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Death Ships: the Cruel Translations of the Interwar Maritime Novel

“The harbor of New York was somehow the inexplicable scene of a mysterious cruel translation,” wrote modernist art critic Paul Rosenfeld in 1924.[1] With his impressionistic term “cruel translation,” Rosenfeld pointed to interferences in the sea lanes that connected New York to Antwerp and Buenos Aires, and to obstructions where people crossing stateless oceans touched national territories. In his description of Alfred Stieglitz’s epochal photograph The Steerage (1907), cruel translation appears as “the abyss of water” that “divides the folk crowded in the yawning mouth of the ferryboat from the foreground piles” (Rosenfeld, Port of New York, 272). Here, the meaning of translation exceeds strictly linguistic exchange, and its cruelty connotes a multifarious cultural scenography of constricted circulation at the port of entry, where blockages from cultural difference to customs house diffidence destabilize the global flows of people and goods.[2] In 1921, Roman Jakobson also remarked a limit to fluid translation, contrasting it to the sailor’s radical homelessness: 

One’s own little world and all that is “translatable” into one’s own dialect versus the incomprehensible barbarians—such is the usual scheme. Is this not the reason for the fact that sailors are revolutionary, that they lack that very “stove,” that hearth, that little house of their own, and are everywhere equally chez soi?[3]

For Rosenfeld and for Jakobson alike, translational processes of acculturation and domestication do not capture the stateless predicament, understood as the cruel spasms of mobility defining the lives of migrants and sailors. Observing modernist culture’s relation to maritime globalization, these critics rejected characterizations of a translational world of circulatory flows and transfers in order to posit harmful disconnections as constitutive of transoceanic social experience.

In the following decade, a genre of proletarian maritime novels written around the global port system detailed the rising tide of interferences endured by the homeless seafarers entangled in global cultural commerce, labor, and immigration. These novels all borrow plot elements against a common storehouse of picaresque proletarian feeling.[4] This essay centers on Bruno “B.” Traven’s adventure novel Das Totenschiff: die Geschichte eines amerikanischen Seemanns (The Death Ship: The Story of An American Sailor, 1926/1934), but it also outlines the genre’s larger horizons: at least a dozen other novels of interwar maritime labor, written in as many languages, and partly if ineffectively translated among them via new leftist publishers and worker book clubs such as Büchergilde Gutenberg, Malik-Verlag and International Publishers, and popular brokers of modernist literature such as Alfred A. Knopf. With the exception of artist Allan Sekula’s gestural montage of quotation in his indispensable Fish Story (1995), novels such as these have scarcely been read together.[5] Yet, from the standpoint of world literary history, such novels sharpen the focus of the phenomenon Rosenfeld fuzzily named “cruel translation” by drawing out the paradox of maritime migrants held captive in discrete national literatures, unable to clarify the magnitude of a burgeoning global crisis of stateless people to which they bore witness.

Take for example the case of a nameless, casual laborer of unknown origins who disembarked in the port of Tampico in 1924.[6] Living reclusively in Mexico for the next forty-five years, he published twenty-two popular works of proletarian and plebian adventure fiction under the pseudonym B. Traven. These works include The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1927/1935) and a “jungle” cycle about indigenous labor on Chiapas coffee farms. Soon after Traven’s 1969 death, some speculated that he was the vanished German anarchist and actor Ret Marut, although Marut appears to be another pseudonym.[7] Notables such as filmmaker John Huston and novelist Roberto Bolaño have periodically fueled the alluring mystery of Traven’s identity, which has accordingly overshadowed accounts of his fiction, especially The Death Ship, which first secured his global acclaim (fig. 1).[8] Written at least partly in English and first published in a German self-translation, by 1934 it was a bestseller in Germany and Russia, translated into twelve European languages in Scandinavia, Central Europe, Western Europe and the Americas.[9] Alongside the many novels it echoes, The Death Ship sought to wrest a proletarian perspective from the modernist sea story as practiced by Joseph Conrad, while sketching a crisis of statelessness responsible for Traven’s own authorial myth.  

