Reading across Fields: An Italian Americanist looks at Hawaiʻi
by Donatella Izzo

Let me translate myself for you. In Italy, my field is called Letteratura angloamericana—literally, American Literature in English, a notion, as you can see, both geographically more inclusive and linguistically less inclusive than what most teachers of Letteratura angloamericana actually study, that is, the literature of the United States.

What I actually study and teach, in other words, in the United States would be covered by Departments of English, whereas to us, “inglese”—English—means unequivocally British. American literature is institutionally separate from British literature, a label which however includes all other literatures in English written all over the world but in the United States.

You are now beginning to see what the underlying rationale drawing the boundaries of Italian disciplinary fields is: it is not based on language, and it is not even based on present political or national boundaries. Rather, it obeys an unwritten rule that coincides with the nineteenth-century extension of colonial empires, where “English” spans the whole of the former British empire. This is hardly surprising, after all, in view of the fact that the overall intellectual framework of the Italian education system was designed in the early twentieth century. The lasting heritage of this covert colonial logic, however, accounts for another fact that I deem relevant to an understanding of my position. Along with most other non-western-European countries, the United States—believe it or not, and however stridently this may contrast with actual power relations—is looked upon with unmistakable cultural condescension in the Italian humanities, as if from the vantage point of a metropolitan empire regarding the inferior achievement of a former colony through an unbridgeable gap. And the way the United States tends to be regarded as a scholarly object resembles nothing so much as what in the United States itself would be called “Area Studies.” As a student of American literature, you are constantly called upon to translate the country and the culture as a whole to your own fellow citizens, as if—according to Fredric Jameson’s well known contention about the Third World—US literature, too, were inherently an allegory of the nation. That explains why a Henry James scholar like myself is frequently asked to give interviews on such disparate matters as the US elections, the invasion of Iraq, Katrina, and so on, as if my professional expertise in American literature qualified me automatically as a wholesale interpreter of the country, in ways that would be unthinkable if I were a scholar of Shakespeare or Dickens, of Molière, or Cervantes, or Goethe. This is why when I introduce myself to scholars from other countries, I usually define my field as “American Studies”: as a student of United States literature I am also, willy-nilly, an American Studies scholar in the American sense of the word—much as I would otherwise disaffiliate myself from some of the institutional aims and ideological implications of that field. Academic labels are of course related to specific institutional histories, but they are also a mirror of deeper cultural assumptions: the instability of my professional label across languages, as I hope to show, is far from unrelated to the quality of my professional gaze on the literature of Hawaiʻi.

As you must have realized, I am no professional translator; if anything, I am the reverse of a translator—after all, as a teacher, my constant attempt is making translation unnecessary by providing students with the tools needed to read and interpret on their own, confronting the culture of the Other in the Other’s own language, and performing their own othering in the process. In spite of that, I am responsible for either translating myself or instigating the translation of most of the handful of texts from or about Hawaiʻi that now exist in Italian—poetry and essays by Haunani-Kay Trask and kuʻualoha hoʻomanawanui, as well as the critical essays by Candace Fujikane, Cynthia Franklin and Laura Lyons, and Cristina Bacchilega making up two special issues of Ácoma, an American studies journal published in Italy, which I edited with Erminio Corti and with Nadia Inserra, respectively.

When one is not a professional translator, translating is a special decision that has to do not just with admiration for the object of the translation, but also and perhaps primarily with cultural politics. Let me, then, explain the hidden agenda behind my uncharacteristic endeavor. I might describe it thus: putting Hawaiʻi back into the map of American Studies in Italy, and watch the result.

As you may have begun to suspect, my topic here is not so much translation in the linguistic and textual sense, but translation as the act of transferring and thereby reconfiguring knowledge in the transition from one language to another, from one country to another, from one field to another, from one institutional context to another. Like language and like national boundaries, disciplinary boundaries are of course arbitrary, but then, they are also the scaffolding of thought, even if only to the extent that the scaffolding may be pulled down and the boundaries challenged.

