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American Literary History 18.3 (2006) 550-578

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"Yo también soy América":

Langston Hughes Translated

Y canto ese día,
Langston, Langston,
Para todos ese día,
Langston, Langston!
Alejo Carpentier1
Langston Hughes hermano,
hermano de raza
y también por ser hombre y humano,
Mi admiración te alcanza.
Pilar Barrios, "Voces"2

Langston Hughes's reputation in Latin America is the stuff of legend. Translations of his poetry first appeared in Cuba between 1928 and 1930. Others quickly followed, among them Xavier Villaurrutia's and Jorge Luis Borges's, which found their way, in 1931, into two leading vanguardist journals, Mexico's Contemporáneos and Argentina's Sur.3 From there, Hughes's fame spread quickly. After his death in 1967, Hughes remained the best-known and most admired US poet in Latin America since Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman.4 Even today, Hughes, along with Cuba's poet laureate, Nicolás Guillén, is regarded as the most important "Negro poet" of the twentieth century in many parts of the Hispanic world, including Spain (Cruzado 9).

Unless they had access to the English versions of Hughes's poems and could read them in that language, Latin Americans would have come in contact with a relatively small portion of his poetic corpus: only 163 of 856 poems have been translated into Spanish. Which of Hughes's poems his translators have chosen to [End Page 550] carry over into Spanish—and which they omitted—is as important, and as telling of what comes to be considered representative, as how different translators treated individual poems. With the help of an Excel spreadsheet and Mullen's 1977 landmark bibliography of translations of Hughes's work into Spanish,5 I have mapped the trajectory of every single known Hughes poem translated into Spanish and printed either in a book or in a periodical. Here are some of the preliminary statistics. Between 1928, the year of Hughes's first official visit to Cuba, and the end of 2004, 367 translations of Hughes's poems circulated in Central and South America as well as in Spain.6 They were printed and reprinted in 11 anthologies, four stand-alone volumes of translated poems,7 29 periodicals, and the Spanish versions of Hughes's two autobiographies.8 If one adjusts the numbers to reflect that 40 translations were reprints of earlier versions, one arrives at a total of 327 different Spanish and Portuguese versions of 167 Hughes poems.9 (The remaining 160 are multiple translations of the same poem.) Two hundred and sixty five of these translations were published in nine Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking Latin American countries. This substantial archive of translations has largely gone unexamined. As a result, both the broad contours and the specifics of Hughes's impact on Latin American artists and intellectuals have remained a matter of conjecture.

In what follows, I focus on the translations of Hughes's verse into Spanish as a historical and textual testing ground for theories of "black internationalism."10 Through close-ups of how Hughes's poems were reframed as they passed from English into Spanish, I will interrogate the validity of assumptions about cultural and political sameness now so deeply lodged within the academic discourses of African-American and African diaspora studies as to have become virtually invisible. Considering both larger historical trends and the texts of individual translations, I will argue that several distinct regional and international discourses, notably anti-US imperialism, socialism, and modernism, provided the major lenses through which Hughes's poems were refracted in the Latin Americas. There is strong evidence that translators, more often than not, appropriated Hughes's poems for their own nationalist agendas rather than using them to spread the seeds of "black" political awareness across Latin America.11 The discourse of anti-US imperialism so pervasive in Latin America during the aftermath of the Spanish-Cuban-American War (1895–98), and quite inseparable from nationalist ideologies, provided translators and commentators alike with fertile ground for analogizing external and internal colonization...


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