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Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness

In “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” John Keene argues that “we need more translation of literary works by non-Anglophone black diasporic authors into English, particularly by U.S.-based translators, and that these translations should then be published by U.S.-based publishing organs, including literary periodicals, as well as by publishing houses large and small.”

I’ll start with a simple observation: this is not an argument I hear other translators, poets or publishers making. Translation and literatures from other languages are already so marginalized, as John points out through statistics; the xenophobic and nationalistic impulses that hinder the publication of translated texts by independent publishers in the U.S. has resulted in a very limited discussion. The discussion is perhaps more focused on the idea that we need more translation in general, and thus it’s less common to hear arguments about exactly what kind of translations we might benefit from reading. And in making the assertion that if there were more translations of non-Anglophone black authors into English, “we would have a clearer sense of the connections and commonalities, as well as the differences across the African Diaspora,” John is, in my estimation, making a subtle critique about the ways in which unitedstasian racism translates into international racism. In this view, the erasure of black culture happens both in the U.S. and abroad, and there’s an argument to be made that a limitation in the understanding of blackness in other contexts and cultures leads to a limitation in the understanding of blackness in our own culture.

How does the absence of texts in translations deny individual readers reflections of their race and identity as it is presented in other countries and cultures? What does it mean that U.S. readers might not even be aware of the presence of black people, let alone black writers, in countries like Pakistan and Iraq? How does this absence limit our understanding of both the black diaspora in general and, more specifically, as John alludes to in a footnote, of the very different and often times very complex conceptions of race found in countries such as Cuba, Brazil, and the Dominican Republic? Part of the question I’m hearing here is that at this moment in the U.S., when opinions about race continue to be presented as essential truths, that it would do a world of good for unitedstatesians to understand that some of our ideas about race are arbitrary, and that others have been constructed to fit the needs of historical, establishment powers. This is not to say that racism is not ever-present in these other international contexts. Instead, it’s to suggest that there is value in understanding other countries’ imaginings of race so that we can understand how race, both here and abroad, is a concept that is historically specific, culturally manufactured, and politically modifiable according to whatever foundational fictions (and realities) a nation wishes to produce.

Finally, for those of you who have not read John Keene’s latest book, Counternarratives, I can’t leave here without recommending it highly, both for the depth and beauty of its language, the systematic wildness of its formal techniques, and the vast and profound depictions it provides of black experience in the U.S., throughout the Americas and in Africa, and over different centuries. John’s ideas articulated in today’s post are echoed in the international and transhistorical vision of diasporic black culture that he presents in this amazing book of fiction.

—Daniel Borzutzky



I. "Making Poetry I Feel Only This"

              Mandei a frase sonhar,
e ele se foi num labirinto.
              Fazer poesia, eu sinto, apenas isso.
Dar ordens a um exército,
              para conquistar um império extinto.

              I ordered the sentence to dream,
and off it went into a labyrinth.
              Making poetry, I feel, only this:
Giving orders to an army,
              to conquer an extinct kingdom.

—Paulo Leminski, from "Desencontrários"[2]

I have been translating now for about a decade and a half, beginning not long after I graduated from college, and, at that point, quite badly. I primarily translate poetry and fiction, from Portuguese and French, as well as a little Spanish, though I also have worked on translations from languages I know far less well, including German, Italian, and Dutch.

Unlike many translators I know I did not grow up in a bilingual or multilingual family, nor have I ever had the opportunity to live in a non-Anglophone country, but I was introduced to non-English languages beginning in junior high school, when the school I attended required all students in 7th grade to study French and Latin. In 9th grade I had the option to study Ancient Greek, so I took it, and then I also took a year of German, which was offered at the time, so that by my graduation from high school, I had studied five languages intensively, including English. My school did not offer the opportunity of learning any non-European languages (though it now offers Mandarin Chinese), so on my own from childhood on I have tried to teach myself other languages. I vividly recall being in 6th grade and coming across Michael Coulson's Teach Yourself Sanskrit at the Webster Groves Public Library, and decided I not only must learn Sanskrit, but had to have the book. I will refrain from stating whether it is still in my possession (hint, hint). I also have picked up languages from friends, and so have a smattering of quite a few in my head.

