The empire fights back (Photo by NOEL CELIS / AFP) (Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images)

March 4, 2021   6 mins

By the time I was ten years old, I had been to school in three European countries and was more or less trilingual — thanks to my dad’s job. As a result, I learned from an early age that different languages often have very different ways of conveying ideas. Switching language, to an extent, means thinking differently. It’s why we end up borrowing terms such as schadenfreude where we don’t have a direct equivalent.

But if this is true, how could we ever translate anything without hopelessly mangling it? If a translation risks twisting or ruining the original, stripping it of nuance or even misrepresenting an idea, then it must be done only with the greatest sensitivity and skill.

This isn’t a problem that concerns only dilettantes and art mavens; ideas, even in translation, can be revolutionary. The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei describes how his father sought to evade accusations of being anti-communist during the Cultural Revolution by burning the family’s books, including poetry by Pablo Neruda and Rabindranath Tagore. Likewise, just as translated works can be subversive, so they can be evangelical: the world’s most translated text today is the Bible. Whether encouraged in order to spread ideas, or forbidden in order to suppress them, translation is difficult to separate from power.

Predictably, then, the politics of translation have become a culture-war battleground today, with reports that the Dutch writer and poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld has pulled out of translating Amanda Gorman’s poem for the Biden inauguration. Translation rights to Gorman’s work were hotly contested, and Meulenhof, the publisher that secured them, described Rijneveld, an International Booker Prize winner, as the “dream translator”.

But Rijneveld’s selection was quickly seized upon by self-styled “cultural activist” Janice Deul, who wrote that Meulenhof should instead “choose a writer who is — just like Gorman — a spoken-word artist, young, female and unapologetically Black”. The implication was that Rijneveld, who is white, would have less insight into Gorman’s life than a Dutch writer who is black. In response, critics of Rijneveld’s decision to step down have objected to this firewalling of cultural artefacts on the basis of skin colour. But such well-trodden culture war arguments can easily obscure the complex power dynamics of translation.

Rabindranath Tagore, whose work Ai Weiwei remembers reading before his father burned the family library, was the first non-white person to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Gitanjali (or Song Offerings) was Tagore’s own translation of 103 of his Bengali verses into English prose, and was described by William Butler Yeats as “the work of a supreme culture”.

Tagore’s Nobel Prize in 1913 certainly widened the previously Eurocentric focus of such awards. Yet despite Tagore’s prolific artistic output and status as giant of the Bengali Renaissance, Gitanjali remains his best-known work outside the subcontinent, the subject of Pinterest pins and YouTube content, precisely because Tagore translated it to English. For, in no small thanks to the political legacy of two successive Anglophone empires, English remains the dominant global language.

This fact sits uncomfortably with the post-imperial and (officially at least) anti-imperialist perspective of modern Britain. Today it is common to feel, somewhat queasily, that the English language has been an irreversible and sometimes harmful imposition on the world: this sentiment even appears in the GCSE English syllabus, in the form of Brian Friel’s 1980 play Translations.

Translations depicts the exercise of English colonial power in 1833 rural Ireland, as represented by a group of military surveyors who anglicise Irish place names while making a new map. It directly addresses the fundamentally violent process of using military force to impose a foreign language, and translating the cultural (and physical) terrain of an occupied people into that language.

Although we decry Britain’s former imperial aggression today, the process Translations describes didn’t come to an end with the dissolution of the British Empire. In Hong Kong, the anglicisation described in Translations has been taking place in reverse since the return of the island to Chinese rule in 1997. As Beijing has tightened its hold, street names and signage have undergone a slow but sure shift from English to Chinese, which is framed explicitly as a process of erasing the British colonial legacy.

The cultural inroads made by empire — and the violence this often entails — are more visible yet when it comes to “translating” people from their native culture to the imperial one. This dates back to ancient Egypt and Rome, when hostages were routinely taken among the children of conquered aristocracies and educated in their conquerors’ culture. The Ottoman Empire turned such translation into a fine art, with the devshirme or “child-levy” system, which took children from subject nations and raised them as the empire’s elite governing class.

