"Many anarchist translations may have been the work of women"
 Lucía Campanella

Lucía Campanella (photo: Lucía Sclavo)

Tania Alonso
Lucía Campanella, researcher in the UOC's Global Literary Studies Research Lab (GlobaLS)


Regular anarchist publications played a key role in the spread of this social movement between 1890 and 1920, when anarchism was at its peak. As it was a global movement, the original texts were not always in the language of the publication and needed to be translated. A hundred years after this turbulent period, Uruguayan researcher Lucía Campanella is reviewing the literary translation published in the anarchist press of the time.

Thanks to the "The Anarchist Translation Flows and World Literature Project" (ARGOT) project, Campanella has returned to the Global Literary Studies Research Lab (GlobaLS), which is attached to the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the Faculty of Arts and Humanities at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC), where she had carried out research in 2021, thanks to a Marie Skłodowska-Curie postdoctoral grant.

Campanella began teaching Literature at secondary school level and continued her studies in Literature at Uruguay's Universidad de la República. Her doctoral research, for which she received an Erasmus Mundus grant, was jointly supervised by tutors in France and Italy. She specialized in Comparative Literature, especially the links between France and Río de la Plata. She is a member of the "History of Translation in Uruguay" group, which is developing the CSIC (Udelar) R&D "150 years of literary translation in Uruguay" project.

Why anarchy?

The field of anarchist studies has been around for 10 or 15 years now. Some colleagues at my university working in this field became interested in the anarchist press and anarchist educational practices. I came to the movement via Octave Mirbeau, a 19th-century French writer who was very close to certain currents of anarchism and whose works I studied for my doctoral thesis. Mirbeau wrote a novel I liked very much called The Diary of a Chambermaid, featuring a chambermaid who seems to hold anarchist views, reflecting the exploitation she suffers. Mirbeau was one of the darlings of the anarchist press in the early 1900s. I saw that in the anarchist press in Río de la Plata there were many translations of international literature, not just Mirbeau, but many other writers, not only anarchists.

What is the aim of the ARGOT project?

To extend the basic work I was doing and give it a new approach, studying the anarchist press in Montevideo and Buenos Aires. We want to study other cities of a similar nature, that are also ports through which substantial numbers of immigrants passed between 1890 and 1910, which is the period that interests me. We have extended our research to Río de Janeiro, Havana, New York, Lisbon and Barcelona. To cover all these cities over the whole period we're going to use computer tools that will allow us to process the enormous volume of data involved. The final result of our research will be two databases: one of translators and agents, and one of translated texts.

Which writers and languages stand out in the anarchist movement?

There was a main current, written mostly in French, and another peripheral current, in minority languages or languages that were difficult to translate, like Dutch or Norwegian. The latter was the language of Henrik Ibsen, a leading figure in the anarchist press of the time. The translations wouldn't have been done directly from the source language to the target language; there would've been an intermediate version in French or another language.

Why between 1890 and 1910?

It's a very important period in the history of anarchism. All over the world anarchists were carrying out attacks and assassinations that had a profound impact. Consequently, the movement attracted great interest from the media, the police and the judiciary. There was nobody at that time who didn't know what an anarchist was. The repression of anarchist activities led many activists to turn to writing as the only way to express themselves, although the anarchist press was practically illegal in many countries. There were also migratory movements, with anarchists being exiled or expelled. It was moreover a time of change in literature, with the appearance of the first avant-garde writers and people beginning to question what was and wasn't literature.

And what do we understand by literature today?

I couldn't tell you what is considered to be literature now, but the concept has clearly changed. This began in the 19th century, when literature started to move beyond the traditional genres, such as tragedy, comedy and epic poetry. It was a period when the novel burst on the scene and poetic forms other than the classical sonnet made their appearance. Today it's still unclear what is and isn't literature, but it no longer matters much whether or not a publication can be classified as literary.

What is comparative literature, one of your specialist interests?

Comparative literature rejects the idea that literature should necessarily be studied and understood within a national context. When I was a student, I had one course called Uruguayan literature, another that was Latin American literature, and then there was Spanish literature and world literature. I couldn't understand why Uruguay and Spain had their own course but not other countries. This is related to the tradition of understanding literature within the framework of what a country is. But readers are transnational. We don't just read what's published in our own country. Literature has always had an international but above all a transnational dimension. Comparative literature understands literature as a global phenomenon, takes a broader view and compares different systems.

Your other special interest is the history of translation in Uruguay. What are you working on in this field?

I'm involved in the "150 years of literary translation in Uruguay" project, which has been chosen by the Scientific Research Sector Committee at the Universidad de la República (CSIC-Udelar). In Uruguay there is no chair of literary translation. You can study legal translation, for example, but not literary translation. Nor is there a solid, well-established tradition of work related to translation. As a result, my three colleagues and I have had to do part of our training abroad. With this project we want to carry out a bibliometric study of the National Library catalogue, where all books published in Uruguay are deposited, to see which of the books published in the last 150 years are translations. We hope that compiling this information and making it available will be a stimulus for studies of translation.

All your studies take the gender perspective into account. What role have women played in the fields you study?

Right now, one of my colleagues and I are organizing a conference in Madrid next year on anarchist women translators and publishers. It has to be said that for many years, translation was considered a lesser, subordinate, secondary task, a lower category of written work. As it was seen in this way, it was often done by women, in anarchism and other fields. There's a lot we still don't know. I myself have found very few names of women translators. Also, in the case of the press, which is an area I have experience of, the translator's name is rarely mentioned and sometimes people use pseudonyms.

Are there good and bad translations?

I'm not looking for perfect translations and I'm not interested in comparing the translation with the original to see whether or not the translator was good. Sometimes people run down translators and we forget that the most important things we've read in life were translations and they might not have been the best. In very few cases are the translations of major works unanimously recognized as excellent. Indeed, the concept of a good translation changes over time. But none of this has stopped us loving Shakespeare or Ibsen, reading them in a language that's not the original. Many of the translations I come across in the anarchist press were done as well as people could and I'm interested in giving this intellectual work done in precarious conditions its rightful place.

Any new projects planned?

For some time I've been studying the French-Uruguayan writer Álvaro Armando Vasseur. He did a lot of translations and was the first to translate a large part of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass into Spanish and he was also the first to translate the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard into Spanish. He never attracted much attention, because he didn't stand out as a writer. My idea is to write something like an intellectual biography, which recognizes his contribution and the significance of his work as a cultural agent, even if it wasn't always successful.