Help needed with tranlsating term referring to someone's skin colour.
April 22, 2013 5:02 AM   Subscribe

I am translating a text which contains a sentence about someone who is "coloured". People in the US: what is an acceptable way to translate this?

In the source language, this is a neutral/fairly PC term usually referring to someone who is dark-skinned, probably of African origin.

I know that in South Africa "black" is a term which is used by many people for people of purely African descent, and "coloured" for people of mixed heritage, and that both terms are used neutrally (despite their charged history). I think "black" is OK in the UK as well (?). However, this is written with a US audience in mind, and I am not sure what terms are OK here. My instinct is to go with "black", but I don't know if that is not perceived as racist, particularly by people who might be exposed to violence, physical or otherwise, because of being identified as "black". It would be great if the term were purely descriptive and non-value laden, but could also be applied to an under-defined context (this is why "African-American", for instance, wouldn't work).

The text is a SciFi short-story set in a fictional town in an unspecified country/ continent at an unspecified time, but I think is written by someone who has mostly read American SciFi (in translation).
posted by miorita to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Person of color is the broad and self-selected correct term for it sounds like what you are talking about.
posted by OmieWise at 5:08 AM on April 22, 2013


If the word is definitely referring to someone who is of African origin, then you could use Black. In colloquial American English Black stands in for African-American quite frequently, although it is not completely "correct," I think it does not have racist overtones in most uses.
posted by OmieWise at 5:11 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks Omiewise, I think I would use your first suggestion for my own normal discourse, and your second one in this context.

Here is the precise linguistic context:

The guard, a burly black guy, followed the protocol for security checks...

I think what I find slightly grating (and what has me worried here) is the fact that colour is used in a fairly clichéd context: black guy who is big and strong and burly and a guard, whilst everyone else (so far - I've only seen part of the story) is white. I might be less careful if the person of colour were the genius professor or something and had more of a role in the story.
posted by miorita at 5:22 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Person of color" is a pretty well-accepted term in America for someone who's not white (it includes, for instance, South Asians, East Asians, Middle Easterners, and the like as well as Africans). However, it's a bit of an academic term — I've seen it used mostly in ethnic studies, discussions of privilege in America, etc. — so it might be tonally a bit peculiar in a work of fiction.

If the intimation in the original text was that they were of African ancestry, or of a skin tone suggesting African ancestry, "black" is probably OK.
posted by jackbishop at 5:22 AM on April 22, 2013


"Person of color" is the most politically correct term, as it is an example of "people first" language, in which the primary identifier is that of a person and the second identifier is the characteristic being described. It includes anyone in who is not white. "Black" is more colloquial and specific to people of African heritage, and I see it more in literature than "person of color." I can't recall reading a story where someone was referred to as a "person of color," but then again, people of color are marginalized in literature too. "Coloured" is most definitely not OK- it's a segregation-era term that a lot of people find very offensive. People of mixed racial heritage self-identify in various ways, but if they are partially of African descent, they might refer to themselves as a "person of color," "black," "mixed," "multiracial," "biracial," or something else. "Mulatto" is another very outdated and (to many people) offensive term--its etymology is related to the term "mule"--for people who are biracial (black/white)
posted by quiet coyote at 5:23 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


but could also be applied to an under-defined context (this is why "African-American", for instance, wouldn't work).

Trying to understand what you mean by this. Do you mean a context where it's clear that the person has dark skin but not clear what their race/ethnicity is?

In the US (at least as far as I have ever heard), being black refers to having some amount of African ancestry. You wouldn't refer to a 100% Indian person as being black, for example, no matter what their skin color was.

If you just want to describe what someone looks like and leave the ethnicity totally unclear, you could just talk about complexion. Dark complexioned, dark skinned, swarthy.
posted by cairdeas at 5:25 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


In the US, most Black people I know use Black to describe people of color. (In fact, I often hear older Black people still use "colored", but I think that's a situation where only they get to use that word.) "Person of color" is a larger group and is often used to describe anyone with brownish skin, not just of African origin. "African American" isn't particularly common in colloquial use because it makes an assumption about the origin and citizenship of the person. I've heard some people make the claim that it implies the person is descended from slavery, and a lot of people don't like to self-identify that way. It is a smaller group than "Black". Someone from the Caribbean, for example, wouldn't be African American, and might not care to be included in that group.