Fig. 1. B. Traven, The Death Ship: the Story of an American Sailor (New York: Knopf, 1934)

The Death Ship begins when the American sailor Gerard Gales misses his ship’s departure during a shore leave in Antwerp. His seaman’s papers left aboard, and provisioned only with his own talent for insubordination, he finds himself trapped in interwar Europe’s nightmarish labyrinth of bureaucratic movement control, initiating what Jesper Gulddal calls the novel’s “passport plot.”[10] Unable to authenticate his citizenship to the satisfaction of classist American consuls, and therefore lawfully unable to ship out even as state authorities disallow him from staying, Gales bounces between Antwerp, Rotterdam, Boulogne and Paris, alternately expelled, imprisoned, and shuttled across borders by crooked gendarmes. After a reprieve in Spain, where he poses as a “Boche” (German) sailor and experiences a momentary freedom he describes as inversely proportional to the underdevelopment of the state bureaucracy, Gales fatefully signs on—beneath his rank—as a coal drag and stoker with a passing “death ship” allusively called the SS Yorikke. A death ship, the reader learns, is a ship so manifestly unseaworthy that its owners likely plan to scuttle it for the insurance money with the crew aboard. It therefore belongs to maritime dynamics of finance capital and fraud prefigured by the predations of the eighteenth-century slavers as well as late Victorian incidents of imperial neglect.[11]

Now Gales poses as the Egyptian sailor Pippip, and he meets Stanislov, a talented seaman likewise reduced to the stokehold due to an even more horrific stateless predicament involving the inter-imperial convulsions of Central Europe. Together, the two bedraggled coal drags theorize the vast interwar citizenship dilemma that locks them into the forced labor, social death and nonbeing of their assignment to the death ship:[12]

Hundreds of Yorikkes, hundreds of death ships are sailing the seven seas. . . . There have never been so many of them as since the war for liberty and democracy that gave the world passports and immigration restrictions, and that manufactured men without nationalities and without papers by the ten thousand.[13]

While couching their tales in adventure tropes, Pippip and Stanislav offer detailed accounts of the developing classes of heimatlosen, apatride, or stateless refugees emerging from interwar Europe: those conditioned by what Hannah Arendt would famously call “homelessness on an unprecedented scale, rootlessness to an unprecedented depth.”[14] In fact, Pippip’s seemingly hyperbolic factor of “ten thousand” underestimates the extent of a phenomenon that Arendt would estimate conservatively at one million de jure stateless persons granted “refugee” designations by the League of Nations, and more than ten million de facto stateless persons by 1940 who lacked any international legal designation whatsoever (the crisis has since multiplied by twenty).[15] Yet, in 1926, Traven’s sailor defines a problem for an era that had not yet cruelly expanded the internment camp as what Arendt calls the increasingly “routine solution” for the stateless people’s “problem of domicile” (Origins of Totalitarianism, 279). As Gales remarks: “If you don’t belong to a country in these times, you had better jump into the sea” (Traven, Death Ship, 34).

For months Pippip and Stanislov shovel coal in the stokehold while the Yorikke smuggles weapons in small cargoes, which Traven presents as a tangle of sound play: mausers hidden in mousetraps, munitions packed in plum marmalade, and carbines tucked in corned beef. The pairings highlight the mobility of both licit and illicit trade before people or knowledge, and underscore the novel’s fascination with translation understood as an economy of exchange and circulation.[16] Yet, before the Yorikke sinks, the two drags are shanghaied in Dakar and dumped on another British death ship. When the officers bungle the scuttling operation, Pippip and Stanislov are the sole survivors. Living out their last days feasting and philosophizing in the Captain’s quarters as the pitch-pulled ship lodges on a rock, they consume the ship’s cargo in a performance of ironized plenitude. Finally swept to sea by a storm, they hallucinate the reappearance of the Yorikke in the hours before Stanislov’s death.

