On “World Literature” and translation

Fritz Strich

It is possible to define the concept of world literature more precisely: only pertains to world literature in this more restricted sense what really transcends the borders of the nation, what really has become known and appreciated by other nations by means of translation, and what has influenced other literatures; in other words, what participates in the exchange of ideas and in the world literary traffic between the nations.

(Fritz Strich,1930, “Weltliteratur und Vergleichende Literaturgeschichte”)

This review of the attention Comparative Literature has paid to translation would be incomplete without mentioning a very important issue in the discipline so far in this millennium. Such is the notion of “world literature”, which evidently has nearly two centuries of history. But the truth is that it was a topic addressed in a fairly minority way for a long time and, even more symptomatic, it was restricted to the study of a small number of European literatures, despite the aspirations implied in its name. Between the 1970s and early 1990s, world literature was virtually banished from any kind of literary research, but it has been revived in recent times with great strength, as evidenced by the numerous monographs on the subject published in recent years.

Despite not coining the term “world literature” (Weltliteratur), Goethe was the cause of its spread throughout Europe. In Gespräche mit Goethe (Conversations with Goethe) Johann Peter Eckermann notes that on January 31st1827, Goethe had said that national literature did not make much sense any more, and the age of world literature was about to arrive. Goethe would refer to world literature on several occasions over the years, practically until his death in 1832, but unfortunately (or perhaps not), he did not clearly define what he meant by that term; in fact, it seems to have a marked polysemous character, so it was interpreted in many different ways throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

He was most likely referring to the convenience of increasing the circulation of literary works between different European writers and intellectuals, in a context where Europe was finally experiencing a period of peace after the Napoleonic Wars. From this point of view, the emphasis is on cultural exchange at an international level between the different groups of people, through which they form their own identity and their relationship with the alien. For Goethe, world literature was not all past and current literatures from an encyclopaedic point of view, or a restricted canon of works that had reached their status as universal heritage of learned humanity. It was rather a historical concept that has to do with the modern relationship between different national or regional literatures. That was the reason he argued that it was more accurate to speak of an era of world literature, in which the literary world was conceived as a global market of material products. The emergence of a literature of this type would not mean the disappearance of national literatures but their entrance in a space and time in which they would interact with each other, forming the essence of modernity.

It must be said that in the new space he defends, translations play a vital role. Indeed, Goethe oscillates between two poles: considering the German language and culture as a privileged instrument for world literature, and promoting a general inter-translation between different languages ​​and literatures. When he takes the first of these perspectives, he does so led by the spirit of promoting German language and literature, which had not yet been able to enrol in a context of strong national identity. Thus, the dissemination of foreign literary works throughout Europe could be arbitrated through German, creating a transnational literature that could build understanding and harmony among the peoples of Europe. Following this reasoning, in his opinion, as translation had considerably opened the German cultural space to foreign cultural spaces, that culture could become the quintessential exchange market forWeltliteratur. Anyway, in general, Goethe seems to see Weltliteratur as the era of widespread inter-translation in which every language would ​​learn to be a translation language. This perspective implies that in his poetics, translation is considered an essential task, an inherent part of the literature of a nation.

It was not long before Goethe’s notion was assimilated to a selective representation of the past and present world’s literary works, an exclusive canon made up by the works of greatest aesthetic value. While it seems that Goethe did not advocate, at least explicitly, for this selective process, the fact is that the concept of universal literature quickly identified itself with this construction of the canon. To begin with, there was a fundamental restriction when it came to build what were supposed to be universal literature histories, because in most cases they only paid attention to European literatures (more importantly, only to a few of them). Actually, this geographical limitation was already a marked feature of Goethe’s conception, as, despite his knowledge of Eastern literature, his main purpose was not so much to include all world literatures in an orbit of fruitful coexistence but to encourage contact between European intellectuals.

It should be pointed out that these supposedly universal histories of literature were written at the same time as different national literary histories began to proliferate, so they were in general excessively biased towards the literature of the country in which they occurred, which was in line with the nation-building process that was taking place throughout Europe. In the Romantic era we witnessed numerous attempts to build national identity through a claim of the legitimacy of its literary past. On the other hand, along the 19th century the interpretation of world literature as the canon of great masterpieces also began to emerge, limited again to European literature. Simultaneously with the expansion of the notion of universal literature, we witness the birth of the discipline of Comparative Literature. D’ Haen (2012) presents a brief but splendid history of the concept of world literature as related to the development of Comparative Literature.

With the democratization of university education and the consequent access of ethnic and cultural minorities to the classrooms, with the emergence of multiculturalism, post-colonialism and globalisation studies in the field of literary theory and the consequent recognition of the world’s literary diversity, the ability to read texts in the original languages ​​turned into a utopia. It was becoming increasingly obvious that the linguistic attributes comparatists were supposed to have were hardly obtainable, especially so in the case of non-specialist readers. As a result numerous anthologies made up by translations began to appear, either of world literature or of a specific literature genre (mainly poetry).

