A Chinese translation of “Rip Van Winkle.” A speech by Ralph Waldo Emerson honoring the Burlingame-Seward treaty. A translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life” inscribed on a Mandarin fan. The autobiography and poetry of Yale’s first Chinese graduate, who founded a school for Chinese exchange students in Hartford. Judging by the stature of the figures and institutions involved, we might expect that the archive of nineteenth-century literary encounters between China and the United States would have generated lasting networks of influence.
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.
In 1931, Editorial Apolo released El enigma del despertar de China, an essay on contemporary China dealing with varied topics such as rituals, traditions, feminism, Christianity, pedagogy, Malthusianism, communism, and literature. The cover announced that it was authored by T. S. H. Thompson and translated by Fabián Casares. But both names were fake. The book, it turns out, had been written by Mario Verdaguer (1885–1963), a key figure in Hispanic modernism, based in Catalonia. Relying on foreign sources, Verdaguer had impersonated the voice of an English sinologist offering a panoramic view on contemporary China. He had, furthermore, even invented the agency of a translator who had rendered that into Spanish. Why would an avant-garde novelist, occasional poet and renowned translator of Goethe, Zweig and Mann such as Verdaguer try to pass himself off as an English essayist to write about China? Why would a translation have more value than an original work?