Book Review: Incomparable Empires

Vickie Masséus, St. John’s University

Gayle Rogers, Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016)

Published in Jessica Berman and Paul Saint-Amour’s Modernist Latitudes series at Columbia University Press, Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (2016) by Gayle Rogers (University of Pittsburgh) contributes to recent efforts in Anglo-American modernist studies to challenge the field’s traditionally monolingual Anglophone scholarly model. While staking a comparative, inter-imperial and global understanding of modernism, Incomparable Empires takes stock of the cross-linguistic transfers on both United States and Spanish literature emerging in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War of 1898. The book tracks and argues for translation as a ‘constitutive, rather than a constituent element’ (p. 4) of the creative practices of key modernist figures and works during the slow collapse of Spain’s empire alongside the United States’ rise as an imperial power. Incomparable Empires exhibits how a multilingual, global and comparative approach to key figures in modernism—such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Juan Ramon Jimenez, John Dos Passos, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, etc.—not only unites them vis a vis the multifaceted, transnational and cross-linguistic complexity of their poetics, but also demonstrates how the literary practices of modernism, beyond selective attention to form, undergird competing discourses of empire and nationalism on a shifting world stage. Gayle Rogers offers a masterfully skilful and compelling analysis that affirms modernism as ‘the great age of translations’ (p. 4) which ‘aimed to make literature reorganise and transform […] political history’ (p. 3) during the transnational and cross-linguistic engagements between key modernist figures in Spain and the United States concurrently during the early twentieth century.

The book comprises of three parts (‘American Modernism’s Hispanists,’ ‘Spain’s American Translations,’ and ‘New Genealogies’), each part consist of two chapters that provide incisive historical overviews and expert literary analyses of the key modernist figures and works in question. Each chapter grounds translation as an integral mode and fabric of transnational modernist poetics and techniques of United States and Spanish literature during the early twentieth century. The introduction chapter offers a historical overview that lays the groundwork for rethinking modernist literary history in global terms and across disciplines. Chapters 1 and 2 of part I focus on Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos respectively to explore how the rise and fall of Spain alongside the rise of the United States as an imperial superpower framed the authors’ literary and artistic endeavours as global modernists. Through considerable historical and deft textual analyses, the chapters position Ezra Pound and John Dos Passos as dynamic and transnational modernist translators reacting to and participating in the discourses around the shifting political landscapes of the United States and Spain in the aftermath of 1898.  In chapter 1 of part I, Rogers elegantly traces the translational modernist poetics in Pound’s Ur-Cantos and in selections of his Cantos from his attraction to Spanish literature but explores those engagements through the author’s critical views of empire and literature. Part II continues to develop the themes from part I by turning to Spanish writers, specifically Juan Ramón Jiménez and Miguel de Unamuno, for their own translational practices and poetics as global modernists who complicate modernist literary history and modernism’s relationship to empire and nationalism. In chapter 4 of part II, Rogers makes a strong, though not entirely convincing, claim for Unamuno as a figure who complicates modernist historiography through his complex and unique ‘registers of translation’ (141) rooted in Unamuno’s critical perspective of translational authenticity and his particular brand of linguistic nativism. The chapter relied heavily on Unamuno’s fascination with Whitman to make an argument for his devotion to Anglophone literature.

The third part, ‘New Genealogies,’ provides Rogers’ most compelling investigation as it explores translations of race and blackness in the 1920s and 30’s through the modernist poetics of Langston Hughes and Richard Wright, and investigates Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls for its deliberate mode of translational poetics and style through singular uses of translations as a formal artifice. In chapter 5 of ‘New Genealogies,’ Rogers carefully traces Negro/ Negro culturally, politically and literarily from Spain, to the United States, and back to Spain to trace the ways in which blackness gets translated and complicated in Spain, the United States and Latin America as a result of the fall of Spain and the concurrent rise of the United States as an imperial power with global reach. In exploring what “negro” means again, and differently, in the works of Langston Hughes, Federico García Lorca, Richard Wright and others, the chapter investigates the political, literary and cultural implications of translating blackness from the perspective of both sides during this particular historical moment. Although chapter 5 offers timely and indispensable contributions to conversations that are vested in rethinking modernism and its poetics in terms of its transnational and racial character, further inquiry into other black modernist figures such as Claude Mckay would have strengthened Rogers’ discussions. Additionally, a deeper exploration of the murkiness of translation as poeticization framed by literary formation in the context of empire and nationalism would have grounded the discussions of race and modernism in chapter 5 more effectively.

Nevertheless, with a concluding thorough analysis of Ilan Stavan’s translation of Don Quixote for its defamiliarising implications through translational poetics, Gayle Rogers affords us a fascinating, and at times frustrating, comparative study of Spanish and US literature in the early twentieth century with this book. He expertly combines textual analyses and historical knowledge to successfully argue that modernism was shaped by a period of profound cross-linguistic transfers and shifting imperial conditions between the United States and Spain. His intricate but accessible close-readings and historical framings invite readers to explore inter-imperiality and modernism through the fabric of translation, instead of simply form, when wrestling with the historical conditions of empire and nationalism. More importantly, Rogers’ Incomparable Empires offers readers a new model for rethinking the relationship between modernist aesthetics and empire beyond form, a new methodology for comparative studies of Anglo-American and Hispanic relationships in the early twentieth century, and a fresh exploration of modernism and modernist literary history in transnational, racial and global contexts.

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