My initial introduction to Portuguese came this way, i.e., autodidaxy, from library books, perhaps as far back as middle school, mainly out of a childhood fascination with Brazil and its people, history and cultures. I assimilated the grammar long before I had ever heard anyone speak the language or could read or speak it myself. In contrast to the usual sequence, I learned Spanish (beyond the little I'd picked on the PBS show Villa Alegre) after Portuguese—and of course French, Latin, and so on. Part of my push to learn other languages comes from an innate interest in language itself as a medium, a field, a tool, a site of being and expression and communication.  Another derives from a desire early on to connect with other cultures through one of the primary means that exists. I especially wanted to be able to read in other languages, and translation makes it possible for those who cannot to have access to the untranslated texts.

What has been especially important for me as a translator is to focus on areas of literary cultural production that other literary translators tend to overlook for a range of reasons. These include writing, especially poetry, by women writers, by LGBTQ writers, and by writers of African descent, all of which (and whom) tend to be less frequently translated than writing by men, writing by white writers (in multiethnic societies), and cis-heterosexual/straight writers.[3]

nous nous sommes enivrés des clameurs d’une sève frustrée
nous avons rebroussé chemin)
mais ceux qui ont tendu cette embuscade à
nos futurs
nous avons mission de dire
l’étendue de leur

we grew drunk from the tumult of
frustrated sap
we have turned back)
but those who have laid this ambush for
our futures
we are on a mission to share
the extent of their

—Noel X Ebony, from "Portrait des Siècles Meurtres"

I have translated both poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, and find that I enjoy translating poetry much more, though I find it considerably more challenging, because of poets' use of form and the deep resources of their native languages. Translating form and other components of poetry (meter, rhyme, rhetorical devices, etc.) across languages can be extremely difficult—this was, I read, one of the areas on which Google engineers were intensely focusing a few years ago—and every language's intrinsic resonances and capacity for semantic ambiguity and polysemy based on sound, as well as cultural resonances based on historical, social and political contexts, and so on, often mean that poetry in particular can be difficult to bring from one language into another.

As part of the panel at which I initially presented this talk, the organizer, Jen Hofer, invited all the panelists to bring an object representative of our translation work, and I brought a tether, which I also viewed as an anchor cable and lifeline. At first I worried that the literal and symbolic nature of the tether might be too abstract, but I realized as I unearthed it for everyone in the conference meeting room in Missoula, Montana, that I see my translation projects as a lifeline linking me to other writers and cultures across the globe—a lifeline to bring them into English, and to bring and keep us—I and all who read my translations, however flawed—into conversation, communication, and contact.

II. "The Black Ones Have Veiled Names"

Os negros estão chegando
com seus padroeiros: silêncio.
Os negros têm nomes velados.

The blacks are arriving
with their patron saints: silence.
The black ones have veiled names.

—Edimilson de Almeida Pereira, "Capelinha"

#BlackLivesMatter is a phrase many of us have seen and read quite frequently over the last few years in response to the state murders of Trayvon Martin initially, and then Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Rekiah Boyd, Sandra Bland, and many other black and brown women and men, girls and boys. What I'd like to raise today is an adjacent issue, which is #BlackNarrativesMatter, or #NarrativesofBlackLivesMatter, or to put it another way: #NonAnglophoneNarrativesStoriesPoemsandOtherFormsofExpressionofBlackLivesMatter.

What am I talking about? For some years now, I have been expounding a particular line from soapboxes I have constructed online and rhetorically among friends, which is that we need more translation of literary works by non-Anglophone black diasporic authors into English, particularly by U.S.-based translators, and that these translations should then be published by U.S.-based publishing organs, including literary periodicals, as well as by publishing houses large and small.[1] I believe this effort is as important for writing from Africa—which would include translations from indigenous African languages into English, as well as from the colonial languages, in which a wide array of literary works are written across the continent—as it is for black Diasporic writers living outside Africa, which is to say, from across Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and the Pacific Rim.

