The idea of world literature, taken as a whole rather than divided into many national or linguistically based literatures, is a paradoxical one. How can we speak of a ‘literature’ that encompasses far too many languages to master in a single lifetime? Does the term refer to the totality of all the literature in the world, or does it imply a project of canonisation—and if so, who gets to decide which works are included? For the purposes of the study of literature, what constitutes the ‘world’?
The last question might seem the easiest to answer: the world is where we live, the ground beneath our feet. But it’s a more slippery concept than that. An astronaut recently tweeted a photo of the Earth as seen through one of the porthole windows of the International Space Station. Barack Obama replied with a question: ‘Do you ever look out the window and just freak out?’ No, the astronaut responded, ‘I don’t freak out about anything, Mr. President. Except getting a Twitter question from you.’ Unfazed by the cosmic scale of outer space, in which our planet hangs like a small bauble, the astronaut is nevertheless awed to be talking to the most powerful person on that bauble. It’s a joke, of course, but it’s funny because of the element of truth. The world is a different entity from the planet: not given, but made.
Since the world is a human construct, the same is true a fortiori of world literature. The changing nature of the world’s political, social and economic structures, as well as cultural diversity, shapes both production and reception of world literature. According to the literary scholar Franco Moretti, world literature is too vast to be a direct field of study. Rather, it’s a problem. Traditional techniques of literary criticism are incommensurate with the scale of this problem, according to Moretti. He advocates a division of labour between local and global scholarship: close reading within the literary traditions of individual languages, but what he calls ‘distant’ reading for the study of world literature as a whole: quantitative techniques of aggregation and survey, synthesising the findings of national literary studies to detect international trends and patterns. (It’s unclear where traditional comparative literature, with its careful parsing of nuances of linguistic and cultural difference, fits into the picture—which is perhaps one reason that Moretti’s arguments have provoked controversy.) Moretti draws on the theories of the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, who describes the world as a single politico-economic system in which the ‘core’ dominates regions in the ‘periphery’, as well as mediating relations between them: ‘one world, but unequal.’ This depiction is in line with the Communist Manifesto‘s passing mention of world literature as a logical progression from the creation of a world market. A cultural phenomenon, yes, but ultimately informed by the underlying economic reality: the bourgeoisie’s remaking of the world in its own image:
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…And as in material, so also in intellectual production.
As the pluralisations in the title of his book suggests, Mufti takes a critical view of the very idea of world literature, singular. Concealed in celebratory claims of a ‘borderless world’ is a version of internationalism with specific ideological contours, delineated by the shape of global capitalism. The smooth passage of literary texts across the global marketplace mimics the flow of capital through the world financial system. The apparently free and frictionless movement disguises, and is dependent upon, a rough and jagged obverse: competing labour markets, national borders, civil unrest. As the theorists Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt put it: ‘It might appear to be free of the binary divisions or striation of modern boundaries, but really it is crisscrossed by so many fault lines that it only appears as a continuous, uniform space.’ The universality of global finance is made possible by the imposition of gates, borders and exclusions that preclude any possible human-centric universalism.
In the case of world literature, Mufti argues that its ostensible unity is similarly predicated on—and, crucially, implicated in—a complex system of hierarchies and power relations, historically determined but of continuing relevance and influence. Consecration of literary texts in the canon of world literature presupposes their place in a national literary culture. Paradoxically, then, the supposed cosmopolitanism of world literature depends on the formation of a very particular socio-political formation, the nation-state. Heterogeneity is only permitted within a framework of standardisation, ‘the same manner of being different’. And not all literary languages are of equal weight in the global traffic of culture: ‘hidden inside world literature is the dominance of globalized English.’ The privileged position of the English language in the world publishing industry allows it to function as a conduit for the universal, a ‘vanishing mediator’ that is at once ubiquitous and ostensibly transparent. But English was never a neutral medium, and nor is it today. ‘A genealogy of world literature,’ Mufti argues, ‘leads to Orientalism.’
Orientalism, as described by Edward Said, not only refers to the academic disciplines that comprise the study of Asia by Western scholars, but also has two other meanings: the body of imaginative and creative work that takes (an idealised version of) the Orient as its inspiration; and a discourse, in Michel Foucault’s sense—a body of knowledge that structures, defines, and controls that to which it refers. These meanings overlap and are mutually reinforcing. Orientalist fantasies of exotic but benighted cultures in need of a civilising influence provide self-justification for European colonialism; Orientalist scholarship sets in place a powerful ideology that pervades not only imperialism itself but even resistance to it.