I think the only time Black is troublesome is when it is used stereotypically or in some other negative fashion. Like any word for anything, context is important. But purely as a descriptor, it would be perfectly acceptable. Must be capitalized.
posted by gjc at 5:30 AM on April 22, 2013


I strongly disagree with the use of "person of color". I am white but in my area/demographic, someone that said that would be thought of as old-fashioned and perhaps a little racially bigoted. Same with "mixed". These are not appropriate ways of describing a persons skin color.

I agree with cairdeas in that if you want to avoid referencing an ethnicity/leave it unknown- dark skinned or the like is the best option by far.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 5:34 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Do you mean a context where it's clear that the person has dark skin but not clear what their race/ethnicity is?

Cairdeas, what that means is that African-American is fairly specific to people with African ancestry who live in the US. It couldn't be used to refer to someone who is of African Ancestry and who is a Brit, for example. Since the author didn't specify place and time, I don't want to do it for him by using a fairly place-bound term.

The term in the original language, as I said, is generally used as a PC way of saying "black", but can be used to mean non-white, as well, though less frequently (the literal translation would be "man of colour").

Saying this, thank you very much for each insight - the question is motivated by this one specific issue, but I welcome the opportunity to learn some/more ways in which to avoid gratuitously offending people in other situations, as well, particularly since I don't have any contact with people born in the US outside of Metafilter.
posted by miorita at 5:38 AM on April 22, 2013


Black is OK in the UK, yes. For people of African or Caribbean heritage.

Once upon a time it used to be used more politically to encompass South Asians (in the sense of groups self-identifying as non-white in solidarity) but this is less the case now. People of Indian or Pakistani origin would not typically describe themselves as black. While 'black' is an accepted term and used on official census forms, you do also find some communities that dislike the term, and prefer Black/African and Black/Caribbean as opposed to just a generic term. You also find Black/African and Black/Caribbean as groupings for self-identification on the census. At the same time, there are separate entries for Asian groups that distinguish people of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Chinese heritage from one another.

Coloured used to be an acceptable term for black people in the UK - in the sense that lots of older white people used it and did not consider it racist - but is no longer. Nobody in the UK uses "person of colour", in contrast to its use in the US.

The neutral term for grouping for people who are not white in the UK would be 'non-white,' but this is of no help as a term for use in literary translation.

I think your translation of 'The guard, a burly black guy, followed the protocol for security checks' is as good as its going to get in either UK or US English without using a term that is either inaccurate or so neutral as to jar. A analogy - and forgive me because I can't remember the details - is a language which doesn't have a generic word for "blue" - in translation from English you have to select dark blue or light blue. Here, in this case you may end up choosing a word that is more specific, or less neutral but the options are limited.

By the by, a good book around this issue of translation is David Bellos' "Is That a Flea in Your Ear?".
posted by MuffinMan at 5:46 AM on April 22, 2013


I agree with gjc except that black as a racial descriptor should not be capitalized. "Person of color" in the example sentence for a work of fiction would sound awkward and probably doesn't match the register of the source text (the term is used primarily in academic and social policy contexts). Black as a racial descriptor is not, by the vast majority of Americans (including African Americans) considered racist. Just look at references to Barack Obama as America's first black president (and not "president of color").

If the author is showing racist/stereotyping undertones in their choice of characters, it's not your job as translator to smooth that out.
posted by drlith at 5:48 AM on April 22, 2013 [8 favorites]


The context sounds racist regardless of translation. Black is about as good as you can do.
posted by kavasa at 5:52 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


It doesn't sound "racist regardless of translation". The word you use will certainly decide if it comes across that way or not.

"Person of color" is used in the United States to refer to anyone who is non-European. If you use it, you will not be signifying African ancestory specifically. Also, it's an academic-sounding term that few people use in everyday speech.

You want to use "black".
posted by spaltavian at 6:04 AM on April 22, 2013


Yeah, that's pretty racist there.

