Thinking about English, World Literature, and Translation
I’ve begun reading David Damrosch’s book What Is World Literature?, which makes the argument 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.” So world literature isn’t a list of discrete texts that keeps accumulating but the way certain works are passed around, modified, appropriated, enhanced, valorized, cheapened as they transfer out of their locale of origin, by the publishing apparatus, the academy, the cultural establishment, the reading public, etc. What Damrosch hopes to do by using exemplary cases (e.g. Goethe, Kafka, Wodehouse, Ishiguro, etc.) is “to clarify the ways in which works of world literature can best be read.”
One reason I’m reading this book is that I’m in the middle of reacting against (admittedly in way that’s more emotional than intellectually rigorous) a general complacency in the literary culture in New York City. The assumption, I think, is that American literature is automatically world literature, because United States is an economic & military superpower, and in a very real sense, everywhere. Everything that happens in America, on TV, on the silver screen, and in print, is news fit for global consumption. Venuti has already argued that the publishing trade imbalance (more English-text books being translated into other languages for global consumption than other way around) is a form of literary xenophobia, which is a mere step away from saying we (i.e. the literary men & women) are implicated in producing cultural artifacts under a nationalist rubric. And since English is an imperial language, still the biggest game in town, and as Helen DeWitt reminds us, “a language of forgetting,” writing in English–producing brain-sizzling sentences, or knock-your-socks off metaphors, or whatever it is that we do–implicates us in that process.
Now, check out this awesome quote by a leading French critic, Philarete Euphemon Chasles, who lectured in 1835:
France is the most sensitive of all countries… She is sleepless and restless country that vibrates with all impressions and that palpitates and grows enthusiastic for the maddest and the noblest ones; a country which loves to seduce and be seduced, to receive and communicate sensation, to be excited by what charms it, and to propagate the emotion it receives… She is the center, but the center of sensitivity; she directs civilization, less perhaps by opening up the route to the people who border her than by going forward herself with a giddy and contagious passion. What Europe is to the rest of the world, France is to Europe; everything reverberates towards her, everything ends with her.
I would not say this is the situation in American publishing today, but there are some disturbing echoes, I think. Damrosch says, for instance, “she will go out for a mad fling when and where she pleases, but foreigners should not expect to move in with her.” In America’s case, I would argue that foreign literary texts may move in only if they’re already cast in Euro-American standards. And if the foreigner happens to be an immigrant writing in English, so much the better.
I am also hoping that the book will be useful for helping me to think critically about the role we play in this “circulation” process. Damrosch writes, “works by non-Western authors or by provincial or subordinate Western writers are always particularly liable to be assimilated to the immediate interests and agendas of those who edit, translate and interpret them.” The publishing history he gives of Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe is very illuminating to that end (e.g. at one point, the title of the book was called Conversations with Eckermann, to erroneously present Goethe as the organizing force behind the book).
I also realize that I need to be thinking more critically about the role English plays in the network of world literature. For example, if you’re a Korean writer, the force of English can feel almost entirely imperialistic. On the other hand, Damrosch describes the situation in India quite differently. There you have English 1) as the language of the British literature that featured so prominently in colonial Indian education, 2) as the worldwide phenomenon of contemporary global English, and 3) as Indo-English, with its ambiguous status somewhere between a foreign and a native language. What Damrosch says about the inherently comparative nature of Indian literatures (quoting Amiya Dev) is even more interesting: “India’s twenty-two principal literary languages themselves form a plenum comparable to that of European literature, and the different Indian literatures are always strongly colored by the other languages in use arond them.”