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Editor in Chief's Introduction

Issue Introduction: Translating and Transnational American Studies

Introduction to Vol. 14, No. 2 of the Journal of Transnational American Studies


Black Elk Faces East: Beb Vuyk, Cultural Translation, and John G. Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks

This essay examines the work of the Dutch-Indonesian author Beb Vuyk in producing one of the first foreign-language translations of John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks: the 1964 Dutch edition Zwarte Eland spreekt. Published in the Netherlands, Vuyk’s translation connects the 1932 as-told-to autobiography of the Oglala Lakota heyoka Black Elk to the career of one of the most important Dutch-Indonesian authors after World War II, who had a prominent voice in debates on Indonesian decolonization. Linking the literary history of two different colonial contexts, Vuyk’s edition also connects Black Elk Speaks to a Cold War-era history of transnational literary exchange, which both mobilized and contained global anticolonial intellectual work. Her translation of Black Elk Speaks exemplifies that its global mobility did not necessarily engender a liberatory, decolonizing discourse, even as it produced new frameworks for Indigenous representation within a transnational intellectual history. As the Dutch-language edition offers a remarkably distinct representation of Black Elk’s narrative—and Neihardt’s textualization of it—Vuyk’s previously unremarked work as a translator demonstrates how acts of translation shape to transnational uptake of American Indian writing. Vuyk’s edition of Black Elk Speaks lends the book a previously unremarked place within transnational networks of decolonizing writers and intellectuals during the Cold War. At the same time, her linguistic and compositional choices demonstrate how the mediation and (mis)translation of literary texts contributes to the overwriting of Indigenous literature, in an expansive literary field marked by linguistic, cultural, and colonial hierarchies.

Mark Twain on the Soviet Silver Screen: Stalinist Laughter and Antiracism in "Tom Soier"

This article is an analysis of the Soviet film Tom Soier, an adaptation of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn released in 1936, at the height of the Stalinist period. In the article, the author places the film in the context of the Soviet support of the Black struggle against racial segregation in America by showing how Tom Soier creatively combines the plots of Twain’s novels in order to propagate an antiracist message. Furthermore, by casting African American actors in the roles of Black enslaved characters, the film also engages with what Steven Lee has called the ethnic avant-garde, i.e., the complex of transnational and multiethnic artistic exchanges and collaborations that took place in the interwar period and which had its nexus in the Soviet Union. The author argues that the seemingly progressive message of the film is nevertheless undermined in part by its evocation of racist practices of blackface in a key episode in the final scene. The author links the use of blackface as a punitive action with Stalinist cultural codes, and specifically with modalities of humor and the carnivalesque that overlap with some of the most violent periods of the Soviet Terror. The result is a film that updates the message of Twain’s novels to the then-current struggle for national self-determination and racial equality while also reflecting the darkest facets of Soviet Stalinist culture.

Authenticity and Autofiction: John Updike’s “The Bulgarian Poetess”

This article provides an innovative perspective on John Updike’s visit to Eastern Europe in the 1960s, including Bulgaria, as reflected in his short story “The Bulgarian Poetess” first published in The New Yorker on March 13, 1965. The inspiration for this interpretation is as much academic as it is anthropological. It comes from Updike’s use of my own surname, Glavanakova, which is not a common Slavic one, for the fictional character of the real-life Bulgarian poetess he met, whom researchers have established to be Blaga Dimitrova. Many have delved into the text aiming at a detailed and, more significantly, an authentic reconstruction of events, places and people appearing in the story (Katsarova 2010; Kosturkov 2012; Briggs and Dojčinović 2015). A main preoccupation of these analyses has been to establish the degree of factual distortion in Updike’s representation of the people and places behind the Iron Curtain. The pervasive imagery of the mirror, implying both its reflecting and doubling function, and the repetitive use of cognates associated with truth and honesty in the story suggest the focus of this article, which falls on the dynamics between authenticity and artifice from the perspective of autofiction by way of illustrating how one culture translates into another “at the opposite side[s] of the world” (Updike, “The Bulgarian Poetess”). In my interpretation, autofiction opens ample spaces for representations and discussions of identity and self-/reflexivity in a transcultural context.

