Gayle Rogers Recasts Langston Hughes as the Reporter-Translator of the Modern Black Experience

We’re continuing our celebration of Black History Month with this guest post by Gayle Rogers, author of Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature. In this post, he discusses complicated American author Langston Hughes’ dilemma in translating anti-Black poetry while traveling to Spain in 1937. Rogers also traces the 20th century translations and implications of the terms “Negro” and negro in Spain and the United States.

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Langston Hughes is a fixture of Black History Month: famous lines from his poems and retrospectives on his contributions to African American cultural life circulate widely around this time of year. Hughes, however, was also one of the most complicated writers of the twentieth century, and the role he now occupies as a voice of the modern black experience is one that, during his lifetime, he embraced with considerable difficulty.

The role he now occupies as a voice of the modern black experience is one that, during his lifetime, he embraced with considerable difficulty.

In a chapter titled “Negro and Negro: Translating American Blackness in the Shadows of Spanish Empire,” from my book Incomparable Empires: Modernism and the Translation of Spanish and American Literature (now available in paperback), Hughes functions as a mediator for a wide variety of currents that crossed (and clashed) in the interwar period and beyond. Hughes traveled to Spain in 1937 to write dispatches on the Spanish Civil War for the American media, with the goal of building international support for the Republican (Loyalist) cause against Franco’s rebellion. He believed that Franco’s war on the Spanish state was apiece with one familiar to American readers: “give Franco a hood and he would be a member of the Ku Klux Klan,” Hughes wrote. And as he would with Federico García Lorca’s work, Hughes translated poetry by Spanish Republican writers—but here, he ran into a problem. Their poetry, he discovered, drew on tropes of demonic, nefarious blackness to characterize Franco’s troops; “Go back to Africa, Moor,” exclaimed one poem. Franco had recruited Berber Moroccans for his cause—but of course, they themselves did not identify as “black” or “Negro,” and by most taxonomies of that day, they were actually considered white, closer to Mediterranean Europeans than to Sub-Saharan Africans.  What was Hughes to do? Translate racist poetry that undermined his own vision of commonality and solidarity among peoples of the African diaspora, or ignore prominent voices of the Republican cause and risk losing international support?

What was Hughes to do? Translate racist poetry that undermined his own vision of commonality and solidarity among peoples of the African diaspora, or ignore prominent voices of the Republican cause and risk losing international support?

One way or another, whether by omission or commission, Hughes essentially had to lie. This vexing problem that he faced, however, was hardly unique; it’s one that translators and interpreters have faced for centuries by virtue of their access to source materials that other reading publics know only secondhand, in target languages. In the end, Hughes did not publish the poems; they were found years later in his archives. Indeed, analogous circumstances marked Hughes’s life: he had to keep his homosexuality closeted, he had to hide from and sometimes deny his ties to the communist movement, and he had to see his own poetry translated in ways that were not necessarily his ideals.

he had to keep his homosexuality closeted, he had to hide from and sometimes deny his ties to the communist movement, and he had to see his own poetry translated in ways that were not necessarily his ideals.

This particular episode in global black literary history hangs on the broader question that forms the context for Hughes’s work: what happened when the Spanish word negro, which by the early twentieth century did not function as a primary category of racial identification, returned to Spain in the 1920s and 1930s as “Negro,” the term that black Americans had come to embrace as the cultural productions of the New Negro movement went global? Harlem was “in vogue,” as the phrase goes, in Spain in the 1930s. “Negro”—the term that many African Americans sought to elevate in the early twentieth century—is a peculiar case of a word that, on its face, looks like it doesn’t have to be translated back into Spanish. But once it is, it signals an entire new worldview that was both intriguing and foreign to Spanish readers. In this case, as in many others across this chapter, both the word “Negro/negro” and the concept of blackness made complex returns to Spain at precisely the moment when an excitement about black diasporic (especially African American and Caribbean) cultures intersected with the racially charged politics of a civil war.

Recent celebrations of Black History Month have emphasized the variety of black identifications and experiences. Hughes found himself struggling to navigate such difference—to find common markers of identity and culture without erasing difference. In this work, and throughout his life, he was a figure of immense confidence and immense doubt. This chapter attempts to replot his work as a translator—for which he is not often recognized—as a means to understand why he did not, and most likely could not, resolve the particular problem that he faced in Spain. He made a compromise between silence and translation that crystallizes a dynamic that runs across nearly all of his works.

He made a compromise between silence and translation that crystallizes a dynamic that runs across nearly all of his works.

As Black History Month continues to incorporate more voices, more histories, and more international networks, we might remember Hughes less as the poet of an assumed authentic African American people and more as the reporter-translator caught between his own visions of blackness and those of the readers who looked to him.

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