Against World Literature

If translation, as Apter claims, is the central moment of the Enlightenment’s project to create a discursive space of mutual recognition, democratic freedom, mutually agreed upon rules, structures and  a disinterested program of civil rights (Apter 2013, p. 129) then the elevation of Untranslatability might seem to counter all those hopes.  How can we live in a world of mutual misprision?  Isn’t it incomprehension and unintelligibility that cause conflict, war, hatred?  In her brief chapter on the keyword “Peace” Apter articulates the goals of the field of Comparative Literature in terms that would gladden any Dean of Arts and Sciences’ heart.  Uncannily echoing the goals of the program to inculcate Enlightenment values of mutual respect and community building circulated just yesterday by our director of new student orientation (see email “Being Bucknellians” inviting faculty to facilitate discussions of new student comprehension of our university mission statement), and also our our program goals in Comparative Humanities, Apter summarizes the field’s educational mission as “dedicated to producing complexly cultured, linguistically proficient citizens of the world who foster global understanding and the pragmatic conviction that universal consensus … is achievable through an enhanced linguistic commons.” (Apter 2013, p. 129)  The problem with this vision of ethical and linguistic transparency is, however, its maintenance.  Indirectly invoking the figure of Edward Snowden as the great “Untranslator” of Babel before its fall, the reader is warned of the spectre of state security.  Translating into terms closer to home: yes, it is an excellent model for student behavior for all to agree to create a community of mutual respect and care, but this must be maintained, monitored, surveilled.   The Enlightenment must also be policed.  Those of us who lived through the years of the “socialist garden” will recognize those arguments: “Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser” (Markus Wolf)

What might this policing look like?  Apter, calling on Hamilton, turns to the old fashioned discipline of philology as a tool to examine critically the spread of “globish” and to monitor the discourse of the post 9-11 world.  For example, how has the discourse of security overtaken and bled into the talk of peace?  Resorting to the distant reading of HUGE AMOUNTS OF BOOKS through the Google Ngram tool and entering the terms “peace” and “security” in English language published (and scanned) texts from 1600 to the present day we see the graphs of occurrence.

peace and security

If we change the corpus to only “English fiction” we see a different graphic:

"peace" and "security" in English fiction

Does this mean that fiction is more concerned with the Enlightenment project of perpetual peace, or, sorry, eternal peace as Kant probably meant (drawing on the semantic fields and lexica of theological discourse) than non-fiction?  Maybe the distant reading leads us to a closer reading, a more careful reading that relies on the etymology of words, a translational act that can become an infinite inquiry?  Maybe the Untranslatable is actually more of a perpetually translatable, always trying to speak the remainder of the source language, becoming poetry.

The translation of the Dictionary of Untranslatables is not, I am afraid, an example of this.  I chose to read through the entry on “sex” and was infuriated by the translation.  This is “Frenglish,” a thinly veiled anglicization of French discourse that only served to obfuscate rather than enlighten the reader on the complexities of the interrelated interlingual fields of gender, genre, genus, Geschlecht and sex.  How bizarre that the Untranslatable has become the poorly translated in a work that appears to have as its mission the foregrounding of the complexity of words and the love of logology.

Pravda and Truth

On Damrosch and World Literature


In his piece on the ACLA website, the guru of World Literature, David Damrosch talks about the issue of scale and world literature; namely, who can read everything that is out there?  And how can we read it?

We can think of ordering all this literature/ work in terms of center/periphery (some have thought in terms of the hierarchy of major/minor –see Kundera and Kafka) or seeing the expanse of World Literature is so vast that we cannot think of it in terms other than national book markets.  Other critics argue about the question of language, post-coloniality, planetarity (Spivak) and ask what kind of approach to literature are we teaching our students?

For Damrosch, the nation/world question is one that is best thought of as figure/ground.  But, is it possible to think this way within the conditions of market and post-coloniality?  He claims, yes, but not returning to the crypto-nationalism of the 19th century (what was crypto about it?) and the notion that high literature is the embodiment of a nation’s highest cultural values [Herder].  This however elides the examination of minority cultures or bilingual authors [see Kafka].  Bilingual and minority culture authors confuse the genealogy of national literature: nation<->culture<->language.  Add post-coloniality to that and the picture becomes far more complex.

