World literature and translation

César Domínguez
University of Santiago de Compostela
Table of contents

World literature and translation are irrevocably intertwined both historically and theoretically. Historically, if one turns to the most famous – though not unique – conceptual coinage for naming the field of supranational literary relations – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s term Weltliteratur, it needs to be stressed that both the term and the underlying reflection were indebted to the experience of reading a Chinese work in translation (see Purdy 2014). In fact, this experience is shared by most readers across time and space, insofar as there are limits to the ability to master several languages. Theoretically, translation plays a key role, though not always an intrinsically positive one, in most definitions of world literature (see also Literary translation). Rather than undertaking a survey of each definition, which would be highly reiterative, it is more instructive, in this regard, to take into consideration the four theoretical genealogies proposed by Jérôme David (2013). The “philological genealogy” engages “an imaginary of the more or less difficult passage of texts from one language to another, from one nation to another, from one culture to another” (David 2013: 14) and, consequently, translation is at its core. For the “critical genealogy”, world literature “took place under the dual auspices of the challenge of the national scale and of the elitist adhesion to a very normative definition of literature” (David 2013: 17). Here, translation is in tension between works which do not translate well due to their national uniqueness and works which seem to have been written with translation in mind, such as commercial or popular works, which the second register of this genealogy excludes from world literature. For the “pedagogical genealogy”, translation is an indispensable tool for the “conversation”, whether between “living writers who would discuss their works and respective literature” (David 2013: 19) or by students who approach world literary works in survey seminars. The “methodological genealogy”, finally, is more elusive in terms of the role of translation because, in this case, world literature is not “so much an object but a challenge – a challenge that demands a radical, epistemological litmus test of literary studies” (ibid.: 23). For determining the role played by translation, if any, one needs to take into consideration each single challenge, each single “thought experiment” (ibid.: 22). Erich Auerbach’s experiment, for example, consists of writing a history of “the interpretation of reality through literary representation or ‘imitation’”, for which he had to “forego discussing the rise of modern Russian realism” as he could not “read the works in their original language” (Auerbach 2003: 492, 554). For Franco Moretti, the challenge is how to read “hundreds of languages and literatures”. His solution is distant reading, which “allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text: devices, themes, tropes – or genres and systems”. Here “the text itself disappears” (Moretti 2013: 45, 49) and, arguably, translation seems to be out of place. For Gayatri Spivak, in contradistinction, the crux of the problem with world literature lies in how to avoid the loss of the “multitude of ‘subalterns’” (David 2013: 23). Her solution is planetarity, in which planet is understood as “a catachresis for inscribing collective responsibility as right”, including the responsibility whereby, “when you work with literatures of the global South, you learn the pertinent languages with the same degree of care” as “the old Comparative Literature did” with “European languages”. But the “new Comparative Literature” should also make “visible the import of the translator’s choice” (Spivak 2003: 102, 106n12 & 18).

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Further essential reading

Apter, Emily
2006The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar
Bassnett, Susan
2019Translation and World Literature. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Casanova, Pascale
2004The World Republic of Letters, trans. by M. B. DeBevoise. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
D’haen, Theo
2012The Routledge Concise History of World Literature. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Helgesson, Stefan
2018 “Translation and the Circuits of World Literature.” In The Cambridge Companion to World Literature, ed. by Ben Etherington, and Jarad Zimbler, 85–99. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. DOI logoGoogle Scholar