To put it another way, I believe there is a considerable body of literature by writers from across the African Diaspora that is not regularly or readily being made available in English, and this, I would argue, is a longstanding and continuing problem—or, to put it another way, a challenge for translators to address. Most certainly, the United States could stand more—an immense amount more—publication of translations in general, particularly from regions other than Europe, or from non-European languages, though translations in general constitute a tiny percentage of the U.S. annual publication market. According to translator Todd Fredson, this work may be viewed by American publishers as "'fringe' literature," to use Ivorian writer Tanella Boni's term, which is to say, it is viewed as either having limited market potential—thereby marking out as commercially unviable, or depicts a social world that requires knowledge and information that a dominant readership—American readers—are unlikely to possess, and may find difficult to acquire.[4]

But the translation publishing statistics suggest that American publishers may view the majority of non-Anglophone writing as "fringe literature." According to the publishing company Bowker, roughly 3% of all the books published annually in America are translations of any kind, including literary texts.[5] The website Three Percent, which takes its name from this statistic and which is a component of the University of Rochester's translation program and Open Letter, its translation press, looked more closely at this percentage, and from 2008 through this year has carefully tracked the books, publishers, source languages, and national affiliations of translated literary works, showing that only about .7% of the annual translations fit this category.[6]

Moreover, if one looks carefully at the works that are translated, they are predominantly by European authors, writing in European languages, with a smaller number coming from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the South Pacific. For Three Percent's 2015 database, which features 588 books of translated poetry and fiction published in 2014, an overwhelming majority of the translations came from European authors. To give several examples, there were eighty-five translations of French authors (though only one of the 2014 French Nobel Laureate); sixty-four translations of authors from Germany; thirty-four translations of authors from Italy; twenty-eight translations by Russian authors; twenty-five translations by authors from Sweden and Spain each (three of the latter from Catalan); and fourteen by Swiss authors.

On the other hand, only twenty-five translations came from the most populous country on earth, China, nineteen from Japan, and twelve from South Korea, while only four were by works from India (with translations from Urdu, Marathi, Hindi, and Tamil). Among African countries, less than five were published by non-Anglophone authors from sub-Saharan Africa; the majority of non-English African works came from Egypt, and the bias remains on Anglophone African literature, with a few notable exceptions.

Um azul intenso devora meus dedos
e os olhos, inteiros, são de oceano e vão
e eu estou perdida: não há portas
mas as chaves persistem,
pendendo de minhas mãos.

An intense blue devours my fingers
and eyes whole, they become ocean and flow
and I am lost: no doors
but the keys continue
hanging from my hands.

—Lívia Natália, from "Sometimes"

Among Latin American countries, Brazilian literature saw the largest number of translations with eighteen, followed by Argentina with fifteen, Mexico with ten, Cuba with nine, and Chile with seven. According to the database, in 2014, no publisher issued a translated literary work from Puerto Rico, an American Commonwealth, or from Latin American countries with sizable heritage populations in the United States, such as Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, or Panama. A careful scan of the nationally delineated texts above underlines my earlier point; which is to say, if one takes an even more granular approach, with an eye to racial diversity, the numbers are extremely small.

Looking at the translations of Brazilian literature, only 19th century fiction writer Joaquim Machado de Assis would be considered black under Brazil's racial standards (though any of the other writers might, like many Brazilians, have some African ancestry). And yet Brazil not only has a sizable number of contemporary writers of self-identified African ancestry, but also has a majority population that self-identifies as black or brown, as well as the largest numerical population of people of African descent outside of Africa itself. Among the Cuban titles, Nancy Morejón, whose poetry collection Homing Instincts, and Georgina Herrera, whose book of poems, Always Rebellious, were both published by Cubanabooks, are two well known and highly regarded Afro-Cuban writers, but all of the others would, in Cuban terms, be considered white.[7]

A similar situation obtains with Latin American writing, whether the countries have sizable populations of Afrodescendents, like Brazil, Haiti, or Dominican Republic, where they are a majority, or constitute a sizable community (Cuba, Venezuela, Colombia, and Puerto Rico) or small one (Mexico, Uruguay, Ecuador, and Peru). Any survey of the Brazilian writers published in book form in the last twenty years would show that while there have been some exceptions, the overwhelming majority of those translated and published have been and would be considered white in Brazil.

