- The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas by Vera M. Kutzinski
It has become a matter of routine in Black Atlantic scholarship to use "translation" as a metaphor to capture the tensions generated by encounters between cultures, ideas, and individuals across the black diaspora. Kutzinski's impressive study of Langston Hughes, which analyzes him as a translator whose works were also translated widely across the Americas, seeks to counter the conceptual imprecision that has often accompanied such rhetoric. While Brent Hayes Edwards has explored the practical and theoretical implications of translation or décalage in interwar Paris, the transcultural capital of black modernism, Kutzinski's study focuses instead on the Americas.1 Such a shift of emphasis does not only reveal the centrality of translation to Hughes's politics and poetics; it also challenges narratives of the African diaspora that prize unity and continuity and favors instead those that emphasize misapprehension, fragmentation, and instability. Focusing on "Hughes's own itineraries and those of his texts in translation" (14), Kutzinski calls for a reassessment of intellectual and artistic exchanges that existed on "the fringes of modernism as [conceived] in the English-speaking world" (14), especially in such places as Harlem, Havana, Madrid, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City. In so doing, she reveals the blind spots that emerge when accounts of literary modernism marginalize the Spanish and Portuguese languages in favor of English and French.
The Worlds of Langston Hughes is underpinned by rigorous archival research, including a comprehensive inventory of translations of Hughes's writings into Spanish, translations that date from 1928—the year of his first official visit to Cuba—and run through 2004. Kutzinski carefully scrutinizes various translations of poems like "I, Too," and she exposes notable differences in conceptions of race in various Hispanic-American societies and the USA. Comparative analyses [End Page 391] of translations that emerged in Cuba, Mexico, Uruguay, and Argentina serve as "historical and textual testing grounds for theories of black internationalism that relativize assumptions about cultural and political sameness and equivalences" (59). Given that Hughes's reputation for radicalism boosted his popularity among Hispanic-American writers, it comes as a surprise that translators tended to downplay that aspect of his oeuvre, muting the political impact of his poetry by abandoning culturally specific references in favor of a vocabulary of abstract universalism. For similar reasons, Hughes's celebrated blues lyrics, marked as they were by assertions of African-American cultural distinctiveness, were of little interest to translators in Hispanic America in the first half of the twentieth century.
The conservatism that tended to govern such translations is mirrored in Hughes's collaboration with the Howard professor Ben Carruthers, which produced the first book-length translation of Nicolás Guillén's poetry in English (Cuba Libre, 1948). Much of the richness of Kutzinski's approach stems from her meticulous examinations of Hughes's manuscripts, his correspondence, and his substantial revisions to Carruthers's translations, examinations that explore the motivations for Hughes's political and aesthetic decisions in his translations. In order to complicate any easy analogies between African America and Cuba, Kutzinski pays particular attention to the constraints under which the volume was produced. If commercial pressures led Hughes to downplay the political radicalism of Guillén's poetry, his published translations were also shaped by concern about his own political reputation as a so-called "Communist sympathizer." Given these constraints, it is hardly surprising that Hughes was more willing to "test linguistic and political limits in his drafts than he was in his published work" (139).
More generally, Hughes's role as a translator allows Kutzinski to challenge certain assumptions that have characterized dominant critical conceptions of the Black Atlantic. For one thing, Hughes and Carruthers faced considerable obstacles as they sought to render Guillén's Afro-Cuban dialect in English. Blasting any assumption of equivalence between Afro-Cuban dialect, so-called Negro dialect, and U.S. representations of black vernacular, Kutzinski analyzes translations of...