Nor was the practice of coercive assimilation abandoned in more modern empires: America in the 19th century saw the creation of boarding schools for Native American children, who were separated from their parents and compelled to study “the habits and arts of civilisation”. And a similar process is underway in China today, with reports emerging of boarding schools in Xinjiang where Uighur children are taught to forget their heritage and embrace loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

The mixed feelings such assimilationist cultural policies produced among those who experienced them can be seen in the writing of Nirad C. Chaudhuri, a Bengali contemporary of Tagore. Born in 1897, Chaudhuri’s boyhood coincided with the burgeoning Indian independence movement, which by then was trickling into schoolbooks.

But far from cheering this process on, in Autobiography of an Unknown Indian (1951) Chaudhuri describes envying the excerpts of English poetry in his older brother’s textbooks, which he found far more interesting than his own “Indianised” study material. And in The Continent of Circe (1965), Chaudhuri is even more explicit, claiming that “English is not a mere instrument for us but a force shaping and moulding personality”. That is, to argue for a language is to argue for a worldview.

Having learned to translate my own worldview twice as a child, I never felt entirely “English” even after our return. Indeed, as the ebb and flow of translations follows that of politics, those who have been translated (voluntarily or otherwise) into a hybrid culture can be left radically adrift when the currents change. Chaudhuri was one such: he left India altogether in 1970 for England, explaining: “England is decadent, the young people are savages, but here I can still live according to the lights I have always known.”

The landscape of cultural and imperial power thus flows across places and cultures via literal and figurative processes of translation. And when we think of translation in these terms, it becomes clear that the quarrel over who translates Gorman’s poem isn’t a matter of race or marginalisation at all, so much as of imperial court politics.

Amanda Gorman’s work has been broadcast around the world from the nation that remains — in however battered a condition — the world’s pre-eminent superpower. She is not marginalised. In terms of pure cultural clout, she’s a heavy hitter, in the world’s top nation, writing in the world’s dominant language. Rijneveld, on the other hand, is a relatively obscure writer and poet, working in a language spoken by a mere 23 million people.

Being a trendy figure in Dutch literature has nothing on being America’s premier court poet. And so winning the job of translating Amanda Gorman’s inauguration poem is less white appropriation than the scoring of an immense honour — one that was, in fact, conferred by Gorman herself, who personally selected Rijneveld for the job.

Deul’s intervention was not a move to amplify marginalised people so much as the use of a fashionable argument to redirect a desirable opportunity toward her own social network. (Her article names several of her personal friends whom she thinks would be more suitable than Rijneveld.) That is, it was less a fightback against imperial power than an intra-class skirmish for perks and status.

Much of the currently fashionable “decolonisation” agenda that excites so much conservative commentary can be understood in a similar framework; as a process of imperial translation, with a new order reorganising the ideas and artefacts of alien cultures to suit its own priorities.

The lesson to draw from this isn’t that all empires are evil by definition, but that all of them exercise power literally, via coercive means, and also culturally via the spread and translation of ideas and ways of life. We may bridle at the new woke American anti-imperialist imperialism, gasp at the ruthlessness of the Chinese drive to assimilate its minorities, or recoil at the atrocities committed by the British empire. But the uncomfortable fact is that such forces are also the deep drumbeat of the most long-lasting achievements in human history.

The only way to avoid this drumbeat, in all its brutality, would be to end imperialism full stop, which history suggests isn’t going to happen. And even if it did, it would likely mean the end of art and culture. Is that a price worth paying? The intense competition for the right to cling to Amanda Gorman’s coattails suggests not even today’s self-styled woke anti-imperialists really want to give up the imperial power of literature. They’re just fighting over who gets to wield it.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.