Title: Introduction to Álvaro Armando Vasseur, Preface to the Sixth Edition of Walt Whitman: Poemas
Author(s): Rachel Price and Matt Cohen
Whitman Archive ID: anc.02045
Álvaro Armando Vasseur’s 1912 selection and translation of Walt Whitman’s poetry, titled simply Poemas, was an extremely influential text for hispanophone readers—the first substantial collection of Whitman poems in Spanish. Scholars have identified Vasseur’s translation as instrumental in accelerating Latin American poetry’s shedding of its “modernista” tendencies in favor of franker, often more explicitly socially and politically engaged verse.2 Of his prefaces to the various editions of the work, that for the sixth is the longest and most elaborate declaration of Vasseur’s sense of Whitman’s importance to international letters.
Vasseur was born in 1878 to French immigrants in Montevideo, Uruguay. He grew up in the small town of Santa Lucía, Canelones, about thirty miles outside of the capital, leaving at twenty for Buenos Aires, Argentina. There he mingled with prominent modernista writers Rubén Darío and Leopoldo Lugones. While in Buenos Aires Vasseur grew increasingly interested in Nietzsche, Marx, and scientific materialism. This last provided him with the tools to combat what he later called the “sentimental socialism” he had previously known.3
In 1901 Vasseur returned to Montevideo, dropped his pseudonym, and threw himself into a host of projects. He soon published several books of poetry, including Cantos Augerales (1904) and Cantos del Nuevo Mundo (1907). At the turn of the century neo-Romanticism and criollismo (local color) had reigned in River Plate literature; at this time they were giving way to modernismo and eventually to more “social” poetry. With fin-de-siècle socio-political ferment and the turn towards both socialism and modernismo, the liberal literary scene in Montevideo took up residence in a series of informal watering holes such as the Polo Bamba café, the “Carlos Marx” and “Emilio Zolá” Clubs, and the International Center for Social Studies.4 Vasseur found Whitman’s rhetoric of democracy consonant with the overlapping of politics, civic culture, and art in this climate. It is not surprising, then, that the same press responsible for the diffusion of European revolutionary thinkers such as Max Stirner, Karl Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, Georg Büchner and Friedrich Nietzsche would publish Vasseur’s translation of Whitman: the Spanish editorial house Sempere, based in Valencia.
In 1907, at age 29, Vasseur was named an Uruguayan consul to San Sebastián, Spain. As he recounts in the preface translated here, his interest in Whitman developed quickly during this time. Though Whitman’s work had been known to Spanish-language critics (such as José Martí) who encountered it in the U.S. or in translation in other European languages, Whitman remained all but untranslated into Spanish until Vasseur’s 1912 edition. Balbino Dávalos translated a few of Whitman’s poems on the occasion of the second American International Congress held in Mexico City in 1901; Miguel de Unamuno translated some in 1906.5 Only with Vasseur’s edition did Whitman become available and important to generations of Latin American poets, from the residual modernistas to the region’s major figures from the twentieth century, including César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Jorge Luís Borges.6
In the preface translated here, Vasseur is concerned to situate Whitman and his translation in the history of American cosmopolitan literary channels. To do so, he necessarily offers a detailed account of both the context for his translation and the methods he used to compose it. In it, too, he struggles with the influence of Darwinism and Freudianism as new intellectual frameworks for understanding Whitman’s complex blend of spirituality and materialism.
Vasseur’s repositioning of Whitman in the preface translated here takes place largely through a critique of George Santayana’s account of Whitman’s poetry in “The Poetry of Barbarism” (1900). Vasseur uses Santayana to read Whitman as simultaneously a national and an international figure, critiquing Santayana’s intellectual homelessness as he defines Whitman’s portability against it. Some anxiety about Santayana’s international literary capital may be at work here, betrayed also in the harshness about Martí and Darío (figures often praised by critics today as vectors for Whitman’s poetry into the hispanophone world). But in using the consistently religious Whitman to argue for secularization and in arguing his Americanness—implying both a kind of terroir in Whitman’s writing and that Whitman sought a hemispheric affinity—Vasseur suggests how complex the uses of Whitman were in Latin America. Vasseur’s text is rich with the complexity of the translation enterprise and exemplifies the flexibility Whitman offered his translators.
The text is taken from Vasseur, “Prólogo para la sexta edición,” Alfar 89 (La Coruña, Galicia: 1951). Poetic quotations have been translated literally, to convey the feel of Vasseur’s style; titles, however, have been rendered using the standard English versions for the sake of clarity.
1. This introduction and part of the translation that appears here were originally published as Matt Cohen and Rachel Price, “Álvaro Armando Vasseur’s Preface to the Sixth Edition of Walt Whitman: Poemas,” PMLA 123.2 (2008): 438-451. They are republished here with the permission of the Modern Language Association. [back]
2. Chilean scholar Fernando Alegría’s pioneering Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica offers comprehensive, cogent readings of the Vasseur translation and has been the foundation for all subsequent studies. Alegría writes that “of all the Spanish translations of Whitman’s book it is the one which has had the greatest influence on the poets and public of Spain and Hispanoamrica” Alegría, Walt Whitman en Hispanoamérica (Mexico: Colección Studium, 1954), 349. For a more detailed genealogy of the translation and new insights into it see Enrico Mario Santí, “The Accidental Tourist: Walt Whitman in Latin America,” in Do the Americas Have a Common Literature?, Gustavo Perez Firmat, ed. (Durham: Duke UP, 1990), 156-76. [back]
3. Vasseur, Infancia y juventud (Montevideo: Arca, 1969), 59. [back]
4. For further consideration of this moment see Hugo Achugar, Poesía y sociedad (Uruguay 1880-1911), (Montevideo: Arca, 1985); and Sergio Visca-Arturo’s interview with Alberto Zum Felde, Conversando con Zum Felde (Montevideo: Reportajes Culturales, Biblioteca Nacional Departamento de Investigaciones, 1969). [back]
5. See John E. Englekirk, “Notes on Whitman in Spanish America,” Hispanic Review 6.2 (1938), 134; and Gay Wilson Allen, The New Walt Whitman Handbook (New York: New York UP, 1975), 320. [back]
6. For more on Whitman’s role in Latin American literary aesthetics see Santí, “The Accidental Tourist”; and Jorge Salessi and José Quiroga, “Errata sobre la erótica, or the Elision of Whitman’s Body,” in Breaking Bounds: Whitman and American Cultural Studies, Betsy Erkkila and Jay Grossman, eds. (New York: Oxford UP, 1996): 123-132. Following Vasseur’s edition, selected poems by Whitman continued to be translated by writers such as Cuban poet José de Armas y Cárdenas and Chilean author and critic Arturo Torres-Rioseco. Complete translations of Leaves of Grass into Spanish followed in the post-war era, beginning with Concha Zardoya’s 1946 full translation with additional prose selections, Obras Escogidas. [back]