Tag Archives: Wesleyan University Press

Correspondence among all the parties involved in the unauthorised translation of Zong! As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.


Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe regarding wish to write Italian translation of Zong!
June 11 2021: Benway announces Italian translation of Zong!
June 11 2021: NourbeSe asks Suzanna (Wesleyan) and Benway Series to be informed of translation process, contracts and rights 

June 14 2021: Suzanna Tamminen confirms Benway signed contract with Wesleyan for $150

June 15 2021: After assessment of text, NourbeSe informs Benway Seies translation is unacceptable 

June 16: Benway explains process, CCA funding and anonymous peer-review

June 21: Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe 

July 1: Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe 

July 8: Suzanna Tamminen confirms outside reader

August 30: Suzanna Tamminen contacts NourbeSe 

September 1: NourbeSe writes to Benway to inform them of her opposed to publication, informs them she will go public 

September 1: Suzanna Tamminen agrees project should be pulled 

September 1: Renata Morresi contacts NourbeSe 

September 7: NourbeSe inquires to Benway Series; asks why they have not responded to request to pull book

September 9: Benway Series responds to NourbeSe

September 9: NourbeSe contacts Benway for name of Canada Council contact
September 9: Benway responds to NourbeSe; telling her CCA contact remains anonymous to applicants


May 31, 2016, Renata Morresi contacted M. NourbeSe Philip: 

Dear M. NourbeSe Philip, 

I am so happy to hear you find our translation project interesting: it certainly is an amazing job and more than once I happen to wake up in the middle of the night with a word, an expression, a ‘solution’ to some linguistic question haunting me (sometimes it was just the ghost of a solution, sometimes just a ghost). I say “our” project because, despite being the only translator of the poetic text, I feel thankful to my two ‘fellow travellers’: Andrea Raos, a Japan-based poet-translator, who first sent me your book as a gift and encouraged me to imagine an Italian translation, and who has already translated “Notanda”, and Veronica Costanza Ward, Afro-American-Italian poet and journalist who was enthralled by Zong! as soon as we described it to her, and constantly spurs us on. I imagine that even in translation Zong! cannot but be the result of a collective effort. We haven’t found a publisher yet, and I suspect the search will prove itself as complex as the translation, but I am hopeful. Of course, we will need your consent (and Weslyan’s, too). I don’t know whether you speak Italian, but if you feel like we can discuss the drafts (it would certainly be an invaluable help for me). As I am going on in the text I realize an essential part in the translation process is made up of recreating the hidden/overt/recurring relations among the ‘floating’ words and fragments; relations which are always multifarious (sonic, semantic, rhythmic, etc.) and which produce different effects, repeatedly displacing the reader, who’s never on ‘safe ground’.  Very challenging work, but I do really hope I can go through it successfully. 

Tell me what you think about this, whether you would like to take a look at some pages, and whatever you feel it is necessary to say and take care of.

Thank you very much, 

My very best,

Renata Morresi 

PS: you can find a short bio of mine here: http://docenti.unimc.it/renata.morresi

On June 11, 2021, Benway Series wrote:

Dear M. NourbeSe Philip,

We are happy to announce that the Italian translation of Zong! is about to go to print. We wish to thank you for the opportunity you gave us to work on your book, a task that deeply absorbed us in the last few years. The team was composed of the two of us for Benway Series, and then the translator, Renata Morresi (also an outstanding poet on her own), and Andrea Raos who contributed to the coordination of the project. The support of the Canada Council for the Arts was quintessential.

Please find attached to this email the PDF file of the translation. We will be happy to send you some copies of the book if you let us know your mail address.

For the promotion of the book we are in contact with the Embassy of Canada in Rome, and for the moment we are thinking of an online presentation, on Zoom or another similar platform. To this end, we would like to know if you would be interested in participating and when you might be available. We were thinking of some time between July and September, but we can be flexible according to your other engagements.

We would also be honored to plan a live (in person) presentation and/or reading some time in the future. So we were wondering if you may already be planning to come to Europe in the next few months or, conversely, if there are any periods from here until next year when it would be entirely impossible for you to plan a visit to Italy.

Thank you again for your beautiful book.

With our very best wishes,

Mariangela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli for Benway Series

On June 11, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Suzanna Tamminen of Wesleyan University Press:

Dear Suzanna,

Please see below—was a contract ever signed for this translation?  They had mentioned in an earlier email —as in 2016 (see previous email)—that they would be in touch with Wesleyan.  Please enquire as to what is going if you have not been apprised of this.

my best,


On June 11, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series: 

Dear Mariangela and Giulio,

Greetings and thank you for the good news of the translation!  Congratulations to you all who have worked hard on this project—I am honoured and I know the Ancestors thank you. It is so important that this work reach European countries many of which are the ground zero of the trauma that is ongoing.  

I am sorry to talk business at a time such as this, but I would very much appreciate it if someone would update me on this.  Not having heard anything from anyone since 2016, I had no idea it was going ahead. Was a contract ever signed with Wesleyan?  I am copying this to Wesleyan since they need to be involved in these discussions and I will of course be in contact with them.  

Once again heartfelt congratulations,


On June 14, 2021, Benway Series emails M. NourbeSe Philip, cc: Suzanna Tamminen, confirms contract with Wesleyan:  

Dear NourbeSe,

Thank you so much for your kind reply.
Please be assured that Benway Series stipulated a regular contract with Wesleyan.
It will be a pleasure to mail you some copies of the book if you let us have your address.

