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The wonderful poetic production of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, whom Carl Van Vechten memorably called “the Poet Laureate of the Negro race,” was born on 1 February 1902 in Joplin, Missouri; he died in New York City on 22 May 1967. This year, then, we celebrate Hughes‘ birthday at the beginning of what is now Black History Month, and we honor the 50th anniversary of his untimely passing. Remembering Hughes will no doubt lead to more books, articles, and conferences, which is as it should be. This work will be added to what has already been written about Hughes, much of it based on the Langston Hughes Papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale.

Given these riches, one would imagine that there is little left to discover about Hughes. And yet, new materialnew to us nowstill surfaces from time to time. The story I would like to share here, however briefly, has to do with one such unexpected surfacing. It speaks loudly to the international reputation Langston Hughes enjoyed for most of his life, something we tend to forget here at home.

On 20 October 2016, I received an email from Nora Galer, one of Julio Galer’s three children, who, it turns out had been living in New York City for the past 25 years. She told me that she has in her possession all the letters her father, who passed in 2006, had kept from his long correspondence with Langston Hughes. If you don’t know who Julio Galer is, you’re not alone, and that is the point of recounting this story.

Born in Argentina, Julio Galer was one of Hughes’s many literary translators, and, as we well know, translators tend to be rather invisible. They certainly have not exactly received the attention they deserve. Galer stands out among those who translated Hughes’s writings into many languages because his interest in Hughes’s work was much more than a passing fancy. Starting in the later 1940s, Julio Galer worked tirelessly on his Spanish translations of Hughes’s autobiographical writings, fiction, plays, and of course, poetry. In 1956, he published a hefty collection of his versions of Hughes’s poems in Buenos Aires. Throughout all this, Galer and Hughes corresponded for almost twenty years, from 1948 to 1966.

Langston Hughes in 1943. Photo by Gordon Parks for the US Office of War Information. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I was familiar with Galer’s translations and had written about them in The Worlds of Langston Hughes (2012), but I had no idea about the extent of his correspondence with Hughes. All I knew at the time was that he had sent Hughes a copy of his book, Poemas de Langston Hughes, which I had found at Beinecke Library, along with the Spanish versions of Mulatto, Laughing to keep from Crying, and I Wonder as I Wander.

It wasn’t until I flew up to New York City barely two weeks after Nora Galer’s email, talked with her at length, and perused her father’s papers, that I began to appreciate how much of a serious commitment Julio Galer’s Hughes translations had been from the very start. “You see, Mr Hughes,” the 23-three-year-old Galer writes in his first letter from April 1948, “I do not undertake this heavy task just for commercial purposes, I do not make my living translating but teaching. But I want to put at the disposal of the Spanish speaking public your wonderful poetic production. In my opinion the translator is like the apostle, because, like him, his mission is to spread the holy word, in this case the holy word of beauty and knowledge.”

What attracted Julio Galer to Hughes’s poems was a shared literary sensibility, which is what made Galer such an extraordinary translator of Hughes’ writings, especially of the poetry. Yet, one looks in vain for at least a word about Galer’s important work as a literary translator in the obituary published in 2006 by the International Labour Office, for which he worked from 1959 to 1987. But at least there is a reference to his “rare sensitivity to human and historical situations.” Julio Galer and Langston Hughes almost met, but not quite. Truly a shame, that.

Let me end with an anecdote that speaks to Langston Hughes’ afterlives, and not just in translations. When we first met, Nora and I decided to pay homage to Hughes by visiting his old brownstone on 20 E. 127th Street in Harlem. Hughes lived there during the entire time Julio Galer and he corresponded. As we lingered on the steps of this run-down, empty building, a garrulous neighbor walked up to us. The good news he told us was that Langston’s house was finally being fixed up. By whom? we asked. We were especially curious because of recent efforts by the I, Too, Arts Collective to raise money to rent this landmark and use it as a space for younger poets and musicians. The fellow’s answer came as a surprise: “By his children, of course.” He insisted, even after we gently put to him that Hughes did not have any childrenat least not biological ones. I don’t think the man was referring to Renee Watson and the other poets who are trying to raise money to save Hughes’s old home from being gentrified. By hindsight, thought, I guess he was right, in a sense. In the end, it all depends on who counts as kin.

Featured image credit: “The poem Danse Africaine on the wall of a building in The Netherlands” by Tubantia, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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