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European publishers squirm over "suitable" voices to translate Amanda Gorman's landmark poem on race in U.S.

Amanda Gorman on the power of poetry
Amanda Gorman on power of poetry, her mom's influence, turning adversity into strength 05:41

Paris — Poet Amanda Gorman made her name with a call for unity within the United States, but the job of translating her work in Europe has sparked divisive debate.

"To put our future first, we must first put our differences aside," the 23-year-old recited in her now-iconic performance at Joe Biden's presidential inauguration in January.

But in Europe, it has been hard to ignore people's differences when it comes to translating that poem, "The Hill We Climb."

The furor was kickstarted in the Netherlands when activist-journalist Janice Deul said it was "incomprehensible" that a person with white skin, poet Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, had been chosen for the job.

Rijneveld, "shocked" at the uproar, quit the project, and publishing house Meulenhoff apologized, saying it had "missed an enormous opportunity to give a young black woman a podium."

Watch: Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman recites poem at Biden's inauguration 06:25

However, this went down very badly with Gorman's Spanish translator, Nuria Barrios, who said Deul's victory was "catastrophic."

"It's the victory of identitarian discourse over creative freedom," she wrote in the daily El Pais on March 11.

A couple weeks later Barrios shared a New York Times Books article on the debate in Europe, wondering aloud whether it might be the "last gasp of the controversy over identity politics and translation," and wishing "as much noise was made to better the working conditions for female translators, mistreated as they are, whatever color they may be." 

As temperatures rose on Spanish Twitter, Gorman's Catalan publishers Univers took a second look at their own choice of translator, Victor Obiols, concluded he was not even the right gender, and sacked him.

"They told me that I am not suitable to translate it," he told AFP. "They did not question my abilities, but they were looking for a different profile, which had to be a woman, young, activist and preferably black."

In Germany, "Den Huegel hinauf" was released on the same day as its American edition, but here the criticisms were more about the quality of the verse.

"It is, from a literary point of view, a fiasco," deplored Austrian daily Der Standard.

The newspaper blamed the stylistic shortcomings on the fact the three-strong team of translators included two people — Hadija Haruna-Oelker, who is black, and Kubra Gumusay, of Turkish origin — "who are less active in the literary and journalistic domain than in feminist and anti-racist militancy."

In Italy, publishers Garzanti secured the services of a young translator, Francesca Spinelli, with the apparent approval of Gorman.

Spinelli dismissed the Dutch controversy that might have engulfed her as well, describing it as "an inflammatory and slightly confused debate in which everyone had their say, often without talking about the same thing," according to the magazine Il Libraio.

It is perhaps Hungary's Open Books Publisher that has come up with the most innovative approach, using members of the minority Roma community in order to keep the essential spirit of Gorman's poem rather than simply importing America's racial politics. The project has yet to be completed.

There have been fewer problems in France, where publisher Fayard made a charismatic choice in singer Marie-Pierra Kakoma, who goes by the stage-name Lous and the Yakuza, in her first translating role.

Sweden has also opted for a singer, though this time a man: Jason Diakite, stage-name Timbuktu. The son of American parents, his selection has not elicited any notable upset. He says the poem felt "very familiar" to him due to its wealth of rhymes, which he said were a lot like rap.

Outside Europe, few translations are planned for the moment.

In Brazil they have found a black woman for the job: journalist-poet Stephanie Borges.

"It's a debate of extreme importance," Talitha Perisse, of publisher Intrinseca, told AFP. "We hope it will continue so as to really bring greater representation in the literary world."

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