Johns Hopkins Gazette: May 6, 1996

On Press: America Reflected In Foreign Eyes

Kevin Smokler
Special to The Gazette

     What language communicates the great breadth of American

     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

     "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

     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

     "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." 

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