In the hope of having the pleasure to meet you in Italy in the near future, and with our very best wishes,

Mariangela and Giulio

On June 14, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen wrote to M. NourbeSe Philip:

Hi NourbeSe,

Yes they have been very diligent and they have signed a formal agreement with us. There is also going to be a Swedish edition in 2022 with Ramus forlag.

Very best to you


On June 14, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Suzanna Tamminen:

Why haven’t you been keeping me aware of these developments? I am aware Wesleyan has world rights but I have never seen either contract; I have no idea what they have paid, if anything. This lack of transparency is unacceptable.

Yours truly,


On June 14, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen replied to M. NourbeSe Philip:

Hi NourbeSe

It’s just not part of the normal process to send sub rights and permissions updates to authors. I will try to do this for your work, going forward. Benway is doing a very small edition of 200 copies and their fee is $150. The Swedish edition is planned for 800 copies and they will pay $1,225 in two instalments. I think we may receive some of this income in time to wrap it into the payment in August 2021, but more likely it will be received and paid out in fiscal 21-22. I hope that Kara at HFS was able to get the $1425 from last year to go through to you.

All best,

On June 15, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series regarding unauthorized translation: 

Dear Mariengela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli,

I once again wish to thank you for the efforts you have made translating Zong! and acknowledge that it has been a long journey for you all.  I have now had an opportunity to look at the “translated” text and I regret to say that I am extremely unhappy with it.  I wish that somewhere along this long journey that you took, you had thought to talk to me.  I wish Suzanna Tamminen had had the courtesy to let me know that you had approached her, so that I could have been in touch with you.

The most important activity happening in Zong! are the silences on the page, not the words.  The central and organizing principal around which the words are laid out in the sections that follow Os is that no word or word cluster can come directly below another, thereby allowing them to breathe into the space above.  In seeking the breath in the space above, the words echo the actions of those who were thrown overboard the slave ship Zong.  They also resonate with the long struggle of Africans to find the breath and space of freedom—from the maroons running from enslavement to George Floyd, whose last words were, “I can’t breathe.”  I repeat—the most important activity happening in the text Zong! are the silences which are filled with the unknown and the unknowing, filled with potentiality and possibility.  Not the words.  These silences, part of the larger Silence must be honoured.  Formally and on the page.  It is in honouring the formal constraints on the page that we honour the history and memory of the massacre, and, most importantly, those lives de-named, erased, dismissed and lost.

This simple but profound rule is what gives the text its distinctive shape. You have completely ignored that, and, as a consequence, what you have produced is a travesty of the poem and a dishonouring of all that the work is about.  

I also want to address the fact that there were poets working on this text.  I am surprised and disappointed that another poet would think it acceptable to disrespect another poet’s work to the degree that they would be careless with the placement of words or phrases.  This is not how I understand poets to work, understanding as we do the deep and essential work that language does. One important aspect of our craft as poets is precision— precision of placement, precision of words, precision of punctuation, precision in all things.  It is how we express care for language, for that is what we do as poets: we care for language and the wonderfully difficult work it does and in caring for language, we care for others, for their lives, filled with wonder and heartache and tragedy and trauma.  We care for language, this thing that makes us being-human in ways those enslaved Africans on board the Zong were not cared for and were seen as so much cargo to be dispensed with.  Zong! is a deep and profound expression of care for them, such as they did not find at the end of their lives on board the Zong.  Unfortunately, this translation, while originating in a place of interest in the work and a desire to share it, continues this pattern of lack of care.

Form is of great importance and significance to me as a poet and Zong! is a work of great formal strength, a quality that was and is necessary to meet the powerful centrifugal—Cesaire refers to it as volcanic— force of the transatlantic trade in Africans (I would include the Arab trade as well.).  To fail to honour the formal properties of the work is to mutilate the text (an act we are all too familiar with) and all that Zong! is attempting. To fail to honour the craft of a poet is a profound act of disrespect and reveals a lack of care on many levels.

I also have grave concerns with how the Ebora section has been “translated” and the cover is disappointing and does not do the work justice.  All of this could have been avoided had you consulted with me; all of this could have been avoided if Suzanna Tamminen had let me know that she had signed an agreement with you for translation rights.  Further to this point about communication, I pulled this off the internet regarding translating poetry: 

“Know the poet. If you are lucky enough to pick a living poet to translate, write to him or her. Get to know the person; ask him or her questions about the poem. What was the poet thinking when writing the poem? What does the poet think the poem means? Is there any imagery or language that is repeated? Is there anything symbolic from his or her life? What does the poet think of poetry? The more you know about the poet and his or her life, the better able you are to understand the nuances of the poem. Be courteous and grateful. The poet is answering your questions to help you with your translation.”

I am aware that the desire to translate Zong! comes from admiration for the work and a desire to share the work with a European audience, which leaves me troubled and wondering why I was not consulted. I have my own ideas but I would welcome an explanation from you.

In conclusion, I am in fundamental opposition to the Benway Series publication of Zong! proceeding any further and I will be writing to the Canada Council on the matter and copying this letter to them. I have already been in communication with Suzanna Tamminen about her failure to let me know about the contract and will be in further communication to her.  I know this will be a disappointment to you, especially given the time you have put into the translation.  I can only trust that you understand my position as the “unauthor” of this story that cannot be told, yet must be told and which can only be told by not telling.  I responded to the call of the Ancestors as one must when they come calling.  It is they whom I honour and to whom I must listen.  This translation dishonours them profoundly.