Unlike the Marxian analysis of power, in which literature and culture play essentially passive roles—a reflection of underlying material circumstances—Said argues that Orientalism represents a cultural logic that is not only informed by colonial power but plays an active role in its development and enforcement. Mufti’s book is animated by a sense of fidelity to both sets of insights, and a desire, if not to reconcile the two camps, then to make creative use of the tensions between them, pointing to
the possibility (and usefulness) of a critical engagement with the centre-periphery model… [and] the application of a humanistic supplement to its rigidly economistic forms…. I see the tension between these rival frameworks as a productive one and based within their somewhat different relationships to the historical as such.
What gives Orientalism its pervasive ideological force is its dialectical nature. On the one side, Orientalists studied the cultural traditions of the East with great enthusiasm and appreciation; on the other is the assumption of Western superiority typified by the historian and colonial administrator Macaulay’s contemptuous contention that ‘a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia’. This latter attitude Mufti calls ‘Anglicism’, because he is writing mostly about the Indian Subcontinent in which the British Empire was the the principal imperial actor, but we could generalise the term as ‘Occidentalism’. Orientalism and Occidentalism, then, are not separate and independent schools of thought, but are mutually dependent and of consequence far beyond the historical scope of colonialism. It’s not simply a matter of imperial ‘good cop, bad cop’; as Mufti notes, Orientalism ‘cannot be reduced to an unmediated logic of colonial raison d’état.’ Orientalism/Occidentalism is a dialectic that informed and affected not only imperialism but post-colonial nationalism too.
Indian national self-conception, Mufti argues, is structured by colonial knowledge: ‘an Orientalized consciousness’ harking back to ‘a lost Indian Golden Age’. The great philological discovery in the eighteenth century of the common ancestry of Indo-European languages was the catalyst for an intense study of Indian languages in general and Sanskrit, the ancient language of classical Indian literature, in particular. The cumulative effect was the institution of a new regime of knowledge, in the Foucauldian sense: discoveries, yes, but also the generation of new cultural and ideological structures at the expense of suppressing older ones. The emphasis on Sanskrit resulted in a pedagogical drive to ‘purify’ contemporary vernaculars, to identify and purge words of non-Sanskrit origin. What we now know as Hindi, the language most commonly spoken in India, and Urdu, the official language of Pakistan, are in fact mutually intelligible dialects, with the vast bulk of everyday vocabulary unchanged from one ‘language’ to the other. They are distinguished mostly in their more formal or poetic registers, which draw extensively on words of Sanskrit and Persian origin, respectively. Hindi and Urdu emerged in opposition to each other, in spite of a rich history of cultural intermingling: it’s telling that one of the earliest examples of ‘pure’ literary Hindi, avoiding words of Persian and Arabic etymological origin, was written as an experiment by Inshallah Khan Insha, who is best known as a master of Urdu poetry and Persian prose. This is less paradoxical than it sounds. Students at the College of Fort William in 1847, instructed to carry out a lexical ‘purification’—retaining only words derived from Sanskrit and the Prakrits (ancient Indian vernaculars)—complained that this task required an extensive knowledge of Persian, without which the identification and elimination of lexical borrowing was impossible. Orientalist dichotomies of indigenous and alien, Indian and foreign, led to ‘the rapid decline and disappearance of Indo-Persian civilization, whose forms of cosmopolitanism… could now only appear under the sign of the nonindigenous, the elite and thus alien.’
Cosmopolitanisms, plural. This is crucial to Mufti’s critique of unexamined conceptions of ‘world literature’. To find its place in the Orientalist conception of the world—and by extension in the canon of world literature—Indian culture had to essentialise itself, to go through a process of indigenisation: difference under the rubric of nationalism.
This complicates matters for those wishing to take a critical view of the rise of the Anglophone novel and the pre-eminence of English in the cultural infrastructure of world literature. On the one hand, we have the likes of Salman Rushdie, whose 1997 anthology of contemporary Indian literature consisted entirely of work originally written in English, on the stated grounds—echoing Macaulay—that ‘Indo-Anglian’ literature almost entirely eclipsed writing in Indian languages. On the other, the author Bhalchandra Nemade, who denounced Rushdie and called for the elimination of English from the school curriculum. Siding with the latter over the former, Mufti argues, does not disentangle one from the cultural logic of Orientalism; the indigenised cultural identity of India, as a discrete entity, is itself implicated in the colonial past. In order to escape the dialectic, some third position is required, neither the imperialist gaze nor a resistance to it that’s founded on nationalist notions of authenticity.
