Enlisting the Farmer for the Socialist Cause: The Pionier’s Translation of Frank Norris’s the Octopus

Some of the most important contributions to the fictional representation of farming and the farmer in the United States have come in the shape of the farm novel. Including all novels set on farms, dealing with farming, and featuring farmers as their main characters, this genre simultaneously emerged, as I have argued in The Farm Novel in North America(2013), around the middle of the nineteenth century in the United States, English Canada, and French Canada. The farm novel then went on to reach a peak in popularity during the first decades of the twentieth century in all three North American „national“ literatures, but while the genre has remained productive in English North America during the second half of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, the mid-1940s saw a paradigm change and, ultimately, the demise of the farm novel in French Canada.

For about one hundred years, however – from the middle of the nineteenth to the middle of the twentieth century – the farm novel accounted for an important part of the novelistic production in American, English Canadian, and French Canadian literatures. Even more importantly, all over North America these novels depicted the farm in roughly the same way, namely, as a symbolic space of the nation. Indeed, as I have argued in my book, farm novels from the United States, English Canada, and French Canada combined “historiographical discourses on nineteenth-century North American agriculture and ideological discourses on American, English Canadian, and French Canadian nationhood” to project North American national self-conceptions onto the farm, thus turning stories about the land “into stories about the nation – and vice versa.”

North American farm novels not only contributed to the concept or image of the American farmer through the text themselves, however, but also through subsequent adaptations and translations of these works. Particularly translations of farm novels into foreign languages engaged with the genre’s spatializations of North American national mythologies in multifarious and sometimes surprising ways. My case in point will be the first German translation of The Octopus: A Story of California, Frank Norris’s penultimate novel and the first of his projected “Epic of the Wheat” trilogy. In 1907, six years after the original publication of The Octopus and five years after the unexpected death of Frank Norris at the age of 32, the Stuttgart, Germany-based Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt published a German translation of Norris’s novel, prepared by a certain Eugen von Tempsky, who would later also translate the second installment of the Epic of the Wheat. Although this translation of The Octopus was billed on the cover as the “einzig berechtigte Verdeutschung,” literally the “only authorized Germanization” of Norris’s novel, it was by no means the first German translation of The Octopus. Already three years before, in 1904, excerpts of The Octopus in German had been published in Der Pionier, a yearly calendar issued by the New York City-based German-language daily New Yorker Volkszeitung. Committed, like its parent publication, “to the interests of the working class” and the radical left, the Pionier regularly featured illustrated articles, poems, and short stories about laborers in both North America and Europe, including translations of American texts into German. Following Norris’s death in 1902, the Pionier published an obituary to Norris along with an anonymous, highly selective translation of The Octopus that seeks to align Norris’s novel with the periodical’s socialist editorial policy.

In the following, I would like to employ approaches from both periodical studies and translation studies to discuss the ideological repurposing of the symbol of the American farmer in the Pionier’s translation of The Octopus, focusing on the translational means used to transform Norris’s West Coast farmers into figures of identification for East Coast left-leaning German immigrant workers.

First published in January 1878 for 4,000 committed subscribers, who had been solicited over a period of two years, the New Yorker Volkszeitung constituted one of the three most important German-language dailies published in New York City, along with the more conservative New Yorker Staats-Zeitung, founded in 1834, and the Deutsches Journal, owned by William Randolph Hearst. Although the paper had received a starting capital of $1,100 from the Socialist Labor Party and was aligned with the SLP during the first years of its existence, it was owned and published by the independent non-profit Socialist Co-operative Publishing Association and was thus answerable only to itself and its constituents. Indeed, Peter Connolly-Smith has argued that it was probably the Volkszeitung’s “stubborn independence – its history of shifting allegiances, breaks with the various labor organizations and parties of the day, and routinely voiced challenges to their authority – that ensured the papers survival for fifty-four years” (66), until its demise in 1932. Until then, it constituted, in the words of Paul Buhle, the “historical standard for American Marxist newspapers” – Among those founded in the same pioneer era of the modern left, not even the Chicagoer Arbeiterzeitung or the Philadelphia Tageblatthad the prestige, intellectual leadership, or sustained national impact of the NYVZ (168).

By 1882, daily circulation of the then fourteen year-old paper had risen from 4,000 to 10,000, and the publishers decided to sponsor a yearly calendar, entitled Der Pionier. The Pionier was neither the only German-language socialist calendar published in the United States nor the only other publication of the Volkszeitung’s publisher next to the Volkszeitung itself. Carol Poole has located two more yearly calendars aimed specifically at a German immigrant working-class audience: the Kalender des Philadelphia Tageblatt, which during its last two issues in 1903 and 1904 simply reprinted the Pionier, and the New Jersey Arbeiterkalender. Apart from the daily edition of the Volkszeitung and the yearly Pionier, the Verlag der New Yorker Volkszeitung, in turn, also published a weekly edition of the Volkszeitung, called Vorwärts, as well as the English-language “The Worker,” a weekly “published,” according to advertisements, “in the interest of the Working Class and Advocating the Principles of the Socialist party.”