SPECIAL FORUM: Diagnosing Migrant Experience: Medical Humanities and Transnational American Studies

Mental Illness as Cultural Narrative: Dementia, Im/migrant Experience and InterAmerican Entanglements in David Chariandy’s Soucouyant

The article discusses David Chariandy’s novel Soucouyant (2007) in the context of critical disability studies and hemispheric American studies. In particular, it explores dementia as a cultural narrative that links the protagonist’s personal case of dementia to her traumatic experiences of US violence, abuse, and exploitation in the Caribbean, her forced migration in Trinidad, and unfulfilled hopes of integration into Canadian society after having immigrated in the context of Canadian labor and immigration programs in the early 1960s. The article explores the various levels of meaning dementia unfolds in Chariandy’s novel as critical reflection on memory work, racism, and colonial as well as neocolonial exploitation. It also relates the narrative structure of the novel to recent geriatric life-telling therapy used to restore individual dignity and identity to people suffering from dementia.

Jack London’s Medical Migrations to a Pan-Pacific Alliance

Jack London’s life and career represent an exemplary case for the interrelation of transnational American Studies and medical humanities. In the short period of the forty years of his life he traveled the world and encountered a great number of illnesses and diseases, those of others and his own, from his infancy in 1876 to his premature death in 1916. Although he was born in San Francisco and died on his ranch in the Sonoma Valley of California, he was constantly on the move in a series of national and transnational migrations to Asia, the Canadian Northland, Alaska, Europe, Hawaiʻi, the Pacific Islands, Australia, North and South America. The principal motive for these kinds of unusual migrations is the miserable conditions of life in isolation and poverty, considered a social disease, which he tries to overcome by seeking adventures on land and sea trusting in his good stamina to improve his material situation. It is the experience of these unhealthy conditions of physical and social conditions, which brings about his career as a writer and makes him transform the contemporary Anglo-Saxon perception of the superiority of “the inevitable white man" into a plea for the acceptance of diversity and the realization of the need for a safe environment in the biosphere. In this contribution I will focus on four decisive episodes in Jack London's adventurous life in which the combination of medical and social issues are stages on the road to his eventual vision and formulation of a healthy environment and an egalitarian alternative society. In my reading of these medical migrations he serves as a prime example of living transnational American Studies.

Migration in Times of Pandemic: Mark Twain’s “3,000 Years Among the Microbes” and the Prospect of Planetary Health

Mark Twain’s novel fragment “3, 000 Years Among the Microbes” (1905) tells the story of the formerly human, now microbial protagonist “Huck” Bkshp. Huck reports from the retrospective of three thousand years of microbial time on the challenges of existence as a microbe in the body of the Hungarian immigrant and “tramp” Blitzowski. Migration and epi- and pandemic events enter into an often-fatal relationship. For many migrants, the desolate health care systems of their home countries were often one of the reasons for leaving in the first place. However, both during transit and on arrival at their destinations, they are exposed to no less precarious situations. Moreover, they are often perceived as a threat themselves. Against the backdrop of the lived pandemic experience of nineteenth-century cholera, Twain’s text depicts the hardships of migration in a literary original way and thus can be read as a paradigmatic literary manifest for the meeting point of transnational American studies and the Medical Humanities. In Twain’s novel fragment, the human-microbial protagonist Huck carries cholera, one of the deadliest pandemic threats of the nineteenth century. When immigrating into his host’s immigrant body, Blitzowski, he also becomes a carrier of the disease. That migrants bring fatal diseases is a topos not only in the (hi-)story of American immigration. Border closures and entry bans are often the first measures during disease outbreaks. However, epi- and pandemics cannot be excluded. As the impossibility of containment is a central topic of Twain’s narrative, I argue, it also can be seen as an early imagination of the emerging concept of “Planetary Health,” which, especially by focusing on recent microbiome research, rethinks the entanglements of human and more-than-human migrations in the face of current and future states of crisis.

Hygiene, Whiteness and Immigration: Upton Sinclair and the “Jungle” of the American Health Care System

Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle has been read as a critique of unfettered capitalism in the urban space of Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century. This essay argues that this capitalist critique may gain further depth when read through the intersection between transnational American studies and medical humanities. Through the perspective of the Lithuanian character Jurgis Rudkus, the narrative turns on its head xenophobic claims of immigrants as a health menace to the US American nation. In so doing, it engages the field of medicine in two significant ways. It counters the claim that immigrants have no knowledge of hygiene by looking at white tables through immigrant eyes; and it critiques the fact that the US medical system has become inhumane in its increasing economization. Reading Sinclair’s novel in dialogue with historical studies of migration and contagion at the beginning of the twentieth century as well as with other naturalistic texts such as Frank Norris’s The Octopus, I suggest that The Jungle anticipates current debates about health care and health justice, as they have recently been addressed in Barack Obama’s autobiography A Promised Land.

