La ciudad literaria de Julio Ortega

Transatlantic Translations (Sara Castro-Klaren)

Posted by on October 15, 2009

TRANSATLANTIC TRANSLATIONS: DIALOGUES IN LATIN AMERICAN LITERATURE. By Julio Ortega. Translated by Philip Derbyshire. London: Reaktion Books, 2006. 219 p.
The term “transatlantic studies” has been in circulation at Modern Language Association meetings for about eight years and has attracted a variety of papers that revisit the cultural presence of Spain in Spanish America. Often, “transatlantic studies” has been deployed as the site for proposals that claim new approaches to the study of cultural and literary matters in the “Hispanic” world. This claim has provoked discussions that question the novelty of such approaches and has led to a demand for clarity in the definition of the object of study and methodology for work done under the rubric of “transatlantic studies”–regardless of the scholarly merits of specific “transatlantic” books and articles, which have varied greatly.
The geographic and geopolitical scope of transatlantic studies is an issue at hand, as is the manner, if any, in which transatlantic studies relates to comparative literature, colonial and postcolonial studies, or older studies on author, period, and influence. Is any study that considers any link or tension between Europe and the Americas by definition “transatlantic”? If so, it would follow that any American, European, and, for that matter, any object of study whose appearance in the history of consciousness can be dated after 1492 is by definition transatlantic.
What then is gained by deploying this term as a critical mode of inquiry? Does it produce an opening that allows us to ask new or radical questions in studies across languages, national literatures, periods, and patterns of discourse circulation? Or is it rather a question of emphasis? Are we perhaps speaking of a more modest refreshing of best practices that have been at the core of literary criticism and cultural history for the better part of the twentieth century? At a 2005 MLA panel convened to discuss the issue, Julio Ortega argued that transatlantic studies involves precisely the latter description: a refreshed, postmodern outlook on the cultural formation of the Americas conceived to be the result of the dynamic that ensued after conquest. For Ortega transatlantic studies inquires into the discursive procedures involved in the training of the colonist gaze on Amerindian cultures, the modifications that this encounter and production of the other entailed for the colonist’s own representational resources, and the responses that such a writing of the “natives” elicited from Amerindians and mestizos. The dynamic of learning the master’s language and teaching oneself to respond in it–that is to say, in the language of the other–is for Julio Ortega the constitution of the American subject. Caliban becomes the primary example, as he demonstrates in the book under review.
Rather than describe or circumscribe the geopolitical object of study, Ortega approaches the interpretations of texts and cultural moments by emphasizing the possibilities of dialogue between the imperial modes of the discourse and the colonial’s response, which, despite the asymmetry of power, Ortega finds fundamentally creative. What is more, in an unusual claim made in “Writing: The Alphabet of Abundance” (chapter 3) he argues that the imposition of Spanish as the official language in the colonies actually benefited Amerindian languages such as Quechua because the alphabetic transcription to which they were subjected “preserved” them in the way that only alphabetic writing can do, while at the same time enriching Spanish. Widely differing from scholars who see the imposition of the alphabet as a violent entry into the dynamics of usage and recording of Amerindian languages, Ortega asserts that “Learning to write [leads] to superior knowledge of the new world produced by intermixing and amalgamation” (66).
Following Ortega’s use of the term, “transatlantic studies” differs greatly from the “Transatlantic Studies” put into circulation by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Atlantic Studies in the 1980s, which referred to the deployment, by anthropologists and historians, of the transatlantic slave traffic as a new object of study that transcended previous national borders and the regimes of periodicity. A new comparative field of study was thus inaugurated, one which comprised new borders–the Atlantic–and called for new knowledge, especially of African languages. The African Diaspora became the starting point for new economic, demographic and cultural understanding. By contrast, not only do “transatlantic studies” done in literature appear to continue established hermeneutic practices, but also some of these studies, in emphasizing the spatial rather than the temporal, produce an erasure of history at the expense of dissemination and circulation. Such erasures, by default, tend to raise the profile of Spanish translocation of its legacy into Spanish America. It is as if the Atlantic itself had become the theater of operation, and the shores, lands, nations, and peoples in question were moved to the margins of the question. In a way “transatlantic” helps take the sting out of colonial studies that emphasize perspectives and methodologies that in themselves would be de-colonizing and would level a strong, unmitigated critique of Spain as an imperial power.
