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Afterword: “Chine 1929”

Sometimes, when entering a text in search of an angle on translation and modernism, we end up with something altogether different. Alejo Carpentier’s “Lettre des Antilles” (1929) was a starting point of what became for me a game of modernist serendipity. The article appeared in Bifur (1929–31), a multimedia magazine edited by Georges Ribemont-Dessaignes, a one-time affiliate of the Surrealists who turned his back on André Breton in the company of Georges Bataille, who had become something of a bête noire for Breton. (Along with Carpentier and others, Bataille and Ribemont-Dessaignes collaborated on the 1930 pamphlet Un Cadavre, which officially severed ties between the two circles.) Published in Paris between 1920 and 1931, Bifur boasted an enviable editorial board; its first issue announced Ribemont-Dessaignes as chief editor, Pierre Lévy as editorial editor. Gottfried Benn, Ramón Gómez de la Serna, James Joyce, and William Carlos Williams were among the magazine’s “foreign advisors” (conseillers étrangers). As Daniel Ferrer and Jacques Aubert explain, Bifur—like the better-known magazine transition, edited by Eugène Jolas—“was internationally minded.”[1]

Carpentier’s article bears all the signs of this internationality. The author, raised in Cuba and Paris and living in Paris in the late 1920s, wrote “Lettre” in French. Addressing his reader, in Amy Fass Emery’s words, “as both native informant to a European audience and as detached ethnographic observer,” Carpentier begins his article with a description of blacks in Cuba, to then move to a discussion of two distinct secret society formations on the island: the Afro-Cuban ñáñigos (a term that appears in Bifur as “ñañigo”) and the Chinese tongs.[2] Acting as a witness to a secret ñáñigo ceremony, Carpentier fills the article with minute descriptions of rituals, including transcriptions of sacred chants; we read, for example, the line “Senseribó, senseribó, epé mancao,” followed by a footnote informing us, “Traduction inconnue, formule magique” [“Unknown translation, magical formula”].[3] After his extended account of the ñáñigos, Carpentier proceeds with a description of the Chinese community in Havana. Describing the Chinese subject as “cachottier” (secretive), the author describes the arrest (two years previously) of the members of a tong who had been terrorizing a group of Cantonese business owners. The police had seized a “livre de procès-verbaux” or book of proceedings, which contained oaths taken by the society’s members: “Si je trahis mes frères, que je devienne un dragon sans tête. Si je convoite une femme qu’aime un de mes frères, que je me voie errant sur un lac de glace” [“If I betray my brothers, may I become a headless dragon. If I covet a woman who loves one of my brothers, may I find myself errant on a frozen lake”], and so on. Following the trail of the tongs’ victims, Carpentier’s attention lingers on one group in particular: the actors working in the successful Chinese theatre in Havana (“Lettre des Antilles,”104). Now assuming the perspective of an audience member in a theatrical production, Carpentier describes a play in luxuriating detail. “Lettre des Antilles” ends with a walk outside of the theatre after the production ends: the lights of the “Chop Suey” restaurant go out, the Chinese music shop “arrête son phonograph nasillard” (“stops the nasal sounds of the phonograph”), and the newspaper boy passes out the last of the Man-Sen-Yat-Po evening news (105).

Fig. 1. Photograph of ñáñigo procession in Havana accompanying the article “Cuba Stops Voodooism,” The Cuba Review, January, 1914, 12. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Carpentier’s Havana is a multicultural space packed with diverse communities, each of which preserves its distinctness as a group, under the defiant view of the authorities. Manifestations of acculturation become stratagems: if the police authorities try to arrest a ñáñigo for practicing sorcery, the latter retorts by showing the abundance of Catholic icons in his home. Carpentier’s brand of ethnography, as intimated by Emery’s description above, feigns rapprochement with his object of study, and yet the ñañigos and the tong coterie remain wrapped up in the fog of the secret, and ultimately the “inconnu.” In Bifur, Havana is brought to the readers through the medium of French; Spanish, the language of Carpentier’s fieldwork, is absent from the narrative. “Lettre des Antilles” is stippled with gaps, and indeed disconnections—linguistic, cultural, ethnic—that, for readers today, only signal the conundrum facing the author in his desire to describe Cuba’s cultural others, what Paul B. Miller has called Carpentier’s “conceptual undecidability.”[4] In portraying Havana to his French readers, Carpentier suppresses Spanish in order to represent absolute otherness, as well as the limits of cultural and linguistic knowability within the urban Cuban context.