At minimum, all this suggests an alternative to the way social historians and literary scholars alike tend to narrate the steamship’s status as an icon of what Emily Rosenberg calls “transnational currents in a shrinking world.”[17] In such accounts, steamship technologies power post-1870 historical narratives of accelerated spatiotemporal connectedness and global instantaneity. Modernist imaginaries of transoceanic telegraphy and ocean liner cosmopolitanism suture Europe and the United States in landmark social histories of the North Atlantic like John Malcolm Brinnin’s The Sway of the Grand Saloon (1971) and Stephen Kern’s The Culture of Time and Space, 1880–1920 (1983). By contrast, The Death Ship reveals how below-deck narratives contrived different rhythms of experience, defined not by enhanced planetary mobility so much as by voyages of damnation prescribed to stateless people by state bureaucracies in collusion with neglectful shipping concerns. Experiencing tramp steamers as exilic prison houses, work camps and rides to perdition, Pippip and Stanislov puncture reigning historical categories of transoceanic experience.

Charting the Interwar Maritime Novel

Fig. 2. Theodor Plivier, Des Kaisers Kulis (Berlin: Malik-Verlag, 1930). Dust jacket photomontage by John Heartfield. © 2018 Heartfield Community of Heirs. All Rights Reserved. See

The Death Ship’s picaresque proletarian adventure exemplifies only one of these alternative rhythms of worldly experience, and in this it belongs to a historically specific global corpus of interwar fictions, all written between 1922 and 1934, that sought to write stateless dockworkers, coalers, ordinary seamen, wharf rats, and migrant laborers into the discourse of globalization. Authored by an international proletarian vanguard on the cusp of the red decade, these novels comprised a new genre of world literature, but not in the way scholars from David Damrosch to Mariano Siskind customarily describe world literature. Promiscuously translated, such literature seems not to “gai[n] in translation,” favoring instead to point up interferences in the situation of translation itself.[18] Cosmopolitan to the core, it does not romanticize “deseo de mundo.”[19] A literature of migrant Bolshevist and Wobbly laborers, it does its work in the shadows of the maritime novel’s grand tradition, described by Margaret Cohen as a trajectory from Daniel Defoe to Joseph Conrad.[20] A literature of radical proletarian self-definition produced within the dynamics of the world system’s scenes of exchange, it challenges Franco Moretti’s understanding of a non-coincidence between the economic inequality described by Immanuel Maurice Wallerstein’s world-system theory and the dynamics of inequality and mobility internal to the world literary system.[21] Such literature plots the clogged circulations of stateless people confronting freshly policed borders following the Great War precisely in the moments it announces a cruel relation to the world literary system.

The corpus I invoke here includes Norwegian novelist Nordahl Grieg’s Rundt Kap det gode Haab: vers fra sjøen (The Ship Sails On, 1922/1927), an account of the mundane toll taken upon a tireless tramp steamer’s swabs and stokers, and a powerful influence on the young Malcolm Lowry’s Ultramarine (1933), which located the novelist’s craft in downwardly mobile adventurism and masculine initiation. These tramping novels jar against dockside fictions at the center of the Harlem Renaissance, such as Eric Walrond’s Panama Canal Zone stories Tropic Death (1926) or Claude McKay’s Banjo: A Story Without A Plot (1929), a tale of Marseilles wharf rats which McKay wrote at Lamine Senghor’s communist incitation to tell the truth about the undocumented men of the African diaspora furnishing France’s port labor.[22] Like The Death Ship, Banjo opens with the fact that the character Ginger “had lost his seaman’s papers. He had been in prison for vagabondage and served with a writ of expulsion. But he had destroyed the writ and swiped the papers of another seaman.”[23] Similarly, John Dos Passos’s 1919 (1932) opens with the flunky sailor Joe Williams stranded in Buenos Aires’s La Boca district, where he seeks forged papers before he is shuttled to England, imprisoned for his insufficient visa documentation, and shipped back to the Eastern seaboard. Each joins The Death Ship in linking narrative momentum itself to the documents enabling the sailor’s manipulation of bureaucratic movement control.

Fig. 3. Lod' mrtvých (The Death Ship, 1946). Dust jacket photomontage by Zdeněk Rossmann.