This discussion of transatlantic studies has been necessary in order to both frame and make a disclaimer for Ortega’s insightful and well-researched Transatlantic Translations. His take on the transatlantic exchange of representations rubs against the critical perspective of postcolonial theory, but at the same time insists on the uniqueness of the formation of the American subject in the crucible of conquest and imperial rule. The first four essays of the eight that comprise the book dwell on the protocols and processes that allowed for the formation of American subjects after successive European conquests. It would seem that the term “transatlantic” offers Ortega the possibility of dealing with colonial discourses and representations while distancing himself from the kind of postcolonial studies that posit the “native” as simply resistance, thus denying the colonial subject the very creative possibilities that he traces throughout Latin American culture.
As a whole this book is an excellent example of Julio Ortega’s long scholarly trajectory as one of the most distinguished literary critics writing on Latin American literature. Each essay is written authoritatively; each thesis–for example, on Juan Rulfo and the exhaustion of narrative, or on Andean intellectuals and the appropriation of writing–relies on a mastery of the topic within a great range of references to both major and lesser-known texts. Ortega engages with equal ease Shakespeare’s The Tempest and the works of Garcia Marquez. Although not formally divided into two parts, the book’s first four chapters are dedicated to the colonial period, in which the parable of America as abundance operates as a hermeneutic principle, and the second four chapters are focused on the republican period, in which the guiding principles are potentiality and scarcity. In Garcia Marquez the critic traces the guiding thread of the authority of reading as the principle quest in the world of the Colombian master.
Many of the essays collected in this book have been previously published in Spanish. Ortega’s essays on colonial chronicles and the “real maravilloso” appeared in his El discurso de la abundancia (1992). In chapter 4, “Translating: The Transatlantic Subject,” on the work of Guaman Poma and the Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, Ortega displays the central ideas that give rise to the title and thesis of the book: the Spanish conquest, beyond the military and discursive violence with which it brought down Amerindian polities, also implied a labor of translation at both the linguistic and cultural level. Studies on Garcilaso Inca and Guaman Poma have shown how these two men recognized themselves as subjects of translation caught in the new imperial world grid that offered both writing and Christianity as the way out of submission and the possibility of establishing a subject position for themselves. Ortega argues that “Translation implies the possibility of constructing an intermediate setting, which would frame interpretation as dialogical” (83). Going beyond what has been
written on translation as the key cultural act in colonial situations, Ortega makes an observation that reverberates throughout the other essays in the book, especially those on Caliban: “Translation is the first cultural act that throws both languages–both subjects–into crisis: speakers have to redefine themselves and there are extended struggles over protocols and interpretations. A new space of agreement and disagreement emerges”(83). Ortega shows in detail how Garcilaso and Guaman Poma, in conceiving the subject in terms of reading and writing, and in terms of a problematic translation, were able to turn “ethnic memory into contemporary critique” (186). It is this crisis and this space of agreement and disagreement that is highlighted and wisely explored throughout the book in Ortega’s treatment of key authors in the Latin American canon and the figure of Caliban as a foundational text for the American subject.
If the purpose of Ortega’s book is not to “reconstruct the lineage of the marvelous, even less to dispute it [as] today this is a rather insubstantial intellectual project” (9), then he has fulfilled his promise. He is also keen on differentiating his work from “a history of native and postcolonial resistance, a project inherited from the spirit of the sixties in which ethnology privileged autarchic visions” (9). Instead, he finds it more interesting “to examine the cultural history of representations . . . formalized around forms of categorization and validation which produce a semantic field of rich textuality” (9). With that aim in mind, Ortega ranges far afield into English and French texts (chapter 5) in his exploration of the first one hundred years in which Europeans never tired of reporting the news of the “new” world. In examining texts rich in density and commentary Ortega hopes to trace the history of the formation of the changing and diverse American subject, a subject who by definition is rendered in various processes of hybridization and mestizaje. He examines texts that will allow him to “identity the subject that maintains them, produces and re-transmits them” (9). This rich, dense book provides English language readers (as the original works provided Spanish language readers) an intelligent and fascinating point of entry into the cultural issues raised as well as penetrating readings of Pedro Paramo, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and Love in the Time of Cholera.
By deploying reading and writing as the conducting threads for a cultural hermeneutics, Ortega has been able to ask new questions and to reposition the history of the American subject onto a grid that allows for a history of subject formation devolving on the question of language and literacy. This is a cogent and penetrating book, recommended reading, or rereading, for those in the field of Latin American Literature, especially for those who do not read Spanish and work on comparative topics.
The Johns Hopkins University