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from the January 2021 issue

Publishers Need More Black Translator Friends

Institutional transformation often begins at the grassroots, argues translator and editor Aaron Robertson as he considers a roadmap for bringing Black writers and translators into an industry in which they are statistically underrepresented.

Over the last year and a half, since the publication of my first translated book, I’ve felt it necessary to preface my conversations with aspiring translators by telling them that I know less than they think. This isn’t necessarily a disadvantage and may be helpful in the end. I’ve lately been thinking of C.L.R. James, the Trinidadian Pan-Africanist whose belief in the creativity of “plain” people working democratically outside of capitalist enterprises has soothed me. There are obstacles translators must face before the international sections of bookstores reflect the world more equitably. Institutional transformation often begins at the grassroots, though, so I’d like to consider what some of this ground level work may look like in the near future. 

I’m glad that my formal introduction to the publishing industry wasn’t mediated through an agent. My first translation project, Igiaba Scego’s novel Beyond Babylon, wasn’t commissioned by a publisher. I started it independently in college, with no prospect of publication. I had no profile as a translator and, at the time, few translator friends. By the time I finished a draft of the book in early 2017, my most meaningful internships had been at a newspaper and an arts nonprofit, not with a press or an agency.

Though most of the work of translator outreach and relationship-building should fall on publishers, this is almost never the case.

This meant I had to solve a riddle: how do I turn my adoration for Scego’s novel into something English readers can find in bookstores? It helped that I had institutional support and knowledge of resources: supportive Italian and creative writing departments at school, a well-known translation teacher, and awareness of the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants, which enabled an independent publisher to learn about my project after I received one of the grants in 2018.

These were the ingredients for a good, if unlikely, human-interest story, not a roadmap for bringing translators of color into an industry in which they are statistically negligible. Most young translators of color who I’ve spoken with want to bring the work of authors from underrepresented groups into English. There is an untapped reservoir of translators who want to call Black, Asian, Indigenous, and other voices to wider attention but who lack the insider knowledge or contacts to know that this is possible or understand how to navigate an often-unfriendly industry.

The onus to publish Black voices from around the world is ultimately on the publishers themselves. During last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, however, it became clear that this will only ever be half of the struggle for recognition, if that. Though most of the work of translator outreach and relationship-building should fall on publishers, this is almost never the case. The hustle comes from those who are tired of needing to do most of the work. But we do it.

What I would like to see for Black translators is akin to what Kundiman has done for Asian American writers; what CantoMundo has done for Latinx poets; what Cave Canem has done for African American poets; what the publicity company Jack Jones Literary Arts has done for women of color; and what the Writers of Color network has done for freelancers of color. These initiatives have provided mentorship and networking opportunities, as well as clear paths into publishing and media careers. They also provide spaces for affirmation. Media attention on blockbuster titles by authors of color can lead you to believe that the front end of the industry is less white than it actually is.

Publishers, many of which are predisposed to view book translation projects as financially risky, prefer to go with translators they know. I would like to suggest that more publishers consider expanding their circles. Publishers need more Black translator friends, maybe even a sizable group of them. That starts with knowing where to look, then going there often. I opened this essay asserting that my naivete may be virtuous, and I present the fruits of my innocence here.  These are various goals for a Black translators collective that some of my peers and I have been discussing:

  1. A collective of experienced and emerging translators who are committed to supporting the professional development of Black translators at every stage of their careers and promoting literature from various Black diasporas should be organized. The mentorship element would be the most important component of the collective. I was once a high schooler interested in languages and literature, but I had no conception of literary translation as a hobby or career, nor a sense of how my interests might have been applied. I envision, for example, a collective that actively reaches out to high schools with language programs in majority Black cities, language departments and creative writing programs at HBCUs, and other places where generating interest in literary translation would be viable.
  2. The collective should manage a digital hub or website that allows Black translators to workshop and promote one another’s work; provides a directory of Black translators; and suggests paths to publication (literary magazines, anthologies, etc.) that will allow translators to gain credits, drawing on the resources of the collective’s more experienced translators. This is not a “Black translators” subsection of LinkedIn Groups, but something worthy of a tailored online presence.
  3. The collective should identify presses, publications, and organizations that have strong records of featuring diverse voices and hiring translators of color, and those that don’t, similar to what the VIDA Count has done for women writers. What could mutually beneficial relationships with these places look like? Which publishers released statements supporting Black Lives Matter during the 2020 protests, and did their institutional practices change in the aftermath? The kind of collective I’m proposing must distinguish between allies who compensate well and volunteer their time, and those that only pay lip service to equity.

If publishers read this, I hope they will reach out before I do. The latter half of 2020 saw a number of publishers increase employee salaries, make headline-worthy senior-level hires, and commit to publishing more work by writers of color. These were positive developments, but I did not notice major stories about how these shifts can benefit the work that translators do. There is a place for artists in the Movement for Black Lives, which has never been exclusively about conditions in the United States. It has global ambitions. Just as we call for the end of state violence against Nigerians, we might also ask what has been written in Hausa, Kanuri, and Fula but not yet seen?

© Aaron Robertson. All rights reserved.

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