World Literature and the Postcolonial

So what are we doing reading Egyptian hieroglyphs?

Goethe to Eckermann:  “I am more and more convinced,” he continued, “that poetry is the universal possession of mankind….the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.” (132)

“My claim is that world literature is not an infinite, ungraspable canon of works but rather a mode of circulation and of reading, a mode that is as applicable to individual works as to bodies of material, available for reading established classics and new discoveries alike. ”  5 Intro to What is World Literature? Princeton, 2003

“The variability of a work of world literature is one of its constitutive features—one of its greatest strengths when the work is well presented and read well, and its greatest vulnerability when it is mishandled or misappropriated by its newfound foreign friends. ”

“A work enters into world literature by a double process: first, by being read as literature; second, by circulating out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin. ”

As it moves into the sphere of world literature, far from inevitably suffering a loss of authenticity or essence, a work can gain in many ways.

To understand the workings of world literature, we need more a phenomenology than an ontology of the work of art: a literary work manifests differently abroad than it does at home. ”

All about networks…  translation as mirroring

“Any full response to a foreign text is likely to operate along all three of these dimensions: a sharp difference
we enjoy for its sheer novelty; a gratifying similarity that we find in the text or project onto it; and a middle range of what is like-but-unlike—the sort of relation most likely to make a productive change in our own perceptions and
practices ” (11-12)

“Whether of provincial or metropolitan origin, in fact, a given writer or reader is likely both to inherit and to seek out a variety of networks of transmission and reception, engaging differently with works from each world. ”

“World literature has often been seen in one or more of three ways: as an established body of classics, as an evolving canon of masterpieces, or as multiple windows on the world. ” (15)All too often, students of imperialism, colonialism, nationalism, and globalization do indeed define their topics in such a way as to restrict their investigations to just the last five hundred years of human history, or the last hundred years, or even the last few years. If we do so, however, we reproduce one of the least appealing characteristics of modern American—and global commercial—culture: the insistent presentism that erases the past as a serious factor, leaving at best a few nostalgic postmodern references, the historical equivalent of the “local color” tipped in to distinguish the lobby of the Jakarta Hilton from that of its Cancún counterpart.” (17)

“The problem of reception is compounded today by questions of production as well. In recent decades a growing proportion of works has been produced primarily for foreign consumption—a process that will be the focus of the final third of this book. This is a fundamentally new literary development: for the first time in history, authors of highly successful works can hope to have them translated into twenty or thirty languages within a few years of
publication, and foreign countries may even provide the primary readership for writers who have small audiences at home or who are censored by their governments. ” (18)

“Brennan and Ali tactfully avoid mentioning any new-global- economy writers by name, but others have been less discreet. The prominent Sinologist Steven Owen provoked a severe reaction when he advanced a comparable critique of contemporary Chinese poetry, in a 1990 review essay significantly titled “What Is World Poetry?” Owen’s occasion was the publication of The August Sleepwalker, the collected poetry of the prominent dissident poet Bei Dao. Writing for nonspecialist readers in the New Republic, Owen argued that third-world poets are increasingly running afoul of the literary hegemony of the major Western powers, with the result that they begin to write a “world poetry” that is little more than a watered-down Western modernism.” (19)

“In Owen’s view, this surrender to Euro-American modernism—often introduced into China in the form of mediocre translations several decades ago—entails the erasure of local literary and cultural history, leaving the writer with no vital tradition to work from. This new world poetry floats free of context, merely decorated with a little local ethnic color.” (19)

“The crucial issue for the foreign reader is how well the poems work in the new language; such cultural information as may be practical to acquire and relevant to apply must still make sense in the translation if it is to be useful at all. ” (22)

“World literature can be described, to borrow a phrase from Vinay Dharwadker, as “a montage of overlapping maps in motion” (Cosmopolitan Geographies, 3), and this movement involves shifting relations both of literary history and of cultural power. (24)

“For any given observer, even a genuinely global perspective remains a perspective from somewhere, and global patterns of the circulation of world literature take shape in their local manifestations.” (27)


Spivak—The Politics of Translation

Language as part of the process of making sense of ourselves

We can abdicate responsibility for ourselves in making by translating the words of others

p. 369 “One of the ways to get around the confines of one’s “identity” as one produces expository prose is to work at someone else’s title, as one works with a  language that belongs to many others.  This, after all, is one of the seductions of translating.  It is a simple miming of the responsibility to the trace of the other in the self.”

Argues that is not bodies of  meaning that are transferred in translation.  What is the role of language to the one who acts…  The writer is written by her language.

p.370  Translation is the most intimate act of reading.  I must surrender to the text when I translate…

feminist translation theory…  agency and language again

Language is a clue to where the self loses its boundaries…

Feel the edges of the frayed fabric of language—the translator’s agency keeps the frayed edges from splitting apart.  The translator’s task is to use love to keep the original and its shadow together..

What is the love between a non-European woman’s text and the European translator—too often it is insufficient.

p. 371  The experience of contained alterity in an unknown language spoken in a different cultural milieu is uncanny.