Is it possible to just leave it out, it's not really important to the context of the story. Is it?

The guard, a burly guy, followed the protocol for security checks...
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:07 AM on April 22, 2013


Person of color would stick out in that sentence. It would suggest the author was bending over backwards in a misguided attempt to be politically correct. Use black, it is the term most commonly used in the U.S by persons of all ethnic backgrounds to refer to persons of african heritage.
posted by Area Man at 6:09 AM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Black is the word you need to use. It doesn't read well in your sentence because it is indeed a ham handed sentence. But "black" is the correct word
posted by SLC Mom at 6:14 AM on April 22, 2013


I strongly disagree with the use of "person of color". I am white but in my area/demographic, someone that said that would be thought of as old-fashioned and perhaps a little racially bigoted.

Perhaps you are confusing "person of color" with "colored." "Person of color" is a newish term, so I'm having trouble understanding how it could seem old-fashioned.

OP, I agree that "person of color" would be stilted in that sentence. You might also consider whether his race is important enough to point out, or whether you can indicate it with other descriptors. "Black guy" seems somewhat superfluous and overly casual in the sentence as written.
posted by quiet coyote at 6:18 AM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ruthless Bunny, quiet coyote, I don´t think it should be up to the OP to leave that out.

If the author considered it was important to point it out, she should respect it. Even if that could be seen as racist, I believe the tone should be maintained. You wouldn´t rewrite the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, would you? (Yeah, I know someone already did....)

Sorry I can´t help with the question itself, I´m not from the US.
posted by Fermin at 6:32 AM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Perhaps you are confusing "person of color" with "colored." "Person of color" is a newish term, so I'm having trouble understanding how it could seem old-fashioned.

Not to derail too much, but no confusion. This term came into common usage some 30 years ago.
posted by sarahnicolesays at 6:34 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ruthless Bunny, quiet coyote, I don´t think it should be up to the OP to leave that out.

Well, Bernard Guerney's translation of Dead Souls washes Gogol of his anti-semitism, but it remains a good book.

If you must keep the word, use "black." "Swarthy" or "dark-skinned" are no less problematic; "person of color" sounds somewhat overpolite. If overpoliteness jibes with the rest of the narration, feel free to use it. If bluntness fits better, use "black." If it's not really important, I don't see any reason to preserve the word.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 6:56 AM on April 22, 2013


I think "dark-skinned" or "burly man with dark brown skin" is your best bet.

Please don't leave it out all together.
posted by windykites at 7:02 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Anything other than black seems super-weird to me. I don't know that I've ever encountered the term "person of color" in fiction, and it seems way too non-specific to describe an individual (not to say that it's not a useful term in some situations, but basically all you know about a "person of color" is that they're not white). As a translator, I think you should use "black;" the author should maybe consider whether it even matters that the character is black. Another thing some authors do (with varying degrees of success) is to describe the character's appearance without using race words: "A burly guy with skin the color of coffee," etc.
posted by mskyle at 7:03 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well, Bernard Guerney's translation of Dead Souls washes Gogol of his anti-semitism, but it remains a good book.

Just to elaborate on this: The anti-semitism in Gogol definitely belongs to Gogol, and not necessarily to the characters he mocks, whereas the racism in Twain definitely belongs to the targets of his satire. I would preserve the cliche. I don't think a translator should sand away rough triteness in the original.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:22 AM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think what windykitesand mskyle have suggested is best. It's a science fiction story in a completely fictional time and place. "Person of color" connotes a very specific time and place and would be jarring to me--as a reader--who is trying to be immersed in a story. A purely descriptive term such as "dark skin" or "deep complexion" or some-such term works better in context.
posted by crush-onastick at 7:29 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Given the specific sentence, I would use "dark-skinned." The term Black or black is culturally-specific enough that it would be jarring in the context of a sci-fi story.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:39 AM on April 22, 2013


whilst everyone else (so far - I've only seen part of the story) is white.