Yours truly,

nourbeSe philip

On June 18, 2021, Benway Series replied to M. NourbeSe Philip, cc: Suzanna Tamminen 

Dear NourbeSe Philip, 

We are deeply saddened that your first impression of our work on your book was negative. Renata Morresi is an extremely skilled, and multi-award-winning, poet and translator. As a matter of fact, before Suzanna agreed to give Benway Series the translation rights of your book, a first draft of the translation was anonymously peer-reviewed, in very positive terms. We don’t know whether it would be appropriate for Suzanna to let you see that review, but were it possible, we are confident that this could help in reassuring you about the seriousness of Renata’s work. 

As for the cover, its design is in line with the characteristics of the series in which your book is published. Except that we decided to print your book in a size that is way larger than the other titles, precisely in an effort to respect as much as possible the form as well as the spirit of the original. 

Regarding Ẹbọra, it was ‘translated’ by Mariangela Guatteri, who is a visual artist and writer on her own in addition to being the person that physically (almost literally with her own hands) creates the Benway Series books. She writes as follows:

«My starting point was the process that originated Ẹbọra as it is described in Notanda. I thought that it wouldn’t be possible to translate an unwanted mistake generated by a machine, even though that mistake was later rationalized and accepted by the author. Therefore, my attempt was to reproduce the outcome of that very mistake.

This resulted in textual pages that also have a very strong visual (and emotional) dimension.

Furthermore, this visual dimension is made of movements, of plenums and voids (i.e. full and empty spaces), and of planes that break away from the two-dimensional spaces. These are the aspects I focused on.

To me, one very important trait of Ẹbọra is that the visual and textual dimensions intertwine and reinforce each other, thus creating surfacings and disappearances.

I should also add that the pages I worked on were not chosen randomly; inasmuch as possible, I retraced the corresponding pages in the original Ẹbọra.»

Regarding your intention to write to the Canada Council for the Arts, we think that you should be aware of the nature of Benway Series. Founded in 2013, Benway is not a mainstream publishing house. It is a project by poets for poets that makes beautifully crafted books, painstakingly going after every single detail. And over the years, we have published authors such as Nathalie Quintane, Charles Reznikoff, Francis Ponge, Forrest Gander, and several others.  

You are entirely right when you say that we, Benway Series and the translator, should have contacted you earlier. But please be aware that, although the project has been ongoing since at least 2016, the great bulk of the translation, the editing and the painstaking proof-reading of your book was essentially done during the pandemic, among great personal and professional difficulties, and on a very tight schedule. We hope that we can count on your understanding, and that you will accept our heartfelt apologies. 

Very sincerely yours, 

Mariangela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli for Benway Series, Renata Morresi, Andrea Raos 

On June 21, 2021, Renata Morresi contacted M. NourbeSe Philip: 

Dear NourbeSe Philip, 

Please allow me a few words about the translation of Zong!, the humbling experience that it has been, the importance of this first translation – and not just for the literary field – in the country where I live, and the feelings of utter respect that have kept me from disturbing you. 

The translation of Zong! in a foreign language could only happen within the limits and the horizon of that language: not merely its unfamiliar rules and words, but also its unfamiliar relationship to what is silent, what is obliterated, what is unspoken. (‘Unfamiliar’ and ‘foreign’ are always situated, though, and relative, which reminds me of what Glissant suggested: we always write in the presence of all languages). I understand it must be a bit of shock to see one’s work into what seems a different, apparently incongruous, form. But in that excess, in the space of difference, there hopefully lies new resonance. The dialogue is renewed, the nekyia goes on.  

More humbly, I am aware that my ‘version’ of the work into Italian is just one of the many possible versions, and it is not so much ‘mine’, rather an extension of a primary, incomparable work; its ambition is to be read by those people who can’t speak or read the original in English. And there are many in Italy, which is still quite a monolingual country, in many ways still regrettably monocultural.  

I don’t think that this work has betrayed the foundations of the ‘source text’: it has used the Gregson v. Gilbert report as a word bank, it has fragmented words as a way to mirror the destruction of African life on board of the Zong, and in every possible way it has aspired to opening up the ‘logical’ lexis to its many other possible lives: other languages, other touches, other cries, other prayers, other silences. There is so much silence in Italy about the boat-people who cross the Mediterranean to look for work, hope, refuge in Europe. Many of them end up finding the opposite: centers where they are kept prisoners, without an identity, jobs that exploit them, new forms of segregation. And before all this, torture and exploitation in the North-African detention camps and then, in this middle passage, sometimes – how many times? – the bottom of the sea. I must admit this: my work with Zong! has been a way to short circuit these facts and those facts, and spotlight the ghastly dehumanization still going on in the name of profit, hierarchy, status. You are perhaps not aware of the debate about citizenship going on in Italy, where people who were born and raised here haven’t got access to Italian citizenship if their parents are migrants. Thousands of young people left without political rights and whose civil and human rights are deeply affected in the name of a supposed hereditary Italianness.    

But about the translation, again: you must not think it has been rushed or unadvised. Much study has been going on, a lot of reading of your other works, of critical essays about Zong!, interviews, reviews, history of the slave trade, poetics of trauma and memory, your presentations and readings on YouTube, and more. 

