Translating the "Other": A History of Modernist Literature in the American Southwest, 1903-1945

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William Carlos Williams wrote, “The classic is the local fully realized, words marked by a place.” There are now significant studies celebrating the “classic” regional literatures of Ireland, New England, and the American South. But what if the place is out-of-the way, and what if the words that mark it are difficult if not impossible to translate? The American Southwest is one such place, a literary region only recently coming into view. My dissertation forwards this project by focusing on how cultural work produced in the Southwest might represent the region despite the many difficulties of translation involved. Biographical, literary, historical, and archival materials allow for an interdisciplinary approach positioning Southwestern texts within the broader traditions of European and American modernism.

My chapters explore the limits of cross-linguistic and cross-cultural understanding. As with Pound’s approach to translating Chinese poetry, which did not entail learning Chinese, Mary Austin argues that she need not master an indigenous language in order to translate Native American texts. Instead, she claims to mystically comprehend their essential meaning, thereby enabling and limiting her insights into the region. While Espinoza’s El sol de Texas emphasizes the challenges faced by immigrants fleeing the Mexican revolution, Venegas’s Las aventuras de don Chipote offers a model for how to cope with such challenges by a process I term “transnational mimicry.” The lexical switching between English and Spanish provides numerous opportunities to mimic and mock southwestern cultural traditions, a strategy linking the region to other colonized spaces throughout the world. The texts of Luhan and Lawrence constitute spectacularly failed attempts at translating otherness. Luhan romanticized the local cultural geography, whereas Lawrence interpreted it through a Eurocentric point-of-view. Together, their work represents the epistemological limits of a vision dominated by Anglo power structures.

I conclude with Cather’s southwestern novels and suggest that while Death Comes for the Archbishop is a novelistic illustration of Benjamin’s argument that all translations are marked by at least some degree of incommunicability, it also illustrates Ricoeur’s contention that a belief in translatability is foundational to any act of interpreting a text produced by an “other” human being.