The translation history of Frederick Douglass’ writings lends insight into the translation economy of US slave narratives from the antebellum period to the present day, and highlights the emergence of this paradigmatic American narrative within global literature. The nineteenth-century US antislavery movement relied heavily on foreign moral and financial support, and translations into European languages provided a means of recruiting further support. In the contemporary era, these translations register international recognition of the importance of slave narratives in the origins of African American literature and American literature generally. Thus translations provide an historical marker of readership of earlier African American literature outside the United States. 

Douglass & Early US Slave Narrative Translations  

The first Douglass translation was of his 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, into Dutch in 1846 (Levensverhall van Frederik Douglass, een “gewezen”, Rotterdam: Kramers), in an illustrated edition that included William Garrison’s forward.   Next it appeared in French, translated by S.K. Parkes with the title Vie de Fréderic Douglass, esclave américan (1848). Little remains known of Parkes, for whom this was a sole translation, and the Parisian publishing house, Pagnere, was quite small. In Germany, Ottilie Assing’s translation of his 1855 My Bondage and My Freedom, was titled Sclaverei und Freiheit: Autobiographie (Hamburg: Hoffman und Campe, 1860). For further on the complex personal relationship between Douglass and Assing, see Christopher Lohman, Radical Passion: Ottilie Assing’s Reports from America and Letters to Frederick Douglass (Peter Lang, 2000), and Tamara Felden, “Ottilie Assing’s View of America in the context of Travel Literature by 19th-Century German Women,” The German Quarterly 65 (Summer-Autumn 1992) 3/4: 340-348. 

Douglass was not the first US ex-slave to publish a translated autobiographical narrative. One of the earliest such editions was the popular Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper, from American Slavery, was translated into Welsh in 1842 and published as Hanes bywyd a ffoedigaeth Moses Roper, o gaethiwed Americanaidd (Aberystwyth: Argraphwyd dros y cyhoeddwr gan J. Cox). The translator, Mary B. Tuckey, had already published an antislavery pamphlet through the Glasgow Ladies Emancipation Society and continued on to write a number of tracts for the American Sunday School Union. One of the most famous fugitives from slavery, William Wells Brown, received translation into Dutch in 1850 (Levensgeschiedenis van den Amerikaanschen slaaf, trans. M. Keijzer, Zwolle, W.E.J. Tjeenk Willink). Another fugitive ex-slave, John Brown, published Slave Life in Georgia in London in 1854, then published a German translation in Stuttgart the following year (Sklavenleben in Amerika, trans. Christoph Friedrich Grieb, Stuttgart, C. Belser, 1855).  However, such translations tended to be unusual productions, reflecting a general interest in issues of human emancipation rather than an interest in African American writing.  

The most popular US slave narrative in Europe was that of Josiah Henson, due to his association with the protagonist of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852). Translations of Truth Stranger than Fiction: Father Henson’s Story of his own Life (1858) appeared in two Swedish editions (both 1877), Danish (1877), Welsh (1877), Dutch (1878), French (1878), and German (1878). The German translation was published for consumption by both US German speakers (Cincinnati: Hitchcock & Walden) and in Germany (Bremen: Verlag des Tractahauses). A further domestic US translation appeared in Chicago in Norwegian in 1879 from an unidentified publisher. Henson’s account of religious conversion and providential deliverance apparently recommended it to the evangelical publishing houses that produced the Dutch and German editions. 

Post-Civil War to Mid-Twentieth-Century Translations 

A few post-war translations of Douglass appeared, encouraged by his status as a preeminent figure of the African American community. Following publication of Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881, it appeared in French in a two-volume translation titled Mes années d’esclavage et de liberté (Paris: E. Plon et cie, 1883; trans. Valérie Boissier de Gasparin). Other late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century translation languages included two Swedish editions (1895; trans. Carl Stenholm, and 1909; trans. unidentified). The most popular post-war slave narrative in Europe, however, as mentioned above, was that of Josiah Henson and not Douglass. In general,  once the urgency of the slavery question in the United States abated, there was little further translation interest in early US slave narratives.

In the early-to-mid twentieth century, Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery (1901), whose first chapters record his childhood memories of slavery and emancipation, exceeded by far Henson’s brief popularity. Washington’s autobiographical story of personal and racial self-improvement had particular appeal as a developmental model when Western colonial empires began fracturing and collapsing in Asia and Africa. The translations of Up from Slavery include German (1902, 1958), Dutch (1902, 1980), Swedish (1903, 1904), French (1903, 1961), Chinese (1932, two different editions in 1947, 1961, 1978, 1997, 2006 [inc. Du Bois and Johnson]), Urdu (1936), Xhosa (1951, by the noted South African intellectual James J.R. Jolobe), Japanese (1957), Sindi (1961), Hebrew (1964), Yoruba (1966), Sotho (1967), Spanish (1966, 1971), Turkish (1951, re-issued 1979), Telagu (1981), Bengali (1984), and Thai (1984). Mercer Cook notes that the 1903 French translation by Othon Guerlac, a French citizen residing in the United States, brought highly appreciative reviews in France. Cook, “Booker T. Washington and the French,” Journal of Negro History 40 (Oct. 1955) 318-340, at 331ff. The translation economy of Up from Slavery represents a major shift from earlier European editions that were products of political liberalism, towards later Asian and African translations, many of which embraced this narrative as an inspirational text of self-development.        

Washington’s eclipse of Douglass  in early-to-mid twentieth-century translation editions suggests international readerships turned towards Washington’s autobiography as the work of a modernist and modernizer. 