I had to work within the constraint of a language with different morphology and syntax, with very few monosyllabic words, unlike English, and gender inflection, to name just one of the ‘problems’. I asked for your blessing but I still feel it would have been naïve to ask you whether this Italian word or that Italian word would have been better. It was not a question of words in the first place, I assure you I am completely aware of that. Translating is a process that has to do not with what the words say but with what a text does. And surprisingly enough Zong! manages to do many things, even in this format you found so repulsive.   

A personal note: it is thanks to my Slavic grandmother, a post-war refugee with her two sisters, who never came to learn Italian ‘properly’ (whatever that means), and from her multilingual lullabies and riddles that I ended up loving poetry and its possibilities. I do hope that her selfless spirit of devotion to others has at least in part guided me in a translation meant to be of service, without any other ambition than to serve your work and the people who can’t have access to its original voice/s.  

I am aware that Zong! may have many enemies in this country: ultra-conservatives, nostalgic fascists, theo-cons, the populist right, the ‘standard’ racists, the cynics and the elitists who will probably keep on snubbing and ignoring it. In this struggle, it would be tremendously painful not to have the author’s support. I sincerely hope you will come to look at this rendition in a new light: as an opportunity and not so much as a flaw.  

Yours truly, 

Renata Morresi 

On July 1, 2021, Renata Morresi contacts M. NourbeSe Philip:  

Dear NourbeSe,

It’s a pleasure to read that your work is so widely loved, I had no doubt about it. I am very sorry and I must apologize for everything that went wrong in our communication. Let me please explain what I meant when I said, in a previous email, that everything was done out of respect towards you. When I wrote to tell you about the translation and ask for your support, you were kind, but then you never told me you were interested in talking about it and actually never replied (I’ll send here the email in attachment, just for the sake of clarity). I thought that it was because you were busy and found the thing of minor interest; to tell the truth, Italian is a minor language, so I understand that an English-speaking author is not really into it. That’s why when I found the Benway series publisher willing to communicate with your publisher I thought it was wiser to go ‘the institutional way’, not bothering you directly. We sent sample translations to Wesleyan, they had them reviewed, and they wrote the contract that the Italian publisher signed. I presumed you knew everything, I now realized how wrong I was. 

Let me briefly add something about the translation itself: discrepancies in the alignment were not the result of random choices. Translation is about the negotiation of differences and the differences between the two languages involved a different treatment of the space: I preferred to deal with the clusters as coordinates than to maintain the original spacing, because this would have meant, in some cases, a disruption in the lines. There’s also another reason for this choice: in October 2013 a boat carrying hundreds of migrants shipwrecked out of the coast of Lampedusa, in Southern Italy. More than 360 people died and this tragedy was a turning point in the history of the Mediterranean for many reasons. One of the pilots of the helicopters involved in the rescue operations later described the appalling sight that he could see from above, and how the pilots involved chose the floating body of a woman dressed in vivid purple to function as a reference point (in Italian it’s called “punto nave”, literally “ship point”) to give coordinates and assistance to the rescuing team below. So, I treated the clusters not as points pinned on the page, but as floating points in relation to each other, which could provide a form of help in this moment of danger, even after more than 200 years. I am deeply sorry that this was taken as a misappropriation. Maybe it was, maybe there’s nothing like the past, nothing like the present.

The origins of writing cannot be the same (say, me invoking the Ancestors to reproduce the conditions of production: I wouldn’t dare): my work is not an original and it will never be; but it’s not a final work either, and I am willing to work on it to fix it, if you agree to allow me.

I’ll teach your work next semester (your work, not my translation) and there will likely be students who will want to write their thesis about it: I would be grateful if you could share any advice. 

Please, accept my deepest apologies,


On July 8, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen contacts M. NourbeSe Philip:  

Dear NourbeSe,

I am writing with some thoughts about the Italian edition of Zong!. Benway contacted us in fall 2019 and sent us the attached sample of materials, which were vetted by an outside reader. The reader’s comments are below. Benway contacted us again in April 2020, and we proceeded to a contract. The next time we heard from them was June 2021, when they emailed you and I together about the completion of the work, and shared the full page proofs.

When I compare the Italian page proofs to the English edition, page for page, I see that the Italian follows the layout of the English exactly. The Italian often needs more letters, though, which is creating a lack of space when compared to the English. I think the best solution to this would be to add a translators’ note in the book that would explain how the translation was made, and show a few pages of the original as a comparison.

Once this edition is published, I expect it receive reviews and that both its themes as well as its successes and flaws as a translation can be discussed. Expanding the critical discourse on the book in this way helps to ensure that the book remains on reading lists for years to come. I will email Benway to see if they have had any additional thoughts about this, and if they would consider adding a translator’s note to the book.

Please note that Stephanie and I are back in the office now and can be reached again at [redacted].

With best regards,

Outside reader comments [added]: This highly ambitious manuscript of translation brought to fruition by a respected poet and translator holds out great promise, and deserves to be published as soon as practicable once it is complete; indeed, it has been eagerly anticipated in the small but robust experimental literary community in Italy. I was grateful to have a chance to read these sections, and from the very impressive first pages that replicate deconstruction of the words “water/acqua” and “good/buono” across a linguistic divide to the increasingly granular dissections of “Sal,” was gratified by what I encountered. The translator’s choice to bring Philip’s epic poetry into the Italian language represents, in my view, nothing less than a watershed in contemporary European literature. Rendered in all its brokenness and resuturing to the other languages complicit in the suffering of drowned Africans of the Middle Passage (and their heirs), yet (hopefully) armed with the renowned and pointed critical apparatus of Philip’s afterword, this work promises to introduce to the Italian republic of letters—and to a tongue on the front lines of the global migration “crisis”—a language with which to address, and rebuke, the unspeakable legal and ethical failures being legitimized daily by a mounting white supremacist state apparatus.

