- Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature by Gayle Rogers
Incomparable Empires is premised on the fact that the cross-pollination of ideas across national and cultural borders involves translation and multilingual exchanges. Returning to a pivotal historical moment—the Spanish–American War of 1898 and its aftermath—author Gayle Rogers reopens conversations about the relationship between nationalism, modernism, and empire among writers from the fallen empire of Spain and the rising superpower of the United States. In today’s militantly mono-linguistic society (in the United States), this is a refreshing reminder that translation is messy and difficult, dependent on the linguistic abilities of the actors involved as well as their intentions, beliefs, and convictions; translation is a fundamental element of intercultural communication with real consequences for intellectual life. Rogers compellingly argues for an understanding of the modernist canon on both sides of the Atlantic that resists the monolingual, nativist tendencies that came to dominate both US and Spanish studies in the twentieth century. Incomparable Empires shows how modernism thrived on literary inspiration and creative translation that can undermine or bolster discourses of Empire. [End Page e-24]
The first part of the book, “Modernism’s American Hispanists,” includes two chapters: one centered on Ezra Pound and the other on John Dos Passos, both of whom traveled to Spain and found inspiration in the multicultural and ideologically impassioned society they encountered there. Rogers deftly shifts between authoritative contextualization of these authors as human actors in a dynamic literary landscape and astute close readings of their writing, with an emphasis on their translations of Spanish literature. His analysis of Pound’s translation of El poema del Mío Cid and of Dos Passos’s rendering of Antonio Machado’s poetry reveals both author-translators’ concerns about the rise of the US Empire. Each would have their contemporaries heed the warnings of the rise and fall of Spain, which, in their view, fostered ultranationalist discourses that stunt intellectual growth.
These are keen insights and important reminders about how a nation’s intellectuals reinforce or critique the discourses of power of the nation-state. The problem is that throughout these chapters of insightful analysis of international dialogue about Empire, voices from the Empire’s colonies are almost entirely absent, and the writers’ flirtations with leftist politics are left undeveloped. These essays are written as if one could talk about Empire without talking about human rights, about the colonized or life in the colonies; as if Empire were merely a determinant of nationalist sentiment that should or should not be fostered for the good of national literature. And there were writers from “Spanish America” in Madrid, in Paris, and in New York struggling with the same questions. This blind spot may well be attributable to the authors in question, rather than Rogers himself, but by barely referencing Spanish American modernist writers, Rogers replicates this colonial and colonizing move of the texts and authors he studies.
The second section, “Spain’s American Translations,” brings together Spanish writers—in particular Juan Ramón Jiménez and Miguel de Unamuno—who do engage Spanish/Latin American writers more explicitly. Jiménez, who as a young poet was inspired by Nicaraguan Rubén Darío (generally considered the father of Hispanic modernismo) and worked with him to champion modernismo in Spain, later goes to New York and has all sorts of revelations about language, translation, and living between languages and nations. Rogers offers a wonderful reading of Jiménez’s broad concept of “modernism/o”; indeed he claims translator’s liberty to coin this disjointed word to signal Jiménez’s broad, transnational, translational concept of modernism that drew on parallels and points of contact between European, US, and Spanish American modernism(o)s. By bringing Dario into the conversation, Rogers is finally able to address a little more substantially the power relations at play here, including the difficulty that Europeans and [End Page e-25] US Americans have in witnessing innovation coming...