These narratives echo Bolshevist sailor stories, such as Theodor Plivier’s Des Kaisers Kulis (The Kaiser’s Coolies, 1930/1931), an account of German naval mutiny aboard a commerce raider. It featured a dust jacket by Dada photomontage artist John Heartfield, a communist whose Anglicized name was also a cri de couer against WWI-era anti-British sentiment (fig. 2). Heartfield pioneered book jacket art in his covers for Malik-Verlag’s radical proletarian novels, including translations of Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, and a book about the Russian battleship Potemkin. As Allan Sekula emphasizes, Sergei Eisenstein’s film Bronenosets Patyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925) was a touchstone for the era’s many radical maritime narratives, and Andrés Mario Zervigón points out that Heartfield’s introduction of full-bleed dust-jacket photography took inspiration from cinema to “transform the cover into a screen.”[24] Later, a 1946 Czech edition of Traven’s The Death Ship with a cover by Bauhaus-trained artist Zdeněk Rossman would revive Heartfield’s agit-prop photomontages (fig. 3).

Heartfield’s jacket designs likely influenced other Bolshevist maritime fictions in turn, such as S. S. Utah (1933), a “character study of an American boat on a trip to the Soviet Union” written by the pseudonymous American Communist Party organizer Mike Pell (fig. 4). Importantly, Pell figures writing and reading as proletarian arts of radical self-definition. Aboard the Utah, a Bolshevik surveys a ship’s library:

The usual assortment of wild-west and movie junk, and some slobbery novels of the type donated by the Daughters of American Racketeers to the Society for Simple-Minded Seamen. [25]

Casting this “printed poison out of the port hole,” he supplants it:

Quietly getting down and opening his sea bag, he pulled out a pile of magazines, booklets, newspapers, and put them on the bookshelf.

“Dynamite,” he whispered, looking around at his sleeping comrades, “to blow the dust out of your brains.” (Pell, S. S. Utah, 14)

Here, the maritime novel schematizes its own position in the cultural marketplace, hoping to offer an alternative appeal to a working class that had become what Michael Denning calls “the new mass audience for the popular arts.”[26] International Publishers released S. S. Utah in the same year as Japanese proletarian author Takiji Kobayashi’s Kanikōsen (The Cannery Boat, 1929/1933), the story of cruel labor conditions that lead to a strike on a Japanese factory ship as it fishes in Russian territorial waters, and which highlights translation’s role in the production of this class consciousness. In a crucial scene, a Chinese intermediary renders Russian Bolshevik tutorials in syntactically confused Japanese for the cannery boat’s defeated sailors.[27] Pell’s and Kobayashi’s Bolshevik didacticism preludes events such as the 1934 intensification of unionism in the West Coast waterfront strike, and it does so in the same key of revolutionary didacticism as the San Francisco strikers’ samizdat newsletter The Waterfront Worker (1932–1935).

Elsewhere, such emphases on radical didacticism gave to maritime adventure the form of a foreclosed school story. In James Hanley’s Boy (1931), a father discontinues his twelve-year-old son’s studies, and impresses him to labor on the Liverpool docks instead. Unfit for the work of bilging and cleaning boilers, the boy stows away, commencing a brief terrifying life: raped by the officer who finds him, he contracts syphilis in an Egyptian port, and is finally murdered and dumped in the sea. Boy’s point of embarkation traumatically replays Liverpool’s long role in the slave trade as a neo-captivity narrative. After the novel’s first British printing attracted censure for its frank scenes of sexual violence, it was banned, expurgated in a 1932 Knopf edition, then restored in 1936 by Paris’s Obelisk Press, which used France’s liberal censorship laws to publish other controversial books such as Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934).

Fig. 4. Mike Pell, S.S. Utah (London: International Publishers, 1933). Courtesy of Joyner Library Special Collections, East Carolina University.

The Death Ship’s Cruel Translations

By the watershed year of 1934, Traven’s The Death Ship probably circulated more than any of the aforementioned novels of maritime globalization. Moreover, it contains perhaps the fullest expression of a master-plot from which all of them draw. In mapping the stateless underclasses of the interwar Atlantic, it maps the stateless system of proletarian maritime fiction as well. It does so through a matrix of metanarrative and allusive observations about the novel’s translational status in world literature, and by creating a complex linguistic texture that virtualizes “cruel translation” as a proletarian ethos of the interwar period. That is to say, The Death Ship is a compendium of resistant and “cruel” modes of translation, including wry jabs at other works in the literary field, leveling allusions to world literary history, and the production of a chaotic shipboard lingua franca. And while it represents a system of halting circulation in these ways, the circulation of the novel-text itself exemplifies an ad hoc, improvised, partial situation of translation. The impertinent proletarian internationalism that results distinguishes The Death Ship in the crowded maritime literary field.