As would be the case in nearly any translation of difficult poetry, I have questions about some lexical choices—though I am certain that the renderings here were made upon vigilant reflection, and imagine that this text will be accompanied by a translator’s introduction that can work through some of their logic. I wonder, for instance, about the rendering of “throwing” as “evacuazione,” which has the benefit of echoing “acqua,” and also reflects the way that contemporary rescue missions are represented in the news, but does not represent the same physical action as the very violent “throwing” (“gettare”) or, for instance, the dark philosophical shadow of Heidegger. “Garante,” similarly, has a very different feeling from the original English term “underwriter,” which in this text can be read literally and somehow throw the meaning of the overlords’ law into question (hence the translator might consider “sottoscrittore”). Other choices by Philip such as “arose” (which returns in the form of “rose”), “weight,” and “ground” also play with these freighted issues of grounding, drowning, aboveness and belowness, and might influence the translation as it progresses. Other choices such as the use of proper nouns that echo concepts, or the use of creole, are very difficult to determine, requiring great flexibility and multiple solutions on the translator’s part, and one could debate them endlessly: the substitution of “pietà” for “ruth,” for instance, or the decision to render italicized spoken nation-language phrases such as “dem cam fo me” as the relatively standard (and unitalicized) “gli uomini vengono per me.” I would like to see some italicization in places where effects like these are either lost or changed. Narrative notes at the end of the text would also help the Italian readership to grasp the translation process on a more granular level.

The highly inflected Italian is not as flexible as the simpler English grammar, and this introduces some truly knotty problems for any translator between the two languages. I would be careful in this text about keeping verbs such as “die” distinct from nouns such as “death” (for instance on page 15 of Zong #9, “the suffered in / die”), and notwithstanding the discomfort it creates, maintaining the ungrammaticality of moments like these (page 19 of the original, “could / found,” is made grammatical with “potuto / trovare”). At certain points the changing of a preposition in “Os” changes the meaning, and in such ladder-like assemblages this creates a question in the reader’s mind. I’m thinking of, for instance, “schiavi / in ordine di / distrutti” instead of “slaves / to the order of / destroyed.” To be a slave to something is not the same thing as being a slave in an order of something. In other places where the English is broken as a result of forcing a centuries-old lexicon into contemporary lingo (such as “where s the cat”) it would be important to retain this sense of fragmentation at as many points as possible (rather than restoring to “dove è il gatto”), in my opinion. (The translation does retain traces of this, but not in every single case.)

In “Sal,” on the other hand, the English text’s recourse to Latin makes for an almost natural translation into Italian, and one delights in how well Philip’s effects come across.

On July 13, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip replied to Suzanna Tamminen: 

Dear Suzanna,

You are entirely mistaken in your statement that the “Italian follows the layout of the English exactly.”  I have attached random pages selected from the translation with the relevant page # from the Wesleyan edition: it is very clear that it does not “exactly” follow the layout of the original.  

I do not agree with nor do I accept what you describe as the “best solution.”  You clearly do not, nor do you care to, understand the conceptual ideas or the formal properties behind the work.  If you did, you could not so cavalierly talk about this translation that so disrespects those ideas and properties, and, more importantly, the work that the text accomplishes in the world for Black and African-descended people living in the wake of the trans-Atlantic trade in Africans.  If you did, you would not reduce this failed attempt at a translation of Zong! to a matter of getting “reviews” and “ensuring that the book remains on reading lists for years to come.”  

The failure of the translator, Renata Morresi, and the publishers, Benway, to contact me, compounded by your own egregious failure to include me in this process, demonstrates the workings of white supremacy at both the institutional and personal levels.  Let me parse that for you: there have been at least five people engaged in this translation— the translator, the two individuals from Benway, the external reader of the translation sample sent to you, and yourself, all of whom are white, deciding on the translation of a work by a Black and African-descended author about a horrific event in the cataclysmic history that is the Maafa(the transatlantic slave trade), and no one thinks that it just might be useful or helpful to speak to the author of the work. Didn’t the optics of this not strike you as unacceptable, or are you all so engorged with a sense of your own self-importance that it appeared normal?  I question whether this would so easily have happened were the poet from a culture other than Black or African; I also question whether this would have happened so easily to a white, male author, and the very fact that I have to raise these questions to myself tells me how little has, indeed, changed.  Your proposal of the “best solution” to the present situation ignores a process that was flawed from the beginning—a process that was profoundly disrespectful of me as the author and results in an outcome, despite all the good intentions of all of you, that can only be described as racist. It is a process that you participated in and fostered.  This flawed and racist process has resulted in a translation that fundamentally disregards the organizing principle of, and the conceptual idea undergirding, the text—that no word or cluster of words can come directly under another; each word or word cluster is seeking the space directly above it to breathe, the reasons for which are both theoretical and spiritual. Then and now the words and word clusters breathe in honour and in memory of those who could not and still cannot breathe.  It is also this theoretical organizing principle that gives the work its distinctive shape and appearance. 