Untranslatability and Modernism’s Objects

Finding “Lettre” within the pages of Bifur in 2018 leads me to consider the now-ubiquitous category of the “untranslatable,” or, as Rebecca Walkowitz describes Barbara Cassin’s version of the concept, “what one never finishes translating, or never manages to translate.”[5] But, in my reading, the “untranslatable” manifests itself polymorphously; it has everything to do with how Carpentier’s array of ideas about Cuba’s minorities is arranged on the pages of a magazine that, superficially at least, represents modernism’s sense of globality, while also displaying many of the affective modes that we have come to associate with this era, particularly shock and banal horror. As it happens, the final page of Carpentier’s article sits alongside one of the most brutal pictures I have ever come across: seven, possibly eight decapitated nude bodies of Chinese men, whose heads have been hung up by their long queues along a post on a muddy field. The italicized “Chop Suey” (at the end of “Lettre”) stands out on the right-hand page of the magazine, while my eyes trail to the unspeakable horror of the picture on the left. As with other photographs included in Bifur, this one comes with the briefest of captions: “Chine 1929.” Seeing this picture in 2018 and, in effect, being unable to not see it thereafter, pondering its precise location in Bifur (is this intentional?, I ask), forces a reconsideration of the uses of interculturality in the modernist era. It invites a contemplation of how we, in our present critical moment, converse with those importations of one culture into another, and how they relate to our current attitudes toward translation.

Fig. 2. “Chine 1929.” Image courtesy of The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford [PER2755.d43, no.3].

Click here to access image for Fig. 2. 

“Chine 1929” is a portrayal of irreducible violence; an initial perception would be that there is no more to say about it beside the fact that it is brutal and cruel. It was not uncommon to be exposed to images of this ilk in little magazines of the time. The editors of Bifur were particularly fond of them; in another number the reader is treated to a picture of a crucifixion in a setting where men are wearing Cossack hats; the caption, which only reads “L’Homme,” includes no date. Digging further into the provenance of “Chine 1929” reveals that Ribemont-Dessaignes’s associate, Bataille, was profoundly interested in lingchi, or the “death by a thousand cuts”—a form of capital punishment that had obsessed Western readers for centuries. But, according to Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, and Gregory Blue, it was not until the 1930s that Bataille came across the first pictures of lingchi, which would later appear in his famous Les Larmes d’Éros (The Tears of Eros, 1961), now considered the pinnacle of his oeuvre.[6] An art historian colleague informed me that “Chine 1929” is not, strictly speaking, a depiction of lingchi, but of decapitation, which was a common form of punishment during the Qing dynasty (1644–1912). Pictures of Chinese executions were a widespread phenomenon, featuring widely in books as well as cartes de visite.

As a non-expert led to investigate the provenance of this photograph out of curiosity (perhaps more so inclined because of my longstanding interest in the restlessness of ghosts), it baffles me that the picture is indeed not from 1929, as the caption notes. It appears to be a scene from the Boxer Rebellion or Yihetuan Movement, which took place between 1899 and 1901. This is evident from the queues on the men’s heads, which were not worn in 1929. But, why would the editors and designer(s) of Bifur have made the decision to bring this picture into the present—to make the 1929 reader think, at least for a second, that the scene depicted is happening simultaneously with her own experience?

Throughout its run, Bifur’s layout depended on the interaction of words and images hailing from different parts of the world. As well as essays, poems, and works of fiction written in and translated into French, within its pages we find photographs by László Moholy-Nagy and Tina Modotti, among many others, alongside orphaned pictures like “Chine 1929”; reproductions of paintings, sculptures, and drawings by some of the most prominent artists of the time; a facsimile of Joyce’s “Work in Progress.” The magazine’s eclecticism is similar to Bataille’s Documents, also published between 1929 and 1930. Bifur orchestrates a euphoric, seemingly serendipitous, transnationalism that defies what Guillermo de Torre, following José Ortega y Gasset, described in 1925 as the “failed internationalism” of Western nations.[7] For a student of modernism, Ribemont-Dessaignes’s editorial choices can be explained, at least in part, through his attachments to Surrealism, which James Clifford defines in terms of an “esthetic that values fragments, curious collections, unexpected juxtapositions” and that “works to provoke the manifestation of extraordinary realities drawn from the domains of the erotic, the exotic, and the unconscious.”[8]

Thinking from my own position in 2018, sensitive to the tyrannies of orientalism, I cannot help but think the bodies in “Chine 1929” seem stranded, not at home, vulnerably and anachronistically inserted into a magazine that relies on acts of literary translation, travel writing, and the visual to display its diversity. The closeness of the image to Carpentier’s description of Havana’s tongs and their cachotterie render this impression more poignant. Is this image, with its mistaken date, an extension of the Western conception of China as inscrutable and brutal—a perception that, focused on countless accounts of punishment practices, had lingered for centuries? Should we entertain the prospect of sharing Bataille’s appreciation of lingchi images in Les Larmes d’Eros, and become “obsédé[s] par cette image de la douleur, à la fois extatique (?) et intolérable” [“obsessed by this image of pain, at once ecstatic (?) and intolerable”]?[9] Bataille’s erotization of pain, we could say, involves a translational violence, to recall Lawrence Venuti, cited across the essays in this cluster: transposing a history of Chinese penal law into the realm of Western pleasure (and the psychoanalytic baggage that comes with it), his translation of lingchi is a dis-communication between source and target—indeed, a disconnection.