In praising this impertinent proletarian quality, James Hanley’s 1934 review of Traven’s novel levels a critique of Conrad:

I have always sensed a certain falsity, a smugness about Conrad. [The Death Ship] could never have been written by him. His peculiar angle of vision never reached beyond the bridge. He did not know these men. More, he scoffed at them. “There are no sailors today,” says he, “only Sugi-Mugi men.” For the benefit of the uninitiated, Sugi-Mugi men are mere washers of paint. Deck-hands on modern ships wash and chip paint.[28] 

Hanley’s Conrad quote may be apocryphal, though elsewhere Conrad commented: “The sailing ship made men. . . . Sailors today are little more than factory hands.”[29] Traven’s novel concurs, describing the sailor in port as no sailor at all, but instead “exactly like a worker in a factory . . . Cleaning, scrubbing, wiping, painting the hull” (Death Ship, 137). But whereas Conrad links a failure of moral masculinity to the Sugi-Mugi man, Traven locates aesthetic sensibilities in his painterly vocation and his apperception of the ship as a canvas. When Gales first sees the Yorikke, it arrests his attention with an admixture of sublime and grotesque fascination, its un-seaworthiness like a Cubo-Futurist taunt to perspective: “Her masts were like branches reaching out to form a fantastic tree in North Dakota in November. Her funnel was crooked and bent like a corkscrew. I couldn’t figure out exactly how her bridge was connected with the rest of her” (107). The Yorikke serves as a device of hermeneutic frustration: “there were as many different colors painted on her hull as are known to exist. Those layers of paint make her appear twice her true size” (107). This patchwork’s perceptual distortions evoke the “dazzle ship” camouflage advocated by Vorticist painters in World War I, yet the Yorikke’s patchwork does not aim to deter enemy ballistics, so much as it disorients the sailor’s talent for sizing up the ship’s working conditions.[30]

The Death Ship valorizes the Sugi-Mugi man’s work of hauling coal, scaling boilers and swabbing decks even as it defines itself against mass cultural forms of maritime narrative and theatrical experience. “All the romance of the sea that you still find in magazine stories died a long, long time ago,” exhorts Gales, speaking of a system of maritime genre codes that had never gone “into steam,” in Conrad’s phrase (Traven, Death Ship, 4).[31] Instead these codes provoke the sailor’s claim that “the song of the real and genuine hero of the sea has never yet been sung,” for it “would be too cruel and too strange” for “opera-audiences, movie-goers, and magazine-readers” (Traven, Death Ship, 5). Pippip’s descent into the stokehold even produces sidelong jabs at Eugene O’Neill’s portrait of the brutish stoker in The Hairy Ape (1922): “There were no hairy apes around with lurking strains of philosophy for stage purposes. . . . A stoke-hold in a stage-play . . . is something different” (190). Gales further maps a circuit between the world literary marketplace and proletarian knowledge as viewed from the stokehold or stranded in port. Penniless in Rotterdam, he prevails on wealthy American tourists, who are amused rather than horrified by his plight. His yarn is so good the tourist pays him a dollar for the entertainment, and another dollar because he intends to capitalize on the story by writing it up himself.[32] This tourist hopes to profit from a bourgeois reading public who believes in fiction’s transactional entertainment value, not its power to map systemic truths. The following day, Gales auditions other generic codes for his story. Playing it as musical comedy, he probes where it stands up in a literary market of buskers and hawkers. Later, readers learn that Stanislov irreverently adopted his alias from a Polish bookseller he now scorns, who first sold him the dime novels fueling his adolescent desires to take to sea. Here, too, Traven swipes at the Polish-born Conrad. In a well-known passage early in Lord Jim (1900)—Conrad’s disorienting tale of the British Empire’s capacity for neglect of its subjects, Captain Marlow narrates how Lord Jim likewise finds his maritime vocation after reading “a light course of holiday literature.”[33] But Traven locates this mistake in a Polish sailor fated to conditions as cruel as the pilgrims whom Lord Jim abandons mid-ocean, rather than locating it in one like Jozéf Konrad Korzeniowski, who would be celebrated in Britain for satiating national desires for novelizations of the imperial peripheries.

