ATTLC/LTAC stands in solidarity with author NourbeSe Philip’s call for the Italian publisher Benway Series to destroy the Italian translation of her book-length poem Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng, and to apologize officially for their persistence in defending a translation which was initially pursued without the author’s knowledge and subsequently published despite the author’s explicit and vocal opposition to the translators’ stated interpretation of the work.

The case draws attention to the deep, systemic and blithely unacknowledged violence at work in the legal regulation of contracts among publishers in Europe and North-America, which perpetuate colonial legacies of careless appropriation of Black and Indigenous cultural expression. It also draws attention to Canada Council’s inadequate attention to race when it comes to adjudicating funding for translation projects. Finally, it raises crucial questions regarding the ethics of translation and the obligations a translator has towards a living author.

A haunting lifeline between archive and memory, law and poetry, Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng is composed entirely of words from the case report, Gregson vs. Gilbert, related to the murder by drowning of Africans on board a slave ship in 1781. The text is a work of mourning, an honouring, and a defending of the Ancestors, and it is reparative in intent for Black and African-descended peoples. The spiritual architecture of the text is made visible on the page by way of a specific rule of placement of words, one that enacts a “poetics of breath,” which in turn is activated every year in November on the anniversary of the murder through the ritual recitation of the text in collective durational readings.

Both in the process through which it came to be and in the actual product, the Italian translation of Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng disregards and minimizes such spiritual architecture and its reparative intent, inflicting real and moral violence that ironically repeats the same logic of minimization and dismissal of Black life that is at work in the 18th century legal case which Zong! was conceived to deconstruct and undo.

Here are the facts as reported in PEN America’s statement in support of the author (for more information on the correspondence between the parties see NourbeSe Philip’s blog Set Speaks). The U.S. publisher, Wesleyan University Press, holds world rights to Zong!’s publication and has licensed translation rights in several other languages. In this case they did not notify Philip that a contract for the Italian publication had been signed, nor did the translator or the Italian publishers. The author was unaware of the contract’s existence until June 2021, when she received notification from the Italian publishers congratulating her on the publication of the translated work. Philip immediately notified WUP, Benway, and all parties concerned that the Italian translation and format were unacceptable; the situation has progressed to the point where Philip has given notification that they are in breach of her moral rights as an author and, in particular, with regards to a work that engages with Ancestral protocols and obligations, clearly identified on the cover of the book by the words: As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.

More than a thousand of people and many literary organizations have already signed the author’s petition calling for the destruction of the Italian translation. LTAC/ATTLC invites its members to sign on to this petition and its call for greater awareness, humility and accountability in the delicate relational craft that is the practice of translation.

As Elæ Moss, a signatory on the petition, eloquently puts it:

“This situation is a clarion call to translators and publishers to do better, and to consider their ethical responsibility in the public care of works not only of art but of body, of heart, of history, of healing.”

Written by LTAC member Elena Basile