What words/phrases are being used to indicate that these other characters are white? Can you use terms on par with those: pale=dark; white=black, ruddy complexion=dark skin
posted by beaning at 7:59 AM on April 22, 2013


"Black" would be the most unremarkable term. Is it possible for you to add a note for the author? I haven't done any translating but I've done fact checking and tech editing, and if I ran across something that made me raise an eyebrow but wasn't actually wrong I could insert a query. You could frame it as part of the translation; something like Having the muscular guard be black while the intellectual characters are all white could be problematic for an American audience. Change to "The guard, a burly guy, followed the protocol for security checks..."?
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:18 AM on April 22, 2013


Sorry to answer three times. I wanted to add one last refinement. "Black" as an adjective is unremarkable, as TCITL says. "Black" as a noun I hear, at best, as impolite. "A burly black guy" isn't marked; "a burly black" is. Either way, of course, it's still trite.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:30 AM on April 22, 2013


Thank you for your answers, and apologies if it looks like I chickened out of my responsibility to pick a "best answer" - they were genuinely all helpful.

General update - I coincidentally got some more pages since I posted, and the guy in question seems to have a bigger - and possibly quite interesting - role then seemed to be the case from the first 10 pages. To some extent this takes care of my initial unease, which was at least in part due to inserting a token "other" into proceeds. On the whole, the story (a novella, really, by the looks of it, if not a fully-fledged novel) looks more interesting than the first few pages suggested.

I'll leave it open for now, whilst keeping "burly black guy", "burly guy with dark skin", "burly dark-skinned guy" or some variation on mskyle's suggestion on the back burner for now. I feel I need to read more before deciding on one over the other, or even whether to talk to the author about this (and maybe suggesting he eliminate it altogether - there is some slight possibility, given the new pages, that an element of social critique will play a role, in which case the guard's being black might be important).

Rustic Etruscan - I don't know if it contravenes site policy, but I really appreciate you answering each time, since I learned something with each answer.

Fermin, drlith - I'd generally agree, but in this particular situation I do have some leeway - this is the author's first book, and he has asked me to translate, edit and ... help him publish it. Of course, I demurred re. editing and marketing or whatever, but am happy to provide any feedback on such issues as the one which is the object of this Ask, when/if it feels necessary.

The corpse in the library - Depending on how the character shapes up, I might talk to the author, since I can contact him.

SLC Mom - you have actually identified something else that is problematic with the text, so far: it very much shows that it is written by a first-time writer, and would very much benefit from some tight editing prior to translation. The author is very protective of the text, but trusts me to do "what's best" so far, for whatever reason, even though I told him I can't both edit AND translate.

MuffinMan thanks a lot for that title, I'll look it up.

Thanks again everybody, all answers really useful outside of this specific context as well.
posted by miorita at 9:03 AM on April 22, 2013


I just want to respond to people wondering if it matters that the character is non-white; as a non-white person, it's my view that it matters to see non-white people represented in lit in a matter-of-fact way. It's quite important. OP, I'm glad to see that you're not planning to eliminate the descriptor altogether.
posted by windykites at 12:10 PM on April 22, 2013


The guard, a burly black guy, followed the protocol for security checks...

There ought to be some other contextual reference for mentioning the color of the guard's skin.

You could say: "...the guard, burly, dark-skinned..."

Other places in the text should frame the guard's skin color in some context. A sentence near the beginning of the story could cover this ground quite nicely unless it's necessary to be specific because race is a factor in the story's plotting. (Should it matter if he's African or some other heritage? Are people of color a factor in the plot?)

If not, then it's a matter of passing interest: "...his striking brown face, and the scar along his cheek..." In reader interest, this is the same as "...a roll of fat hung over his belt...." The precise wording depends on how you want to reader to relate to the guard.

The fact of political correctness would depend on the voice of the narrator. In one context a racial epithet might be appropriate. The omniscient narrator ought to be above that sort of thing. "...a man of color..." seems to try too hard to be politically correct. In this case it might draw the reader out of the narrative unless it's embedded elsewhere in the story.

Anyhow, is the scene designed to get the hero through the customs check, and the visual aspect of the guard irrelevant (eye-candy), or is his color part of the dynamic in the scene? The protocol for security checks would be my first guess, so I would use the dark-skinned guard as eye candy.
posted by mule98J at 1:55 PM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


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