Thus, as The Death Ship casts off the postures of Conrad and O’Neill and jostles with other forms of proletarian genre fiction (condemning, for example, the Bolshevism advocated by Pell and Kobayashi in favor of anarchic individualism), it grows to rely on over-determined allusions. This is nowhere clearer than in its ship names, for the Yorikke’s symbolic freight is as heavy as the San Dominick in Melville’s “Benito Cereno.” Yorikke, of course, alludes to Hamlet’s graveyard memento mori, here refigured as the deadliness of interwar social existence outside the state’s biopolitical power. Furthermore, if we follow Margreta de Grazia’s remarkable reading of the grave-digging scene in Hamlet, it replays the impudent class politics that the nattering Sexton puts on offer as he bashes at Yorick’s skull in the grave. Pippip draws from Hamlet’s late-play resignation unto death (indeed, de Grazia links that resignation to the moment Hamlet dons a sea cloak), but as a coal stoker Pippip more particularly associates himself with Delvers the rustic gravedigger, whose emplacement in the grave allows him to play havoc with class identities.[34] A 1968 book jacket captures the ship’s memento mori status with particular clarity (fig. 5). The Yorikke becomes a vehicle for Pippip’s philosophical history of the maritime world’s inter-imperial history, its decaying skull-like hull leading him to surmise: “to try to place her in any period of shipbuilding was futile” (Traven, Death Ship, 106). He lyrically recalls her 5000-year history from Troy to Trafalgar, tacking in passages of purple prose between gallows humor and mythmaking. If the Yorikke therefore flattens Hamlet’s psychological depth into an allegory of stateless existence, the putatively “Egyptian” name “Pippip” likewise alludes to Dickens’s picaresque protagonist of Great Expectations Philip “Pip” Pirrip, whose long self-exile to Cairo now plays as the persona donned by the sailor in the moment he accepts his nonbeing.[35] These allusions compress the canon of English world literature into the chronotope of a sailor abandoned by late imperial Britain’s role in the production of stateless people.

Fig. 5. B. Traven, The Death Ship (New York: Knopf, 1968)

These allusive translations accompany the US edition’s faulty translational wiring at the linguistic level, which may account for how poorly it faired in the US market. A partial English-language manuscript for The Death Ship was found in Traven’s papers at his death, and although the German edition and ten other translations appear before an English edition, Traven himself claimed to have written more than half the novel first in English.[36] Self-translation into German may have first followed publishing opportunities, and Karl Guthke surmises that only Traven’s declining fortune in the German publishing market after the rise of National Socialism led him to pursue American publishers.[37] Knopf editor Bernard Smith silently doctored the 1934 edition, which came to him scored with the tortured German syntax of Traven’s English prose.[38] His role was at least partially that of an uncredited translator. A more polished British edition came out simultaneously in Eric Sutton’s translation, but the ungainly idioms of the American edition best mirror the system of shape-shifting nationalities the stateless sailor adopts to navigate an exilic place in the world system.

In a remark that might have pleased C. K. Ogden, Pippip declares that only 300 English words suffice as a shipboard navigational lingua franca, and only fifty words more make any sea story intelligible among the Yorikke’s multilingual crew. Yet the novel offers a dense lexical world veering from allusive high culture toward the crew’s pidgins and laborite sociolects, and Pippip’s narrative impetus to “translate their lingo” into the salt and pepper of bad Americanisms, odd abbreviations, faux wisdom, and wisecracks (Traven, Death Ship, 122). The endless flow of this proletarian jabber plays as anti-authoritarian irreverence with increasingly resilient effects as it confronts ever more horrific conditions. Thrown from a lifeboat into the sea, Pippip recalls,

For a short while I heard no answer. But then, his voice still with that twang full of water, Stanislav cried back: “Not even a twig. Funk it all, the whole mess. Hey, listen, Pip, I am making back for the tub. Safest place right now. She sure will stay on for a day or two. She won’t fall in two yet. Come along. Ride down the waves.”