Contemporary Translations 

The rise of the US civil rights movement in the 1960s brought the stirrings of renewed attention to the origins of African American literature. After a hiatus of over a half-century new Douglass translations began appearing in Europe.  Apparently the only recent Douglass-related text that appeared in translation since prior to World War I was a Czech-language edition of Shirley Graham Du Bois’ biography, Once There was a Slave: The Heroic Story of Frederick Douglass (1947), which appeared in 1957 as Byl jednou jeden otrok: Hrdinský život Frederika Douglasse (Prague: Naše vojsko; trans. Jarmila Fastrová). 

Since the 1960s, there have been several modern German translations of Douglass. My Bondage and My Freedom was published in 1965 as Ein Stern weist nach Norden: Lebenserinnerungen (Berlin: Rütten & Loening, 1965; trans. Hans Herrfurth). Two more Douglass works appeared later: one was an edition of the Narrative for the adult market (Bornheim-Merton: Lamuv Verlag, 1986), the other a ‘retold’ version of the same by Robert Dewsnap for the juvenile market (Stuttgart: Klett-Schulbuchverlag, 1995).  

Douglass first attracted contemporary translation into French as a figure associated with political liberation. Thus, for example, the well-known left-wing Parisian publishing house of François Maspéro produced a 1982 translation of Douglass’ Narrative by Fanchita Gonzalez-Batlle, a veteran anti-colonialist intellectual who also translated the writings of Che Guevara. Another French edition of the same text appeared twenty-two years later, this time in Canada addressing Douglass as a North American writer (Montréal: Lux Editeur, 2004; trans. Normand Baillargeon and Chantal Santerre). An abbreviated French juvenile edition was published (Paris: Editions Mille et une nuits, 2003; trans. Guillaume Villeneuve), along with another translation of the Narrative (Paris: Gallimard, 2006; trans. Hélène Tronc) and an edition that combines Douglass’ “What to the American Slave is your Fourth of July?” with Thoreau’s “Slavery in Massachusetts” (De l’esclavage en Amérique, Paris: Editions Rue d’Ulm, 2006). This latter translation is by the Americanist scholar François Specq. 

The progressive Rome publishing house, Manifestolibri, has published Italian translations of both the Narrative (1992; trans. Bruno Maffi) and My Bondage and My Freedom (1996).  Uniquely, Douglass’ short story “The Heroic Slave” appeared in a bilingual Italian-English edition (Venezia: Supernova, 1999; trans. Massimo Soranzio). A Spanish edition of the Narrative also was issued in a bilingual format (Leon: Universidad de Leon, 2000; trans. Jesús Benito).                

Further contemporary translations of the 1845 Narrative include two Japanese editions (Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo, 1963; trans. Yoshio Nakano, and Tokyo: Hosei Daigaku Shuppankyoku, 1993; trans. Seiichi Okada), Chinese (Beijing: San Lian, 1988; trans. Li Wenjun Yi), Swedish (Stockholm: Carlsson, 1991; trans. Cilla Ingvar), Tamil (Cennai: Sneka, 2001; trans. Ira Natrasan), Finnish (Helsinki: Like, Otavan Kirjapaino, 2006; trans. Pekka Jääskeläinen), and Hebrew (Benyamina: Nahar Books, 2006; trans. Mikhal Ilan). While the range of translation expanded to include four Asian languages – Chinese, Japanese, Tamil and Hebrew – no Douglass translations into African languages are yet available.

Twenty-three Douglass foreign-language editions published between 1846 and 2008 constitute a lengthy translation history. Olaudah Equiano provides the only longer translation history among Atlantic slave narratives, with an initial Dutch translation edition in 1790 and a roughly comparable number of translation editions as for Douglass. Within this publication history, translation of US slave narratives has been limited to almost entirely to those written by male narrators. Harriet Jacobs provides the only exception, beginning with a Portuguese edition in 1988, only a year after Jean Fagan Yellin’s historical authentication of the Jacobs narrative (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987).  

Translation of Douglass in western Europe began as an act of antebellum transatlantic political identification with the antislavery movement. It is important to note, however, that even when translation editions of Douglass and other slave narratives are grouped together they represent a vastly smaller body of translations than the hugely popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin enjoyed in European book markets. A white-authored antislavery fiction received far greater readership than black-authored autobiographical accounts of slavery. Europe preferred sentimental imagination of slavery to realistic reports from escaped survivors. The only exception, Josiah Henson, who received a brief period of European attention in the late 1870s, confirms this point through his association with Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

After the Civil War, when international public concern over slavery faded, despite a couple translation editions of Douglass and Henson, the African American slave narrative essentially disappeared from translation for most of a century. When such narratives began re-appearing in new translations, Douglass became a choice that represented an entire genre. In comparing the translation record of Douglass and Washington for the past forty years, it is clear that Washington’s modernist appeal has faded as evidenced by a sharply diminishing number of translations. The major motivations for the latest wave of Douglass translations appear to have become assuring representation of early African American literature and to develop, in the words of Israeli publisher Reuven Miran, a “sensibility to other cultures of oppressed people”.  

As Shelley Fisher Fishkin reminds, the cultural work of US literature never stopped at national borders and has been characterized by a multilingual genealogy in both its creation and reception. She notes that in the early twentieth century African American literature scholar Arthur Schomburg “collected a Swedish translation of a work by Frederick Douglass, a German edition of the Narrative of Olaudah Equiano, and a Danish edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Fishkin, “Crossroads of Cultures: The Transnational Turn in American Studies,” American Quarterly 57 (March 2005) 1:17-57, at 27. This digital project to illustrate a translation history of Frederick Douglass through podcasts adopts similar educational goals as characterized Schomburg’s work in print media. 

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