As readers of JMB know, I have already devoted three lengthy posts [Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 ] to reviewing Laura Lomas' Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities. The experience was not pleasurable for me and cannot have been pleasurable for even my most indulgent readers. But it was necessary, and, indeed, unavoidable. The misrepresentations of Martí's life and work contained in this volume could not be overlooked, nor the author's conscription of Martí into the service of "Cuba's current government" (as I've already remarked, as "current" as 1959). Does this mean, however, that I am obliged henceforth to review all her writings on Martí and point out what is wrong with them? Yes, I'm afraid it does, at least until she stops writing about Martí or desists from distorting Martí's writings. It is just as important to expose false lights as it is to keep the beacon burning.
Lomas' latest screed was published in Translation Review 84 (Spring 2011), the journal of the American Society of Literary Translators. I am unaware that Lomas has ever translated anything in her life except snippets of Martí's writings culled from Esther Allen's Selected Writings and "worked over" to Lomas' satisfaction (that is, until they say what Lomas wants them to say). Not being a translator, however, is no disqualification for writing on translation theory. A study in English of Martí's ideas about translation would be a welcome addition to the literature. It would not be difficult to write such a study. By faithfully copying what Martí says about translation even Lomas might manage it. Unfortunately, neither Translating Empire nor her latest journal article come close to being such a study. Knowing, as we already do, that propaganda and not scholarship is her object, there is no reason to expect Lomas to impart knowledge for its own sake when it doesn't advance her political agenda.
As I've pointed out before, Lomas is constitutionally incapable of devising a cogent title, and what is labelled incorrectly can never be wholly trusted. She came closest with the original title of her doctoral dissertation, "American Alterities: Reading between Borders in José Martí's 'North American Scenes,'" which except for the "Alterities" was almost a catchy title. This later transmogrified into the wholly unintelligible Translating Empire: José Martí, Migrant Latino Subjects, and American Modernities. In Translation Review, Lomas delivers herself of: "Thinking Across, Infiltration, and Transculturation: José Martí's Theory and Practice of Post-Colonial Translation." If she would only discard what's left of the semi-colon, she would make more sense, though the "Post-Colonial" part is debatable and only her extremist politics would lose by its omission. Martí did not live to see the post-colonial era, which was a blessing for Martí and a calamity for Cuba. If Lomas means that he anticipated it, she should say that and explain how. Because Martí thinks and writes outside the constructs of colonialism does not mean that he was a "post colonial translat[or]" or a post-colonial anything.
Most of Martí's contemporaries and many of his predecessors also exhibit in their writings the same total rejection of colonial preconceptions which characterizes Martí's own thinking. How far, then, are we to set this "post-colonial" tendency within the colonial era? Certainly as far back as Félix Varela and more than 70 years before Martí's death at Dos Ríos. But rejecting any personal investment in colonialism, or even undermining its political foundations, is not the same thing as defeating it, and colonialism must be defeated for good and all before the post-colonial era, or, specifically, post-colonial conditions, can shape what is properly called post-colonial writing (or translation). No Cuban, not even Martí, predicted what post-colonial Cuba would be like. Such prevision, incidentally, would probably have killed the independence movement in its cradle. Resignation to quasi-colonialism as the successor regime to colonialism may be cultivated after the fact but it can never be the goal of any revolution and was not the goal of Martí's revolution. This post-1898 colonial reality was never envisioned by Martí, nor is any period in Cuban history more at odds with his conception of a republic (with the exception, of course, of our own). The abrogation of the Platt Amendment in 1934 was the real culmination of Martí's Revolution, and of that he was certainly the "Intellectual Author."
I have detected one important break — and too many inconsistencies to cite — between this article and Lomas' book. In Translating Empire, Lomas forcefully (and foolishly) denied that Martí was an exile, arguing instead that he was a "migrant," though Martí always described himself as an exile and never once as a "migrant" or "immigrant." Here, however, she departs without excuses from one of the principal underpinnings of her book. She still alludes to Martí's "migration" and his "migratory position in New York," as well as to his "migrant's perspective;" but, at the same time, she refers to Martí as "a deportee in exile" and comments on his "exilic situation in New York." It is Lomas who has posited that you can't have it both ways. Nevertheless, sometimes both ways are not enough for her, as she also alludes to Martí's "extra-domestic or diasporic location." Perhaps it's just a case of elegant variation gone amok; but one who places such importance, as Lomas does, on differentiating these terms, should not use them interchangeably. Even foolishness must be consistent if it is to be taken seriously.
I am not going to discuss Lomas' theory of Martí's theory of "post-colonial translation" since the object of her theorizing does not exist. Suffice it to say that it is as convoluted, and, ultimately, as meaningless as any other of her theoretical constructs. But lest it should be thought that I am dismissing her ideas without a hearing, here is her conclusion: "Martí's theory and practice of translation, transferring texts from a dominant to an imperial-turned-minority language, as a non-assimilating migrant in the United States, generatively open concepts of the nation, of race, and of transnational formations such as diaspora to redefine them in terms of ethnic and linguistic heterogeneity." Here, as elsewhere in her writings, language is used to conceal rather than to reveal her meaning, or, perhaps more likely, to disguise the absence of any meaning. If there ever was one it was lost in a maze of subordinate clauses winding their way to a dead end. It is like reading German with its periodic sentences cruelly shorn of their far-ranging verbs. Lomas knows the mechanics of a periodic sentence up to and short of a point, but cannot bring the sentence to a successful conclusion precisely because she has no point to make about translation as translation.