My involvement with the literature of Hawaiʻi, I have come to realize over the years, is one of the tools that help me self-awarely unhinge that scaffolding. Hawaiʻi to me has been a perpetual transgression of the intangible boundaries defining my disciplinary concerns and consequently my stance as a scholar and my tasks as a teacher. What do I teach, when I teach the literature of Hawaiʻi in an American literature class? What kind of American studies do I envisage and what kind of American Studies do I produce, when, as an Americanist, I focus on Hawaiʻi? And how does my being an Italian Americanist factor into the process?

Hawaiʻi has been an obvious source of embarrassment to the field imaginary of traditional American Studies: as the living proof of United States expansionism, it challenged the self-representation of a country that has long defined itself as untouched by the European phenomenon of colonial expansion and imperialism. But ever since Amy Kaplan and Donald Pease’s groundbreaking volume Cultures of United States Imperialism, in 1993, rendered the notion of an American empire central to the New Americanist reconfiguration of the field, Hawaiʻi would seem to have become an asset to American studies, contributing to usher in—in Donald Pease and Robyn Wiegman’s terms—a new, “counter-hegemonic” or “post-hegemonic” American Studies. And it is certainly no accident that over the last few years, books about Hawaiʻi have begun appearing in major national American Studies series.

I have criticized elsewhere the too-snug way in which the New Americanists tend to describe their brand of American Studies as “post” or “counter” hegemonic, as if it really could be such in a United States that continues to wield an unequalled worldwide power, and within a disciplinary field whose foundational nationalism frequently appears to be not so much unsettled by its new intellectual developments, as revamped on a global scale and made wider and more capacious. Consequently, I will not dwell on that now, and will limit myself to underlining the paradoxical position that Hawaiʻi occupies in the present-day reconfiguration of American Studies, with its claim to sovereignty, its oppositional Native cultural tradition, and its self-awarely Local literature engulfed and refunctionalized in the service of American Studies’ (or, just as frequently, Asian American Studies’) claim to transcontinental reach and internal heterogeneity.

But let me go back to my vantage point as an Italian Americanist, and the implications of Hawaiʻi for the field as practised and experienced in my country. As a place that is politically part of the United States, and yet a contested part and one that is placed outside its continental boundaries, Hawaiʻi does not rest smoothly under the label of “American”; as a literature that is not undisputedly American and is not exclusively in English, nor exclusively in standard English, the literature of Hawaiʻi—be it Native Hawaiian or Local literature—undermines the very assumptions of my field as defined in Italian academia: American literature in English. Teaching the literature of Hawaiʻi, therefore, amounts to performing a double gesture: on the one hand, I’m implicitly repeating the American takeover of the islands, appropriating Hawaiʻi to my institutional field by taking for granted that it belongs within it. On the other hand, I’m forcing the field open, challenging not just received notions of American literature as monocultural and monolingual (according to the well-known linear model “From Puritanism to Postmodernism”), but also their easy refurbishing in multicultural and, more recently, transnational terms, and re-inscribing it within a geo-political framework that involves dispossession, settlement, and the power imbalance of the contact zone, as well as immigrant flows, transit, and exchange.

This framework, to my mind, is all-important, not just to American literature students, but also when it comes to published translations addressed to the general public. What I have come to realize experimenting with translation and reader response is that in the case of Hawaiʻi, translation per se, however accurate and aesthetically satisfactory, is inevitably inadequate.

When read in the original, texts in English from Hawaiʻi frequently have a defamiliarizing effect: the use of Pidgin in Local works, as well as the tendency to alternate between English and Hawaiian in works by Native Hawaiians, constantly foreground an internal difference that is rooted in historical vicissitudes and cultural complexity. How far can that be conveyed in translation? The distinction between Pidgin and standard English immediately gets lost as soon as you start translating both in standard Italian, for lack of a nation-wide linguistic variant that would convey similar implications. In the case of Hawaiian, you can keep the linguistic difference intact, but even more subtly, what changes is the meaning of that difference. It is not just that the vowels of the Hawaiian language are more similar in sound to Italian than to English, a fact that in itself attenuates the impact of the language shift; the problem is also that, lacking a previous knowledge of the historical and political issues being played out in the contrast between the two languages, any Italian reader is likely to take the Hawaiian insertions, as well as the poignant mentions of Hawaiian plants, animals, and places, as harmless local color, a kind of prolonged “aloha” addressed to literary tourists.