This kind of problem is encountered in other kinds of cultural criticism, too. Feminist theory has grappled with the question of how to ground a thoroughgoing critique of patriarchy from within a male-dominated tradition of discourse. In passing, Mufti likens the empire-colony relationship to that of the ambivalent, patronising attitude of the metropolitan to the rural. His gesture reminds me of a Sumerian narrative poem, The Marriage of Martu, which—despite the fragmentary state of the text—has a decent claim to inclusion in any canon of ‘world literature’ worth the name, if only on the basis of the proximity it and a handful of others have to one of the emergence of one of the very oldest literary traditions. In this passage a young woman is being urged by a fellow urbanite not to marry Martu, a nomad from outside the city walls:
He is dressed in sheep skins;
He lives in tents in wind and rain;
He doesn’t offer sacrifices.
Armed [vagabond] in the steppe,
he digs up truffles and is restless.
He eats raw meat,
lives his life without a home,
and, when he dies, he is not buried according to the proper rituals.
This charge-sheet of offences against urban propriety conveys disapproval and contempt with the nomad’s primitive way of life, but also a measure of fascination, as well as a sense of the speaker’s own rather prim sensibility. The young woman ignores this advice and marries Martu. There’s an ambivalence to the poem: the exotic Other is condemned, but is also a source of attraction. This blend of disdain and romanticism pervades relationships between urban centres and rural peripheries throughout history: empire-colony is a larger-scale variant of this dynamic, with greater distance and a more radical sense of otherness. The dominant tone in the elite discourses on the subject of the colonial periphery tends to reflect (and also, perhaps, to inform) the scope of imperial ambition. The ancient Greeks displayed relative indifference to the outside world of ‘barbarians’ compared to the more expansive Roman worldview demonstrated by the early ethnography of Tacitus. Compared to imperial China’s attitude to the outside world—predominately concerned with protecting its borders—the European empires had their eye on world domination, which required a greater degree of interest in the world beyond Europe, especially in the ancient civilisations of which the present-day inhabitants are depicted as careless and unworthy custodians, requiring the attention of European archaeologists and philologists to preserve and dignify.
I mention all this not to downplay Mufti’s concept of the dialectic of Orientalism but to situate it within a broader history of such cultural logics and the ambivalence inherent to struggles against them. Mufti is too astute to suggest that one can simply stand aside from history; instead, he urges a Gramscian critical vigilance, a restless interrogation of the critical subject’s own assumptions and the adoption of a perspective that aligns neither with the unexamined privilege of elite globalism nor a reflexive retreat to parochial nationalism. It is this last injunction that is the most difficult: the question of where to stand, as critics or simply as readers.
I must admit to a personal as well as academic interest in this question, one that has permeated my own reading from—and here I must beg a little indulgence—almost the first book I ever read. In Angela Banner’s Around the World with Ant and Bee, the eponymous heroes set out on an international search for a lost umbrella. Each stop along the way is illustrated with a collection of those national clichés most likely to appeal to a child’s imagination. India, for instance, is represented as a land of turbans and elephants.
As a mixed-race migrant child learning to read, I found it fascinating. There is a mystery at the heart of the story—not the location of the umbrella, which is solved by the final page, but the origin of the protagonists. Where do Ant and Bee come from? We are never told. The only clues are the landscape in the first picture, before they set out: temperate, suburban. The book’s author and publisher are both English; yet (I thought) Ant and Bee could not have started their journey in England, because this is the last place they visit (and the location, finally, of the lost umbrella), and when they do so, the country is introduced much like the other stops on their world tour. The heroes are shown to be seeing London for the first time.
