Black Translation: Langston Hughes, Literary Internationalism, and the Fomentation of Black Radicalism
Robin D. G. Kelley
Up to my neck in work as usual, having translated some thirty Mexican and Cuban short stories this last month to make an anthology. . . . I think you’ll like my Mexican-Cuban stories. They are swell. Lots of Indian and Negro characters. Almost all the authors in these countries are left. And some are ever lefter than left. ~Letter from Langston Hughes to Matt and Nebby Lou Crawford, May 20, 1935
In 1937, Langston Hughes traveled to Spain as a journalist to cover the dramatic story of Republican Spain fighting desperately to defend itself from the fascist assault led by General Francisco Franco. What caught Hughes’s attention were the Black men from the U.S., the Caribbean and Africa who joined the international brigades to defend Spain, and Franco’s use of North African troops (the “Moors”) to attack the Republic in the name of defending Christian civilization from communism. Hughes’s time in Spain inspired a litany of poems, including "Air Raid: Barcelona," "Moonlight in Valencia: Civil War," "Spanish Folk Songs of The War," and "Madrid, 1937," and several powerful essays documenting his experiences and those of the Black brigadistas. In one article for the Baltimore Afro-American, he wrote: "I knew that Spain once belonged to the Moors, a colored people ranging from light dark to dark white. Now the Moors have come again to Spain with the fascist armies as cannon fodder for Franco. But on the loyalist side, there are many Negroes of various nationalities in the International Brigades. I want to write about both Moors and Negroes." In fact, he had planned to gather his essays in a book bearing the title "Negroes in Spain," that was to include a concluding section on the "World Meaning of Spanish Struggle." The book never saw the light of day.
I’ve always understood this moment as Hughes doing what he often did during his “radical” period: finding Black diasporan fellowship along the red path of internationalism—or in this particular instance, across the fault lines of radical internationalism. Everywhere Hughes went, he sought out and found our folk, painting powerful word portraits that evoke familiarity and demand solidarity. And Hughes’s notion of “the folk” was expansive, drawing the Shanghai foundry worker, the Russian factory, the Irish immigrant into its warm, revolutionary embrace.
But along comes Ryan Kernan’s remarkable book, Langston Hughes: Poet-Translator and Black Radical Internationalist, and suddenly Hughes’s Spanish encounter, the nature of his internationalism, the strident radicalism of his poetry and prose, take on new meaning and greater depth. By examining Hughes’s pioneering work as a translator of radical literature from around the world, Kernan forces us to reconsider the origins and sources of what critics, fans, and detractors alike identify as his left turn. For Kernan, translation is more than a window into the politics of diaspora and identity; it functioned as both an avenue and a catalyst for Langston Hughes’s politics. Hughes’s early translations of the poetry of Nicolás Guillén, Regino Pedroso, Jacques Roumain, Frederico Garcia Lorca, and many others, reveal the formation of a radical critique coming from all parts of the world. Discovering and translating such powerful depictions proletarian life inspired visions of revolution in the cadences of working people who till the soil and sweat in factories and risk life and limb extracting coal, copper, gold, iron ore from deep underground. It is no accident that Hughes’s traveling companion to the Spanish battlefront was the great Black Cuban bard, Nicolás Guillén.
As Kernan deftly demonstrates, proletarian poetics was not Langston’s miscalculation or an unfortunate detour of by naïve and overly romantic American literati, but a world-wide movement. He is not uncritical of Hughes, whose autobiographical accounts are inconsistent, at best, exacerbated by later efforts to bury his tracks in a desperate act of survival in the face of McCarthyism. But by following his engagement with the world through translation, Kernan not only demonstrates exactly how Hughes’s poetry was transformed by these sundry transnational encounters but situates him at the very center of a world-wide movement. Indeed, as scholars seeking to “decenter” cultural and political movements by locating new loci of Black activity (e.g., shifting from Harlem to Paris, Mexico City, Dar es Salaam, Cairo, Accra, etc.) and new vectors of collective self-fashioning through migration and settlement, Kernan shows us how Hughes’s commitment to translation was responsible for constructing so many virtual metropoles of radical imagination.
Translation in this context is more akin to collaborative composition, for Kernan reveals the co-constitutive character of these works when he insists that Hughes’s early radical poetry ought to be read in chorus with his first translations of Nicolás Guillén and Regino Pedroso. The possibility of world-making, of producing a new collective sensibility that could free humanity marked a radical break from the aesthetic imperative of the New Negro Movement to, in Kernan’s words, “demonstrate his common humanity by producing works of art whose beauty and sophistication were on a par with that of European and white USAmerican cultural production.” For Hughes, what held this diverse and vibrant humanity in common was the shared experience of oppression, exploitation, and struggle. He identified with the multitude, especially those of a darker hue, who struggled to make a life for themselves and a movement for each other, in spite of differences in language, culture, and nationality. They had nothing to prove, only a world to gain.