According to David Damrosch, the contemporary critic who has paid the most attention to the issue of world literature, this concept is inextricably linked to the practice of translation, given the need for the emergence of the literary text in an international environment as a sine qua non condition: “Works become world literature by being received into the space of a foreign culture, a space defined in many ways by the host culture’s national tradition and the present needs of its own writers” (Damrosch 2003: 283). Without resorting to translation, access to world literature inevitably becomes highly restricted, as it is completely severed by the linguistic diversity that should characterize the works included, but furthermore, according to Damrosch, it is the very fact that the translation and the original text can be subjected to an aesthetic transformation what is in itself an inherent feature of the literary fact:

Literary language is thus language that either gains or loses in translation, in contrast to non-literary language, which typically does neither. The balance of credit and loss remains a distinguishing mark of national versus world literature: literature stays within its national or regional tradition when it usually loses in translation, whereas works become world literature when they gain on balance in translation, stylistic losses offset by an expansion in depth as they increase their range (Damrosch 2003: 289).

Nevertheless, it should also be noted that important contemporary voices have warned against the negative consequences of providing students access to world literature only through translations, as this can have a simplifying and homogenizing effect, blurring the differences between languages, literatures and cultures and reducing every literary expressions to just one literature written in the target language. There is a risk of entering into a naturalization that would neutralize cultural differences and deny access to a reality different from one’s own. Gayatri Spivak discusses the ideological implications of translating the literature of the Third World to hegemonic languages.

From her point of view, the asymmetrical relations of power in a post-colonial context often result in the activation of colonising translation practices and the construction of biased images of the ex-colonised culture as a mimetic and lower form of former colonizers. Spivak defends the need to learn local languages ​​and cultures. When translation becomes necessary, Spivak proposes a translation strategy based on a positive or strategic essentialism that requires the translator to have an intimate knowledge of the colonised language, history and culture. Spivak shows that translations often appropriate the texts of other cultures, imposing a hegemonic vision of the translated texts and often disregarding the specific cultural idiosyncrasies of communities that share only some common features. In her own words:

In the act of wholesale translation into English there can be a betrayal of the democratic ideal into the law of the strongest. […] This happens when all the literature of the Third World gets translated into a sort of with-it translates, so that the literature by a woman in Palestine begins to resemble, in the feel of its prose, something by a man in Taiwan (Spivak 2000: 400).

Apter suggested in 2006 a new way of understanding the study of translation from a wide conceptual frame focused on the negative consequences of a shortage of translating in a situation of war conflict or terrorism, language and literary conflicts in the building of the literary canon, the importance of experimentation with non-standard language varieties, processes of cultural and linguistic creolisation and the status of humanistic translation as study of translation in an era of globalisation and technological development, as well as the importance of learning minority languages ​​with disadvantaged literary traditions in the world order. In her own words:

A new comparative literature has prompted me to imagine a field in which philology is linked to globalisation, to Guantánamo Bay, to war and peace, to the Internet and ‘Netlish’, and to ‘other Englishes’ spoken worldwide, not to mention the ‘languages’ of cloning and computer simulation. Envisaged as the source of an ambitious mandate for literary and social analysis, translation becomes the name for the ways in which the humanities negotiates past and future technologies of communication, while shifting the parameters by which language itself is culturally and politically transformed (Apter 2006: 10-11).

In accordance with Spivak, Apter advocates in 2013 for a new kind of Comparative Literature to end the tendency of the dominant power to assimilate the emerging culture by means of a detailed analysis of its texts and the recognition of its idiosyncrasies, thus explicitly questioning the concept of world literature as it is generally understood and emphasizing the thesis of untranslatability:

A primary argument of this book is that many recent efforts to revive World Literature rely on a translatability assumption. As a result incommensurability and what has been called the Untranslatable are insufficiently built into the literary heuristic. […] [My] aim is to activate untranslatability as a theoretical fulcrum of comparative literature with bearing on approaches to world literatures, literary world-systems and literary theory, the politics of periodization, the translation of philosophy and theory, the relation between sovereign and linguistic borders at the checkpoint, the bounds of non-secular proscription and cultural sanction, free versus privatized authorial property, the poetics of translational difference, as well as ethical, cosmological and theological dimensions of worldliness. […] [This book] is conceived as a long essay in the interest of the importance of non-translation, mistranslation, incomparability and untranslatability (Apter 2013: 3-4).

Emily Apter proposes a new Comparative Literature, in which language multiplicity becomes apparent and which involves an alternative to agglutinating trends, in the understanding that a post-national orientation can lead to minimising the economic and power struggles that are often evident in literary policies, while ignoring conflicts of interest between multilingual communities and monocultural states. Like Spivak, she defends a resistance to the hegemonic cartographies that are projected by world literature in translation. In her opinion, neither Translation Studies nor studies on the concept of World Literature have been able to reconstruct literary history using new planetary cartographies that sufficiently take into account otherness and the option of untranslatability inherent, in her opinion, to the very notion of “world”.

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