I will share with you a quotation I shared with Benway regarding the value of the translator speaking to the poet if they are alive, which I found on the internet with just cursory searching.  I cannot believe that this is new to you as editor-in-chief, or any of the others involved in this sorry endeavour of erasure:

“Know the poet. If you are lucky enough to pick a living poet to translate, write to him or her. Get to know the person; ask him  or her questions about the poem. What was the poet thinking when writing the poem? What does the poet think the poem  means? Is there any imagery or language that is repeated? Is there anything symbolic from his or her life? What does the poet  think of poetry? The more you know about the poet and his or her life, the better able you are to understand the nuances of the  poem. Be courteous and grateful. The poet is answering your questions to help you with your translation.”

The most important thing happening on the pages of Zong! is not the words but the Silence/s within the spaces into which words breathe; that breath and those Silence/s must also be translated.  Theoretically those Silence/s are akin and kin to the Glissantian opacity.  Translation of Zong! cannot be about simply “follow(ing) the layout of the English exactly,” as you put it.  That would be to create a facsimile, which this translation attempts and fails at.  I remind you that in 2008 Wesleyan, under your editorship, had to redo the first printing of Zong! for this very reason—the original text was too cramped and narrow and did not breathe.  

Zong! works with what Nathaniel Mackey would describe as the poetics of the breath, as well as with what I call the poetics of the fragment. These two are in constant, dynamic tension and interplay throughout the poem, and the new language that begins to emerge as one goes deeper into the text is only possible because of the interplay between word and Silence—breathed Silence.

Despite these fundamental textual problems, which could have been addressed through one conversation with me, not to mention the absence of a respectful process or adequate protocols, your email urges that what Renata Morresi has done is good enough; that I should accept it, settle for a “translator’s note.” And, once again I pause and reflect on whether this is an aspect of that old, tired, racist attitude that finds it acceptable that Black people should operate from a lower standard—the it’s-good-enough-for-you principle. Because that is what you are asking me to do—accept a lower standard for this translation than I set for myself for Zong!.

I ought not to be surprised, however, at your actions, given that in 2018 you, as publisher of Zong!, without notice withdrew your earlier support of our then joint attempts to have the artist Rana Hamadeh acknowledge her appropriation of Zong! in her 2017 installation in Rotterdam. You stopped replying to my emails and, indeed, only finally responded when I complained to the Authors’ Guild about your behaviour.  The result of your actions, which you have never explained, was that my attempts to get acknowledgement of Hamadeh’s extensive use of Zong! had to be aborted.  I found your behaviour then, as editor-in-chief of Wesleyan, disgraceful in abandoning support for the work. Today, however, you urge me to accept the mess of pottage—”reviews” and the promise of “reading lists”—that according to you is the “best solution.”

Every poet and writer wants reviews of their work; we all want to be on reading lists, but I do not think that any writer of integrity writes for that reason.  I wrote Zong!, among other reasons, to explore the meaning of meaning in the face of atrocity; I wrote Zong! to investigate whether being can ever be sufficient, or whether it is always contingent; I wrote Zong! to remember the dead, those on board the Zong who died such a horrific death, and in so doing to grieve on behalf of those who could not grieve then and who have been so long forgotten. I wrote Zong! to honour the memory of the Ancestors.  Zong! has become a sacred text, a lament, a mourning song of grief to those who, bereft of kith and kin, died unmourned, and while it remains a book, its non-material antecedents are embedded in what I call the Protocols of Care, which are an integral part of the book. Those protocols entailed my seeking permission of the Ancestors to bring those voices forward, which, in turn, resulted in the need to acknowledge another type of authorship on the cover of the book in the words: “As told to the author by Setaey Adamu Boateng.”  Some call this collaboration; I, an abdication of the ego.  In addition, in moving into performance and the annual collective readings, Zong! throws its many-voiced voice forward into community and collectivity.  All this by way of saying that the creation and unauthorhsip of Zong! was a laborious, careful and care-filled act of working with and listening to the Ancestors.  Indeed, in their perceptive and helpful comments regarding the translation, the outside reviewer clearly reveals the need for care to be taken with the text.  It is, therefore, beyond strange, astonishing, and confounding that that care didn’t extend to consulting with me, but then maybe not; perhaps it was entirely predictable when racism, the everyday, ordinary kind of racism that just doesn’t see Black folX is factored in.  What you, Benway and Renata Moressi have done is an utter violation of the care-filled aspect of the work and betrays the ideal of care that is at the heart of the work.  For you to talk about “reviews” and “the book remaining on reading lists” is a profound travesty—indeed, it is tantamount to those on board the Zong who decided to jettison their “cargo”, the enslaved Africans, to collect insurance monies.  Wesleyan owns subsidiary rights to Zong! and as such has the law on its side, as did those responsible for the murder of enslaved Africans on board the Zong!, the shipowners. There is, however, the letter of the law and the spirit of the law, and it is the latter concept that has been fundamentally breached and betrayed by the acts of erasure of all of those involved in this.  I will not be a party to this and will not now or ever give my consent to this translation, which betrays the core principles, ideas and concepts of Zong!, as well as a sacred pact with the dead and the Ancestors.