Like all the other members of the Volkszeitung’s family of publications, the Pionier had an explicit socialist editorial policy. This policy manifested itself in the Pionier’s title page, which showed male workers in various professions – among them a farmer – against the background of a rising sun surrounded by the words “liberty” and “labor,” it manifested itself in its calendar section, which listed important biographical dates such the birthdays of Ferdinand Lasalle and Karl Marx, in its “entertainment” section, which featured poems, articles, stories about working class life as well as caricatures of the bourgeoisie and the clergy, and, finally, in its advertisement section, which featured ads by the socialist Literature Company or by the Arbeiter-Kranken- und Sterbe-Kasse, a NYC-based mutual aid society.

It was in this very particular periodical environment, then, that the first German translation of The Octopus appeared. Incidentally, only about one translation was included in every issue of the Pionier, the rest of its fictional, non-fictional, and poetic content was original material either written by Germans or German-Americans, which makes the inclusion of The Octopus all the more significant. Norris’s novel, however, seems like a particularly fitting and, at the same time, a particularly curious choice for a periodical such as the Pionier. Based on the famous “Mussell Slough Affair,” a highly publicized 1880 dispute over land titles between farmers in the San Joaquin Valley in California and the Southern Pacific Railroad in which seven men were killed, The Octopushas been analyzed as a naturalistic novel of group defeat – a novel in which „a powerful social or economic force – namely, the monopolistic Pacific & Southwestern Railroad, the eponymous “Octopus” and a veritable machine in the Garden – causes the fall of a particular class or group of men – the wheat farmers of the San Joaquin Valley in Southern California organized in the Farmer’s League. Its depiction of an organized struggle against a capitalist oppression and exploitation makes The Octopus appear, at least upon first sight, like an ideal candidate for inclusion in the Pionier. However, the novel also contains numerous elements that squarely contradict the periodical’s underlying ideology. For one thing, the wheat farmers are no working-class laborers, rather, their enormous ranches are, like the railroad, ruthless capitalist corporations: “They had no love for the land. They were not attached to the soil. They worked their ranches as a quarter of a century before they had worked their mines. … To get all there was out of the land, to squeeze it dry, to exhaust it, seemed their policy” (2:14). Hence, the monopoly of the railroad complements rather than contrasts with the reckless monoculture of the farmers. Their struggle against the railroad is no socialist counterrevolution, but a fight among big businesses. Secondly, the only “red” character in the novel, the anarchist saloon-keeper Caraher, is ultimately portrayed as an irresponsible and cowardly agitator, a “plague spot in the world of the ranchers” who, “unwilling to venture himself, to risk his own life” merely “poison[s] the farmers’ bodies with alcohol and their minds with discontent” (620). Indeed, while urging two other characters to attempt murder (and providing them with the weapons to do it), all Caraher himself does is holding fiery speeches based on the extracts and quotations from socialist and communist writers reprinted in the “anarchist” journals to which he subscribes – journals like the Volkszeitung and the Pionier, which indeed offered reprintings of, amongst others, Marx, Engels, and Lassale through its “Socialist Literature Company.”

Perhaps most importantly, the idea of a worker’s movement or even a revolution – the idea of any kind of conscious class action, in fact – is discarded by the much-discussed conclusion of The Octopus, in which the poet Presley, the focal point of the novel, recapitulates the conflict between the farms and the railroad and concludes: “But the WHEAT remained — Through the welter of of blood at the irrigation ditch, through the sham charity and shallow philanthropy of famine relief committees, the great harvest of Los Muertos rolled like a flood from the Sierras to the Himalayas to feed thousands of starving scarecrows on the barren plains of India. Falseness dies; injustice and oppression in the end of everything fade and vanish away. Greed, cruelty, selfishness, and inhumanity are short-lived; the individual suffers, but the race goes on. — The larger view always and through all shams, all wickedness, discovers the Truth that will, in the end, prevail, and all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for the good” (651-52).

