Ryan James Kernan

New World Maker: Radical Poetics, Black Internationalism, and the Translations of Langston Hughes

Northwestern University Press, 2022

432 pages


Reviewed by Alexandrea Keith

Ryan James Kernan, in his monograph New World Maker: Radical Poetics, Black Internationalism, and the Translations of Langston Hughes (2022), unearths the history and implications of Langston Hughes’s translations, focusing on what he calls “five instances where translation enhanced Hughes’s repertoire.” Using Hughes’s papers housed at Yale University, which contain many unpublished translations of Hughes’s poems and short stories as well as Hughes’s translations of other work, Kernan argues that these translations offer a new interpretation of Hughes’s ideological evolution and provide new insights into “how blackness worked as political capital in a variety of locations inside and outside formulations of the African diaspora and how literary blackness was used to advance revolutionary change.” Kernan’s text is not only an excavation into Hughes’s unpublished writings but also a meditation on the importance of translation both as a practice and as political work. He traces Hughes’s travels, the evolution of his poetry, and the personas fostered in different regions by both Hughes and others. 

Kernan argues that discourses on race are fungible, but not untranslatable. The meanings and implications of race change based on geographic, cultural, and historical locales. However, while those meanings differ, Kernan suggests that they can be translated across borders and languages. For Kernan, translation is an underutilized method of studying how race and political ideologies transgress borders. By following Hughes and his work, translational and otherwise, across various geographic and linguistic locales, Kernan uses Hughes to put the methodology of translation into practice. He posits translation as a method of understanding not only the fungibility of race, but also as a site of interrogation of diaspora—where people do not condense the diaspora to shared histories or monolithic Blackness, but rather contend with the differences among communities within the diaspora.

The thematic throughline of Kernan’s New World Maker is the evolution of Hughes’s writings, translations, and political ideologies. Beginning with Hughes’s relation to Cuba and its poets, Kernan describes how Hughes’s translations, and translations of Hughes, provide insight into different racial and historical discourses. Kernan then analyzes Hughes’s reception in the Soviet Union and Francosphere of the 1920s and 1930s. He argues that Hughes advanced a unique Black left internationalism that did not confine itself to Soviet agendas. Throughout, Kernan integrates Hughes’s work with poets like Fernández de Castro, Guillen, Regino Pedroso, Louis Aragon, and Vladimir Mayakovsky to show how images of Hughes were circulated differently in various locations. Ultimately, Kernan demonstrates how race and notions of Blackness changed across geographic borders as well as social, political, and linguistic settings while illuminating the necessity of working across languages to understand the mutability of racial discussions.  

While Kernan’s analysis is clear and concise throughout, his most compelling chapters are those on Hughes’s relation to the Cuban poets. By analyzing the dissemination of his poetry on the island, Kernan argues that Cuban intellectuals used Hughes’s poetry to foreground comparative discussions of race. Initially denied a ticket because of a regulation that prohibited Black, Chinese, and Russian people from landing in Cuba, Hughes eventually arrived in Havana in late February of 1930. Once in Cuba, he connected with artists and intellectuals, including Fernandez de Castro, who published one of the first pieces about Hughes in Latin America. Kernan argues that Fernández de Castro’s essay, “Presentación de Langston Hughes” in Revista de la Habana, helped shape Hughes’s identity in Latin America as “a Black militant in translation.” Kernan’s analysis of Fernández de Castro’s essay suggests that he crafts the image of Hughes to “both proletarianize Hughes and to associate him with the primitive.” 

Kernan’s second chapter uses literary, historical, and textual analysis to compare three poems and trace the development of Hughes’s ideology. Kernan juxtaposes Hughes’s poem “Brass Spittoons,” originally published in 1926, with Fernández de Castro’s translation “Escupideras de metal” (“Metal Spittoons”). Kernan then layers in a comparison of Hughes’s “Florida Road Workers”—a poem published in 1930 during Hughes’s radical period. Kernan shows the effect of Fernández de Castro’s translation on Hughes’s own translation practices. Once Hughes read Fernández de Castro’s translation, Hughes began allowing political and historical contexts to inform his translation work. 

The third chapter analyzes three poems: “Mujer Negra” by Nicolás Guillen, Hughes’s translation:

“Black Women,” and “The Negro Mother” written by Hughes. Here Kernan compares Hughes the translator with Hughes the poet. Kernan expands his methodology by arguing that Hughes’s different roles functioned as distinct personas. His analysis shows Hughes’s continued evolution as a translator by demonstrating his increasing desire “to create a Black communist poetic chorus of his own making.” 

Kernan’s subsequent four chapters focus on the images of Hughes circulated through Cuba, the Soviet Union, and the Francophone world. Chapter Four centralizes Hughes’s relationship with the Cuban poet Regino Pedroso. Kernan argues that Hughes used his translations of Pedroso’s literary work to create a conversation between himself, Pedroso, and Pedroso’s persona that Hughes created through translation. Chapter Five compares the images of Hughes circulated through print culture in the Soviet Union and the Francophone world. He uses publications, including Internationalist Literature, as evidence from which to claim that Hughes’s reception in Soviet print culture sought to appropriate his anti-imperialist identity in the French-speaking world. Chapter Six builds on the previous chapter to show how Hughes employed his translations of French poet Louis Aragon and Soviet poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to respond to the images that circulated of Hughes in the Soviet Union and the Francophone world. Kernan’s seventh and final chapter argues that Hughes’s pan-African ideology informed his translation practices. The technique on which Hughes relied for his translations “plac[ed] paramount importance on authority of voice—on the ability to speak for one’s own community, for someone else’s community, or, via translation, for another text.” Hughes used the belief in foregrounding this voice as the basis for the ethics of his translation work—an ethics which simultaneously informed his pan-African ideology.

For Kernan, Hughes’s translations offer a means through which to examine Black internationalism and the different ways that particular racial contexts and experiences inform global race capitalism. Simultaneously, his work illuminates Hughes’s evolving radical and poetic practices. New World Maker presents an alternative and innovative lens through which to explore the complexities and interconnectedness of the African Diaspora. Not only does Kernan provide insight into Hughes’s oft-ignored and largely unpublished translation work, but he also forces scholars to image translation as another building block of Black internationalist thought. By studying translation, Kernan demonstrates how race and notions of Blackness change across geographic borders as well as social, political, and linguistic settings while illuminating the necessity of working across languages to understand the mutability of racial discussions.