State of the Discipline World Literature and Translation

Albert Braz


“Translation, despite the inevitable misunderstandings

to which it gives rise, is one of the principal means by

which texts circulate in the literary world.”

           — Pascale Casanova


The explosion of interest in world literature is arguably the most significant development in literary studies since the turn of the century. To begin with, the new global focus has forced a serious reconsideration of the “nationalization” of literary studies. After all, for some two hundred years now, literature has been taught largely in national departments, as if it were a purely national phenomenon. No less important, the shift toward world literature has the potential to considerably expand the literary canon, given that it is intended to cover literary production from anywhere in the globe. Of course not everything about world literature is positive, particularly because of the necessary reliance on translation. However, as I will argue in this essay, translation offers major opportunities to renew not only literary studies, but literature itself.


Whatever else it may do, translation tends to expose both the cultural and political dynamics in international literary exchanges. Thus one of the consequences of the emergence of world literature is that it has underscored the fact that, while some texts are able to enter the global literary space in their original language, notably those in English, others can do so only through translation. For instance, it is widely accepted that the three most influential recent studies of world literature are Pascale Casanova’s La république mondiale des lettres (1999), David Damrosch’s What Is World Literature? (2003), and Franco Moretti’s Graphs, Maps, Trees (2005). Tellingly, even though it was the first to be published, Casanova’s text had significant international impact only after it was rendered into English, by M.B. Debevoise, as The World Republic of Letters in 2004. Casanova herself seems aware of the necessity of translation, notwithstanding what she terms “the inevitable misunderstandings to which it gives rise.” As she writes in the preface to the English-language edition of her text, “I am pleased that this book, aimed at inaugurating an international literary criticism, should itself be internationalized through translation into English” (xiii). Indeed, it is likely that at this moment in cultural and economic history not only translation, but translation into English, is a necessary mediator in the circulation of creative and critical texts.


Another problematic aspect of this reliance on translation is that translations can be either so incompetent or idiosyncratic that it is not at all evident that much of the source texts (and thus their cultures) is conveyed to the new language and culture. Erin Mouré’s Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person: A Transelation of Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa’s O Guardador de Rebanhos (2001) is a case in point. Writing as Eirin Moure, Mouré asserts that she considers Pessoa’s pastoral heteronym or poetic alter-ego her “master” and that she wishes her version “to be judged not just as my poetry but as translations of Pessoa” (viii, ix). Yet throughout her “transelation” she seems so determined to put her own imprint on the poems that she effaces both the source text and its author(s). Mouré’s proclivity to insert herself into what is supposed to be a translation of a foreign work is conspicuously evident in her rendition of a poem in which Pessoa/Caeiro states that he is pleased to write his verse because he knows he only understands nature from the outside, for nature does not have an inside, otherwise it would not be nature:

Por mim, escrevo a prosa dos meus versos

E fico contente,

Porque sei que compreendo a Natureza por fora;

E não [a] compreendo por dentro

Porque a Natureza não tem dentro;

Senão não era Natureza. (Mouré 74)

Mouré, in contrast, not only qualifies the Portuguese poet’s views on nature, but even changes the poem’s focus from nature to herself:

As for me, I pen the prose of my poetry

And I’m content

Because I can understand Nature well enough from out here;

I can’t get inside it

Because inside / outside is not Nature’s predicament:

it’s Eirin Moure’s. (75)

Given that Pessoa presumably invented his heteronyms in order to avoid talking about himself, Mouré’s strategy seems rather inappropriate; indeed, anti-Pessoan. Moreover, since there are so many other examples of additions and deletions in Sheep’s Vigil, one cannot help but wonder if parts of the book constitute a translation of a Portuguese text or an autonomous Canadian composition.