Despite being stuffed with crude stereotypes, this little book effectively dramatises the question of perspective in a globalised world. On first reading I thought it was a mistake, an authorial oversight, not to mention where the story begins. As an older child, eager to be worldly-wise, I chose a more cynical explanation: Banner’s omission must be deliberate, designed for the international market, so that a Canadian child could imagine Ant and Bee as Canadian; a Swede, Swedish. In another reading, more meditative, I decided that Ant and Bee do not come from anywhere. They are like demigods disguised as lowly bugs, who see the cultures of the world for what they really are, with the gaze of an extraterrestrial anthropologist. They are not limited, as the human subject is, to seeing one’s own culture from the inside (which renders it mostly invisible) and seeing other cultures through the prism of one’s own (which renders them mostly opaque). Aloof and objective, they have unmediated access to the raw stuff of culture, in itself and for itself; they can grasp the Kantian Ding an sich directly.
This is, of course, impossible. The ubiquity of global English tends to make Anglophone readers feel at home everywhere, but the illusion of such omniscience, Mufti argues, shows the colonial inheritance of the world literature paradigm, which achieves its global reach at the expense of a flattening standardisation that erases substantial difference even as it exaggerates and exoticises superficial variation. The internationalist ideal is better viewed as a direction of travel than as a destination at which one can actually arrive; in Gayatri Spivak’s words, ‘that impossible, undivided world of which one must dream, in view of the impossibility of which one must work, obsessively.’
If, then, as Mufti argues, the ‘view from nowhere’, or the sense of being at home everywhere (which amounts to the same thing) is an arrogant illusion, and nationalist parochialism is unwittingly implicated in the cultural logic it purports to contest, then what critical perspective can one take to escape the hegemony of Orientalism? The ‘difficult path’ that Mufti proposes is the one trodden by the philologist and literary historian Erich Auerbach: that of the exile. Auerbach was Jewish, and when the Nazis came to power, he was forced to leave the German university where he worked and move to Istanbul, where he wrote Mimesis, his great history of representation in Western literature. For Auerbach, the project of Weltliteratur is predicated on a separation from one’s own culture:
In any event, our philological home is the earth: it can no longer be the nation. The most priceless and indispensable part of a philologist’s heritage is still his own nation’s culture and language. Only when he is first separated from this heritage, however, and then transcends it does it become truly effective. We must return, in admittedly altered circumstances, to the knowledge that prenational medieval culture already possessed: the knowledge that the spirit [Geist] is not national.
Mufti describes this exilic perspective as neither a cosmopolitan detachment, a ‘view from above’, or a retreat into ‘brooding solipsism, whether communal or individual’, but rather an engagement with world literature that ‘inhabits’ the dialectic of the universal and particular in a way that is attentive to the specific historical circumstances that have informed one’s own culture and others, and the interrelations between cultures. Not a view from nowhere, but a perspective shaped by the sense of not being entirely at home anywhere. This, I think, is the proper answer to the mystery of Ant and Bee’s origin: they are indeed British insects, but they return to their own country with new eyes—it is not so much that they have gained world citizenship through their travels, as that they have lost their naïve identification with their point of origin.
The exile as critical subject; this is the aspiration that drives Mufti’s work. But what if one were to confer on literary texts themselves a less passive role? Regardless of the critical perspective from which one might view it, is it possible for a work of literature to have a similarly exilic position: to be at home nowhere? If so, what would be the implications for ‘world literature’?
These questions (albeit phrased rather differently) are the starting point for Rebecca Walkowitz’s Born Translated. World literature has to be understood, she argues, in the light of what literature is today. Any theory of world literature must take into account innovations, both literary and technological, that differentiate twenty-first century literature from that of previous centuries.
For Walkowitz, the distinction between original and translation is being blurred in twenty-first century literature. Due to globalisation and the advent of digital technology, the lag between the publication of a novel in the original language and its translation into other languages has in many cases dramatically decreased, from years to months, or even simultaneously. The Dutch translation of J. M. Coetzee’s Childhood of Jesus actually emerged a month before the English original.
The importance of translation to the dissemination of literature affects the production of literary texts in a variety of ways. Writers whose native languages have a smaller number of readers sometimes opt to write in one of the major languages, instead; writers who have emigrated may begin writing in the language of their adopted country. The obvious example here is Vladimir Nabokov, who after 1941 switched to English and never wrote another novel in Russian. Walkowitz calls this strategy ‘pre-emptive translation’, noting that is not a new phenomenon: mediaeval writers usually composed their work in a different language (Latin, Greek or Arabic) than the one they spoke at home, and it was not until the printing press enabled the rise of mass-produced works in vernacular languages that this ceased to be the norm.
