Five years ago, John Keene published “Translating Poetry, Translating Blackness,” a clarion call for more Afro-diasporic literature in English translation, noting the exclusion of Black writers from the already marginalized market of translated literature. Even greater than the dearth of Black literature in translation is the dearth of Black translators into English, not to mention the lack of writing about translating Blackness—evidenced by the fact that discussions of race and translation tend to reference Keene’s essay and not much else.
This list provides resources to further the discussion on translating Blackness, race, and racism and foregrounds the work of Black translators and other translators of color. Topics range from the translation of Black literature to support for BIPOC translators to the translation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The various pieces touch on a key point of Keene’s argument: that more translations of Afro-diasporic literature will provide a richer understanding of Black lived experiences in various cultural contexts while de-centering US-American frameworks of race, racism, and Blackness. They also develop how race intersects with other identities like gender, sexuality, ability, religion, and age.
Shared among the essays, articles, interviews, and conversations is a clear sense that the personal is always political and the political personal. Individuals who want to make change operate within and against institutionalized power structures, and those structures can have profound and devastating effects on individuals and communities. The translators here, then, seek not only to translate more but to translate differently, in ways that challenge the dominant US-American practice of translation. For example, there is an emphasis placed on collaborative, collective translation in opposition to the individualistic, proprietary mode associated with a literary market built on prestige and profit.
The texts in this list can help us to consider our roles as readers, writers, translators, editors, and publishers in combatting White supremacy in translated literature and to reflect on how the translation of Blackness fits into larger struggles for Black liberation.
1. Asymptote Podcast: “Translating Blackness,” “Blackness Revisited,” and “International Blackness”
The feature image of “Blackness Revisited,” the episode of the Asymptote Podcast featuring John Keene
Inspired by Keene’s essay, the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) organized a panel with the same title at the 2018 Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. Layla Benitez-James later interviewed three panelists—Lawrence Schimel, Keene himself, and Aaron Coleman—for the Asymptote podcast. Adding to his call to expand the range of texts translated into English, Keene discusses the relationship between writing and translation as well as how travel complements translation in enlarging our understanding of the history and culture of diasporic communities of color outside the US. Schimel talks about translating as an ally and the special considerations in translating queer Black identities. The interview with Coleman brings together his work as a translator, scholar, and poet concerned with the politics and poetics of language—from histories of language suppression to translating musicality—in communities of Afro-descendant people in the transatlantic world.
2. “‘Blackness’ in French: On Translation, Haiti, and the Matter of Race”
Translating more work by Black authors is not enough, argues Kaiama L. Glover in this essay; it matters how that work is translated. Using her translation of René Depestre’s novel Hadriana dans tous mes rêves/Hadriana in All My Dreams as an example, Glover puts forward a translation practice that refuses to center an imagined White audience. While directing her translation primarily at Anglophone Afro-diasporic communities with and without Haitian heritage, she also grapples with how to translate Vodou and eroticism without reinforcing stereotypes of pathological Blackness. Readers wanting to dive further into the translation can access the virtual book club Glover hosted with historian Laurent Dubois.
3. “Translating Italy, Translating Blackness”
The cover of Future: Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi
Barbara Ofosu-Somuah and Candice Whitney met in Italy as US Fulbright researchers and discovered a shared interest as Black womxn in Afro-Italian experience and writing. They have since embarked on collaborative translation projects, such as Future: Il domani narrato dalle voci di oggi (Future: Tomorrow narrated by the voices of today), an anthology of Afro-Italian women’s writing edited by Igiaba Scego. In this piece, Ofosu-Somuah and Whitney recount their journeys toward translation and their translation process. Particularly notable is their discussion of the way Blackness is relational—while some experiences of living in racialized Black bodies are shared transnationally, each context also bears its own specificities. Ofosu-Somuah, who immigrated to the US from Ghana, and Whitney bring the lives of Afro-Italian women into English without imposing a US-American framework of race and racism.
4. “Translator’s Notes: Letters for Black Lives”
Following the murder of Philando Castile in 2016, a collective of hundreds of Asian Americans and Canadians drafted a text—the Letter for Black Lives—to help facilitate conversations with immigrant parents and other elders in their communities about anti-Black racism and the Black Lives Matter movement. An updated letter was drafted in 2020, and both letters have been collaboratively adapted and translated into several languages. Here, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop invited some of the translators to discuss issues that arose in translating the 2020 letter into Lao, Korean, Hindi, Bengali, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and simplified Japanese for K-12 students. This conversation touches on topics such as colorism within Asian communities, tone, the relation of specific Asian American communities with African Americans, and the translation of the phrase Black Lives Matter.
5. “How do you sign Black Lives Matter in ASL?”
As in the literary translation profession, exclusionary practices and institutions have severely limited the number of Black ASL interpreters. In this article for the Los Angeles Times, Sonja Sharp highlights the importance to Black d/Deaf communities of having access to Black ASL interpreters like featured interpreter Rorri Burton. The signs used for phrases like Black Lives Matter—“important” vs. “cherish”; different versions of “b/Black”—can have a distinct emotional impact, especially given the high proportion of people with disabilities among those killed by police. Burton also notes that the signs chosen will depend on who is signing and for whom.
6. “Translation and Black Feminisms”
The cover of the “Translation and Black Feminisms” issue of Revista Ártemis
Aiming to foster transnational dialogue between Black feminisms—particularly in Latin America, the US, and Africa—the open-access, Brazil-based journal Revista Ártemis devoted a 2019 issue to “Tradução e feminismos negros”/“Translation and Black Feminisms.” While most of the issue is in Portuguese, the introduction by editors Cibele de Guadalupe Sousa Araújo, Luciana de Mesquita Silva, and Dennys Silva-Reis is also available in English, along with some articles and interviews. Working at the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, language, and generation, the pieces examine the multiple permutations of Black feminisms across time and space and formulate Black feminist translation practices, drawing on concepts such as Obioma Nnaemeka’s nego-feminism (no ego feminism).
7. “Instigating the Future: Cross-pollinations of Race and Translation”
This roundtable conversation organized by Jen Hofer and Adrienne Perry and moderated by the latter at the 2017 ALTA Conference brings together translators of color to discuss new directions for translation practices and institutions. Ji yoon Lee, Stalina Villarreal, Madhu Kaza, Yvette Siegert, and Poupeh Missaghi address a range of topics including access, assimilation, audience, efforts to bring more writers of color and heritage speakers into translation, conceptions of translation outside the exclusionary mode of mastery, and approaching texts with humility. Rather than simply talking about ways to make the translation community “more diverse,” the speakers imagine how translation practice and spaces might fundamentally change with a more capacious understanding of who translates and what translation is and does.
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