In addition to the frequency of ostensible translations that turn out to be non-translations, another negative facet of world literature’s dependence on translation is that it often leads scholars to conflate the dominant literatures in an area with the whole area. This is true even of scholars who are extremely critical of Eurocentrism. Theo D’haen has taken Shu-Mei Shih to task for her surprising geo-cultural blindness. D’haen writes that, in her article “Global Literature and the Technologies of Recognition,” Shih condemns the new “globalizing literary studies” for what she terms its “Eurocentric universalism” (Shih 16-17). As she asserts, despite its rhetoric of inclusiveness, the field continues to be permeated with “Eurocentrism, or, more accurately, Westerncentrism” (16). Yet D’haen affirms that after charging world literature with being “inveterately Eurocentric,” Shih proceeds to “generalize [...] about ‘the West,’ assuming that the hierarchical relation she sketches between the West, or Europe, and ‘the rest’ applies wholesale for everyone in that ‘West’” (103). The fallacy evident in such an assumption is clearly illustrated by Mouré’s effacement of Pessoa/Caeiro, underlining the degree to which so-called peripheral or marginal cultures in a geo-cultural zone are often rendered invisible.


That being said, translation can play a pivotal role in international literary exchanges, a role which goes beyond making it possible for texts to travel from one culture to another. Most importantly, perhaps translation has the power to complicate the national tradition, both by drawing attention to the global dimension of all literature and by unmasking the arbitrariness of the national canon. For example, the international embrace of L.M. Montgomery’s bestseller Anne of Green Gables forced a reconsideration of the text in Canada, where most critics at the time could barely conceal their disdain for the novel about the now iconic redhead from Prince Edward Island. In contrast, the lack of international success of João Guimarães Rosa’s Brazilian classic Grande Sertão: Veredas — or The Great Drylands: Paths, but translated into English as The Devil to Pay in the Backlands — leads one to wonder if the text is not overestimated at home. That is, if the existential Western is as remarkable an achievement as the Brazilian literary establishment claims, why is it that it has had so little appeal outside its homeland’s borders?


In terms of the relation between national literatures and world literature, translation can play yet another key function, by conveying into other cultures not the texts that a particular national literature deems worthy, but their opposites, those that it ignores. In a short but provocative essay entitled “Failure,” the trilingual Montreal writer Antonio D’Alfonso (English, French, and Italian) contends that “literature is consensually regional,” which means that a “translator can translate the work, but never the cultural sources that gave birth to the text (unless the translator is the writer)” (194). Paradoxically, though, he notes that we often argue that the reason some works should not be rendered into other languages is that they are “too regional, too parochial.” Instead, we favour what is supposed to be universal and “have chosen to translate only what is successful in one region to another” (194). However, D’Alfonso makes the compelling argument that “there are works that are not at all success stories, yet deserve to be translated, transported from one culture to another,” not the least because of the way they would force a reconsideration of what constitutes the national tradition. As he states, “Translating failures would challenge the whole notion of what is a success back home” (194). In other words, by circulating around the world what is considered peripheral within specific traditions, one would not only expand the global literary canon but, perhaps even more significant, problematize national literatures.


Needless to say, there is no way of avoiding the pitfalls inherent in world literature’s reliance on translation. Considering the fact that (world) literature potentially includes texts produced anywhere in the globe, there is no way that any scholar will be able to attain fluency in all the languages in which those texts are written. Thus one must rely on the scholarship of others to compensate for one’s linguistic and cultural limitations. Still, if we were to follow D’Alfonso’s advice and translate texts that are judged marginal in their national traditions, we would not only broaden the world canon but, eventually, would also shape the national canons.


Works Cited


Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters. 1999. Trans. M.B. DeBevoise. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2004. Print.

D’Alfonso, Antonio. “Failure.” Perspectivas Transnacionais/ Perspectives Transnationales/ Transnational Perspectives. Ed. Sandra Regina Goulart Almeida. Belo Horizonte: ABECAN/UFMG, 2005. 189-95. Print.

D’haen, Theo. “Minor Literatures and Major Histories.” A World History of Literature. Ed. Theo D’haen. Brussels: Contactforum, 2012. 101-8. Print.

Mouré, Erin [Eirin Moure]. Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person: A Transelation of Alberto Caeiro/Fernando Pessoa’s O Guardador de Rebanhos. Toronto: Anansi, 2001. Print.

Shih, Shu-Mei. “Global Literature and the Technologies of Recognition.” PMLA 119.1 (2004): 16-30. Print.




Albert Braz is an associate professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Alberta, specializing in Canadian and inter-American literature. He is the author of The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (2003) and the co-editor of an issue of the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature on Comparative Canadian Literature (2009) and of an issue of CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture on Indigenous Literatures (2011).



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