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11 posts categorized "Americas"

22 March 2016

Langston Hughes translates Nicolås Guillén

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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.

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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 Rosée) 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 Nicolås Guillén. 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.

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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 country’s 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©n’s 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 ‘poets of the people’, both men were concerned with representing class inequality and racial injustice.

Below is an extract from GuillĂ©n’s well-known poem ‘Tu no sabe inglé’, translated by Hughes as ‘You don’t speak no English’. Hughes’s translation used the African American vernacular to reproduce GuillĂ©n’s experimentation with the Cuban criollo (Creole) dialect in his poetry:

Con tanto inglĂ© que tĂș sabĂ­a,

Bito Manué,

con tanto inglé, no sabe ahora

desĂ­ ye.

La mericana te buca,

y tĂș le tiene que huĂ­:

tu inglé era de etråi guan,

de etrĂĄi guan y guan tu tri.

        NicolĂĄs Guillen, Motivos de son (1930)

 

All dat English you used to know,

Li’l Manuel,

all dat English, now can’t even

say: Yes.

‘Merican gal comes lookin’ fo’ you

an’ you jes’ runs away

Yo’ English is jes’ strike one!

strike one and one-two-three.

Langston Hughes’s translation, published in Cuba Libre (1948)

 

Further Reading

Guillén, Nicolås. 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, ‘Introduction’. 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, ‘Motivos of Translation: Nicolas Guillen and Langston Hughes’. CR: The New Centennial Review, 5:2 (2005): 35-71. [3486.443000]

 

 â€”Mercedes Aguirre

26 January 2016

An Irish Account of the First Days of the American Civil War

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'It is not in the nature of an Irishman to fight with four or five pounds of boiled pork and biscuit banging at his hip' – so beings the third and final part of the short, thirteen page account of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in the Three Parts (General Reference Collection 9604.aaa.10.), written by then-Captain Thomas Francis Meagher in 1861 during the early days of the American Civil War. It is one of a number of archive holdings the British Library has relating to the conflict and the involvement of Irish American men and women in the fight for the survival of a United States between 1861-1865, an area which forms the foundation of my doctoral research, with the generous fellowship support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

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Thomas Francis Meagher, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia: A Narrative in Three Parts (New York, 1861), title page. Image in the public domain.

Meagher, a former Young Irelander who had escaped exile in Van Diemen’s Land and migrated to America in the early 1850s, was one of the most prominent Irish-born soldiers during the war. He rose from a captain attached to the 69th New York State Infantry Regiment to founder and commanding general of the Irish Brigade, the bastion of Irish American military service, with its constituent regiments present at every major battle of the brutal conflict. The 69th New York formed the Brigade’s foundation. They were born from a state militia regiment whose pre-war fame originated after the refusal of their commander Colonel Michael Corcoran (also Irish-born and later himself a prominent Union general) to march the past Edward, Prince of Wales during the future king’s visit to New York City in 1860. The exploits of Meagher, Corcoran, the 69th New York and the Irish Brigade’s military service during the Civil War were widely known in contemporary Union and Confederate societies and were recounted in several of the memoirs, accounts, newspaper records and ballads. Some of the songs relating to the Irish experience of the conflict can be seen in the Library’s online gallery collection of digitized American Civil War archives.

Meagher’s Last Days of the 69th in Virginia details events the 69th New York Infantry participated in from 12-18 July 1861 – the days leading up to the First Battle of Bull Run at Manassas, Virginia, the first major battle of the Civil War. It thus gives a fascinating and unique insight into the mobilisation and immediate experiences of thousands of soldiers rallying to the impending front-line, completely unaware of the battle and the subsequent four long tortuous years of war that would soon be upon them. Meagher chose to focus on the days preceding the battle fought on 21st July because its “incidents and events, the world, by this time, has heard enough
 the battle, the [Union] retreat, the alarm and confusion of the Federal troops, columns and volumes have been filled”. Instead, Meagher’s writing reveals the journey of the 69th New York from their base at Fort Corcoran on Arlington Heights outside of Washington D.C., to the fields around Manassas, travelling through the Virginian town of Centreville, made famous in a wartime photograph taken by Timothy H. O’Sullivan showing its use as a Confederate supply depot and war’s scarring on the land. The image was published in Alexander Gardener’s collection of Civil War photography, of which the Library holds a copy (General Reference Collection 1784.a.13.). Meagher was not particularly complementary about Centreville, describing is as a 'dingy, aged little village' with a 'miserable little handful of houses. It is the coldest picture conceivable of municipal smallness and decrepitude
One is astounded on entering it, to find that a molehill has been magnified into a mountain.'

Captain Thomas Francis Meagher

Captain Thomas Francis Meagher, later General Meagher, commander of the Union Army’s Irish Brigade (1861).

Someone else turned into a mountain in Civil War histories is 'our Brigadier, Colonel Sherman, a rude and envenomed martinet' who, for 'whatever his reasons for it were
exhibited the sourest malignity towards the 69th'. Meagher spoke here of William Tecumseh Sherman, more famous as the general who led the Union advance through the southern states in the final years of the Civil War. A colonel at the First Battle of Bull Run, Sherman’s continual ordering of the Irish soldiers to bivouac on “the dampest and rankest” of ground led Meagher to state that the then-colonel 'was hated by the regiment'. Despite no love being lost between Meagher and Sherman, the former unwittingly included a rather pointed note of historical irony about the latter. He described how advancing Union soldiers passing by farmsteads on the road to Manassas were 'forbade' to touch the 'cocks of hay and stacks of corn'. The people of Georgia would have surely wished that this version of Sherman had marched through their state in 1864.

Alongside derogatory descriptions of southern towns and fellow Union Army officers, Meagher detailed the exhausting march and Confederate skirmishes through the Virginian countryside in the July heat. Bivouacking subjected the men to night-time humidity, which caused the Stars and Stripes to become 'damp with the heavy night dews'. In the day the men of the 69th New York dealt with 'heat and dust and thirst'. His account paints a sensory portrait of the Union Army mustering to face the Confederacy; a visual 'splendid panorama, those four miles of armed men – the sun multiplying, it seemed to me, the lines of flashing steel, bringing out plume and epaulette and sword, and all the finery of war, into a keener radiance, and heightening the vision of that vast throng with all its glory'. He spoke similarly about aural imagery: 'the jingling of the bayonets, as the stacked muskets tumbled one after another
 The sound was so like that of sabres slapping against the heels and spurs of charging troopers'. Amongst those on the march was the 79th New York Infantry Regiment looking 'stanch and splendid'. Led by Colonel James Cameron, the regiment were nicknamed 'The Highlanders' in honour of their connection to New York Scottish fraternity organisations.

The Library’s copy of The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia was 'published at the office of the '"Irish-American"' in New York City by Lynch and Cole, publishers of the Irish-American newspaper, the foremost Irish organ for the largest community of Irish men and women in America. It was subsequently circulated in other Irish newspapers in the country, namely the Boston Pilot. The account is in three parts, leading to the suggestion the publishers serialised Meagher’s writings before producing a book form sometime in the last summer/early autumn of 1861. It is possible that it was used as part of Meagher’s promotion tour of Irish American communities in New York, Boston and Philadelphia while he was galvanising support for the formation of the Irish Brigade. Very few copies of the account in this book form exists today and although it appears in the bibliographies of Irish American, wartime and Meagher histories, it is rarely quoted from, with scholars choosing newspaper accounts of his numerous wartime speeches and Michael Cavanagh’s Memoirs of General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection 10882.g.1.) as their primary source focus. With limited personal wartime writings of Thomas Francis Meagher available, The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia provides a revealing insight into one prominent Irish American’s contemporary account of the initial days of the American Civil War. It helps show how the Irishman’s gift of rhetorical skill transposed itself to his writing, despite his friend Captain W.F. Lyons stating in his book Brigadier-General Thomas Francis Meagher (General Reference Collection 10882.aaa.29.) that 'journalism was, in fact, not Meagher’s best field of action
[which] he had abandoned
for the stormy life of the soldier'.

What The Last Days of the 69th in Virginia demonstrates is that Meagher’s writing of the actual field of action was extremely eloquent. He could switch from the humorous – describing how Corcoran’s horse 'was greedily eating newspapers' on the morning of the First Battle of Bull Run – to the patriotic fervour that became commonplace amongst lyrical expressions of Irish American dual identity in the nineteenth century. He also provides a perfect description of why such a source is important for American Civil War scholars. Meagher’s account created 'a picture far more striking and exciting than any I had ever seen. War, assuredly, has its fascinations as well as its horrors
and so emboldens and spurs the tamest into heroism.'

– Catherine Bateson

24 December 2015

Tun Tun: a Venezuelan Christmas carol

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Aguinaldo is a popular type of Christmas song sung in many Latin American countries at this time of year, thought to have derived from the villancicos imported from the Iberian Peninsula during the second half of the sixteenth century. Perhaps the most celebrated composer of villancicos is Sor Juana InĂ©s de la Cruz, whose words were set to music by Antonio de Salazar in the late 17th century. Although villancicos often made reference to secular themes, they were encouraged – or at least tolerated – by the Church hierarchy as far as they were seen as useful tool in the drive to convert the native populations to Catholicism.

As the popularity of villancicos declined from the 19th century onwards, aguinaldo – a much more folk-inflected art form – began to take their place. Today, aguinaldo are performed by people in groups called parrandas, who wander from door-to-door sharing their songs in much the same way as carollers do in the UK. This wonderful recording of an aguinaldo from Venezuela is a far cry from the baroque villancicos of the 17th century, though it does illustrate how the form mixes the sacred with the everyday, as we hear the celebration of the birth of Christ played out as an commentary on neighbourly relations.

Listen to Tun Tun (performed by Federico Reyna and family)

As far as we have been able to identify, this recording of Tun Tun was performed by Federico Reyna and his family for a BBC radio programme entitled Folk Music of Venezuela. It was broadcast on the Third Programme on 2 September 1962, and introduced by A.L. Lloyd, with production by Douglas Cleverdon.

Like many good folk-songs Tun Tun is a self-satirising comment on the form itself. In the song the parranderos pay a visit to their neighbour to share their goodwill, though he becomes increasingly exasperated and eventually demands to be left alone: “Que el diablo se los lleve a mí dejenme en paz!”

Folk songs of the Americas

The recording is part of the A.L. Lloyd collection, which contains material collected by the folklorist throughout his life. Lloyd also edited Folk Songs of the Americas (shelfmark: HUS 789.202242), a great resource for those interested in folk-music from across the continent.

More sound recordings from the British Library’s collections can heard at BL Sounds.

– Laurence Byrne