Other writers’ work anticipate translation in various ways, accommodating or adjusting to the realities of the global literary market. The extent to which this affects the composition of the original literary work is influenced by the relative status of their language within the context of the global literary publishing industry. Writing in the New York Review of Books, the author and translator Tim Parks is struck by the difference between the reception of foreign work in Anglophone markets (in America, for instance, translated work accounts for a mere three percent of books published) with the equivalent in numerically smaller literary cultures (in the Netherlands, over a third of books published are translations, of which nearly three-quarters are from English). Parks ascribes this trend to a desire by readers to be part of an international reading community, to be able to join in conversations about significant literature, ‘the big book of the moment’. Smaller literary cultures seem parochial even to their own readers—the exception is when a book is sanctified by its reception in one of the world centres of literature at which point the work becomes an international work, and tends to be viewed with greater interest in its home country, too.
The consequences for literary composition are profound. If an international readership is of greater significance in a work’s reception than its domestic readership, then the translatability of a work becomes highly important. Parks ‘notes a tendency to remove obstacles to international comprehension’: localised cultural references, wordplay, even character names that would be difficult for international readers. While this pressure to eschew local detail acts on writers wishing to be translated into English, no such constraint applies the other way around, as Parks observes in a 2011 NYRB essay on Jonathan Franzen:
Peter Stamm…writes in the leanest prose imaginable… If you didn’t know Stamm was Swiss, nothing in the English translation would betray this blemish. Certainly he never tells you anything about Switzerland, or the other countries where his books are set… Franzen is the opposite; he could hardly be more loudly American, and to come to him right after Stamm is to see how different are the roads to celebrity for the Swiss author and the American. While Stamm’s characters come free, or bereft, of any social or political context, Franzen’s often seem barely distinguishable from a dense background cluttered with product names, detailed history and geography, linguistic tics, dress habits, and so on.
The assymetry is clear: the American novel in question can attain global reach without sacrificing—indeed, revelling in—its local particularity; the Swiss novel has shed its ‘Swissness’ in order to have a chance of travelling beyond its national borders.
The question of translatability is part of a broader context of ability to travel beyond national as well as linguistic borders, both in terms of literary prestige and market success. A dynamic similar to those of smaller linguistically based literary cultures also applies in the literary cultures of smaller nations, such as Australia, that share a language with larger ones: enthusiastic reception abroad results in greater domestic interest. Emmett Stinson has attributed the recent ‘renaissance of short fiction publishing…to the publication of two breakout collections’ Cate Kennedy’s Dark Roots and Nam Le’s The Boat, and points out that the success both books have enjoyed, in commercial and critical terms, has ‘been dramatically influenced by their international reception’. Not just the fortunes of a single work, but trends in literary culture, are heavily influenced by approval from abroad; without it, literature is more likely to be viewed by domestic readers and critics as of parochial interest only. Nicholas Birns, editor of the Detroit-based Australasian studies journal Antipodes, argues that the charge of parochialism is levelled unfairly:
Other world-famous writers, such as Thomas Hardy or William Faulkner, are not seen as parochial just because they were local…. In Australian literature, though, there is still the idea that novels set in defined Australian local circumstances, such as Steven Carroll’s fiction, are less viable on the world market. It is not global to see some parts of the world as less global than others….we must, as Australianists, be prepared to ask of the world a commensurate recognition that Australia is as global as anywhere else.
The call for fair treatment is reasonable enough. But the word ‘global’ is being put to work in multiple ways. Is ‘global’ a descriptive term, in distinction to ‘parochial’, to be applied only to those works that achieve canonical inclusion in world literature? Or can it be applied universally to all literature (‘as global as anywhere else’)—which would render it an empty signifier? Or is it (as in ‘it is not global to see…’) a virtuous attitude? These are not mere ambiguities but outright contradictions. One cannot resolve them without a willingness to critique the deleterious effects of the global literary market itself, whether on the grounds of homogenisation (Parks) or exoticisation (Mufti).
Walkowitz takes a different approach to the effect of global distribution on literature, in part because she is concerned with a specific subset of literary texts. She examines the production, translation and reception of texts originally written in English that can be considered, in various ways, ‘born translated’. She uses the term to cover a variety of approaches, so it’s worth quoting her initial definition:
Adapting a phrase for artworks produced for the computer (‘born digital’), I call these novels born translated. Like born-digital literature, which is made on or for the computer, born-translated literature approaches translation as medium and origin rather than as afterthought.
