popular literature

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]