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from the June 2021 issue

Privilege, Race, and Translation

Scholar and translator Corine Tachtiris reflects on the inherent privilege of translating while White in this essay.

 

And if there are few Black translators, there are few representatives of the possibility of that being a thing one might do as a Black person. We need to see people of colour in a broad swath of professions and possibilities in order to make those professions and possibilities imaginable for others.

Kaiama L. Glover, interview with Lauren Cocking for Leyendo Lat Am

 

Literary translation (in)famously comprises a tiny portion of the US literary market, and it’s not exactly a prestigious corner. Even within the translated literature publishing sector, translators all too frequently go underpaid and unrecognized. Our names are omitted from book covers, reviews, and promotional material as we wrangle over pennies per word and the copyright to our own work. Given all that, it can be hard for some of us translators to think of ourselves as privileged. And yet White translators do generally benefit from privilege in various ways.

When it comes to acquiring the source language, for example, White students in the US from monolingual families more commonly have sufficient access to foreign language education, including study abroad programs. Black K-12 students, however, face a variety of barriers to foreign language education, including underfunded programs, lack of culturally relevant material, and a dearth of instructors who might serve as role models. In terms of English as the target language, racialized long-term English and Standard English learners are habitually perceived as having “deficient” language competency, as Nelson Flores and Jonathan Rosa demonstrate, even when abiding by the norms of so-called “appropriateness.”

As compared to their White colleagues, then, aspiring or even established translators of color encounter additional structural obstacles as well as implicit and explicit biases as they attempt to enter the field or secure publishing contracts.

 

 . . . it was found highly dangerous to employ the natives as interpreters, upon whose fidelity [the East India Company] could not depend . . . 

Sir William Jones, preface to A Grammar of the Persian Language (1771)

 

We can’t understand where we are in the creation and publication of translations without looking at how we got here. As European colonizers invaded Africa, Asia, and the Americas and appropriated land, resources, and labor, they also appropriated knowledge and culture. Literary, religious, and other humanistic texts from colonized cultures passed through White European translators considered to have the expertise to “explain” these cultures to their compatriots. No matter their individual orientation to the texts they translated—whether condescending or admiring—what these translators shared was being vested with the authority to understand these texts and convey them “reliably” to their new readers. White Europeans became the subjects or agents of translation, while people of color became the objects.

The history of enslavement in the Americas similarly established segregation in cultural production. In her recent book, Anjali Vats shows how US intellectual property law has been entangled from its origins in questions of citizenship and how it “codes” people of color as “lacking the capacity to create.” This same racism is coded into how we talk about translations—an epithet for a translation that lacks creativity and follows its source text too closely is “slavish,” a sense that first emerged, according to the OED, in 1753, at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.

We can see that biases that depict translators of color as untrustworthy, unqualified, and unartistic run deep, on top of the material conditions that tend to exclude people of color from the translation profession.

 

I came to Savage Seasons through Sophie Schiavo, who was at the French Publishers Agency at the time. She encouraged me to take it on . . . But I didn’t know much about the political situation in Haiti, I had not heard of the Haitian classics . . . I was not at all familiar with Haitian culture or literature . . .

Jeanine Herman, interview with Nathan Dize for Haiti in Translation

 

While translators of color face structural barriers and the centuries-old legacy of bias, White translators benefit from the benefit of the doubt when it comes to their talents and expertise. And even if succeeding in getting their work published is no easy task, White translators generally have greater access to the professional and academic networks that facilitate getting a book into print in the overwhelmingly white publishing industry. So homogeneous is the output by the largest publishing houses that Richard Jean So and Gus Wezerek’s large-scale data showed that, when she became an editor, Toni Morrison had a statistically significant impact on the number of African American authors published at Random House, and when she left to devote herself to her writing, that impact disappeared. Who will be the editor to do for translators of color, especially Black and Indigenous translators, what Morrison did for Black US-American literature?

Meanwhile, many current efforts to diversify the field of translators and editors ring hollow without actual systemic changes. Getting a foot in the door in publishing often occurs through unpaid or poorly paid internships in New York City, a place with astronomical rents. “BIPOC encouraged to apply” means little if you don’t set material conditions that would make their hiring and employment possible—how many years of experience does the job ad ask for? How much payment is being offered? “BIPOC encouraged to submit” also means little if the work is judged based on White Western notions of what makes for good or great literature, on the supposed marketability for an imagined White-majority readership, or on the use of “standard” US-American or British English.

The unacknowledged privileges of translating while White—being seen as qualified, being able to access resources that make the profession possible—can also predispose White translators to see themselves as the right person for a job. Certainly freelance translators need to support themselves, and some texts, especially by authors of color, would not get published without certain White translators advocating for them. But translation is not an intrinsic good. Even well-intentioned translators and well-intentioned translations can recapitulate the colonial logic that persistently figures White people as translators and people of color as translated. Although White translators are marginalized in the literary market more broadly, undoing these inequities will require them to share resources, access, and projects all while pushing for expanded publication and better working conditions in general.

 

© 2021 by Corine Tachtiris. All rights reserved.

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