And for those of us still here, living on a much smaller and more vulnerable planet, we too have a world to gain—and to save. That said, Langston Hughes: Poet-Translator and Black Radical Internationalist, is a work of literary and cultural history but also a work for our time. With both eloquence and urgency, Ryan Kernan reminds us that language is no barrier to a liberatory future, but rather it is the path to make our world anew.
About Black Translation:
My manuscript Black Translation: Langston Hughes, Literary Internationalism, and the Fomentation of Black Radicalism is a substantial revision of my doctoral work. I argue that translation not only offers a new and fruitful perspective from which to interpret Hughes's oeuvre, but also draws into relief the seminal importance of his literary production in translation to the poesia negra movement in Latin America and to the formation and evolution of négritude poetry and poetics across the African Diaspora. The work of Hughes and his translators constitutes a stream of literary interventions intended to facilitate the agendas of multiple, oft times competing, internationalisms which placed a high value on the role of literary exchange in fostering rapprochement between communities that lacked a common language but shared a common cause. By providing an expansive account of these literary exchanges, my book contributes to the larger projects of mapping the diversity of inter-American literary traffic and tracing the origins and practice of 20th century Black radicalisms worldwide.
Black Translation is a case study, a new mode of inquiry into the study of translation, and a literary and cultural genealogy. Each of the book's seven chapters takes up a point of entanglement between Hughes's composition of radical poetry, his thinking about black radical internationalism, and the influential work of his translators in light of the historical events that shaped each endeavor. In attending to these overlaps and cross-pollinations, I chart how Hughes's views on translation evolved--from one that equated the 'translation' of black folk-art with the composition of authentic black poetry to one that saw the practice as an ethical means to foment a heterogeneous brand of black radical internationalism. The book's conceptual originality arises, in turn, not only from its exploration of how Hughes's evolving thoughts about and techniques of translation led him to revise his thinking about black collectivity (and vice versa), but also from its examination of how Hughes's ideas of the ethics of black internationalism fundamentally shaped his work as a poet. The book’s investigation of these points of entanglement also make it possible to ‘fill in the holes’ of their component parts—to construct arguments that account for the transformations that each underwent, and that explore how literary black radicalism shaped the political discourses of black internationalism. In short, the book uses extant histories to explore the literary translations, and uncovers histories of pan-Africanist self-becoming via the close scrutiny of translation decisions made by Hughes and his translators.
Black Translation traces the genesis and growth of Hughes’s radical repertoire by following him from Harlem to Havana in 1930 and 1931, from Moscow in 1933 to Madrid in 1937, and, finally, from Dakar to Harlem in 1966. Relying heretofore unearthed archival evidence and the close scrutiny of Hughes’s translations and original verse, I demonstrate how his engagements with the poetry and poetics of Regino Pedroso, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Federico García Lorca profoundly affected the verse he wrote in the wake of each endeavor, affording him the literary capital to write poems intended both to propagate the worldwide spread of communism and to champion black radicalism in a manner that troubled iterations of racial essentialism and conceptions of the African Diaspora as homogenous. In so doing, I offer an engaging leftist travel narrative that not only shows how Hughes’s adventures abroad widened the scope of his poetic and political horizons, but also provide insight into an exciting and pivotal epoch in the African American experience.
Black Translation employs a multidisciplinary approach—one that draws upon modes of historical and sociological analysis, cultural criticism, traditional strategies of literary interpretation, and contemporary theories of translation—to elucidate the centrality of the work of Hughes and his translators to the fomentation of twentieth century literary black radicalism. My arguments draw upon recent developments in the fields of Translation Studies, Literature of the African Diaspora, and Literature of the Americas exemplified in works written by Efraín Kristal, Suzanne Jill Levine, Brent Hayes Edwards, Paul Gilroy, and Kirsten Silva Gruesz. They reflect a commitment to teasing out the processes of reading, writing, and re-writing that are central to Hughes’s practice of translation and the work of his translators. At the same time, they underscore the extent to which these processes and practices are embedded in the evolving ideological and historical contexts that surround literary production in the Hispanic, Francophone, and African American literary worlds.
The novel angles of vision provided by Black Translation correspondingly break new ground in the fields mentioned above by providing the first comparative study of the translation, dissemination, and reception of a single author’s oeuvre in multiple linguistic and literary arenas. I draw upon extensive archival material collected from Yale’s Beinecke Library, N.Y.P.L.’s Schomburg Library, the Bibliothèque National de France, and the Biblioteca Nacional de Chile to make arguments about translations not only in relation to their originals, but also in light of literary and political practices and institutions—from the impact of correspondence between authors, translators and publishers on the adumbration of the African Diaspora, to the effect that heretofore uncovered translations, manuscripts, drafts and abortive literary efforts have on our understanding of Hughes and his verse. My book constructs a literary genealogy of black left internationalism as told through the career of Langston Hughes.