It has been clear since 2018 that you do not have the best interests of the work at heart.  I do not expect you to be invested in, or even care particularly about the monumental work so many of us are engaged in; work which entails piecing together broken histories, fragmented lives, lost cultures, and healing the historical trauma that underpins the history of Black and African-descended people, but what I resent deeply is that your casual acts of erasure and disrespect, and the ensuing racist outcomes result in burdening me with more work and more stress in my life, at a time that is already exceedingly stressful.  

In closing: how dare you?! 

yours truly,

nourbeSe Philip

On August 30, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen replied to M. NourbeSe Philip:

Dear NourbeSe,

Thank you for your email. I am grieved that the Italian edition of Zong!, and the process of its unfolding, has caused you such distress. I received a copy of the book this week and a copy for you as well, which I am putting into Fedex to you. I had asked Benway to hold the book from distribution, but due to their grant from the Canadian Council of the Arts, which came with a requirement to publish by the end of June, they felt they needed to move forward.

I discussed your email with the staff and we have begun to look at our processes surrounding the sublicensing of translation rights, and to consider how to improve them. The Association of University Presses committee on equity, justice and inclusion is preparing a resource to help publishers make their contracts more equitable. Stephanie serves on this committee, and we have discussed the critical importance of seeking input from authors of color and authors from historically disenfranchised groups, to find out what is wanted and needed.

There are several other translations of Zong! underway or under consideration. These include editions in Danish, Swedish, Portuguese and Greek. Would you like to be contacted by the translators? If so, I will share your contact info with the publishers and request that their translators contact you.

I will continue to consider how I and the press can do better, and I will let you know whenever new translation projects are proposed.


On September 1, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series, Renata Morresi and Suzanna Tamminen:

Dear Guatteri and Giolio Marzaioli and Renata Morresi and Suzanna,

Today I received an email from Suzanna Tamminen that Benway Series are going ahead with the publication of the translation of Zong!.  Based on my previous correspondence you are all well aware that I am entirely opposed to this publication.  Let me once again briefly set out my reasons:

1. Although within her rights to do so, Suzanna Tamminen  sold the rights to Benway Series for $150.  Suzanna Tamminen neglected to inform me that she had done so, nor did she do anything to put me in touch with the translator Renata Morresi.  This is not in keeping with standard practice.

2. Renata Morresi herself failed to contact me to consult with me about the translation.

3. At least five people, including an American reader of a sample of the translation, as well as the Canada Council, which funded the translation, have been involved in this Italian translation of Zong!, all of whom are white and yet no one thought it necessary to consult with me, the Black and African-descended author of the work. 

4. Renata Morresi has failed to respect the foundational and organizing principle of Zong!, which is that no word or cluster of words can come directly below another: each word fragment, word or word cluster is seeking the space above to breathe as those massacred 240 years ago this November were not able to breathe.  It is this restraint and conceptual rigour that gives the work its shape.  Based on her correspondence with me Renata Morresi is not interested in this and has her own ideas as to how the work should appear.

5. Despite my making my concerns and opposition clear to you all in June of this year, you are still going ahead with the publication on the grounds that you informed the Canada Council that you would publish by June 2021! I will be contacting the office that funded this as well as Jesse Wente the current head of the Canada Council who is himself Indigenous.

From its inception to its end the entire process of this translation mirrors the transactional relations and the racism that resulted in the transatlantic trade in Africans and the Zong massacre in particular; it is a process that makes a travesty of the care and attention that are at the heart of Zong! in both the preparatory work and its composition. Most importantly Zong! and its life in the world constitute a practice that is reparative in intent—reparative of the souls lost in 1781, who stand in for the many, many others lost to this inhumane and insane act of extended barbarity, as well as reparative for those who today continue to mourn them and ourselves.  I cannot speak to your intentions but the results of your actions are racist and represent the white supremacist attitudes so prevalent in the publishing world.

The most egregiously racist aspect of your behaviour, however, is your consummate and committed indifference to the rigour of the ideas and theories behind the formal constraints of the work, integrally tied as they are to the circumstances of the massacre. Despite my bringing to your attention the need to respect the form of the work, despite my explaining why the need for the words and their fragments to breathe for those who couldn’t is non-negotiable, despite all this you insist on going ahead.  Indeed, the book is advertised on Benway’s website.  All of this could have been solved by a simple phone call to the author by the translator, had the necessary respect and care been there.  And barely a year after the lynching of George Floyd and the uprising against racial injustice around the world, your actions appear even more deplorable.

You have all failed to honour the dead, the souls at the heart of this work, as you have failed to honour the care and attention that have gone into the preparation and composition of Zong!.  I am calling on you to take down the advertisement on your website and to destroy this publication of Zong!.  If I do not hear from you by end of day on September 1, 2021, I will be going public with this extraordinary act of contempt for a Black and African-descend writer.

Yours truly,

m. nourbeSe philip (PWA)

On September 1, 2021, Suzanna Tamminen replied to M. NourbeSe Philip, Benway Series, and Renata Morresi, cc: Stephanie Elliot Prieto (Wesleyan), Embassy of Canada, Consular Section (Rome):

Dear NourbeSe, Benway editors and Renata,

Thank you for your email, NourbeSe.  I have looked again at the translation layout, comparing it carefully to the original and I can now see what you mean about the phrases not having enough space, and lines that sit above one another in ways that they don’t in the original. I feel very bad that I didn’t properly recognize this issue before. As I am understanding things now, I am deeply distressed that so many lines of the translation are in effect hindering the breathing of the lines below.

