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.
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?
Translation takes time; it also gives time, a new and complex temporality, to a source text that exists in a relation of misunderstanding and inspiration to the translation. Early twentieth-century Japanese-English translation practices and theories offer a case study for a version of global modernism informed by ancient aesthetics and subjectivities—but not the typical version in which the ancient is non-western and modernity is firmly Euro-American. Two competing committees translated James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) into Japanese before it was legal to sell in any English-speaking country. Ezra Pound, that great promoter of Joyce as well as translation “by a committee,” did not encourage the Japanese interest in translating Anglophone modernist texts. He worried that Japanese artists would be swept up in “the apeing of Europe,” as he put it in The Classical Noh Theatre of Japan (1916), a controversial translation of ancient noh plays he published in spite of his minimal knowledge of Japanese. Noh plays and other classical texts, like Lady Murasaki’s famous The Tale of Genji (c. 1000, translated by Arthur Waley from 1926–33) were present in Anglophone modernism before many of its great works were produced, translated, and at risk of being “aped.” While western modernists celebrated a version of Japaneseness based on translations of classical texts, translators in Japan were eagerly tackling contemporary works like Ulysses. This discrepancy in translation practices troubles the common presumption that Japanese modernism lagged behind Euro-American modernisms. Some theories of global modernism suggest that we need to expand the modernist period to accommodate the time of translation and open its geographical boundaries to include non-Western countries. While these approaches work to be inclusive, they can imply that nonwestern modernisms were derivative; they also maintain a version of temporality that does not accommodate the messy, fertile, and multi-directional creativity of cross-cultural translation and exchange—much less the temporalities featured in noh plays.
“The harbor of New York was somehow the inexplicable scene of a mysterious cruel translation,” wrote modernist art critic Paul Rosenfeld in 1924. 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.