I should mention at this point that several critics have strongly objected to the utilitarianism and optimism of this conclusion, considering it incompatible and utterly inconsistent with “the terrible events in the narrative,” “outrageous” and “as hollow, as unconvincing as the typical Hollywood happy ending,” or at least “uncommonly upbeat for a naturalistic text.” Some, like James K. Folsom, have even suggested that the conclusion of The Octopus might be highly ironic. The philosophy this conclusion seeks to express – namely, that “all things, surely, inevitably, resistlessly work together for the good” – also seems to be utterly incompatible with the general worldview propagated by the Pionier. If “injustice and oppression in the end of everything fade and vanish away,” then why work for the socialist cause in the first place? Caraher’s view – and, by implication, that of the Volkszeitung and the Pionier – are examples of precisely those narrow views that the conclusion of The Octopus seeks to replace with a larger, utilitarianist, optimistic one.

Given the obvious ideological incompatibility of the novel with the editorial policies of the periodical, it seems, indeed, quite astonishing that The Octopus was nevertheless translated for and printed in the Pionier. How did the translator and editor bring Norris’s text in line with the socialist politics of their calendar?

The answer is, I would suggest, text-external and ideology-induced translational manipulation. Manipulation is used here not necessarily in the conventionally negative sense of “to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose” (Merriam-Webster), but rather in the very specific sense the term is used in translation studies and especially by the so-called “Manipulation School”. The Manipulation School was founded in the late 1970s and early 1980s by a group of scholars mainly based in the Dutch-speaking area and the UK, who, quite in contrast to the linguistics-based school of translatology, saw translation studies as a branch of comparative literature and have focused on literary translation. In the introduction to the school’s manifesto, the 1985 essay collection The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation, editor Theo Hermans notes that “From the point of view of the target literature, all translation implies a degree of manipulation of the source text for a certain purpose.” For the “Manipulation School,” then, manipulation simply describes the “handling” of a text by a translator, which includes, at the very least, the transfer of the text from one language into another. In addition, however, the manipulation of the text during, before, and after the process of translation itself may also include a certain alterations, additions, or omissions in order to prepare the text for a specific target audience. In Translation, Maipulation, and Interpreting(2009), translation scholar Aiga Dukate generally distinguishes between “text-internal” and “text-external” manipulations. Whereas the former are exclusively concerned with the text to be translated itself, the latter may include the selection of texts to be translated and the overall presentation of the translated version when published, for example the design of the book and the use of paratexts such as blurbs, prefaces, and translator’s or editor’s notes. Dukate further distinguishes between language-induced and ideology-induced manipulations, with the latter representing conscious alterations to the source text that are not related to the translational transfer of the source text from one language into another.

It was precisely such ideology-induced, text-external manipulations that the editors of the Pionierused in order to align The Octopus with the ideology of the periodical. Indeed, the translation itself – that is, the text-internal, language-induced manipulation of the novel – is rather unremarkable, except perhaps for two details: on the one hand, rather than converting American measures and coins into German ones, the translator simply left the originals. For instance, “a miserable handful of dimes and nickels” (593) is translated, quite literally, as “eine elende Handvoll von Dimes und Nickels” (48), whereas the later German translation from 1907 would read “eine klägliche Handvoll Zehn- und Fünfcentstücke” (XX), literally “a miserable handful of 10 and 5 cent pieces.” Likewise, the Pionier translator often leaves English words untranslated, “boarding-house” (592) or “cable car,” for example, are rendered as “Boardinghaus” and “Kabelcar” (48), while the second German version would translate this into “Kosthaus” and “Kabelbahn” (XX). Here, we can clearly see that the Pionier addressed itself at a German-American rather than a German readership, for in contrast to the latter, the former were surely familiar with these expressions (and if they weren’t, the Pionieritself offered, much like tourist guides do, lists of American measures and coins). On the other hand, direct speech in dialect or with an accent is translated into standard German in the Pionier translation, a point to which I will return in a minute.

Now let us look at the text-external manipulations of Norris’s novel. The usual forms text-external manipulations take are, as I have already noted, selection and paratexts, and both of these forms are employed in the case of the Pionier’s translation of Norris’s novel. The six-page translation is accompanied by a one-page preface which introduces readers to Frank Norris himself, his Epic of the Wheat, and The Octopus, and which also features a large photograph of Norris. The preface may be as interesting for what it does not say about Norris and his work as for what it does. Apart from the author’s recent death in 1902, for instance, readers do not learn too much about Norris’s biography – his studies at Académie Julian in Paris and at UC Berkeley and Harvard, which would probably make him seem like a “bourgeois” in the eyes of Pionier readers, are conveniently omitted. Instead, Norris is depicted as a writer who loves to tell the truth. “We are not dealing with a fashionable writer here,” the preface notes, “no hunter for success, who sugarcoats the truth in order to please the ruling classes, no polished habitual liar.” Likewise, The Octopus is characterized as a novel that has only one goal: “saying things as they are.” The latter is, of course, a quote by Ferdinand Lasalle, the German-Jewish socialist political activist who in one of his 1862 speeches on constitutional systems had argued that “all great political action consists of, and begins with, saying things as they are.” The fact that the preface does not even identify the source of this quote indicates that readers of the Pionier were assumed to be familiar with Lasalle’s writings – and indeed, his collected speeches and writings were offered by the Socialist Literature Company as part of their selection of “the best socialist brochures” in an ad at the end of the calendar. Both Norris himself and his novel are thus characterized as deeply committed to the socialist cause. Indeed, the preface goes on to describe The Octopus as a text that “by design, worldview, and the way it handles its material” constitutes an “inherently social novel,” “the first of its kind with any literary value.”

