In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Reviewed by:
  • Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature by Gayle Rogers
  • Heather Cleary

Translation, Modernism, Transatlantic Exchange, Empire, Spanish-American War

gayle rogers. Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature. Columbia UP, 2016, 312 pp.

Gayle Rogers’s Incomparable Empires centers on a premise that is as undeniable as it is under-theorized: that translation is “a constitutive, rather than a constituent, element of literary histories” (4). Situating diverse translational practices at the center of literary modernism, both formally and conceptually, Rogers shifts the frame of Anglophone modernism to reveal the network of mutual influence that shaped literary production in Spain and the United States in the early decades of the twentieth century. A key aspect of this primacy of translation—and one of the book’s most important contributions—is Rogers’s emphasis on one of its more complex aspects: linguistic and cultural incommensurability, which are presented in various forms throughout. The concept of incommensurability is the means by which Rogers joins the aesthetic to the political: despite years spent vilifying one another during and after the SpanishAmerican War, one thing these two nations did have in common, he notes, “was a conviction of incomparability—a belief that their unique natures put them beyond comparison” (15). It also grounds Incomparable Empires methodologically, as Rogers states that his aim is to highlight “the effects of the interlingual tensions and conflicts, rather than fluidity and translatability” (9).

Presented not as the failure or antithesis of translation but rather as an integral facet of the practice, incommensurability operates in Rogers’s study not only on the interlingual and intercultural levels outlined above but also on the intracultural level of local heterogeneity and contradiction—a point made early [End Page 133] through Gertrude Stein’s assertion, which serves as the epigraph to the book’s introduction, that “Spaniards know there is no agreement, neither the landscape with the houses, neither the round with the cube.” According to Stein, it is precisely this sensitivity to incongruity that Spain and America have in common, and it is the reason “why Spain discovered America and America Spain.” Folding this notion back into the political, Rogers argues that translation, though it is most often discussed as reinforcing or subverting imperial power, serves as a fulcrum with which the authors of his corpus pry open from within “familiar imperial histories”—the triumphant account of US ascendancy and the deterministic tale of Spanish decline. These authors, he suggests, sought to mobilize translation as way to “make literature reorganize and transform, rather than simply reflect or express, political history” (3). Embracing cultural and linguistic specificity thus opens a space for counter-narratives at the same time as it allows the writers of Rogers’s corpus to press beyond generally accepted translational practices into the daring—if not actually all that novel—reaches of creative (mis-) translation.

Each of the six chapters that make up Incomparable Empires centers on a prominent figure of the modernist canon who “constantly blurred the conventional lines between translation and poeisis, between credentialing [himself] as an authority and fashioning a signature authorial style” (2). The book’s first section, “American Modernism’s Hispanists,” focuses on the translational writings of Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos. In his chapter on the former, Rogers reimagines Pound’s engagement of the Poema del Cid as part of the poet’s sustained project of literary denaturalization, his search for a new mode of comparative literature, and his engagement of a kindred spirit in displacement and errancy. The violence depicted in the Poema del Cid thus “captures the fragmenting, distorting violence of translation and poeticization that Pound enacts” (66). Dos Passos had, by this account, a similar affinity for fragmentation: in this case, however, the writer was centrally preoccupied with shattering the monolith of a US novel spreading across the globe in lockstep with US empire. As Rogers points out, the writer provocatively asserted that the collapse of Spain’s empire had a salutary effect on its literary production, and that such a decline would be a positive development for US fiction. Indeed, much of Spain’s appeal for Dos...