In the case of Haiti, the issue is not that white Haitian writers (few though they may be) are being translated and published in the U.S., but that Haitian writing in general, despite some significant exceptions—and the large and vibrant Haitian-American communities in the U.S.—remains still too under-translated. For the Dominican Republic, whose historical racial complexities I will not tread upon here, a similar situation obtains; far too few of its best-known writers, including acclaimed ones who self-identify as Afrodescendents, have been regularly translated and published. Outside of a few acclaimed journals focused primarily on writing from the black world and African Diaspora, like Callaloo and African American Review, and anthologies with similar aims, the same problem inheres.[8]

Oh, simples mujeres nuevas
simples mujeres negras
dando el aliento vivo
de una luz nueva
para todos.

Oh, natural black women
natural black women
giving the living breath
of a new light
to everyone

—Nancy Morejón, from "Mujeres Nuevas"

If we look specifically at European countries with significant populations of people of African descent, such as France or the Netherlands, the numbers are fairly small in the case of the former, and minimal in the case of the latter. Some notable Francophone authors, including award-winners such as Marie NDiaye and Alain Mabanckou, and more recently Scholastique Mukasonga, have been translated and published by American presses, but they remain in the minority. For every one of these authors, there are others, like Surinamese-Dutch writer Astrid Roemer, who have almost no works, beyond pieces that have appeared in literary journals, translated into English.  In the case of other countries like Germany, to take one example, an acclaimed Afro-German writer Petra Mikutta, who has even lived in the United States, has nevertheless seen almost no English-language publication at all.

III. "The Living Breath of a New Light to Everyone"

Why is this absence of translated black voices significant? One of the ongoing problems, if I can state it bluntly, is that if we already are experiencing serious and ongoing crises in American society in part through the omission, elision, and erasure of, and indifference to narratives, stories, and other forms of imaginative expression, in all their complexity, of black American people's lives and existences—an issue that affects not only black Americans but everyone in the society; as the Native American writer Bill Yellow Robe, among many others, underlined in a talk he delivered at the 2016 Thinking Its Presence conference, the same is true with narratives, stories, plays, and so on by indigenous peoples, to give another glaring example—we further limit our understanding of the world, in multiple ways, in the absence of black stories and voices from outside the Anglosphere, which is not a coherent whole, but nevertheless is limited in its capacity to convey the breadth of experience of black peoples across the globe. Just as black Americans are hardly a "fringe," neither are black people and voices from the rest of the world.

Were more black voices translated we would have a clearer sense of the connections and commonalities, as well as the differences across the African Diaspora, and better understand an array of regional, national, and hemispheric issues. We would not be surprised, as many were after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, that there were black people in Basra and other parts of Iraq; that Pakistan has its own contemporary self-styled "Langston Hughes," Meem Danish, and that there are long established black communities throughout South Asia; that Aboriginal poets and writers in the Pacific Rim and Oceania have articulated very similar critiques, sometimes deeply influenced by African-American and African Diasporic cultural production, of their societies; that Sri Lankan Tamil writers like Antonythasan Jesuthasan, an actor and novelist who writes under the pen name Sobashakti, meaning "Black Power," invoke liberation-centered critiques in conversation with similar ones around the black world; or that the social and cultural experiences—including the challenges of racism and white supremacy—both French Minister of Justice Christine Taubira and Amédy Coulibaly, one of the terrorists in the Charlie Hebdo attacks, have faced in their lives mirror what we might find among black peoples across the globe.