What is translatability and the “dream” of equivalence?  Within Translation Studies there are formal/technical terms that we employ everyday.  See the entries.  However, we also must do this in the face of Derrida’s claim that everything is at one translatable and untranslatable.  Personally , I find that André Lefevere’s concept of the conceptual and textual grids is the very  useful in teaching students about translatability and I find his chapter in the Bassnett/Trivedi volume helpful. Given my obsession with spatial visualization, I like to think of translation as an act of “mapping meaning” and thus the concept of textual and conceptual grids allows us to examine the mapability of meaning within the greater hermeneutical framework of society and politics.  Lefevere brings up the old chestnut of “fidelity” and that it is not always the best guide to translation.  It is important in technical manuals but no in advertising, because of the need to “localize” in translation.

When foregrounding fidelity, Lefevere warns us of the danger of assigning primacy and privilege to the source text and suggests that we can think of the ST as Europe and TT as the rest of the world.  Calling on the ubiquitous master trope of EATING, there exists the danger that the intention and style of the ST will devour the TT [is there the fear that the TT might do the same to the ST?]  and that there will be a wholesale transposition and translation of ST’s conceptual and cultural grid onto TT culture.  The predominance of translation into English (and other European languages) perpetuates the colonizing process.  A good example of the politics of translation is that of Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam which was considered to raise the ST to the status of art within the dominant culture.

For example, how do you translate a sexual “sweat” in Shakuntala into the national language of the women who only glow?

What is translation according to Bassnehtb-giantbanyantree-randygardnertt and Trivedi?  Must it always be linked to a spatial metaphor, the carrying over of meaning in the German and Latinate calc?  Can’t we also think about it as a temporal figure?  A “Nachsagen”?  anuvad?  How does this change our conception of the translational act?  How might the image of the banyan tree with its branches becoming new trees help us?  Is this a form of “rhizomic” translation?

We then also have to face Salman Rushdie’s claim that all postcolonial writers have already been translated.  What is the status of English as the language of the postcolonial writer?  Chapter 2 considers strategies of postcolonial writers who are writing and publishing  English to signal their “otherness”.  Indian and African writers who do not reject English but who already see themselves as translated or hybridized and thus, within their texts, signal this through code-switching/uses of culturally specific terms, perhaps even needing to gloss their own pages (Chinua Achebe adds a gloss of Igbo terms at the end of Things Fall Apart, as does Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Half of a Yellow Sun).

Do we agree that Rushdie’s English is already a translation because it is a language that no-one would speak in India?  “Indian English writers are thus not so much translating Indian -language texts into English as using various strategies to make their works read like translations.” (Bassnett/Trivedi, p. 53.)  A Schleiermacherian move to produce the “alienating translation” in order to “creat[e] an English that resists easy appropriation British or the West as a whole is thus a primary task” of the postcolonial writer (Bassnett/Trivedi, p. 55).

So, that brings us to Emily Apter’s critique of the project of World Literature and her elevation of the concept of Untranslatability to the “fulcrum of comparative literature.”

Why Translation Studies?

Students in the Comparative Humanities Program read a large percentage of their primary texts in translation. One of the goals of the Program is raise students’ critical awareness of the cultural location of the texts they are reading. That text, if translated, is obviously situated culturally both in its original language and also in its translated language. This course provides majors and non-majors alike with theoretical and conceptual tools that can be used in the analysis of, for example, the constitution of the Western “canon”—one of the recurring questions throughout the Program’s courses.

However, the last ten years has witnessed an explosion  of the phenomenon of  “World Literature” in the global sense of Marx’s “International” and Goethe’s “Weltliteratur.” As human interconnectivity has grown with the expansion of access to the internet and also availability of travel, the publishing program of World Literature has sought to “deliver surprising cognitive landscapes” from those places that might not previously have been accessible to the English speaker.

Behind the concept of World Literature lies the  assumption that all language is translatable.  Within the CH program, courses draw on the world literatures of both the present and past, many times looking to find translations of  texts from Turkish, German, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Greek and Latin.  This tendency towards the globalization of our curriculum tends to avoid the question of universal translatability.

Is everything translatable?  Why (not)?  Why could the assumption of universal translatability actually undermine the very core of comparativism?  Drawing on the recent work of Emily Apter in her English translation and edition of “Dictionary of Untranslatables” (Princeton, 2014) this seminar will also explore the problematics of World Literature and translation.  The seminar will foreground assumptions about a) English as a universal language and the implicit problematics associated with such an assumption and b) explore ways in which both the concept of World Literature and its critique can be incorporated into our concepts of translation.  In all this talk of a “globalized” world, whether this refers to finance or literature, how do we avoid the reduction of culture to a MacDonalds of thought, and the flattening of language to “translatese”?