Stuck in the Middle With(out) You: How American Immigration Law Trapped “Defective” Immigrants Between Two Worlds

In 1891, the United States Congress codified a harsher version of the 1882 public charge provision. Commodifying health and pathologizing poverty, the public charge law excluded and deported immigrants termed “likely to become a public charge” according to its conflation of physical, mental, and economic status, shaping America’s image across the world. Though public charge implicated all immigrants, its impact on eastern European Jews captured the attention of pro-immigration American Jewish advocates. My article analyzes American Jewish attorneys and reformers who emphasized that public charge endangered Jewish immigrants who sought admission to and citizenship in the United States. Contesting the administration of the law—and especially the discretion that state officials possessed to enforce it—as un-American and antidemocratic, this coalition endeavored to liberalize public charge by promoting new interpretations of its terminology, reducing its reach, and contesting it through the courts, while contending with the ever-evolving concepts of borders and nationalist restriction. Public charge particularly victimized young Jewish women and girls, whom immigration officials often diagnosed as “mentally defective” despite evidence to the contrary. To illustrate this trend, I explore a case of a Jewish immigrant girl named Esther, diagnosed as insane, subjected to illegal medical examinations, and threatened with imminent deportation over the course of eleven years. I consider how American Jewish communal luminaries intervened on this immigrant’s behalf, simultaneously integrating disability into the field of American Jewish history and investigating how these advocates challenged the premise that illness and impairment disabled immigrants from becoming Americans.


Introduction to Y-Dang's Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia

This year's Shelley Fisher Fishkin Prize is awarded posthumously to the scholar Y-Dang Troeung for her 2023 book Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia, an excerpt of which we are honoured to reprint in the journal. Professor Troeung's work is introduced by her husband, Christopher B. Patterson.


Forward Introduction

Forward Editor's Introduction

Introduction from Framing the Nation: Claiming the Hemisphere

Markus Heide, 2022. Framing the Nation, Claiming the Hemisphere: Transnational Imagination in Early American Travel Writing (1770–1830). Stockholm: Stockholm University Press. © 2022 by Stockholm University Press.

"Exploring Japanese-Mexican Relations in Los Angeles and the US-Mexico Borderlands" from Transborder Los Angeles

Excerpt from Transborder Los Angeles: An Unknown Transpacific History of Japanese-Mexican Relations, University of California Press, 2022. © 2022 by Yu Tokunaga. All Rights Reserved. Permission must be sought from University of California Press for additional uses.

Excerpt from Sing and Sing On: Sentinel Musicians and the Making of the Ethiopian American Diaspora

“Communities,” from SING AND SING ON by Kay Kaufman Shelemay. Used by permission of The University of Chicago Press. © 2022 by The University of Chicago. All Rights Reserved.



The Indonesian poet and public figure Goenawan Mohamad published "Bob Dylan" in the magazine Tempo​ and it was also published in the English version of Tempo​. Reprinted by permission of the author Goenawan Mohamad and the translator Jennifer Lindsay.


The Indonesian poet and public figure Goenawan Mohamad published "Bandits" in the magazine Tempo​, which was also published in the English version of Tempo​. Reprinted by permission in the Journal of Transnational American Studies.

Odysseus in Liverpool

Translation of "Odysseus in Liverpool: Bob Dylans 'Roll on John.'" In Weltliteratur interkulturell: Referenzen von Cusanus bis Bob Dylan, edited by Heike C. Spickermann, 129-140. Heidelberg: Winterverlag, 2015.

On the High Art of Folk Poetry: What Jorge Luis Borges and Bob Dylan Have in Common

Extended and translated for JTAS's Reprise section. Ana C. Cara, “¿Qué tienen en común Jorge Luis Borges y Bob Dylan? Sobre el elevado arte de la poesía popular,” originally published in Palabras Enlazadas: Estudios en Homenaje al Profesor Lászió Scholz, 2018.

The Ever-Changin' Times and Myth of Bob Dylan

This is a commissioned translation of "The Beginning of Our Times—A Myth" by Yoshiaki Sato, which was originally published in Japan in 2010.