French philosopher Antoine Berman contrasts “ethnocentric” translations to “ethic” ones: the former are familiarizing, aiming at systematically denying the otherness of the foreign text, domesticating it and annexing it to one’s language and one’s culture. The latter keep the gap open, compelling the reader to experience the foreign text in its newness and heterogeneity, and “opening one’s language to the Other” (76, my translation). Defamiliarizing language in translation is a way of being hospitable to the Other. But what if the very act of translation, by transposing the foreign text and the foreign language in a familiar one, grafts it on a set of pre-conceived pre-suppositions that it finds itself unable to challenge by the power of language alone?

Italian readers—and believe me, Italian scholars as well—see Hawaiʻi as the stereotypical tourist paradise, a perception encouraged by the fact that out of 13 books in Italian on Hawaiʻi in print at present, 7 are tourist guides and 2 are books on rare plants and animals (of the remaining 4, one is Susanna Moore’s The Myth of Hawaii, one is James Michener’s Hawaii, one is Marshall Sahlins’ How Natives Think: About Captain Cook, for Example, and one is a memoir by an Italian II WW veteran). Translating different books might of course make a difference; creating an interest in and understanding of different books, though, is yet another matter—a task that is more paedagogical and political than it is linguistic or philosophical, and that has to do more with changing existing cultural conditions than with producing effective literary renderings. A similar task was performed, in Italy, by the first generation of Americanists in the 1930s and 1940s, who through their emphasis on a literature of ordinary language and of ordinary men and women, represented the United States as the land of democracy to a country that was then under the Fascist dictatorship and in the middle of a World War, and “used” it as a political instrument within their own country. And it was performed again by the second-generation Americanists of the 1960s, who through their work of historical and political documentation as well as literary criticism created an awareness of the grassroots protest movements as well as of the countless forms of artistic experimentation then going on in the United States, and had a consciousness-raising impact on their generation.

What function, then, if any, might this archipelago so lately (and belatedly) discovered by American Studies, Hawaiʻi, have in present-day Italian culture? and how can translation in the linguistic and literary sense be envisaged not as the self-sufficient process and the marketable product, but as the crucial “supplement” of a bi-directional cultural politics that while enhancing the visibility of local conflicts and struggles, grafts them onto different local conditions and makes them productive there? Let me now move to the classroom, the main venue where my “future anterior”—“what will have happened as a result of one’s work” (Spivak 29)—is performed and conjured.

The first, obvious thing that happens when Hawaiʻi is made to enter the students’ ken as an object of readerly and scholarly attention is that they stop perceiving it as a pristine Eden and start discovering its stratified historical and present-day experience. But other, less predictable things happen in the classroom when you take into account the potentialities of Hawaiian literature not only as an object within the field of American Studies, but as a point of view on the field of American Studies, and consequently on the United States. Once they view it from, or rather through Hawaiʻi, the students’ perception of the US changes. No longer self-contained, and no longer primarily perceived in its transatlantic connection with Europe, the country is reframed in a wider geographical, political and cultural context, one that effectively unsettles previous Eurocentric orientations. What is even more interesting, in view of the representation of America as a ‘decolonized country’ still implicit in the Eurocentric point of view of the Italian academic establishment, is that once one has put back into the picture its extraterritorial fiftieth state and thus recontextualized it within the framework of its Pacific expansion, the United States is fully displayed as a metropolitan power. What the “view from the shore” reveals is the deployment of US neocolonial hegemony outside its continental boundaries—a process operating at both the local and the global level.

