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diacritics 34.3 (2006) 112-140

Fearful Asymmetries
Langston Hughes, Nicolás Guillén, and Cuba Libre
Vera M. Kutzinski

They . . . called him a Negro. But he wasn't a Negro. . . . he said his words like niggers do, but he didn't say the same words —

—William Faulkner, "A Justice"

"He got much heart for a nigger," someone else said. A spic, I thought.

—Piri Thomas, Down These Mean Streets

One need not subscribe to Benjamin's view of original and translation as so many shards of a greater language to imagine some semantic overlap between the Spanish noun negro and its English counterparts. Not surprisingly, such overlap has invited much theoretical speculation on kinship relations among the cultural formations of the African diaspora in the Americas. But can a "spic" really be a "Negro," or even a "nigger"? When one tries to determine just how similar negro in, say, early twentieth-century Cuban (literary) usage is to racial epithets such as "negro," "Negro," "black," "darky," "boy," or "nigger," as they have circulated in the United States at different points in time, it quickly becomes apparent that claims to cultural sameness are, in practice, far more complicated than they might appear in theory [see Edwards 35]. I want to untangle some of these complications here by considering a handful of literary translations by African American poet Langston Hughes. While I agree with Michael Riffaterre that translations "are not a reliable index of cultural difference" [68], any more than they are an unfailing guide to cultural similarities, the ways in which writers approach the task of translation can provide insights into the value they attach to certain cultural differences at the expense of others. I am particularly concerned in this essay with the effect of cultural homogeneity that American English-language translations of diasporic texts have tended to produce. Hughes's translations are no exception. They show that even a writer who has been hailed as a literary innovator and as a political radical—without, however, being fully recognized as a modernist poet—embraced a conservative approach to translation when it came to the work of writers of color from the south of the South.

As valuable as the concept of diaspora has been to African American and postcolonial studies, it has also left in its wake a host of unexamined theories about cultural sameness across national borders. Although the rhetoric of racial origins and essences has largely been replaced, in literary studies and elsewhere, by a more dynamic emphasis on shared historical experience, the latter has spawned no less problematic assumptions about, and indeed expectations of, cultural homogeneity among the various parts of African, Asian, and other diasporas [see Nwanko 56, 60]. In academic theory and practice, often under the sway of "the poststructuralist appropriation of the diaspora [which] aestheticizes it as an avant-garde lifestyle based on deterritorialization" [Radhakrishnan [End Page 112] 764], such assumptions have begun to flatten out the historical dimensions of diasporas' local communities, refashioning them into less varied cultural geographies than they actually are. What has been lost, at least to some extent, in the rush to assert transnational links between cultures is the very commitment to exploring the racial and ethnic heterogeneities that had energized diaspora studies in the first place and that had offered ways to imagine communities in other than national configurations. Theories of cultural hybridity notwithstanding, diaspora studies have developed their own protocols for erasing or suppressing "cultural asymmetries" (in Venuti's suggestive phrase from The Scandals of Translation) and for rendering invisible local "foreign" elements that, quite inevitably, produce incoherences. The problem, as Radhakrishnan emphasizes, "has not to do with hybridity per se, but with specific attitudes to hybridity" [754]. Homogenizing protocols based on what he calls "metropolitan hybridity" [753]1 have left their imprint on most comparativist projects, mainly in the form of transhistorical analogies2 that presume misleading degrees of likeness (and of equality) among local diasporic constituents. For example, that African slavery was a New World practice does not justify...


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