African American Review
September 22, 2007
Author: Patterson, Anita
Translation, in recent years, seems to have suffered a decline in its reputation within scholarly debates. Once revered as a mark of high intellect and transcultural communication, it is now being considered in light of its broader, far more negative ramifications as a cultural practice burdened by the fraught legacy of ethnocentric nationalism and empire (Venuti 61). Recent work on translation by Susan Bassnett and others has shown that this domesticating standard can destroy the cherished uniqueness of local cultures, reminding us that nationalist pressures towards linguistic conformity in the United States, the Caribbean, and elsewhere have threatened to sap emergent writers of their individuality. At the same time, however, we should recognize the many ways that translation has also proven to be historically essential for the development of modern and modernist poetics; and that as a boundary-crossing encounter, translation is, at best, a stimulus to refreshing, new influences. A successful translation need not be an exact reproduction, or equivalence, of the text being translated; it may also involve a reinterpretation, or even invention, of other literatures for the translator’s own society and generation.
Although comparatively little has been published about Langston Hughes’s practice of translation, it is clear that it played an important role in his formation as a poet, and leads us to some surprising findings about the constellation and character of his influences. Looking closely at Hughes’s forgotten translations of poems in French–one by Louis Aragon, three by Leon Damas, and two by Jacques Roumain–we enhance our understanding of Hughes’s transnationalism, his contribution to the rise of Pan-Africanism, the volatile interplay of influences among writers of the Harlem Renaissance and other avant-garde movements in the US, Europe, and the Caribbean, and Hughes’s own emerging self-conception as a New World poet.
Our first selection, Hughes’s translation of a revolutionary poem, “Magnitogorsk,” by Aragon, raises the possibility that Hughes was influenced by French Surrealism as well as by the late Symbolist, Guadeloupean Creole poet St.-John Perse, a possibility that was once remarked by Leopold Sedar Senghor, one of the principal theorists of Negritude (Gates x). If through the practice of translation, Hughes absorbed the influence of Aragon, he would also have taken on the influences of Surrealists as well as Perse. Aragon was, after all, one of the founding members of the Surrealist group and, like other Surrealists, his poetics derived, in part, from the influence of Perse’s Eloges (“Car c’est de l’homme” 576-77). In 1933, Hughes first met Aragon and his wife in Moscow and, hearing Aragon recite his revolutionary poem “Magnitogorsk,” Hughes was inspired to translate it. Litterature internationale published the translation, Hughes’s first from French, later that year.
Aragon’s connections with Surrealism were politically fraught by the time he wrote “Magnitogorsk.” It is telling and apt that Hughes selects for translation a poem published after Aragon’s break with the Surrealist movement: Aragon joined the French Communist Party in 1927, and turned increasingly toward Marxism and socialist realism shortly after a trip to the USSR in 1931. Still, to say that Hughes’s stylistic relationship to Aragon’s Surrealism is indirect does not mean we should deny its historical role in the development of his transnational modernism. The 1930s were a time when Hughes, Aragon, and other avant-gardists were forging ties across national, racial, and cultural boundaries in a common front against the growing threat of Fascism. Furthermore, there are many reasons, in addition to the eloquent simplicity of Aragon’s style, that Hughes would have been drawn to this poem. The substitution of human for divine agency in the story of creation, Aragon’s reference to the conquest of masters, his ardent celebration of people who till the earth, and his poem’s figurative questioning of racial distinctions are all in keeping with Hughes’s worldview. Perhaps most important, Aragon’s poem shows the influence of Baudelaire, a poet to whom Hughes was, like Aragon, profoundly indebted. Baudelaire wrote numerous poems about love and dusk or “les tenebres,” as a trope that suggests the erotic beauty of blackness; and, as Hughes himself observed in a January 1926 essay published in Crisis, the image of dusk purpling to night outside his windows in Montmartre summoned up associations with Baudelaire (Essays 31).