In order to prove its point, and in order “to give readers an idea of the power of Norris’s writing,” the Pionier then offers a translation of what it calls “one of the final scenes” of The Octopus, which brings us to the second form of text-external ideology-induced translational manipulation, namely, selection. What follows is, in fact, an excerpt from Chapter VIII of Book II of Norris’s novel, which takes place a month after the climactic shootout between the wheat farmers and the representatives of the railroad and is set in San Francisco. There, the railroad president Gerard throws a lavish dinner party to which Presley has been invited on account of his fame as a poet. At the same time, a certain Mrs. Hooven and her six-year-old daughter roam the streets of the city, begging for food and shelter. Mr. Hooven, a recent immigrant from Germany, was one of the farmer’s tenants, but after he was killed during the shootout and after the land had been seized by the railroad, Mrs. Hooven and her children saw themselves forced to leave the San Joaquin Valley and move to San Francisco, where they unsuccessfully look for work, housing, and a living. In paragraphs that grow shorter and shorter, Norris contrasts extremely detailed descriptions of the various dishes served at the dinner party with an almost pathological analysis of Mrs. Hooven’s slow starvation, until at the very moment when the guests at the party thank the host “for a delightful dinner,” Mrs. Hooven dies.

In light of the Pionier’s target readership, the manipulation through selection is highly effective, and for several reasons. Firstly, the scene is indeed powerfully written, which has not only been recognized by the editors of the Pionier, but also by D.W. Griffith, who incorporated it into his 1909 silent movie “A Corner in Wheat,” an adaptation of the second part of Norris’s Epic of the Wheat. Secondly, although as tenants and immigrants, the Hoovens are not at all representative of the San Joaquin farmers who fight against the railroad, the selected passage suggests just that, thus turning the plot of Norris’s novel into a class struggle between workers and capitalists. Thirdly, by focusing on the Hoovens, the only German family in the novel, the Pionier also offers its readers strong figures for identification along ethnic lines. This identificatory potential is further increased by having the Hoovens speak standard German rather than a German-English gibberish, as in the original, where it is often used for comedic effect, or a German dialect, as in the second German translation. Finally, and most importantly, however, by omitting any reference to the decidedly negative depiction of socialism in general and the character of Caraher in particular in the original, as well as by shearing the novel of its utilitarian, optimistic conclusion, the Pionier leaves the emotional response that the scene has been designed to provoke within readers completely unchecked. Without these mitigating scenes and motifs, however, readers of the Pionier, unlike readers of the original, cannot understand what Norris ultimately wishes to say: namely, that the connection between the party and Mrs. Hooven’s death is merely circumstancial, not causal. Cut down and presented as it has been for the readers of the Pionier, The Octopus, then, appears to send out a desparate call for political action on behalf of suppressed workers and especially of German working-class immigrants to the U.S. – much like the Pionier itself.

Works Cited

Buhle, Paul. “Ludwig Lore and the New Yorker Volkszeitung: The Twilight of the German-American Socialist Press.” The German-American Radical Press: The Shaping of a Left Political Culture, 1850-1940. Ed. Elliott Shore, Ken Fones-Wolf, and James P. Danky. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992. 168-81. Print.

Conolly-Smith, Peter. Translating America: An Immigrant Press Visualizes American Popular Culture, 1985-1918. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 2004. Print.

Dukate, Aiga. Translation, Manipulation, and Interpreting. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 2009. Print.

Folsom, James K. 1963. “Social Darwinism or Social Protest? The ‘Philosophy’ of The Octopus.” Modern Fiction Studies 8 (1963): 393–400. Print.

Hermans, Theo, ed. The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation.Abingdon: Routledge, 2014 [1985]. Print.

Poore, Carol. “The Pionier Calendar of New York City: Chronicler of German-American Socialism.” The German-American Radical Press: The Shaping of a Left Political Culture, 1850-1940. Ed. Elliott Shore, Ken Fones-Wolf, and James P. Danky. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1992. 108-21. Print.