When Günther Anders arrived in New York in 1936, following three years of exile in Paris, he tried to achieve “‘a typically American’ breakthrough” (Interviews, 37). One of the first ventures this involved was writing a script for a Charlie Chaplin movie, a script, as Anders adds, that “probably went straight into the bin of some Hollywood agent” (37). For those familiar with Anders’s prolific postwar writings, especially the media theory advanced in the two uncannily prescient volumes of Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen (The Obsolescence of Human Beings), these Hollywood aspirations might come as a surprise.
One of the frustrating things about academic writing is the categories set by the institution. These categories slice through histories to abstract people, epochs, and bodies of knowledge from their context and settle them deep into the belly of the institution to be studied as phenomena without cause or provenance.
The history of Iranian modernism is inseparable from the history of literary translation. In most accounts of Iranian literary history, the translation of European literary works played a formative role in the redefinition of poetic discourse as well as in the introduction of new literary genres, such as the short story and the novel, to modern Persian literature. In his landmark study of Iranian literary modernism, Mohammad Reza Shafiʿi-Kadkani rejects the ascription of originality to Iranian modernism.
Only Disconnect?: The Flickering Circuits of Modernist Translation
As E. M. Forster implied, connection often creates more problems than it solves. Indeed, one of the many lessons of the 2016 election cycle and the current political climate in the United States is that few things drive people farther apart than being connected to one another. The utopian dreams of the 1990s in which the World Wide Web would foster a harmonious global village have splintered into immeasurably vast fields of divergent realities, unknowable terrains of digital echo chambers and of silos filled with conspiracy theories; here, self-sufficient “facts” are constructed and rarely questioned. From yellow journalism to “fake news,” only the names and technologies that simultaneously inspire phantasms of social cohesion and create indelible fractures are new. As Virginia Woolf put it in 1927 when assessing the global empires of her moment, “the streets of any large town . . . [are] cut up into boxes, each of which is inhabited by a different human being who has put locks on his doors and bolts on his windows to ensure some privacy, yet is linked to his fellows by wires which pass overhead, by waves of sound which pour through the roof and speak aloud to him of battles and murders and strikes and revolutions all over the world.” To understand connection itself as a mediated potentiality and a problem—as a double-edged condition—is to recover some of the lived dangers, silences, and fissures of this era and of our own
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.
The contours of Latino/a modernism only begin to clarify in the light of the prodigious literary production of US Spanish-language serials. The original and republished literature that circulated in these serials—newspapers, weekly digests, literary magazines—defies current paradigms of modernism, including the experimentalism of canonical Anglo modernism, the aestheticism of Latin American modernismo, and the political bent of borderlands modernism. The size of this archive is staggering: Nicolás Kanellos and Helvetia Martell have documented the existence of 1,141 Spanish-language serials in the United States between 1880 and 1945, the vast majority of which included literary texts as part of their regular publication agenda. Almost a century after the apex of this literary formation, however, US Spanish-language print culture is virtually invisible in contemporary literary scholarship. That invisibility results from translation practices that have paradoxically served to disconnect Latino/a studies from modernist studies, fields that would mutually benefit from sustained engagement. In this essay, I give a brief account of how translation—understood literally and metaphorically—has worked as a point of blockage in the (non-)relationship of modernist and Latino/a studies. I then highlight the Kansas City Spanish-language weekly El Cosmopolita (1914–1919) as one example of how Latino/a modernism negotiates transnational literary currents and local social concerns. If we are to see these negotiations in their full complexity, we must adjust our research and teaching agendas, adopting underused translations and sponsoring new ones, allowing Latino/a modernism to challenge the boundaries of US and hemispheric modernisms alike.
White Zombie, America’s first feature zombie film, situates the zombie as a complex embodiment of Haiti’s history, even as it thrills American audiences with their first cinematic depictions of the living dead. Released in 1932 by United Artists during the United States’s occupation of Haiti, and based upon William Seabrook’s 1929 book, The Magic Island, the film narrates the plight of an American couple pursuing marriage and business opportunities in Port-au-Prince. Although the film never explicitly mentions the occupation, which lasted from 1915–1934, the military intervention serves as the catalyst that brings the Americans to Port-au-Prince, where they immediately confront the threat of zombies—a threat that will interfere with their entrepreneurial endeavors. The film’s covert acknowledgments of heightened political tensions between the United States and Haiti coalesce in its portrayal of the Vodou zombie
In many ways, the concept of translation has been at the heart of the global modernist project.
Where and when does the story of “global modernism” begin, and what is its relationship to translation?
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?