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How French can universalism try to be? Afterthoughts on the “Dutch affair”

by Nicolas Froeliger, Université de Paris, UFR EILA (Etudes Interculturelles de Langues Appliquées)

As translators, we strive to render meaning, intention and nuance as precisely as possible, with what some used to call fidelity, or, increasingly, loyalty (which is not exactly the same). How is it then, that translation studies fares so bad in translation? Of course, translations of translation studies books there are a-plenty, but are we always satisfied with them? The answer is a blatant no. A simple observation to substantiate this claim: how often are those translated books reprinted, even when they have become classics in their original language?

This is one of the many paradoxes we have to live with in this realm. I myself am both victim and culprit of such a paradox. A few months ago, I was asked to write a small piece on what the French call the “Dutch affair” (more on this below). Publication was meant for a book on the said issue (under the generic title faut-il se ressembler pour traduire?, to be published by “Double punctuation”: www.double-ponctuation.com). And since, as translators, we feel something like an attachment to our native working language, I did write the paper in question in French.

A brief summary of the facts:

  • on January 20, 2021, during Joseph Biden’s oath-taking ceremony, young poetess Amanda Gorman made a tremendous impression by reading her poem “The Hill We Climb”;
  • immediately, publishers everywhere rushed to have her works translated;
  • among them, renowned Dutch house Meulenhoff gave the assignment to another young author: Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, and made it widely known;
  • Dutch journalist and social network activist Janice Deul then criticized that decision, deploring the choice of a white woman to translate an African-American woman, triggering an avalanche of reactions;
  • in the face of this uproar, Marieke Lucas Rijneveld gave up the assignment before explaining her reasons in the form of a poem;
  • the world of translation and the general public expressed their outrage. At least in France and French speaking countries (notably Belgium).

A most telling development, one would say… What did I then set out to write, in my French version?

  • That although translators have a special taste for nuance and balanced arguments, resorting to those would be counter-productive here: no matter what one thinks of the state of inequalities the world over, this affair has to be judged in terms of overarching values: universality or fragmentation;
  • That the rich debate on this issue is a sign that the translation profession at large has started to reflect on translation related issues such as this one on its own terms, which is a positive sign regarding professionalization;
  • That translation studies itself, notwithstanding all its diversity, could help the translation community adopt a clearer, broader view on such a subject. One that places openness and, precisely, diversity, above such essentialist, passé reactions such as “why defend someone [Marieke Lucas Rijneveld] who is not even a (real) translator?”;
  • That obviously, the reactions in the profession were much more varied than that, which hints at a yet imperfect connection between research and actual practice in our field. And calls for further investigations on the sociological side of the profession.

The gist of the argument, in even more synthetic form: as in translation proper, universality and reaching out to the other should always prevail other the particular. There was only one problem with the paper I wrote to substantiate this: all of the authors I mentioned (in French) to sustain my argument were conspicuously… French. A few simple questions, then: is it simpler, or more expedient to raise the flag of universality in this particular language, than it would have been in, say, English? Would my paper have been different if I had set out to write it in this language in the first place? Why did this “Dutch affair” create such an uproar in French-speaking countries (and, to the best of my admittedly insufficient knowledge, not elsewhere)? Why (the hell) does translation studies fare so bad in translation? It should after all be the exact opposite!

Other than a long history of provincialism from which translation and translation studies have only recently started to emerge, I do not have solid answers to those questions. I can only suggest that research should tackle them, both for the sake of research as such, but also for the good of the whole profession.

And I will leave the reader with yet two other questions (which I am also asking to myself): to what extent can the article she or he has just read in English be considered a translation of the French original published in book version? And what does it tell us about our definition of translation? Food for thoughts, indeed…

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