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Lost, in Theory

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A new book holds that full and faithful translation from one language to another is not possible, hence World Literature cannot be.

I’m a faithful reader, or user, or whatever the apt verb might be, of Arts & Letters Daily, an aggregating website that offers succinct and often clever summaries of and links to notable essays published elsewhere on the Interwebs. Six times a week it’s the second site I look at in the morning (the first one is my own.)

Recently A&L has referred me to two essays occasioned by the publication of a book called Against World Literature, written by a professor of comparative literature. I’ve read both essays and am still not sure what the book is about. One essay, really just a brief review, seems to agree largely, while the other is pretty serious and seems to disagree.

It all apparently turns on the question of whether World Literature (the capital letters are requisite, signifying that what is meant is more than simply the sum of all literature in the world; but what that “more” may be is nowhere specified is even possible. There is a good deal of talk about Goethe, who proposed that it is. Obviously, he was wrong, or we would not be having this discussion.

Translation, you see, is the weak point. As the reviewer points out:

There is the Portuguese saudade, which means variously nostalgia, longing, yearning, torpor, moral ambiguity, loneliness. The Russian word pravda , which is conventionally translated in English as “truth,” exists in a complex echo chamber of reference. Depending on the context, the word can allude to [here he quotes the book’s author] "democratic cosmopolitics, the topology of exile, solidarity with persecuted minorities and refugees, Russian Saint-Simonianism and Russophilic worldviews."

(I quite like that “topology of exile,” by the way. I imagine sullen emigrés, furtively trudging along a Möbius strip. What the author actually means, I cannot imagine.)

I gather that the book holds that full and faithful translation from one language to another is not possible, hence World Literature — which at some point in the argument seems to have come to mean the sharing across linguistic borders of nuanced tales of the oppression of local cultures by global capitalism -- cannot be. Somehow there is a great deal about capitalism and paternalism and such in these two essays and, by implication, in the book. The reviewer pulls a line from the book — “planetary paranoia marked by cyber-surveillance, cartographies of cartels, and webs of international relationality within and outside of the nation and on the edges of legality” — and then segues into something about the World Trade Center. It’s almost as though these three writers could not manage to stick to the subject, whatever it is.

Perhaps we might require every reader of an English translation to sign an affidavit confessing that he is reading the book for the decadent pleasure of sentimental dabbling in the faux-exoticism that is so much a part of late capitalism’s consumer fetishism.

Of course, we native readers of English are spared the need to tangle with polysemy and ambiguity and equivocation when reading our own glorious though hegemonic literature. We take up the most celebrated English-language novel of the 20th century and read a line like "How my Oldfellow chokit his Thursdaymomum" without missing a beat. Yes, it might be a bit tricky to carry that over into French or Urdu, but that’s not our problem. Our problem is just to get to the end of that book.

It seems that the situation is this: There is, to take a random example, a book called Der Struwwelpeter, written in German. (If you don’t know it, it was written in the middle of the 19th century and consists of ten stories, in each of which the main character or characters, nearly always children, break some rule and suffer gruesome punishment. Ho ho ho.) Then there are various books that purport to be translations of that book into English. Trouble begins with the title, which is variously rendered as “Shockheaded Peter,” “Slovenly Peter,” or “Shaggy Peter,” and no doubt none of those quite captures the je ne sais quoi of the original, and so by others it is left alone as an example of how strange German is.

Let us concede that, the simplicity of the stories and the bluntness of the morals notwithstanding, any translation of the book is apt to lose some shade of meaning here and there, sundry faint or not so faint connotations of this word or that, echoes of the culture of German-ness that a native grasps almost without conscious thought. So conceded.

Now what? Should we — or rather, they — not permit translation? Should we defer translation until we have perfected our latent telepathic powers? Or perhaps we might require every reader of an English translation to sign an affidavit confessing that he is reading the book for the decadent pleasure of sentimental dabbling in the faux-exoticism that is so much a part of late capitalism’s consumer fetishism? Or words to that effect.

(Yes, the name Marx appears in the discussion, as of course it must. I’m wondering now if there might not be a sentence somewhere in his voluminous writings that has been mistranslated, it actually meaning in the original “Just kidding!”)

There is a YouTube video in which the author of the book talks to a group of the like-minded about it. She explains that it is a product of a “project” she shares with some other academic sorts, the goal of which is to examine “a politics of secularization, the application of philology to modes of existence, secular criticism of nontranscendental metaphysics, and war as that which needs no translation.” I should like to see that all translated into English, though I foresee problems. She expresses the remarkable opinion that this project has gained “political traction in the real world.” Here “real world” can only denote the room in which she is speaking.

I come away from the reviews with no idea of what is going on here, except that the book in question has stirred up some folks who stir easily, if to little apparent effect in the really real world. I certainly don’t plan to read it. I have already read Ulysses, and there’s not all that much of life left to me.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes "Books vs. Literature" and “On the Origins of Bunk.” John Steele Gordon asks “The End of the Book?"

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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