I hope Benway will take this concern to heart, and look again at the translation, and will consider destroying the existing copies. I am very sorry, but I feel this would be the right decision.

Going forward, I hope there will be earnest discussion about the translation process, and a recognition of the importance of the organizing principals of the line spacing as part of the spiritual practice of this work.

Please inform us of your decision as soon as possible.


On September 1, 2021, Renata Morresi wrote to M. NourbeSe Philip, cc: Suzanna Tamminen, Benway Series, cc: Stephanie Elliot (Wesleyan), Embassy of Canada, Consular Section (Rome):

Dear NourbeSe Philip,

As in the previous emails we have exchanged I would like to underline that:

1) I wrote to you and asked for your advice and collaboration more than once. If you remember well, one of the last attempts was done by our mutual friend Veronica Ward, an Italian-African-American journalist who has supported the translation of Zong! since the beginning and who has discussed its impact in Italy with you during a series of interviews you had. She asked you to have a video call together a few months ago, but you declined that too.

2) I invite everybody who hasn’t had the chance to do it yet to compare the original and its translation page by page: they will realize that the Italian version follows the layout of the original in almost every instance. Yes, in a few instances a word or a cluster of words slightly superimposes the word or cluster of words in the previous line, for the space of a character or two, but this is due to the inherent differences between English (an isolating language) and Italian (an inflected language: its morphology makes it inevitably longer) and the need to preserve the integrity of the page. This is a very interesting problem in the translation of poetry, where rhythm, meter, spacing, line-breaks, prosody are so central, and for this reason always seriously addressed. Literary translation is a form of reading, and it is always, inherently, about negotiation, otherwise we would do it with a software tool, which ‘respects’ everything but doesn’t understand anything. Of course, no translation is given once and for all: I could work on a reviewed edition where the main concern is spacing. I will have to reconsider lines, then, and pages. I am not sure Benway Series will be still available, though, given the circumstances. I will discuss the possibility with Mariangela Guatteri and Giulio Marzaioli.

I would also like to add that:

3) You shouldn’t take our ethnicities or our loyalties for granted without even bothering to ask.

4) It is very problematic to demand the destruction of a book, all the more so in Italy, where not so long ago books were burned and foreign words were banned in the name of racial and ethnic purity. Benway has worked in respect of all the required standards. If my version is as bad as you say, it will show, and critics will criticize it. Comparing a work in translation to an actual murder is, alas, unfortunate. Benway is an esteemed but small publishing series and we are a group of poet-translators with no academic power, you are a world-famous and prize-winning author writing in the global language par excellence: if you want to say that my translation is not rigorous, even without having read it, you can certainly do it, but demanding to destroy the book is an act of cultural arrogance which is simply unfair.

As I wrote to you some time ago, the premises of the Zong massacre are still active also here in the Mediterranean, with thousands of lives lost to the blind politics of the European Union and to the fascist sentiments periodically resurging in Italy. I would lie if I said that this translation was done without having them in mind, keeping always in mind their obliterated conversations with history, the survivors’ plea for human and civil rights, and their children’s call for citizenship. I think the dotted line I have traced between them and the victims of the Zong massacre does not erase the voices of your book, rather it makes them resonate further. This is just my perspective, neither formally nor ethically unfounded though.

I hope we can find a way out of this impasse, also for the sake of those readers who cannot read the work in the original language.

My best regards,

Renata Morresi

On September 7, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip wrote to Benway Series:

Benway Series has not had the courtesy to respond to me and the advertisement for Zong! is still up on Benway Series’ website.

On September 9, 2021, Benway Series replied to M. NourbeSe Philip:

Dear NourbeSe Philip,

We write as Benway Series publishing project, without Renata Morresi, in her role as translator, being held accountable for what is contained in the following response, which replies to your comments of September 1:

1. We cannot be held responsible for the manner of proceeding chosen by Suzanna Tamminem. We interacted with her in full compliance with her requests and the terms of the agreement, and the transfer of translation rights led us to believe that you had discussed the terms;

2. This issue has already been addressed by Morresi. We can add that in our experience translations require multiple revisions, but not the inevitable intervention of the author, whose contribution can be useful but also questionable, and certainly limited, given the unavoidable differences in language and context;

3. We do not know the ethnic composition of the committees who evaluated the translation and the value of the project we submitted: we trusted Wesleyan University Press and the Canada Council to be inclusive institutions accustomed to fair practices;

4. The publication of the translation of Zong! is a matter for Benway (not Morresi), and Benway claims validity and legitimacy for the book, both in terms of poetic restitution and in terms of the graphic rendering of the text, which, moreover, has been elaborated and produced with the utmost care;

5. The Italian edition of Zong! is the object of a publishing agreement between Benway, who bought the rights, and Wesleyan, who sold them. Doubts about the book’s quality and graphic rendering must be brought within the scope of this relation and cannot be attributed to identity differences or presumed essences.

We invite you to browse through the book as a material object to fully appreciate the qualities of the work.

Our best regards,

Mariangela Guatteri e Giulio Marzaioli

On September 9, 2021, M. NourbeSe Philip contacts Benway Series: 

I would very much appreciate if you would provide me with the name and contact of the person you dealt with at the Canada Council.

On September 11, 2021, Benway Series replies to M. NourbeSe Philip:

We didn’t have a direct interlocutor: applicants are not to know who the project’s evaluators will be.


Benway Series