Although Hughes’s translation is literal, for the most part, he has also made meaningful formal changes by selecting and reordering Aragon’s original. Aragon’s poem is composed of eight sections, but Hughes selected only two of these for translation. In Aragon, these two parts are titled, respectively, “Hymne” and “1930,” but in Hughes the lyrics are untitled and merged–and this conjoined form has the effect of drawing our attention to Aragon’s elaboration, and careful revision, of a quintessentially Baudelairean trope: the metaphor of blackness, the color of dusk in the village, as an evocation, not of race, but rather of the hope, ability to survive, and latent power of downtrodden working people.
Hughes’s affinities with modern French poetics are also evident in the next selections, his translation of three lyrics by Leon-Gontran Damas, a poet from French Guyana and another founding figure in the Negritude movement. Damas had close ties with Surrealism, in part through his friendship with Etienne Lero, whom he first met while they were together at the Lycee in Martinique, and who founded the Caribbean Surrealist Group at the Sorbonne. Brent Edwards and Michel Fabre have rigorously studied the rise of black internationalism in Paris during the 1920s, and Daniel Racine has described how Damas joined Hughes, Alain Locke, Jean Toomer, Countee Cullen, Claude McKay and other figures from the Harlem Renaissance in a weekly salon hosted by Pauline Nardal and her sisters in a suburb of Paris (Racine 3; Fabre 63-75; Edwards 69-185).
Hughes’s translations–“Really I Know,” “Trite Without Doubt,” and “She Left Herself One Evening”–were collected in The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949, an anthology that Hughes co-edited in 1949 with Area Bontemps. According to Alfred Guillaume, what makes these selections from Damas particularly difficult to render in English is that Damas’s lyric imagery is too idiosyncratic and clouded by personal emotion; as a result, he contends, Hughes’s renderings “bear little resemblance to the original” (5). But this assessment is a misleading overstatement since the first translation, “Really I Know,” departs only slightly from the exact wording of the original. Furthermore, when we consider this translation alongside the second selection, “Trite without Doubt,” we can see how Hughes’s English versions disclose and clarify–through the lens of Hughes’s own language and sensibility–an insight into his condition as a New World poet, which he shared with Damas. For both Hughes and Damas, the degradation and inexorable loss of ritual continuity in the New World threatened to deprive poetry, as well as religion and love, of any ritual significance or linguistic power. Taken together, the first two selections from Damas skeptically (and humorously) question the possibility of certain knowledge–knowledge that god or love exists, for example; or whether we can ever arrive at certain knowledge of another gender or an exotic culture. Both poems question whether passion and adoration have any place in the modern world. To questions such as these, the third and final selection–“She Left Herself One Evening”–provides a definitive answer. There may be no space or possibility of rituals such as courtship, but, despite or even in light of this there will most certainly be drama. Guillaume is right to say that Hughes’s translations should be considered poems that stand on their own artistic merits–but we should note how, taken together, the three poems Hughes selected for translation could be read as a unified lyric sequence.
The last two examples are Hughes’s translations of “When the Tom-Tom Beats” and “Guinea,” by Jacques Roumain, a Haitian poet and novelist whom Hughes first met briefly in 1931, and a close associate of Damas, whom Roumain met while he was at the Institute of Ethnology in Paris. Critics such as Naomi Garrett, Martha Cobb, and Carolyn Fowler have pointed out stylistic similarities between Hughes and Roumain, but we have yet to ascertain the full extent and impact of Hughes’s work, not just on Roumain but, more generally, in Francophone Caribbean regions. The points of intersection among Roumain, the Surrealist group, and Perse and his circle are numerous and varied. We know, for example, that Roumain was associated with Commune, a revue whose editorial staff included Aragon, a mutual friend of Roumain and Hughes who was instrumental in the publication of Roumain’s Gouverneurs de la rosee.
