Reading Time: 3:30 min | The character face on the left belongs to Frederic Douglass (1818-1895). He was an escaped slave, became one of the greatest orators of his time in the USA and a major campaigner against slavery. A friend of dialogue to solve problems, he was even willing to talk to Southern slaveholders. Quote: “I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
In the summer of 2019, two young men were visiting me in our winter garden. Winter gardens are usually at the back of a house located, as it is in ours, which means that you have to go through the front garden and then around the house to visit me there. Basically, a procedure not worth mentioning at all, if this circumstance hadn’t brought the police on the scene.
So, we were sitting in our conservatory, Betim drinking a café, his brother Mergim tea, chatting animatedly, when suddenly three policemen, two men and a woman, stood on my property in front of the conservatory and asked me if everything was all right. They had been called, they said, because two dark young men had been spotted moving through the back gardens of the neighbourhood.
Now I am not the prototype of the blond Teuton, but rather the southern European type. My two young friends visiting are Germans with roots in Kosovo. The expression on the policewoman’s face said: sure this is where the Albanian godfather meets his lads.
Of course, I had perverse joys about the situation: embarrassed young policemen who were obviously aware of the moral implications in the subtext of the situation, the blonde policewoman who was sure she had made a big catch, the German neighbourhood with its worries and fears — a great turnout for a harmless Thursday afternoon.
But for the two brothers, the situation was less entertaining. For them, it was another expression of the daily experience of not having arrived in society.
At Joe Biden’s inauguration, the young American poet Amanda Gorman (22) recited her poem entitled “The Hill We Climb”. In German “Den Hügel, den wir erklimmen” (I hope I got that right). This poem was to be translated into Dutch. The young, Booker prize-winning, non-binary Dutch writer Marieke Lucas Rijneveld (29) was asked to do this. In the end, after an extensive media battle in the Netherlands that was heard as far away as neighbouring Germany and UK, she stepped down because she does not have African roots and media pressure was too high – despite the reported strong endorsement of Amanda Gorman.
From both stories, the following picture emerges for me: There is deep-seated racism in Germany that already starts in Europe, you don’t have to look to Africa for that. And there are strong efforts in society to solve this haunting issue for good.
But as is so often the case, people want the grand plan. Everything has to fit and be right at once. And in the end, many things are more wrong than they were before. It raises the question, does Amanda Gorman want her work The Hill We Climb to be understood in the context of an African-American young woman or is it about something more, a universal meaning that art always bears? If humanity is the story, why is it a problem if a translator without African roots translates the poem into Dutch, which will never be the original anyway?
It is implied, without questioning or even inquiring, so to speak, that someone without African roots and not knowing what it is like to live as a non-white in a world dominated by white people can fully understand the poem. Furthermore, there is the implied accusation that the publisher has not recognised the signs of the times, that identities have to be at the centre of culture and that this also applies to translations.
One can assume that Amanda Gorman certainly does not want to be reduced to her African-American background. And Marieke Lucas Rijneveld also certainly does not want to be reduced to her European roots. But populist identity-culture wants it that way. The publisher caves in, the translator resigns and all kinds of female translators with African backgrounds come into play. No one knows how great their competence in US linguistic culture is (it may or may not be very great, of course), but at least the skin colour is right.
Not a good development. But we could say, it’s our fault, if we whites had behaved humanly acceptable earlier, all this wouldn’t be necessary.
True, but perhaps we could learn from history and practise tolerance where it is especially indicated, namely in cultural matters. This path of identities leads to cultural segregation, which has been the least of the problems of the racism debate so far. Culture is the glue that holds our society together and has been doing a great job for centuries, especially in popular culture and especially there across cultures.
In Germany, the problem was solved with a team of three women. One is competent in poetry and English but has German ancestry, the other has African roots and researches racism, and the third is an activist who writes. German thoroughness, that is.
The last line of The Hill We Climb: The new dawn blooms as we free it for there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.
Because I am White and to maintain neutrality, I asked DeepL as artificial intelligence to translate the line: Die neue Morgendämmerung blüht, wenn wir sie befreien, denn es gibt immer Licht, wenn wir nur mutig genug sind, es zu sehen, wenn wir nur mutig genug sind, es zu sein.
The new dawn blooms I would have translated differently (see headline).