Importance of the rhetoric of the ST—why?  Because style or rhetoric is the individuality of the language and the author’s agency.  (Traces of Derrida)

The utopian desire to speak the other’s language—ok for Derrida to speak in English and not in French and say that it is more just—but then what about speaking in Vietnamese or Arabic?

p. 372—on “translatese”—a flattening of the original so that the woman’s writing from Palestine sounds like the women’s writing from Argentina/

Example  of the “Breast Giver” vs “The Wet Nurse”

Need to surrender to the text—not to flatten out the rhetoricity

p. 372  “To surrender in translation is more erotic than ethical”

Kali—the Bad mother?  Read p. 374.

Necessity of knowing a Third World language well enough to be able to tell good writing from bad.

p. 377  Need to understand the “staging” of the language.  What does this mean?

How does Spivak work?  Fast.  I surrender to your writing…  I surrender to the text…

Act of translating into a Third World language is a political exercise of a different sort

p. 379  “Rather than imagining that women automatically have something identifiable in common, why not say, humbly and practically, my first obligation in understanding solidarity is to learn her mother tongue.”  Learn to recognize the women’s reality learned at her mother’s knee.

Remember, not all women are literate—what does this mean for translation?  What would the TT look like?



Appiah  Thick Translation–the idea for this title and essay comes from Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick description” in Anthropology and forms the basis for much of what we call Cultural Studies

“His task is to extract meaning structures that make up a culture, and for this Geertz believes that a factual account will not suffice for these meaning structures are complexly layered one on top and into each other so that each fact might be subjected to intercrossing interpretations which ethnography should study.  ”

1.       Interpretative study:  since anthropology is a semiotic endeavor, cultural analysis should be an interpretative practice which traces the manner in which meaning is ascribed. The raw observational material collected by an ethnographer is not sufficient if we are to achieve a thick description of a culture.
2.       The subject of interpretation is the flow of social discourse. Interperative ethnography according to Geertz should produce the codes required for decoding social events.
3.       Interpretation deals with extrovert expressions. Data collection and interpretation are limited to what local informants can tell us. Therefore the thickest of descriptions can only be based on extrovert expressions of culture.
4.       Ethnographic description is microscopic. According to Geertz ethnographic findings describe local behaviors and truths as serve as an ethnographical miniature. We always view specific and contextualized happenings, and these make up the thick description.

Translation of Proverbs–why is this so difficult (show them Henna’s Twine experiment)

In Nigeria, there is the phenomenon of the mammy wagon…

“Mammy wagons are not just a form of transport. They are a sort of speeding encyclopaedia or reference library providing the watchful road-user with a rich store of proverbs, texts, cautions, invocations and other bits of wisdom to help tackle problems along life’s highway. The message might be down-to-earth and practical as in ‘Horn b/4 Overtaking'(a common abbreviation) or high sounding and mystical as in ‘By their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them’. It might be hopefully progressive as in ‘Venture is Success’. Or it might be despairingly realistic as in ‘Who can please the world?’ or ‘Baboon dey work, Monkey de Chop.’ It might be stoical as in ‘God’s Time is the best’, or vengeful as in ‘Dem Go Tire.’

It might be polite and well-meaning as in ‘Always Willing Transport service’. Or it might be, less politely, ‘Kiss My Gnash’ as the backside of a human being or of anything else is known in the local English. ‘Slow but Steady’, ‘Time is Going’, ‘peace and Plenty’, ‘Man no Rest’, more mammy wagon mottoes, contradictory, but so is life. Or should we call them metaphysical advertisements?”

Against meaning (against semantics–equivalence?)

“what interests us in language… is not meaning”  it is actually the last thing that is interesting in proverbs..  of course he means literal meaning…

Intention–what is the intention of the speaker when s/he makes an utterance

but what if you are speaking without knowing the meaning–you are parroting the sentence

Grice–Gricean maxims of quality, quantity, and manner..  meaning is achieved because we recognize intention…  what is conversational implicature…  explain…not just for assertions but also for optatives.. (preferences not beliefs)

Whorf Sapir–the language affects what you can intend in a language..  Appiah is beginning to sound like Steiner (brought up in several languages)

so do you have to have referentiality for universal language (sounds familiar)

Indirect speech acts are not the same as non-literal meanings

for proverbs, when we realize that the intention is proverbial then literal meaning is recognized as being secondary…  so the other day I used the proverb “Set the cat among the pigeons”  to an AMerican… he had no clue what I meant…

Translation transcends Gricean meaning…

what is his schtick with intention….  claims that we need to know the linguistic environment well enough to be able to imply meaning…

“A translation aims to produce a new text that matters to one community the way another text matters to another;” (397) Really?  Equivalence..

What modes of reading are productive?  correlative notion of productive modes of translation….  what do these look like? A Nabokovian translation…  full of footnotes and glosses to place the text in its cultural and linguistic context…  But does;t this then limit the text to its relevance within its source culture?  Maybe we need to privilege this for the political resins of postcoloniality–the dominant culture of the west need not always win… link to Spivak….

HOWEVER, Appiah knows well that African literature is written in English and French–not in Igbo or Akan or Twi……

Think of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart…  the glosses and explanations…

Reith lectures 2016 Appiah “Colour”