Roumain’s ardent anti-US-colonial nationalism and committed Marxist politics made his connections with Surrealism even less straightforward than those of Aragon. Gouverneurs de la rosee, the other, well-known Surrealist work that Hughes translated with Mercer Cook in 1945 and published two years later, and that was collected in 2003 in a volume of Hughes’s translations edited by Dellita Martin-Ogunsola, is virtually an anthem of Caribbean left-nationalism. In 1938, seven years after his first meeting with Hughes, Roumain would firmly reject the modernist ideal of la poesie pure, calling it an escapist “fanaticism for pure sound” that tragically isolated the poet from the people (Roumain 772-23). But there is overwhelming historical evidence that, early on in his career, Roumain creatively adapted lyric practices established by Aragon, Tzara, Breton, Apollinaire, and other avant-garde contemporaries in France. It is a testament to Roumain’s powers as a poet that he resisted assimilation and arrived at a unique, and singularly local, politically engaged lyric standpoint, while drawing on modernist forms that worked, in remarkably various and unique ways, to evoke the experience of transnational mobility and diasporic estrangement.
Readers will be less familiar with Hughes’s translations of Roumain’s poems, which were first published in a 1942 Anthology of Contemporary Latin-American Poetry, edited by Dudley Fitts, and subsequently reprinted in The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1949. One likely reason Hughes singled out these poems for translation is that both show, in very different ways, Roumain’s stylistic debt to Hughes’s transnational poetics. In “When the Tom-Tom Beats,” for example, Roumain conjoins elements from Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” with the revisionist primitivism of Hughes’s “Danse Africaine,” a poem that first appeared in Crisis in August 1922, and that Rene Piquion translated into French for publication in a Haitian revue, La Releve, 11 years later. Roumain’s beating tom-tom is figuratively compared to the panting breast of a young black girl, recalling Hughes’s “night-veiled girl” who dances to the tom-tom’s low, slow rhythm; and the speaker’s assertions about knowledge of rivers, the river’s capacity to restore continuities with remote African ancestors and cultural practices, and the river’s reflection of soul, all bring to mind Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” In “Guinea,” Roumain refers to the Haitian myth of the sub-Atlantic passage to Africa, a passage that, in Hughes’s sensitive rendering, also mythologizes an exilic New World poet’s experience he shared with Hughes, namely, “the long road to Guinea,” a search for cultural origins and an ancestral African resting place that is, like death, yearned for as a home that is waiting “there,” around the very next bend of the river.
The bonds of solidarity among Hughes, Roumain, and Damas, and the cultural politics that Hughes’s acts of translation entailed, are Pan-Africanist, insofar as all three poets ardently rejected the perceptual and political constraints associated with ethnocentric nationalism and empire. But Hughes’s vast network of connections with the European avant-gardes and his lifelong concern with the poetic consequences of translation also bring to light suggestive parallels among Hughes and his high modernist contemporaries. Like Eliot and Pound, Hughes was influenced by modern French poetry at a formative, early phase of his career; like them, he was committed to transnationalism and understood the necessity of translation as a means of creating poetry that would acknowledge, and preserve, cherished, distinctively local traditions. Hughes spent a lifetime fostering intercultural dialogue, despite his knowledge of the limitations that the very nature and conditions of any given translation impose. We have him to thank for this enrichment of our self-awareness, both as translators and critics.
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–. “Magnitogorsk.” Hourra l’Oural. Paris: Denoel et Steele, 1934.
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Anita Patterson is Associate Professor of English and Director of the American Studies program at Boston University. She is author of From Emerson to King: Democracy, Race, and the Politics of Protest (Oxford UP, 1997) and Race, American Literature and Transnational Modernisms (Cambridge UP, 2008), and is currently writing a book about modernist Japonisme in the Americas.
Patterson, Anita. “”And bid him translate: Langston Hughes’s translations of poetry from French,” by Alfred Guillaume.(Forgotten Manuscripts)(Critical essay).” African American Review. African American Review. 2007. HighBeam Research. 9 Feb. 2011