Why Translating Black Writers Matters

​Racism is the term we frequently hear and use but barely ever mull over. It is commonly defined as a belief that one race is superior to another. However, it may not be very precise.

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What lies in the core of believing, is a hope that something is true. While in the case of racism, it seems to be more like blind confidence in a certain idea. Superiority also does not reflect this concept in the right way. In broad terms, it can be seen in many human relationships that involve subordination but it in no way presupposes disrespect and hostility. It is more of a two-way recognition of a hierarchy between the subjects. So what drives racism then is not a belief that one race is superior to another one, but the inability of individuals or groups to understand the perspective of others, a failure to accept equality because of some assumed difference based on the skin color.

What further aggravates this non-acceptance is the lack of ability of the others to speak their voice – many works of black authors not written in English were ever translated. So the philosophical quest of racists clashes with racism itself – by not being interested in understanding black people some whites deprive themselves of the possibility to recognize them. Why? Because it is always easier to be ignorant, to stick to what is familiar, to remain distant. It explains why people such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and many others have been assassinated – their opponents did not want to listen. And sadly, the same recently happened to George Floyd in Minneapolis. And so, racism that has begun with slavery has gone through the American Civil War, and the 1960s still remains vivid in some minds, which means that blacks still have to fight for their equality. In recent years this battle against racism was shaped by the Black Lives Matter protest.

Black Lives Matter Movement

The movement called Black Lives Matter (BLM) has started as a hashtag on social media back in 2013 following the murder of a black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 by George Zimmerman who was acquitted in the following trial. A year later the BLM reached the national level after the two murders of African-Americans Michael Brown and Eric Garner that resulted in protests. Since then the movement has developed into an organization with a wide network across the country and abroad having loose structure and no centralized authority. It has been primarily concerned with the actions of the police who have exceeded their limits of justifiable defense or their duties in situations that did not require it. One such horrifying case was the accidental shooting to death of a 7-year old girl Aiyana Jones in Detroit in 2015 by a police officer that shook the entire country.

Currently, the BLM protesters are concerned with the case of George Floyd who was killed by a police officer during the arrest. It received unprecedented publicity as witnesses recorded a video of blatant violent misconduct of a police officer that led to the death of Floyd and posted it on the internet. The video soon went viral and has led to massive protests and unrest in Minneapolis where the situation took place. The main demands of the protesters are to have those police officers who have committed ungrounded violent actions against black people to be prosecuted and their ultimate goal is to stop violence against black people and have systemic racism come to an end.

Translating Colored Writers Matters

So, as explained above, racism is the lack of education and understanding that drives stereotypical thinking. So fighting it involves increasing awareness about the colored people, their lives, their perspective. And it is only possible to achieve it by letting them speak up as their voices that have been silenced for too long. Occasionally we hear some stories in the media but it is not enough to shape the full perspective. Nowadays there are many different ways to achieve it because the internet allows vast possibilities. Recent years have shown how one comment, a video, a tweet, a song, a piece of text, or a hashtag can light up an idea in the minds of people and start an unstoppable wave. However, the language barrier remains one of the huge obstacles in the way of texts written by black non-English speakers. So it is extremely important to translate black writers and let their message be able to reach a wider audience.

The industry of literature in the US including translation and publishing has always been characterized as predominantly white. Of course, there were some fundamental works of black authors such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) by Frederick Douglass, Twelve Years a Slave (1853) by Solomon Northrup, and The Souls of Black Folk (1903) by W. E. B. Du Bois. However, for each of those works, there were dozens of literary pieces written by whites that gained the same or even greater popularity. More than that, there is a huge amount of works written by non-English speaking white authors that were translated to English and are widely known across the US. But the literary pieces of black written in a language other than English are barely known to the American general population. It demonstrates that there are a considerable gap and imbalance in the literature available for the US readers that also contributes to the issue of racism by fostering the ignorant consciousness of the white population.

Translation of texts written by black authors signifies unfolding for the non-black society what it means to be a person of color and providing an insight into the perspective of black people. Black literature, especially that of non-English speaking authors is an entirely different paradigm of sense and expression. It possesses unique poetic characteristics and thematic range while describing the experience that cannot be found anywhere else. Thus being the only source of this knowledge, literary works of black authors outside the US need to be translated and popularized in society as much as any other foreign literature.

What Has Been Done

Hopefully, the recognition of the issue of underrepresentation of black literature has already come to many organizations and professionals and there is active work being done to change the situation. The projects such collaboration between Wave, Action Books, and Don Mee Choi successfully discover black literature to the English-speaking readers by providing translations to the works of unconventional authors as Kim Hyesoon whose thrilling poetry discovers whole new dimensions of blackness. With the efforts of Johannes Göransson and Joyelle McSweeney, the co-founders of Action Books, a press that is concerned with publishing international works, the readers on the internet now have more possibilities to get familiar with black literature in quality translation. The work in this field is further supported by the Poetry Foundation, a popular internet resource for literature in free access. In order to bring to light the problem of the gap in non-US black literature and the importance of its translation, they posted a brilliant article by John Keene called Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness. Another project on supporting the translation of black literature is Antena Aire that aims to provide language justice.

However, despite the fact that such projects exist, the issue is that all of them focus on foreign literature that is not necessarily black. Given the abundant diversity of the world literature, multilingual and multicultural collaborative foundations cannot dedicate enough resources to translate specifically texts concerned with the black perspective. And so, although their work is extremely important, they cannot satisfy the need for the translation of non-English speaking black authors in full. It means that such efforts need to be further supported and more initiatives are required to empower black literature translation.

How We Can Help

Considering that the issue of racism and discrimination still exists on a large scale and does not seem to be improved, as demonstrated by the recent events, it is time for all people to take it really seriously. If anyone is thinking that their contribution can make too little and it is not worth trying, it is completely wrong. Nowadays, as never before, democracy and publicity have reached their peak as the general population has wide access to information on the internet and the ability to raise their voice against violence and injustice.

So how can one help in dealing with this situation? In fact, the contribution to the fight against racism starts with raising awareness. So the basic action one can take is to talk about this issue with one’s children and family members. The next thing to do is to express one’s civic position. One can do it by signing petitions at BLM, Change.org to support justice for George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, and also many other similar ones. Each sign matters, as collectively millions of signs demonstrate the government how huge the number of supporters is and how seriously the case should be treated. Further on, one can take part in peaceful demonstrations in local areas. It is essential not to use force during them because violence only breeds violence. As the examples of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi demonstrate, a peaceful protest is one of the most effective ways to fight.

It is also important to help organizations that battle racism with donations. Some of the charities that need one’s financial aid are:

Our company, TheWordPoint is proud of being multicultural and multilingual having employees from all over the world. Essentially, we believe that every life is important and that any person should be treated with dignity, respect, and humanism. In our view, the Black Lives Matter movement makes the immense commitment to fighting racism and making the world a better place for all. We praise diversity and strongly believe that no one should ever be discriminated against based on their race, gender, or any other characteristics and prejudice. We also hope that injustice one day will come to an end and do our best to contribute to it by connecting individuals and companies globally with the help of translation.