Dorothy escuchaba los ecos del have dream
Mientras los blacks panters
Apuñalaban el cielo
En las calles de Harlem

Dorothy was listening to the echoes
Of "I Have a Dream"
While the Black Panthers pierced the sky
In the streets of Harlem
—Mateo Morrison, from "Dorothy Dandridge"

More of us might grasp that in Brazil, there have long been discourses of resistance that draw upon, complement, inflect, and in some cases challenge the prevailing discourses in the Afro-Anglosphere. We might be able to understand with far greater nuance the ways in which race and racism function within the Dominican Republic, and speak and write with more subtlety and care not only about its relationship with its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, Haiti, but about the relationships between Dominicans and other peoples of African descent throughout the hemisphere, including as they unfold within the context of U.S. society, and in relation to African American history and culture.

And I have not even mentioned all of the non-Anglophone work coming out of Africa. This aporia limits our understanding of the range and complexity of black lives all over the world, and also limits our understanding of forms of living and being, as well as of systems and structures of oppression, based on race (and ethnicity, indigeneity, class, gender, religious affiliation, etc.), have direct parallels globally. To put it another way, we have a truer and fuller sense of the black diaspora, and thus the globe, when we have translations of the vast body of work out there.

What this approach to translation aims for is not only access to new literary works and the linguistic and cultural worlds—which are forms of knowledge to be more specific—for their own sake, valuable though they will be. This is, rather, a call to reconfigure how we think about the world, our neighbors, our sisters and brothers, and ourselves; to see, to listen, to pay attention in new ways, to continue developing lines of exchange. What might happen if through our engagement with these translated works we were able to deepen our understanding of the conversations already underway across linguistic and cultural barriers, while also learning from them new ways to decenter Western and U.S. hegemonic perspectives about blackness and black people, which might include black Americans' participation in furthering that hegemony. Perhaps not only more translators, but more black translators, particularly from the United States, will step into the breach to undertake this work.[9]

The more voices we open our ears to, read and hear—acknowledging that the bridges we construct through translation will not be foolproof—the less likely we are to misunderstand, and thus erase or elide particularities and specificities, and the more likely we are to see connections and commonalities at the same time.

Et même s’il m’est arrivé d’être emporté par le courant
        d’une rivière
Dans chacun de mes songes
Revient ce nom
Deux syllabes

And even if it's come to pass that I have been removed
by a river's current
In each of my dreams
this name returns
Two syllables:

—Alain Mabanckou, from "À ma mère"


[1] I believe too that we should have far more translations in general of work from outside the European and European-language sphere, more translations of work by women, by LGBTQ peoples, by Indigenous writers, by working class and poor writers, by writers with disabilities, and so on.

[2] All translations, whatever their faults, are mine.

[3] I should note that have translated work by canonical and lesser-known white writers as well.

[4] Todd Fredson mentioned this concept of "fringe literature" in a proposal to translate Ivorian poet Josué Guébo that he shared with me in April 2015.

[5] "English-Speaking Countries Published 375,000 New Books Worldwide in 2004,” Bowker News Release. October 12, 2005, New Providence, New Jersey. Media contact: [email protected], cited in Esther Allen, editor, To Be Translated Or Not to Be: PEN/IRL Report on the International Situation of Literary Translation, Barcelona, Institut Ramon Llull, 2011; see also Three Percent.

[6] Glancing at the 2015 chart, for example, it appears that all of the texts Three Percent tracked fall into the categories of fiction and poetry; not a single one is listed as drama, or creative nonfiction.

[7] I offer these racial categorizations with the full acknowledgment that the racial and ethnic genealogies and histories of Brazil and Cuba, along with every other country in the Americas, are complex, and understandings of "race" and racial affiliation in the United States should not be considered the standard for any other country.

[8] Additionally, as Tiffany Higgins noted at a 2016 Associated Writing Programs panel on "Brazil Women Writers," in some cases when literary periodicals, like Granta, for example have published issues heralding the "best" new writing in national terms, they have failed to publish a single self-identified black writer.

[9] The challenges of cultivating and supporting more black literary translators, particularly in the United States, is a topic for another essay.

Originally Published: April 28th, 2016

Poet and novelist John Keene earned a BA at Harvard University and an MFA at New York University. He is the author of the poetry collection Seismosis (2006, with art by Christopher Stackhouse), and the novel Annotations (1995). In an interview with the blog Gapers Block, Keene described the collaboration...