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American Literature 76.1 (2004) 31-58

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Margaret Fuller's American Translation

Dartmouth College

When Margaret Fuller drowned in a shipwreck off the American coast in 1850, her spirit, though finally disembodied, still haunted the imagination of her male peers. She was returning to conservative New England as a figure of both political radicalism and sexual transgression. Fuller had reported first-hand on the revolution in Rome, and there was scandalized speculation that she had conceived her son out of wedlock. Haunted by these excesses, Nathaniel Hawthorne resurrected her as the defiant, flagrantly sexual Zenobia in The Blithedale Romance (1852) and reenacted her drowning in a paradoxical attempt to "disempower . . . by fully sexualizing her."1 If Hawthorne's motive was to influence perceptions of Fuller as a woman, his intervention was complemented by Ralph Waldo Emerson's attempt to control her as a writer. After the shipwreck, Emerson sent Henry David Thoreau to comb the beach in search of "any fragments of manuscript or other property." Like Fuller's body, the manuscripts on board the ship were never recovered. But the literary loss extends to her publications and surviving manuscripts, which were disemboweled by a group of her friends.2 Their primary aim seems to have been to repatriate Fuller by erasing the central feature of her theory of a multilingual American literature: translation. Fuller had been known in her lifetime as a translator, but her literary executor, her brother Arthur Fuller, purged her books of the translations they contained, and her book-length translations passed out of print.3 At a time when increasing numbers of immigrants were coming to the United States in the wake of the European revolutions and U.S. imperial expansion was taking aggressive militaristic form, Fuller's silencing coincided with a xenophobic backlash against the foreign, [End Page 31] accompanied by an epistemological shift. Whereas Fuller had been able to define the foreign as an integral part of her American identity, such alterity was sacrificed as the logic of e pluribus gave way to an unum of national identity. With Fuller's failed physical and literary return from Europe, the United States lost its premier theorist of literary cosmopolitanism, who practiced translation as a viable social ethics.4

Fuller's desire to think of American literature as multilingual is resurging today as scholars increasingly regard the scope of American studies as transnational.5 Recent multilingual anthologies have extended our understanding of how linguistic and cultural subjectivities refract one another in the complex scenes of American literature.6 Yet translation, Fuller's chosen methodology, has been met with ambivalence. On one hand, the new anthologies depend on translations to make multilingual texts accessible to (often monolingual) readers, but they also "un-translate" texts by reprinting them in their original languages. Although translations are "helpful tools," Werner Sollors warns us that they "can also be treacherous once they become substitutes for originals."7 This anxiety over textual usurpation stems from the linguistic politics of imperial expansion. In The Poetics of Imperialism, Eric Cheyfitz defines these "treacherous" aspects of translation when he interprets the "historic relationship between translation and metaphor" through the figure of translatio from classical antiquity. Jointly, the translatio imperii and the translatio studii functioned to impose imperial domination—and the knowledge systems that enabled it—onto colonial others. Cheyfitz's definition of the "monologic politics of translation" echoes Nietzsche's claim that for the Romans, "to translate meant to conquer."8 It is no wonder, then, that translation is multilingualism's unloved stepchild: as monolingualism by other means, translation both allows and annihilates multilingualism.

Yet this tautology fails to account for a set of romantic translation theories that informs the epistemology of American multilingualism and enables its practices. For Fuller, cultural identity was not solipsistically original but intimately relational, and translation was the linguistic equivalent of that contingency. Fuller developed this alternative vision of translation in response to theoretical challenges from Emerson, whose understanding of universality she wished to question, and as an alternative to a politics of othering. Rather than [End Page 32] essentializing...