Translating Black authors

Our Black authors and philosophers speak to us through the works that they left us, so that even when they are gone their words still resonate. They have become part of our archive, our Black cultural heritage from which we delve and to which we turn to when confronted with new problems. As a philosopher I often turn to Fanon who laid the groundwork for decolonial theory and pan-African philosophy, and who formulated the language in which I learned to fight back against systems of oppression. I fortunately had access to his own words, so that his thoughts could reach me unmediated.
However this is not the case for all Black philosophers, students, activists and writers. They depend on translators to transmit to them the ideas of their cultural archive. These translators are mediators between the young Black student/activist/writer and his/her predecessors. As such it is important for these mediators to be aware of the responsibility they bare, in transmitting these words and ideas.

We have unfortunately seen how this responsibility has been mishandled in the Netherlands. We saw this with the translation of Frantz Fanon, James Baldwin and Margo Jefferson. The translators in these cases had not immersed themselves into the worlds of these authors to fully grasp the place from which they came from as they wrote. Each of these translations have created controversies surrounding the translation of one particular concept into a Dutch word. Black people have been told to get over the use and translation of this one specific word, because it supposedly had no further implication for the text and the bigger ideas in it.

Yet anyone who has ever done something in the field of philosophy will know how important it is to be precise with the use of concepts. Students learn that a term such as Geist, in the way a German philosopher such as Hegel uses it does not necessarily mean the exact same thing as ghost or spirit. So when possible one should just use the words the author uses, to not lose the nuances and complexities. Yet in the case of Fanon, Baldwin and Jefferson the care and delicacy with which they chose their words have not been uphold.

So what are the implications of this one word? I recently wrote an essay, which will soon be published in a Dutch literary magazine, on the translation of Fanon’s Peau noire, masques blancs (Black skin, white mask) and the meaning of the French word nègre in this text. Since the meaning of this word in his text is specific, the implications are great. In the essay I argue that the Dutch n-word does not contain the same dialectics as the French word nègre does, a dialectic that highlighted the Black experience which Fanon sought to capture. And so in order to let Fanon speak, to let his ideas resonate, we should keep the words he used, let him speak for himself unmediated by the limited and reductive views of the translators.

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