Translation as origin; translation as medium. How can translation be the origin of a literary work? On its face, this claim is an oxymoron, unless one is to empty the term ‘translation’ of meaning by including in it every kind of literary activity, on the assumption that there is some kind of pre-linguistic thought process from which the writer, and to which the reader, must ‘translate’.
We can leave such speculation to cognitive science; Walkowitz has something more elusive, more elastic, in mind. To start with, she is concerned with works that incorporate translation, or multilingualism, within themselves, and the different ways in which they do. She contends that there is a qualitative difference between the ways in which twentieth-century novels engage with foreign languages and the ways in which more recent ‘born-translated’ novels do. According to Walkowitz, the former most often describe foreign languages, whereas the latter narrate them. She traces both techniques to James Joyce’s multilingual literary experimentation, but argues that until recently this legacy has only been followed by other writers in the description of language: emphasising ‘surface effects’ such as phonemes and foreign vocabulary, inserting untranslated foreign words within the body of the text. Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange creates an argot that combines an English narrative embedded with Russian words. One can easily find further examples not mentioned by Walkowitz: Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies incorporates elements of multiple languages to create its own rich and complex idiolect. An extreme example is Diego Marani’s ‘Europanto’, a parodic psuedo-language without fixed rules that merges vocabulary and grammar from whichever European languages the speaker chooses. Marani managed to write an entire novel this way:
Der morgen, Cabillot went explorante eine poquito in der klinika. Sometimes ello hadde der impression eine extrange sound auscultate, like motores turningantes. Ello climbed up und descended alles floors, dat strange noise persistante. Impossible de track seine provenience…
Marani’s invented lingo is a humorous commentary on the state of affairs witnessed first-hand in his work as a translator for the European Council of Ministers, and predicted acerbically by Auerbach as an ‘Internationale of Triviality and Esperanto culture’. What’s paradoxical about these works is that, despite being so flamboyantly multilingual, they resist translation. The presence of a French word in an English text, say, is difficult to render into French; or even into another language in which French does not have the same cultural resonances. The denser the interpolation of foreign languages, the less translatable the text.
The other technique—the one used in ‘born-translated’ works—is the narration, rather than description, of language. We can contrast these in the same way as we differentiate between presentation and representation, or between mimesis and diegesis. Rather than embedding foreign words directly, the text narrates the effect of hearing a foreign language on the listener. Walkowitz quotes from Ben Lerner’s novel Leaving the Atocha Station:
She began to say something either about the moon, the effect of the moon on the water, or was using the full moon to excuse Miguel or the evening’s general drama, though the moon wasn’t full.
The focus here is on the reception of language: what it is like to try to understand a language with which one is not entirely au fait. There is no obstacle here to translation. Walkowitz characterises this technique as a trait of ‘born-translated’ fiction because it foregrounds multilingualism and represents the difficulties of language within the narrative itself.
This approach to literary composition emphasises portability over particularity. Walkowitz cites the novelist Kazuo Ishiguro’s criteria when editing his own work: does such-and-such a sentence have real substance, or is it just playing with language—does it ‘survive translation’? Ishiguro’s approach seems to be just the kind that Parks warns against in his criticism of the smooth, homogeneous ‘global novel’. The poet Robert Frost famously held that poetry is ‘that which is lost out of both prose and verse in translation’. But Walkowitz questions whether homogenisation is always, necessarily, a bad thing: ‘many contemporary novels present themselves not as autonomous objects but as copies, grafts, versions, or clones.’
But while Walkowitz’s discussion of the ‘born-translated’ novel de-emphasises the particularity of language, and even of original works, she is not concerned with universality so much as the visibility of translation and multilingualism. Despite the great variety of works she discusses—from David Mitchell’s polyphonic Cloud Atlas to the strange digital texts of Young-Hae Change Heavy Industries, which appear in multiple language versions that are not actual translations but separate texts altogether—the common thread is the attention such texts draw to the process of translation. Whether by narrating the interactions of multiple languages, by adopting odd syntax that simulates the output of translation (‘translatese’), or by their sensitivity to multiple readerships—via translation into other languages, or by distinguishing native from foreign speakers—these works make translation visible in a way that it often tends not to be. According to Walkowitz, the ‘born-translated’ novel encourages us to think ‘about the labour of translation’.