She has much to say, however, about translation as something other than translation: "Language becomes the site where a Latino American cultural critic such as Martí uses translation to problematize U.S. nationalism's inability to recognize the rights of minorities — racialized by their language or ethnic difference — in the nation, or to respect the sovereignty of 'minor' nations in its imperial backyard." This is one of the few Lomasian sentences that can itself be translated into standard English: Martí uses language, or, specifically, translation, to address the problem posed by the inability of a nationalist United States to recognize the rights of minorities because of language and ethnic differences, or to respect the sovereignty of less powerful nations in its imperial backyard. Now this makes sense. The thought expressed by Lomas is just as hopelessly trite and even banal; but now it can be understood in all its triteness and banality. Before, mired in language that attempted to elevate triteness by raising its vocabulary, it sounded self-important without being important. Bereft of its rhetorical strait-jacket, the idea, though it has no wings, is at least honestly pedestrian. The author herself could do worse than to be honestly pedestrian. Her contribution to Martí studies (such as it is) would not be diminished because of it.
Lomas' politics are easier to follow than her theoretical formulas or attempts at deconstruction because here, at least, dissembling does not suit her purposes: she can be as anti-American (or, as she would say, anti-United Statesian) as she would like Martí to be and credit him with all her fashionable prejudices. To wit: "Martí sought to counteract an unrealistically hopeful view of the United States that might lead his compatriots to identify with a North American culture and political model." Yes, Martí always sought to "counteract" unrealistic estimates of the United States (or of any other country) because they distorted reality; but he never denied the reality, which would have been to distort it himself. Martí embraced and engaged U.S. culture as no other foreign intellectual before or since, and he adopted its political model as his own, as is evident in the democratic structure of the Cuban Revolutionary Party and of the future Cuban Republic which he envisioned in the Manifesto de Montecristi. Instead of goading his fellow Cubans to reject "North American culture and [its] political model," Martí identified what was best about them and encouraged their emulation while warning of deviations and distortions (to that model) that should be avoided, not only by his countrymen but by Americans themselves, whose democratic evolution and progress were also important to him (as attested to in thousands of his pages). It is better, in any case, to have "an unrealistically hopeful view" of U.S. democracy than "an unrealistically hopeful view" of Castroite tyranny, which is Lomas' problem.
When Cuban Communists (or any Communists) assail the United States, it is always its government, never its people. Lomas herself has no such scruples: her disdain is sufficient to cover not only the U.S. government and all aspects of American society, but also and particularly its people; and she would have us believe that Martí shared the same animus toward Americans that she admittedly does. She faults Martí, however, for "express[ing] a utopian view that with more knowledge, the average U.S. citizen-subject might unlearn imperial privilege and radically change his or her attitudes towards his América and people, here and abroad." In fact, Martí would have rejected (and did reject) any suggestion that Americans were inherently predisposed to imperialism or racism, or that such was their irrevocable destiny. It is such assumptions, which are based on racist generalizations and a sense of privilege founded on a paradigm of eternal victimhood, that Martí combatted all his life and his writings still challenge. For Lomas' information, the American people overwhelmingly supported the cause of Cuban independence in 1850, 1868 and 1895. It was successive U.S. administrations which flaunted American public opinion until 1898 when the "Free Cuba" movement was too powerful to be denied. Today also, and for the last 53 years, Americans have opposed the Castro regime and its subjugation of the Cuban people (with few exceptions such as Lomas herself). Now as in the 19th century, U.S. betrayals — and there have been many — were the handiwork of the imperial presidency, not of "the average U.S. citizen-subject," as Lomas calls the freest man in the world.
Where did Lomas pick up the idea that Martí wanted to reform Americans by purging them of their sense of "imperial privilege," which enterprise Lomas considers impossibly "utopian" because her fellow Americans are, in her estimation, inveterate imperialists beyond all reclamation as well as perennial bad neighbors? Lomas herself answers the question: "Martí is not alone in this optimism: one of his greatest interpreters, Cuban statesman, poet and literary critic Roberto Fernández Retamar, noted that "[t]he U.S. was neither born a monster, nor will it remain so forever." If Lomas had praised Fernández Retamar as a poet or critic — leaving aside politics as if this were possible in so politicized (comprometido) a writer — we would not care about her valuation of him. But how exactly can one be a "statesman" in the service of a dictatorship? When statecraft is reduced to sycophancy the statesman is only a more successful courtesan, and in the same measure as his talents are great so will his abject submission be blameworthy. How can Fernández Retamar be "one of [Martí's] greatest interpreters" when he doesn't even understand that being an apologist for tyranny contravenes all that Martí did or said in his life? One can be many things and still be a martiano; but an apologist for tyranny — and an unrepentant one at that — never. Praising Fernández Retamar in such terms pretty much says all there is to say about Lomas' critical and moral faculty while putting her in league with other "interpreters" who debase themselves by debasing Martí.
Lomas subscribes to the liberal conceit that true patriotism consists of hating one's country, whether that country is the U.S., whose democracy she bashes continually, or Cuba, whose dictatorship she extolls at every opportunity. Worst of all, she is obviously convinced that evil will triumph in Cuba forever, and that it will always be fashionable and renumerative to be an apologist for tyranny. She is wrong. But she is also so insignificant that it will matter to no one that she was wrong.
[I owe my readers a rest. But I am not finished with this review and shall return to point out its factual errors in Part 2].