- Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature by Gayle Rogers
Rubén Darío's poem "A Roosevelt" (1904) voiced the fears of Latin Americans confronting the threatening giant to the north in the wake of the 1898 Spanish-American [End Page 209] War. Writing from Spain, Darío painted a familiar picture: Theodore Roosevelt, former colonel of the Rough Riders who defeated the Spanish army in Cuba and now President of the United States, charging against his southern neighbors, grabbing their territory, and threatening their cultural and linguistic heritage. Against Roosevelt's strength and energy Darío counterpoises the spiritual richness of Spanish America, rooted in the indigenous past and the metropolis's Latin character. This was the fight between naked materialism and fervent mysticism; between the waxing new superpower and waning old Spain and the ex-colonies; between Robinson Crusoe and Don Quixote. And yet Darío addresses Roosevelt with the "verso de Walt Whitman," thus casting his text as a translation of an imagined North American original. This detail, which distorts neat oppositions between competing empires and their cultures, remains baffling unless we abandon narrow conceptions of literary history.
Gayle Rogers offers an original alternative in his superb comparative study of post-1898 Spanish and US literature. Dispensing with familiar postcolonial narratives, he examines the intersection of two languages often deemed antithetical to uncover a fascinating literary map where modernism emerges as the result of translation. Understood here as a multifaceted practice ranging from multilingualism on the printed page to punning to cross-linguistic transfer, translation helps Rogers thread his book's main achievements: first, offering a fresh appraisal of modernist aesthetics in a transnational context shaped by imperialism; second, illuminating in a definitive manner the ambiguous relationship between Anglo-American modernism and Hispanic modernismo; and third, prompting a rethinking and rapprochement of the fields of Hispanic and American Studies.
Deftly combining textual analysis and intellectual history, Rogers's argument unfolds in a substantial introduction and six chapters divided into three parts: "American Modernism's Hispanists," "Spain's American Translations," and "New Genealogies." The conclusion reframes the book's main points through a reading of Ilan Stavans's Spanglish translation of Cervantes's Quixote. The introduction challenges the assumption that culture and empire buoy each other up and define themselves in opposition to foreign enemies. Instead, we are invited to explore "inter-imperiality" through translation, "as opposed to looking primarily at form as an effect of historical conditions" (11). Background rather than ground, history is distorted and rewritten by the linguistic crossings sparked by the 1898 war. This approach, likely to make Marxists cringe, risks abstracting away the material motivations of literary change. But Rogers is careful to anchor his close readings in discussions of race, class, empire, and war. The goal is to reorient, not obliterate, historical narratives.
Part I discusses the engagement of Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos with Spanish literary history. Pound's forays as a professional Hispanist – he did graduate work in Spanish at the University of Pennsylvania and was fascinated with the medieval epic poem, Cantar del Mío Cid – influenced his commitment to literary cosmopolitanism. He found in the ambivalent figure of the Cid, who fought for both Christians and Moors during the Reconquest, an emblem of his own poetic voice and work as a translator, which blurred national and historical boundaries. Dos Passos also saw Spain as an aesthetic model. Where others saw decline, he saw a preindustrial [End Page 210] haven against the impoverishing cultural standards of global capitalism. The uneasy coexistence of different classes, languages, and cultures in the Iberian Peninsula inspired his meditations in Rosinante to the Road Again (1922), the poems in Pushcart at the Curb (1922), and the theme and style of his modernist masterpiece, Manhattan Transfer (1925). Dos Passos's firsthand experience of Spain's social fragmentation, Rogers suggests, manifested in the novel's jagged narrative, often seen as a signature modernist feature (104).
Part II opens with...