Naturally, he did not say all this in one sentence. The flow of his speech was interrupted by the pails of sea-water which old man Neptune gunned into his swear-hold. (346)

Here indeed are the cruelest translations of the interwar novel. Even in their dying breaths, both sailors prattle irreverently in their shared auxiliary language about lousy steamship working conditions, and safeguarding this perspective against capital’s neglect seems to be the novel’s final aim: “What do you expect me to do? . . . Sing hymns?” quips Pippip. “It’s now maybe my last chance to tell you what I think about steel tube masts. And . . . that sure is something . . . not to be forgotten” (360). Rosenfeld’s impressionistic term “cruel translation” might be understood as precisely this halting, auxiliary idiom: a proletarian prattle of migrants and sailors, shuttling in death ships about the maritime world, who sought to articulate the narrative shape and linguistic situation of a dawning crisis of citizenship.



I first presented this work at the panel “The Sea as Atopical Space,” organized by Penny Fielding for the 2016 Society for Novel Studies conference in Pittsburgh, and I later shared it in Northwestern University’s English Colloquium and Honors Seminar. I gratefully acknowledge the attendees at these occasions. Rebecca Johnson, Robert Pogue Harrison, Andrew Leong, Jeff Masten, Joshua Miller, Marcus Rediker and Gayle Rogers each made important additional suggestions.

[1]Paul Rosenfeld, Port of New York: Essays on Fourteen American Moderns (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1924), 282.

[2] I draw on models of translation understood as “disarticulation” or as “volatile nodes for both connection and disconnection” (Brent Hayes Edwards, The Practice of Diaspora: Literature, Translation, and the Rise of Black Internationalism [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003], 9; Rebecca Johnson, “Importing the Novel: The Arabic Novel in and as Translation,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 48, no. 2 [2015]: 243–60, 251). I follow Franco’s understanding of “cruelty” as an often-deliberate practice of state-sponsored harm and as a dimension of post-World War I fantasy life that interacts with legacies of communism under conditions of modernization. See Jean Franco, Cruel Modernity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 1, 152–72.

[3] Roman Jakobson, “Dada,” in Language in Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987), 34–40, 34.

[4] On the genre of the “proletarian picaresque” and an eighteenth-century emphasis on “the presentation of a large and historic experience of ‘the deep-sea proletariat,’” see Peter Linebaugh, The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Verso, 2006), 122. On the “picaro” as a figure of “social relation,” see Matthew Garrett, “Subterranean Gratification: Reading after the Picaro,” Critical Inquiry 42, no.1 (2015), 97–123. Katie Trumpener premises a theory of world literature on the picaro’s endurance; see “The Novel Astray: The Picaro in the World,” Keynote Lecture, Society for Novel Studies Conference, May 2016. 

[5] Sekula offers the most significant effort to map the maritime configuration of revolutionary modernist culture. See Allan Sekula, Fish Story (Dusseldorf: Richter, 1995), 106–37.

[6] See Karl S. Guthke, B. Traven: The Life Behind the Legends (Chicago, IL: Lawrence Hill Books, 1991), 169.

[7] See Guthke, B. Traven, 8–10.

[8] Huston’s autobiography details attempts to ascertain Traven’s identity. See John Huston, An Open Book (New York: Knopf, 1980), 138–143. Bolaño’s 2666 satirizes Traven’s myth in the search for “Archimboldi.” See Roberto Bolaño, 2666, trans. Natasha Wimmer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

[9] The Death Ship was continuously in print beginning in 1926; by 1938 a trade report suggested that it had sold 250,000 copies in Germany and over 1.5 million copies in Russia, although in the United States it sold only 3,288 copies. I count 18 distinct translations to date. See “On the Trail of B. Traven,” Publisher’s Weekly, July 9, 1938, 106. Goldman’s novel The Ordinary Seaman translates its lessons to the present through intertextual and allusive engagements. See Francisco Goldman, The Ordinary Seaman (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1997).