Hawaiʻi thus appears as a sort of mise en abyme of an ongoing process of hegemony and resistance both within and without the United States. To my mind, this makes Hawaiʻi a unique point of entrance into American Studies for non-Americans, a mirror of other decentered points of view. For someone who is, like Italian students and readers, simultaneously outside the national boundaries of the United States and under its political and cultural influence, Hawaiʻi acts as the third point in a triangulation revealing our shared position vis-à-vis “America”—the continent in one case, the country in the other—as equally situated at “the periphery of the Empire” (as Umberto Eco wrote in the 1970s) and equally “not quite not American,” to paraphrase Homi Bhabha. A position prompting similar responses, which might possibly be defined in terms of “disidentification” (José Esteban Muñoz) with a dominant model that is simultaneously expansive and exclusionary, and whose script is thus both critically contested and appropriated and rewritten for one’s own liberatory ends.

But to conclude, let me focus again on the classroom. I have long wondered what causes my students’ keen interest in, and warm response to texts from Hawaiʻi, despite the fact that they are written in a language that is difficult for them, full of allusions to facts and circumstances that are far from their life experience, and set in places that most of them will probably never get a chance to visit. I wonder whether the answer could be in another kind of slanted identification. At the moment when the internal operation of economic power and cultural hegemony is descried in the mirror of Hawaiʻi, along with the resistance that it sets in motion, a similar process is made visible in the students’ own experience. I teach in Naples, in the South of Italy, the capital of a separate kingdom until the Italian unification in 1860 under the House of Savoy, a provincial dynasty from the North, and ever since a place of economic underdevelopment and exploitment, high rates of unemployment and criminality, massive internal and external emigration, political corruption, and social malaise. An internal colony of sorts, long labelled as picturesque and confined into the ghetto of its alleged calling as a tourist resort, gifted as it is with a lavish natural landscape and unbelievable artistic wealth. The Neapolitan dialect is a language in its own right, endowed with a long history and a rich literary and cultural tradition dating back to the thirteenth century and thriving well into the twentieth, alive in local parlance even though, like other Italian dialects, it is now devalued as a low-class language whose use, however frequent in the family circle, is discouraged in all institutional and social occasions.

Does that recall anything?

I believe that for many of my students, the Hawaiian context resonates with their own, and the discovery of the Hawaiian cultural scene enables a re-discovery of theirs. Both Native and Local literature, each in its own way, evoke powerful and empowering responses, eliciting from students equally proud claims for their own brand of nativeness and localness, of political awareness, cultural resistance, and linguistic innovation. A few months ago, a former student of mine, Neapolitan by birth and cosmopolitan by education, announced his wish to attempt a Neapolitan translation of Zamora Linmark’s Pidgin. Possibly—but I won’t push this argument any further here—post-hegemonic American studies might be born exactly in such translations to come.

Works Cited

Berman, Antoine. La traduction et la lettre ou l’auberge du lointain. Paris: Seuil, 1999.

Corti, Erminio and Donatella Izzo, eds.. “Margini degli Stati Uniti,” special issue of Ácoma 24 (estate-autunno 2002).

Eco, Umberto. Dalla periferia dell’Impero. Milano: Bompiani, 1977.

Inserra, Incoronata and Donatella Izzo, eds.. “Hawaiʻi al di là del mito,” special issue of Ácoma 29-30 (estate-autunno 2004-inverno 2005).

Jameson, Fredric. “Third-World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism.” Social Text 15 (Fall 1986). 65-88.

Kaplan, Amy and Donald E. Pease, eds.. Cultures of United States Imperialism. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993.

Muñoz, José Esteban. Disidentifications. Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press 1999.

Pease, Donald E. and Robyn Wiegman, eds.. “Futures.” The Futures of American Studies. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. Death of a Discipline. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.


Donatella Izzo is a Professor of American Literature at the Università degli studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” Naples (Italy). Currently the President of the Italian Association for North American Studies, Professor Izzo is the author and editor of several books, including Portraying the Lady: Technologies of Gender in the Short Stories of Henry James (2001) and Americanistica transnazionale e nuova comparatistica (2004). Her Italian-language volume on Asian American literature is forthcoming; and for “Hawaiʻi al di là del mito,” special issue of Ácoma, 29-30 (2004-2005), she translated all of the articles about Hawaiʻi from English into Italian. She is currently working on translating all of Haunani-Kay Trask’s poems, of which a few have already been published in Izzo’s Italian translation. She has also translated Henry James’s early fiction and diaries into Italian.

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