intake of emerging translators, including translators of colour and translators from communities, backgrounds or identities who have been and continue to be marginalised and underrepresented in the publishing landscape.

At the Society of Authors, we are committed to improving inclusivity in publishing and in literary translation, while recognising that much remains to be done to level the playing field. We are listening and learning, and exploring ways we can achieve more through our SoA-wide inclusivity network, and in partnership with other organisations.


Further reading

Below we highlight some initiatives, and the work of other organisations, designed to address inequalities in representation in literary translation.

On this discussion about the politics of translation, we recommend the following articles:

Initiatives aimed at inclusion and equitable access to literary translation and publishing: