On Press: America Reflected In Foreign Eyes Kevin Smokler ---------------------------- Special to The Gazette What language communicates the great breadth of American literature? The answer may seem obvious, but the Johns Hopkins University Press and the Longfellow Institute at Harvard University are asking you to think again. The two universities recently announced a partnership to produce The Longfellow Institute Series in American Languages and Literatures, editions and translations of historically and aesthetically significant works of American literature originally written in languages other than English. During the next several years, books will be published in forms ranging from stage play to autobiography translated from tongues as disparate as Yiddish and Navajo. "This series has the possibility of transforming how American literature is defined, is categorized and what it says," said Willis Regier, director of the Hopkins Press. "We know the argument for the inclusion of other languages in American literature, but this is perhaps the first time that argument has coalesced into a series of texts." "We are really very excited about this," said Harvard professor of comparative literature and American language Marc Shell, a co-editor of the series. "It's as if we're saying, 'So you think you knew American literature? Well, no. You don't.'" The initial two volumes of the series are scheduled for publication in late 1997, said Regier. The first, Die Geheimnisse von New Orleans (The Mysteries of New Orleans), an 1854 German serialized novel examining the scandalous underbelly of New Orleans, is now regarded as one of the earliest literary tales of urban America. Soon following will be The Longfellow Anthology of American Literature, an expansive collection of poems, essays and novel excerpts in over 20 languages, that, said Shell, "will be perhaps the most multilingual book ever published." Both, Regier said, will utilize the "facing page" translation system, where the original language and the English will be printed side-by-side. "It's always a risk when you run in translation," Shell said. "If we published in the original languages, it would severely limit the text's readership. However, it's all but impossible to completely capture the intricacies of a text through translation. ... Translation is a way of killing something. The only way to deal with that is facing page translation." The fascinating yet sometimes uncompromising nature of language has been a central issue for the Longfellow Institute since its founding by Shell and Werner Sollors, a Harvard professor of English literature and Afro-American studies, in 1994. Begun as a two-year seminar on the literature of NAFTA languages (non-English languages of the North American Free Trade Agreement nations), the Cambridge-based organization is now a worldwide network of scholars that collect, catalog and study non-English works of American literature. "America has a vast multilingual heritage and the world of literature hasn't caught up with that fact," Shell said. "We're here to lay the facts on the table." As examples, Shell cites the following: In 19th-century America, fewer than 40 percent of Americans spoke English. The publishing of texts in Welsh enjoyed a 60-year period of growth into the early 20th century. By 1867, over 40,000 texts in German had been published in America, including a newspaper by a young printer named Ben Franklin, to say nothing of the works written by black slaves and Native Americans in their original, sometimes extinct, tongues. "Since the xenophobia of World War I, much of this work has been ignored," said Shell, who, along with Sollors, largely restricts his definition of American literature to writers who were born and lived in the U.S. "Before this, Hopkins Press had published, in French, texts on Franco-American relations. They were known to heed linguistic difference." This historical reputation, he stressed, was a major reason for the partnership. Another, perhaps less tangible reason, is tradition. "Hopkins Press is the oldest in the country, and in this case, that counts for something," said Shell, who has had three books published by Hopkins. "We're looking for a link between pre-WWI publishing and a trajectory into the next century, and Hopkins can give it to us." Regier is equally excited. He made the institute's acquaintance last year when they sent Hopkins Press a photocopied anthology they had been using as a teaching tool and indicated their seriousness at pursuing the series. When Regier took the proposal before the faculty committee, they returned "just as enthusiastic as we were." Hopkins and Harvard hope to publish up to five books a year for the next 10 years, Shell said. Regier added that although volume price and future contents are currently unknown, Hopkins would like to publish the first two of the series in both cloth editions for academic libraries and paperback for the classroom and bookstore trade. "We plan on this being in well-stocked bookstores around the world," Regier said. "We hope that educated adults will want to read them long after their university years."
Go to Gazette Homepage