Article Details

In: KulturPoetik 2018, Issue 1


Peter Arnds


Taking Stock of World Literature, Comparative Literature, Translation

Jean Bessière/Gerald Gillespie (eds.), Contextualizing World Literature. Brussels et al.: Peter Lang 2015. 163 p.



Full text

The question what precisely constitutes world literature continues to occupy scholars of literary studies and comparative literature. Answers as to its definition are often as nebulous as the field of comparative literature, which, in spite of pronouncements of its demise, is still thriving in some parts of the world, at least at the institution of this reviewer. World literature is a term even more amorphous, and there is indeed a vital need for its ongoing contextualization.
Compiled of essays from contributors from Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Europe, Jean Bessière’s and Gerald Gillespie’s volume aims at doing just that. It successfully enlightens the reader about the uneven and confusing usage of the term ›world literature‹ (WL) and is guided by questions such as: (1) Which methodologies and critical perspectives may allow for expression of the universal? (2) How can WL be liberated from its Eurocentric perception? (3) What does translation, especially into English, do to it? (4) How can it be seen as a macrocosm but also within microcosmic models? (5) What is its relationship with minor literatures? (6) What forms of network, interconnections and interferences exist in world literature? 
While Monica Spiridon (Bucharest), Maria Alzira Seixo (Lisbon), and Lisa Block de Behar (Montevideo) focus closely on the significance of ›world‹ rather than translation in WL, including the argument that even just a single literary text can aspire to capturing the world within itself, several scholars that have come together in this volume agree on the importance of analysing the impact of translation on world literature. One may be tempted to concede that having a translation of a work is undoubtedly better than not being able to read that text at all (Mario Valdés, Toronto). There exists, however, widespread scepticism towards translation in scholarship and a heightened awareness of the threat translation poses to the autonomy of texts that ‒ if not translated into a dominant language ‒ are easily excluded from the notion of world literature. Dorothy Figueira (Athens, Georgia), for example, points to the colonizing power of translation by turning a text into English. She argues correctly that translation implies the »expropriation of the Other’s artistic production« as well as an »implicit claim of improving upon it by reconstructing in a ruling language« (43). Others share this scepticism towards translation, like Haun Saussy (Chicago), who in his provocatively original essay discusses the impact of two types of empire (by land and by sea) on the circulation of texts, their translation, and thus on world literature. Interestingly – and I would concur with this view –, Saussy argues that comparative literature and literary translation essentially rule each other out, as translation by nature cannot help but aspire to ending multilingualism, which is ultimately the sine qua non of both world and comparative literature.
The question of definition never quite leaves the pages of this very readable and well-edited volume compiled of essays in English and in French. (This reviewer feels that a book on world literature must somehow go beyond English, and it could very well also go beyond French. In that sense, Contextualizing World Literature, which is based on the ICLA conference held in Paris in July 2013, could have gone even further by including essays in other languages.) Among the numerous possibilities of what world literature could be, one, argues Eva Kushner (Toronto), could be »the relevance of literature to the world« (55), an idea that exceeds the Eurocentric approach to world literature commonly attributed to Goethe. Manfred Schmeling (Saarbrücken) discusses this early discourse on WL in the reception of Goethe as part of a rather Eurocentric interaction of French and German culture. On the other hand, however, the fact that Goethe could also be seen as rather cosmopolitan in his perception of WL is lucidly argued by Steven Sondrup (Salt Lake City) in his highly interesting essay on the significance of Chinese literature for Goethe’s understanding of Weltliteratur, which goes to show that Goethe was indeed committed to a literary cosmopolitanism that may debunk the myth of his purported Eurocentrism. As comparative literature programmes around the planet are recruiting increasing numbers of Chinese students, Sondrup’s essay strikes me as an ideal text for modules aiming to introduce the concept of WL to their students. 
What is particularly fascinating in this volume, however, is its persistence in transcending any form of Eurocentrism by including a healthy variety of thought-provoking papers from beyond Europe. I would deem this as one of the chief strengths of a book that attempts to maximize an understanding of world literature by drawing on the views of scholars from around the world. In this regard, two articles stand out: Hein Viljoen’s (North West University, South Africa) study of the role of South African literatures for WL, and Ipshita Chanda’s (Kolkata) elaborations on the particular status WL has in India, keeping in mind that Eurocentric visions ought not to be read as universal, and that India with its multilingualism has its very own complexity for the concept. Chanda argues that if, as some theorists maintain, WL is »all literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin either in translation or in their original language […] then for the average Indian every literature written in the language of her immediate neighbour« would be WL (31). Micéala Symington’s (La Rochelle) thoughts on minor literatures and their relationship to WL are also particularly noteworthy, especially her comments on literature in Irish as an example of a minor »literature’s right to stand apart from a global economic order« (115) and her call for rethinking the notions of ›major‹ and ›minor‹ as well as ›centre‹ and ›periphery‹. 
As is to be expected, some confusion still persists after reading this book as to what precisely we are to understand by the term ›world literature‹. There will not be any definitive answers in the foreseeable future. One may be tempted to say that as with its close relative, comparative literature, we are dealing with a field of study that suffers from the emperor’s new clothes syndrome, that is, they may be two vastly overrated fields among their aficionados; and yet, as long as there are centres of world literature springing up at institutions of higher education around the world, we, the teachers of WL and CL, will need to think about how to justify their existence, but especially also how to de-occidentalize the reading lists of our literature courses. I would recommend that this volume be included in such lists as a tool for inspiration.
Prof. Peter Arnds, Department of Italian, Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin
College Green, Dublin 2, Ireland; E-Mail: