Erasing the Dividing Line: On Christian Bancroft’s “Queering Modernist Translation”

By Conor Bracken

“Translation is having a queer moment,” Christian Bancroft writes in the introduction to his monograph, Queering Modernist Translation (Routledge, 2020). The moment has been a long time coming: both fields, translation and queer studies, were thriving by the turn of the 21st century, but only over the past ten years have special issues and edited essay collections begun to emerge with some frequency to consider their intersection, and the resulting “expansive ways of imagining the relationships among languages as they relate to the identities, cultures, and societies that produce them” (1). The uninitiated may wonder, what can queer theory offer translation, as a study and practice, aside from ways of uncovering or confronting the gender biases and heteronormativity in and between languages? Much more than that, I can enthusiastically report. The conjunction of the two fields, if recent, is particularly rich and complex since both are “never finished” and are “committed to the endless proliferation of difference” (1). In fact, in Bancroft’s telling, these two are methodologies with similar goals, two arrows in the same quiver for any archer taking aim at product-oriented ontology, ideologically-manufactured consent, and the general homogenizing impulse that underlies totalitarianism, misogyny, white supremacy, and more.

We may wonder, if translation is having a queer moment now, then why is Bancroft’s monograph about modernist translation in particular? It’s a fair question, especially if we’re to understand the benefits of this conjunction as contemporary. An easy answer is that, as yet, nobody else has yet tried to see each of these three concepts/practices—queering, modernism, and translation—through one another. This would be unfair, though, as it suggests that Bancroft is trying to make hay before someone else stumbles across the unshorn field. His project is more than just opportunism or scholarly jockeying. It sets out to accomplish something much more noble, and difficult: to help us resist “drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future,” as Bancroft quotes Marx, and instead “realiz[e] the thoughts of the past” (3).

What are the “thoughts of the past” modernism had and which Bancroft seeks to fulfill through his study? For one, these thoughts were more diverse and nuanced than we are often led to believe. Bancroft seeks “[a]t the very least, […] to increase the bandwidth of Modernism beyond its caricature as an overblown period of machismo and androcentric conventions” (4). Just through his selection, Bancroft starts off well, taking Ezra Pound, H.D., and Langston Hughes—one of the most famous and polarizing; one well-known but understudied; and one not often associated with modernism and even less so with translation—as his subjects, along with two to three works in their translation (such as Cathay, Romancero Gitano by Lorca, and the first one hundred lines of The Odyssey, respectively).

The individual thoughts of these modernist practitioners emerge in more detail than perhaps the larger thoughts of the modernist movement writ large, though this is more of a structural inevitability—since the study of modernism has come to understand itself as the study of different modernisms—than a dropped stitch. The larger impression Bancroft leaves us with is that each of these poet-translators was more conscientious, innovative, and, sometimes, humble, than they have been given credit for, and this in turn throws a subtler light onto modernism: a movement that has come to be defined as one of intellectual bombast and clangor, but which gave rise to many overlooked advances towards more complex understandings of history, literature, gender performance, and representations thereof.

When it comes to Pound, we get perhaps the most problematic, bombastic, unapologetic and often gorge-raising figures of the age, if not the literary century. We also get a man whose translations “made modern poetry possible,” as the famously dyspeptic William Logan puts it. So any book about translation and modernism must take him up. That he does not overwhelm the study is a credit to Bancroft’s argumentative and curatorial powers. That he emerges, in his status as a translator, as more human, but without his faults or virulence excused, is a testament to Bancroft’s philology and precision. For instance, we learn, with the help of Timothy Billings’s critical edition of Cathay, that Pound never ‘saw through’ mistakes in Ernest Fenollosa’s transcriptions of the poems that Pound would translate as Cathay to the ‘real’ poems beneath them. Instead, Bancroft demonstrates that not only Pound but many scholars after him misunderstood the complex and thorough method Fenollosa and his many collaborators and interpreters used to carry hundreds of Chinese poems close enough to English so that Pound could then translate them indelibly into the anglophonic consciousness.

The upshot of this, aside from pricking the Poundian myth balloon and revaluing the labor that Fenollosa and his several collaborators channeled into a regimented notebook, is not just to demystify the more intricate process of translating the book. In fact, Bancroft does something more interesting, and perhaps even more risky—he notes that “Pound’s misreading/misunderstanding […] Fenollosa’s notes, along with Pound’s deficiency in Chinese ultimately offer the poet with more creative ways of producing translations” (40, emphasis mine). These translations are not failures because they did not work with a perfect understanding of the original, Bancroft says—better yet, these gaps in knowledge allow for a much more exciting range of possibilities, in the translations in Cathay, but also in the broader practice of translation, during modernism and today, as well.

