Langston Hughes is well known as one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, primarily for his poetry. However, there is a side to his work which has received comparatively less attention: his literary translations.
Langston Hughes in 1936, by Carl Van Vechten
Hughes was not a professional translator, and indeed most of his translations did not do very well commercially. His translations were driven by his interest in writers with whom he felt a connection, particularly authors who explored the representation of black identity beyond European literary models. Hughes felt a kinship with writers of the African diaspora in the Americas, whom he saw as linked by a similar cultural heritage and history of racial oppression. These included the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain, whose posthumous novel Masters of the Dew (Gouverneurs de la RosĂ©e) was translated by Hughes circa 1947.
In 1948, Hughes (together with Ben Frederic Carruthers) translated a selection of poems by the Cuban writer and activist NicolĂĄs GuillĂ©n. They were published under the title of Cuba Libre by the American Ward Ritchie Press, in a beautiful limited edition of 500 with illustrations by Gar Gilbert.
Cover and title page of Cuba Libre (1948)
Hughes met the poet Nicolas GuillĂ©n in 1930 in Cuba and they soon developed a friendship. Both men travelled together to Spain during the countryâs civil war as war correspondents, an episode that Hughes narrated in his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander (1956). While the extent to which Hughes influenced GuillĂ©nâs style is still up for debate, their works have many aspects in common. Their poetry is a celebration of black folk culture, music and use of language. Often described as âpoets of the peopleâ, both men were concerned with representing class inequality and racial injustice.
Below is an extract from GuillĂ©nâs well-known poem âTu no sabe inglĂ©â, translated by Hughes as âYou donât speak no Englishâ. Hughesâs translation used the African American vernacular to reproduce GuillĂ©nâs experimentation with the Cuban criollo (Creole) dialect in his poetry:
Con tanto inglĂ© que tĂș sabĂa,
con tanto inglĂ©, no sabe ahora
La mericana te buca,
y tĂș le tiene que huĂ:
tu inglĂ© era de etrĂĄi guan,
de etrĂĄi guan y guan tu tri.
NicolĂĄs Guillen, Motivos de son (1930)
All dat English you used to know,
all dat English, now canât even
âMerican gal comes lookinâ foâ you
anâ you jesâ runs away
Yoâ English is jesâ strike one!
strike one and one-two-three.
Langston Hughesâs translation, published in Cuba Libre (1948)
GuillĂ©n, NicolĂĄs. Cuba Libre, translated by Langston Hughes and Ben Frederic Carruthers (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1948) [Cup.510.naz.3.]
Kutzinski, Vera M., The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012) [YC.2013.a.1917]
Martin-Ogunsola, Dellita, âIntroductionâ. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Vol 16: The Translations: Federico Garcia Lorca, Nicolas Guillen, and Jacques Roumain, ed. by Arnold Ra``mpersad (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2003) [YC.2005.A.3285]
Scott, William, âMotivos of Translation: Nicolas Guillen and Langston Hughesâ. CR: The New Centennial Review, 5:2 (2005): 35-71. [3486.443000]