Translation and Knowability

To rehearse a well-known Borgesian paradigm, every reading entails a consideration of the different acts of reading that huddle around a given text. A richer interpretation of “Chine 1929,” it appears, engages the broad lens of translation, the critical possibilities of which are elegantly and persuasively put forward in the essays that form this cluster. If we consider “Chine 1929” to mean not that the picture is a depiction of China in 1929, but that it is China as read in 1929, a different panorama emerges. Scrutinizing Carpentier first, and looking at “Chine 1929,” and then reading them as simultaneous features of Bifur’s project are experiences that throw open a number of disconnections alive within the present of the text, but also between our own linguistic, cultural, historical, and theoretical locations and those of the past. An awareness of crudeness and banality compete with our duty to unpack the appearance of the multifariously violent acts that appear in the texts that are part of our modernist corpora.

(Post)surrealism’s “curious collections,” to recall Clifford, invite diverse interpretations; with every generation, its multicultural appropriations promulgate myriad zones of critical engagement. The same happens with translation. Walter Benjamin reminds us that translation “catches fire from the eternal life of the [source] works and the perpetually renewed life of language.”[10] The growth of translation studies as a field, its intensifying conversation with the world literary, has made our contemporary critical scene increasingly aware of the multiple lives of texts and their relative currencies across time and space; we are also more sensitive to the gains that come from studying translation as a historical practice.

Continuing with a different side of Benjamin, to use translation as interpretive practice allows us to open up the multiple now-moments of the modernist era, and to consider our responsibilities as readers in the present. The essays in this cluster demonstrate the possibilities of recognizing disconnected interpretive practices across critical periods. They read modernism as a global phenomenon intent on translating the diverse tempos and rhythms of complex geopolitical and aesthetic realities. Our job as readers of modernism in the present is to consider how we can simultaneously curate and recast the period’s aspirations to globality for the future, in such a way that we do not lose sight of our ethical responsibilities or the affective dimensions of our work. Translation must dig into what unites and disconnects transcultural, translingual, and transnational interpretive acts across time. In doing so, it may be capable of inhabiting the creative and critical praxis of the past, and of revealing what Benjamin calls “the Now of knowability” [das Jetzt der Erkentbarkeit]—a kind of “condensation when a forgotten, lost, perhaps repressed moment from the past can suddenly be deciphered and known by the present and in the present.”[11]

The study of modernism’s activities is an exercise in managing such uncanny resurgences; it is a rereading, retracing, and refiguring of the successes and failures of the past. “Chine 1929” appeared serendipitously while I scrutinized how an old friend (Carpentier) read the Havanan Cantonese in 1929. Bouncing amongst the translational disconnections between art and life, the languages of law in the East and eroticism in the West, between Surrealist objective chance and postcolonial historiography, it is a lesson in the duration and irresistibility of translation as a critical act for our times.



I would like to thank Craig Clunas, Mi Zhou, and Lavina Lee for their invaluable help with this piece.

[1] Daniel Ferrer and Jacques Aubert, “Anna Livia’s French bifurcations,” in Transcultural Joyce, ed. Karen R. Lawrence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 179–86, 179.

[2] Amy Fass Emery, The Anthropological Imagination in Latin American Literature (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996), 33.

[3] Alejo Carpentier, “Lettre des Antilles,” Bifur (Paris) 3 (1929): 91–105, 96.

[4] Paul B. Miller, Elusive Origins: The Enlightenment in the Modern Caribbean Historical Imagination (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010), 30.

[5] Rebecca  L. Walkowitz, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 33.

[6] See Timothy Brook, Jérôme Bourgon, Gregory Blue, Death by a Thousand Cuts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 233.

[7] Guillermo de Torre, Literaturas europeas de vanguardia (Madrid: Rafael Caro Raggio, 1925), 370.

[8] James Clifford, “On Ethnographic Surrealism,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 23, no. 4 (1981): 539–64; 540.

[9] Georges Bataille, Les Larmes d’Eros (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1961), 234.

[10] Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” trans. Harry Zohn, in Selected Writings, Vol. I (1913–1926), ed. Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 253–63; 257.

[11] Jeanne-Marie Gagnebin, “Jetztzeit,” Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon, ed. Barbara Cassin (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013), 529.