[10] Jesper Gulddal, “Passport Plots: B. Traven’s Das Totenschiff and the Chronotope of Movement Control,” German Life and Letters 66, no. 3 (2013), 292–307.

[11] See for example Ian Baucom, Specters of the Atlantic: Finance Capital, Slavery, and the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005) and Eric Tagliacozo, The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 109–32.

[12] See Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), 38–45.

[13] B. Traven, The Death Ship: The Story of an American Sailor (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1934), 211. See also 233.

[14] Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (New York: Meridian Books, 1958), vii. See also S. Lawford Childs, “Refugees—a Permanent Problem in International Organization,” War is Not Inevitable: Problems of Peace (London: International Labor Office, 1938).

[15] See Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism, 279. A 2013 report estimates that for 232 million contemporary migrants, citizenship status forecloses access to rights. See Ayten Gündoğdu, Rightlessness in an Age of Rights: Hannah Arendt and the Contemporary Struggles of Migrants (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 3.

[16] See Lydia H. Liu, “The Question of Meaning-Value in the Political Economy of the Sign,” in Tokens of Exchange: The Problem of Translation in Global Circulations, ed. Lydia H. Liu (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2000), 13–41.

[17] See Emily S. Rosenberg’s essay, “Transnational Currents in a Shrinking World,” in A World Connecting: 1870–1945, ed. Emily S. Rosenberg (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), 815–998.

[18] David Damrosch, What is World Literature? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 281.

[19] Mariano Siskind, Cosmopolitan Desires: Modernity and World Literature in Latin America (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2014), 3.

[20] See Margaret Cohen, The Novel and the Sea (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[21] See Franco Moretti, “More Conjectures,” in Distant Reading (London: Verso, 2013), 107–20, 115.

[22] See Claude McKay, A Long Way from Home (New York: L. Furman, 1937), 279–80, 288.

[23] Claude McKay, Banjo: A Story Without A Plot (New York: Harper, 1929), 5.

[24] Andrés Mario Zervigón, John Heartfield and the Agitated Image: Photography, Persuasion, and the Rise of Avant-Garde Photomontage (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 207.

[25] Mike Pell, S. S. Utah (New York: International Publishers, 1933), 9.

[26] Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso, 1996): 39

[27] See Takiji Kobayashi, The Cannery Boat (New York: International Publishers, 1933); Takiji Kobayashi, The Crab Cannery Ship and Other Novels of Struggle, trans. Zeljko Cipris (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2013).

[28] James Hanley, “Sugi-Mugi,” The Spectator, January 26, 1934, 27.

[29] James Walter Smith, “Joseph Conrad—Master Mariner and Novelist,” Boston Evening Telegraph, May 12, 1923, in Joseph Conrad: Interviews and Recollections, ed. Martin Ray (London: Macmillan, 1992), 185.

[30] See for example the dazzle camouflage designs in paintings of Edward Wadsworth, who served the British Navy and who depicts Sugi-Mugi men working at ships in dry dock. Jonathan Black, Edward Wadsworth: Form, Feeling and Calculation: The Complete Paintings and Drawings (London: Philip Wilson, 2005).

[31] Joseph Conrad, A Personal Record (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1912), 189. See also Cohen, The Novel and the Sea, 200–201.

[32] See Traven, Death Ship, 35–37.

[33] Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1900), 4. On neglect as a condition of nineteenth-century British imperial governance, see Christopher Taylor, Empire of Neglect: The West Indies in the Wake of British Liberalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018), 1.

[34] See Margreta de Grazia, Hamlet without Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 129–37.

[35] The “Pippip” name may also allude to the character of “Pip” in Melville’s Moby-Dick, though it is unlikely that Traven knew Moby-Dick in 1926, even as Rockwell Kent’s illustrated edition began to circulate in the same communities of readers.

[36] See Guthke, B. Traven, 25.

[37] See Guthke, B. Traven, 309.

[38] See Bernard Smith, “Speaking of Books: B(ashful) Traven,” New York Times, November, 22, 1970, 2.