This is indeed a worthwhile exhortation. The translator is an insufficiently recognised role, both in literary publishing and in the study of literature. The name of the translator is often left off the cover of the work; translators are rarely credited in discussion of a translated work. But as the great Argentine writer and literary translator Jorge Luis Borges points out, translation is a creative, not merely imitative, endeavour: it’s possible for a translation to surpass its original. This discrepancy is a gendered one, too; of the translated works published in the United States between 2008 and 2014, there’s near-parity in the number of male and female translators, but a dramatic gender gap amongst the writers of the original texts: around seven men for every three women.
These are stimulating lines of enquiry, and Walkowitz’s book abounds with invitations to elaborate and expand on its ideas. It has an openness, an experimental quality, quite different to Mufti’s more cautious and austere prose. However, this seems to have come at the cost of neglecting the political implications of the global mobility of born-translated novels. At one point she conflates the literary dominance of a language with its number of readers, which would mean Mandarin Chinese would eclipse English, and Bengali would be of greater significance than French in the global literary establishment. When she does consider the political aspects of born-translated fiction, her conclusions are often gestural rather than concrete. Works such as Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist are, Walkowitz suggests,
American novels that are foreign above all to American readers. They aim to exclude Americans from the experience of reading in the original by narrating scenes of translation that are present from the start.
The suggestion of a pedagogical function to literature should always be treated with suspicion: genuinely great works both exceed any such function and fall short of it. More specifically, how is it significant that certain American readers are experiencing a text that seems ‘foreign’ to them? Presumably, Walkowitz means that it would act on such readers as a check on unthinking entitlement.
In the conclusion of Mufti’s book, he mentions similar considerations. Addressing two audiences, he advises ‘postcolonial societies such as those of South Asia’ to adopt ‘an abundance of caution and vigilance, a critical attitude, properly speaking, toward any claim to autonomy.’ It makes sense, from this perspective, to focus on the critical subject itself, and the vigilance required to avoid falling into error. But the concomitant effect of this stance is to shift from literary criticism into a kind of meta-criticism that does not neglect literary works, exactly, but treats them as material on which to test the merits of critical theory and practice. To Anglophone readers, he hopes ‘that this book will strengthen in its own small way those tendencies in Anglophone culture that self-consciously attempt to renounce their own privilege…’
In both cases, the acknowledgement and renunciation of Anglophone privilege, while no doubt a worthy and necessary step, seems a scant and paltry objective that does not begin to exhaust the possibilities suggested by either book. A far richer endeavour, and a thread common to both books despite their differences in perspective and emphasis, is to explore the concept of the exile: exilic readers, exilic texts. The implications for ‘world literature’ are significant—and it’s noteworthy that neither of these two contributions to the discussion take the ‘distant reading’ route advised by Moretti. Both focus on specifics—a regional slice of literary history for Mufti, and a stylistically and temporally bound subset of Anglophone literature for Walkowitz—and extrapolates lessons for world literature from their chosen topic.
The vaulting ambition of the global anthology of works canonised, homogenised and sanctified by translation into English, is surely past its sell-by date. The journal Asymptote, which publishes all work in translation alongside the original texts, is exemplary here. But beyond that, what Mufti’s and Walkowitz’s projects point toward, in their different ways, is a more radical reconfiguration of the relationship between self and other than that to which ‘world literature’ studies implicitly promote: not the blurring of difference in an attempt to familiarise the other, but an othering of the self. Against the ersatz cosmopolitanism of a ‘world literature’ modelled after the globalised world-system of nations, a genuine engagement with the literatures of the world must not only recognise differences between literatures but be sensitive to the ineluctable difference from their own traditions that significant literary texts—‘born translated’ or otherwise—enact.
Erich Auberbach, ‘Philology and Weitliteratur’, trans. by Maire and Edward Said, Centennial Review, XIII (1969).
Erich Auberach, ‘Scholarship in Times of Extremes: Letters of Erich Auerbach (1933-46), on the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Death’, trans. by Martin Elsky, Martin Vialon, and Robert Stein, PMLA, 122 (2007).
Angela Banner, Around the World with Ant and Bee (Kaye & Ward, 1960).
Nicholas Birns, ‘Is Australian Literature Global Enough?’, Journal of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature, 15.3 (2015).
Young-Hae Chang and Marc Voge, Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries
Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (John Murray, 2008).
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