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  • Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities
  • Caroline F. Levander
Lomas, Laura. Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008. xviii + 379 pp.

Translating Empire offers readers an indepth analysis of the world and writing of José Martí. In Lomas’s hands we see Martí as neither predominantly a Cuban patriot nor a Latino migrant in New York, but rather as a complex, multifaceted figure whose origins, experiences, and life circumstances inform a series of literary translations that emerge synthetically out of his multiple subject positions. Lomas rereads Martí’s journalism and related writings in relation to the cultural and political climate of the late-nineteenth-century US Translating Empire is less interested in illustrating Martí’s uptake of major US literary figures like Walt Whitman or Ralph Waldo Emerson than in tracing the ways in which his various literary [End Page 582] engagements with their writing and ideas stage strategic “translations” of burgeoning US imperialism for his readers. Translating Empire is carefully researched and contains astute readings of Martí’s writing. Within its pages, a more complex Martí emerges than scholars have generally recognized.

Lomas utilizes a concept developed by Silviano Santiago—the idea of the “space in between”—in order to explicate how Martí represented the disjunctive experiences of his life as deportee, political prisoner, and migrant in an emergent empire. Creating this space in between in his commentaries and in his translations of US literature and culture became, Lomas argues, the real work of translation for Martí. One of the most valuable aspects of this study is its keen attention to translation as a complex and nuanced process not only of converting words and ideas from one language into another, but of commenting and editorializing on those concepts for audiences who often see from the margins rather than from the center of the phenomena being described. Lomas refutes other scholars’ too easy acceptance of Martí as an uncomplicated translator of Helen Hunt Jackson’s popular novel Ramona, for example, or of Whitman’s writing. Rather, she insists that Martí’s critiques are embedded within his reproductions of these texts and that these critiques, collectively, refute the persistent exclusion of nineteenth-century Latino migrant writers from the history of modernism. Once we see Martí’s translations as complex acts of literary and political creation—as “a fierce mixture of attraction, ambivalence, and critical distance” (37)—Lomas argues that “another American modernity” emerges, one that is characterized by subject matter made out of “openings, used and broken parts, and mixtures of elements” which must nonetheless perform “the work of an organized system” (47).

The five chapters comprising Translating Empire begin with a substantial chapter on the notion of the space in between, which forms the method and scaffolding for subsequent chapters. The lengthy introduction, which touches on this idea, and the significant preface, particularly when combined with the first chapter, collectively generate the sense of somewhat too much throat clearing, but subsequent chapters are worth the wait. Chapter two analyzes Martí’s contributions to the publication La América, showing how his articles express the anguish of democracy, progress, and modernization to readers who live, as Lomas eloquently writes, “between modernization’s promises and its uneven or detrimental effects” (119). Martí comes to life in this chapter: a man whose depictions of figures like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and George Bancroft at once acknowledge their contributions and critique their privilege. Filled with admiration as well as envy and frustration for the productivity of such leading figures and the privilege that enables it, the Martí of this period, as Lomas writes, “felt overwhelmed by unrealized projects and goals,” and “seemed at risk of never figuring in his country’s still half-formed literary tradition” despite his journalism (111). [End Page 583]

Subsequent chapters focus on Martí’s engagement with Emerson, Whitman, Jackson, and Buffalo Bill, among other figures. In each of these chapters, Lomas illustrates how Martí camouflages his reactions to these figures’ unwitting and at times conscious collusion in or endorsement of US imperialism. Even as he is skeptical of Emerson’s omnivorous authorial appetites, Martí finds in...


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