This is part of what Bancroft asserts queer theory offers translation overall: new ways of understanding what success in, and therefore ontologically what, translation can be. This territory—refuting the narrowly dichotomous approach of faithful vs. free, conventional vs. experimental, and so on—is not untraveled in translation studies, but the vehicles Bancroft has chosen to till it with allow us to consider novel theoretical applications, with works that as we consider them help us to understand all three things—queer theory, modernism, and translation—afresh. It is, frankly, an achievement, and one that Bancroft manages with aplomb and thoroughness and, most impressively, consistent clarity. He shows us how Pound’s collaborative translation of Elektra (done while incarcerated at St. Elizabeth’s), in leaving lines of the original Greek untranslated, highlights not just the female agency of the text, but also disrupts what a translation can or should be expected to do. Bancroft shows us how Hughes’s translations of poetry by Nicolas Guíllen and Federico Garcia Lorca not only extended Hughes’s project of revaluing vernacular musical forms like the blues and jazz by deploying them as poetic forms, but also how translation can be an agent of creolization, a means of bringing “different cultural traditions [together] into something more fluid, something that slips through what is merely strange or familiar to force new traditions and habits of inhabiting the world” (100). And Bancroft shows us how H.D.’s translations from ancient Greek (Ion, The Odyssey, Sappho) not only serve to highlight, through subtle syntactic shifts and pronounced Imagistic whittling, the centrality of female power to that literary tradition, but also how making the translator visible “emancipat[es translations] from dualistic conceptions of translations” (140).

One leaves the monograph invigorated, in part by how innovative these past practitioners were; by how queer and translation theory open up new avenues of understanding how these modernist titans performed their work and what effect it has had; and by liberating contemporary translators with new examples of not having to be perfect, authoritative, fluent, or singular, and, instead, ready to proliferate new versions, engaging in the kind of work that contemporary translators and thinkers like Johannes Göransson and Don Mee Choi call us to: to expand difference, proliferate versions, refute capitalist hegemony and neocolonialism.

In a recent review of another book incorporating queer theory, Andrea Long Chu reminds us that “scholars are workers, and […] have an inalienable right to mediocrity.” Bancroft never exercises this right. In expert prose, he shifts focus from broad historical context to individual word choice to crystalline conclusions, as he does, for instance, when talking about a moment of disagreement between Hughes and his co-translator, Ben Carruthers, about how to translate “negro,” the Spanish word for black. Carruthers opts for “darky” which Hughes balks at, worrying that ““intellectual” black readers […] might take offense to ‘darky,’ even if the logic behind using that word was meant to make it easier to understand as an insult” (75). Bancroft ties this to a larger impulse he describes as Hughes’s, and which he elsewhere ascribes to Pound and H.D., which is a desire to keep the poems under translation foreign to their readers—to resist domesticating or oversimplifying the text.

All three of our translators are explicitly linked through their status as poets, as translators, and as modernists, but this is another connection that surfaces through the book: that they were committed to making the strange familiar and the familiar strange. Or, as Bancroft puts it, they all approached translation in queer ways that “threaten the familiar/strange dichotomy so that what was once oblique about the relationships between texts, authors, cultures, and histories is not anymore, and every reference point from which we examine translation privileges no vantage point and every vantage point at the same time” (99).

It is here, in this specific aim, that queer theory seems most potent in Bancroft’s study (and where the contemporary relevance of this look into the past most presents itself): these examples of poet-translators performing what Friedrich Schleiermacher called, in the 18th century, moving the reader towards the text. Though Bancroft cites a bevy of theorists—Jack Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz, Emily Apter, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Edward Said, Kwame Anthony Appiah, among others—their presence doesn’t overwhelm so much as help Bancroft demonstrate what translation allows writers and readers to do: be in one another’s presence in ways that geophysical space and cultural difference often preclude.

Bancroft performs a nimble, admirable feat of scholarship, collapsing nearly a century of thought so that modernism and contemporary conversations around queer theory and translation practice can mingle and bolster one another, and there is much more to the monograph that is worthy of comment which space here alas does not allow. What Bancroft ultimately shows us is that the borders we draw between ourselves—of time, age, gender, sexuality, race, and more—are immaterial and we should feel empowered to cross them. When crossing them, though, we must remember that even if borders are imagined, distances are not, and the effort it takes to travel them should be respected, as well as reciprocated.

Conor Bracken is the author of The Enemy of My Enemy is Me (Diode Editions, 2021), winner of the 2020 Diode Editions Book Prize, and Henry Kissinger, Mon Amour (Bull City Press, 2017), winner of the 2017 Frost Place Chapbook Competition. He is also the translator of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s Scorpionic Sun (CSU Poetry Center, 2019) and Jean D’Amérique’s No Way in the Skin Without This Bloody Embrace (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2022). His poems and translations have earned fellowships from Bread Loaf, the Community of Writers, the Frost Place, Inprint, and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and have appeared in places like BOMB, jubilat, New England Review, The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Sixth Finch. He lives in Ohio.

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