Translator Anton Hur takes a wry look at race and translation in this essay.
You’re a white translator. I come into your home office and break your computer. I run a bath and drown all your books, especially the ones translated by you. I go into your closet and cut up all your wigs. After burning you at the stake in your backyard, Salem Witch–Trials style, I give your job to a Black translator.
In Year Two of the Great White Canceling, the Booker International committee still manages to nominate enough of “your kind,” triggering a global hunt for the last remaining white translators hiding out in terrorist cells as they churn out yet more English editions of Yukio Mishima. I’m between books, so I sign up for volunteer interrogating at that year’s ALTA conference, which has to be renamed soon because “America” does not exist anymore—just the newly liberated and federated jurisdiction of Turtle Island. Please, begs the hog-tied white translator we captured in some basement in the repatriated Lenape territories, I don’t want to be guillotined, I just wanted English readers to enjoy the purely aesthetic and apolitical pleasures of Japanese fascism just as I do.
Oh, quit it, I say under the swaying pendant lamp, filing my nails, my boots up on the desk. You’re white, and you dared to translate. Translate littérature no less. Which, for a white person, is a crime worse than murder. You knew all the colored people would come for you if you did what you did. Surely if you had any decency you would’ve just starved to death, but here we are. Enjoy being separated from your head. I blow on my nails and show him. Neat, huh? Before he can answer, they drag him away.
As I flash my lanyard at the barricade and sign out for the day, I suddenly remember a discussion I had with you before the whole burning-you-at-the-stake thing, or even before that one time in 2021 when a white translator gave up their job to a Black one. You said race should have nothing to do with who gets to translate, that you didn’t see race at all, that you should be able to translate whoever you want however you want, that nothing you say or do has any real consequence because you’re just a mindless translating machine, and furthermore, that this was a slippery slope to banning all white translators. You have no idea how upset your words made me then. Because you were onto us! In the bimonthly Zoom chat with all the translators of color in the world, I was like, OK, guys, excuse me, guys, hello, can I just say something, please? This white translator is onto us. We have to move quickly or the global takeover we’ve been preparing for, the one where we ban all white translators and take over the world, will all be for naught. And it will take forever to reschedule. But when I said this, the other translators of color urged me to be patient. It’s okay, they said. That particular white translator, by their own vociferous admission, “doesn’t see color.” We’re totally invisible, even if, obviously, something inside them is trying to tell them how we’re going to initiate a global dismantling of white supremacy in literary translation, putting all whites in manacles and dragging them down Main Street (“Or Salem witch burnings!” I remind them). Yes, they said, and Salem witch burnings. All right, I said, reassured. Great. Just let me know, I don’t want to double-book it with a haircut or anything.
How surprised you were when I showed up at your door! Well, that’s a figure of speech, I bulldozed through your foyer. In any case, we got you so bad! And you burned so brightly.
At home, pouring myself a scotch on the rocks using your lacquered skull as a tumbler glass, I gaze out at the night cityscape and think about all the close calls I had regarding the premature reveal of the Great White Canceling. Like that time two separate white publishers tried to intimidate me into shutting up about their heinous labor and “bridge translation” practices over DM—boy, did I want to say something then! Or that year—well, years—of grant competitions picking yet another white mediocrity over a more deserving colleague who happened to be non-white. Or that white translator who would take up Korean grant money for decades and routinely and publicly insult the Korean writers he translated. But I managed only to be just mad enough. You know, respectable mad. Mad enough to call you out on Twitter, but not so mad as to reveal the fact that we have long given up waiting for a place at the table by being “respectable,” “collegial,” or “good enough,” all the fake-meritocracy dangling carrots, in other words, and that we were already planning to wrest power by force, just as your ancestors did with mine. I raise your skull to my ancestors—the clinking ice cubes are heart-shaped, I’m sentimental like that—and offer up a silent toast in their memory. They persisted, because deep down, they knew the chickens would come home to roost. Just as you yourself knew on some level, because you were so convinced the Great White Canceling was going to happen any day now, this being your fantasy more than mine. You talked about it all the time, remember? We kept telling you that you were creating straw man fallacies and being harmful with all your microaggressions (and macroaggressions) against your colleagues of color. But you knew, didn’t you, that all the harms you did to us would come back to haunt you in the end. It’s too bad that instead of confronting your repressed guilt and conceding some of your systemic power, you had to project your guilt instead and, well, end up in my dishwasher.
Anyway! So much for ancient history. I have to go back to work, apparently someone cooked an actual casserole and you know how that’s like, a big no-no. But at least my claws look perfect tonight.
© 2021 by Anton Hur. All rights reserved.