Saturday, May 6, 2017

Is "World Literature" relevant today? (part 2)

Let us consider anew whether the concept of world literature has any relevance today in the sense that Goethe meant. Those who have read my earlier posts will recognize that I am, to a certain extent, channeling the ideas of Minae Mizumura, while extending her insights to the subject of world literature.

Goethe lived in “a European world” in which learned men like himself could read and speak several languages. For instance, he was able to read French works in French, English ones in English, Italian ones in Italian. For languages with which he was unfamiliar, he read translations, as in the case of Chinese and Middle Eastern poetry. He even felt that translations  of his own works helped him to understand them better. As he wrote to Boisserée (April 24, 1831):

Bei der Übersetzung meiner letzten botanischen Arbeiten ist es ganz zugegangen wie bei Ihnen. Ein paar Hauptstellen, welche Freund Soret in meinem Deutsch nicht verstehen konnte, übersetzt ich in mein Französich; er übertrug sie in das seinige, und so glaub ich fest sie werden in jener Sprache allgemeiner verständlich sein, als vielleicht im Deutschen.

The mutual familiarity of Europeans with the works of other Europeans had been standard for centuries. Whatever their political and linguistic divisions, they were united in a common Christian culture. Following the fragmentation of Europe in the Middle Ages, learned people had continued to communicate in a universal language, Latin. Thus, the discoveries of Newton, Galileo, Kepler, and so on traveled all over the continent. With the invention of printing, books in translation began to appear, of Latin works as well as of works in the vernaculars. Long before Goethe considered the topic of world literature, “Europeans” (avant la lettre) were already communicating and sharing both their literary works and their scientific discoveries. As the wealth of the western European nations increased via the application of scientific discoveries and the fruits of colonization, a new European “culture,” i.e., one shared by the various countries, was developing. It comprised an increased standard of living and common ideas about what constituted the good life. Like all "cosmopolitans," they believed that everyone shared their views.

We all feel ourselves to be the center of our world, and Europeans were only different in that they traveled far and wide and became the center of an increasingly larger world.

I am not sure whether Goethe understood what such power would mean. I am also not sure whether he was aware of the multitude of languages in the world. In any case, most of the world spoke languages that were not written down. Thus, they had no literary heritage, which is what distinguished the various European nations. Among the colonized, there developed a class of people who learned the language of the colonizers. They became bilinguals, able to move between their native tongues and the language of the colonizers, for whom they served as translators.  The effect of this can be seen today in India, where all educated people speak English. But how many of them write today in Bengali, Kannada, Telugu, and so on? Since Goethe’s time, what we have seen is that “local” languages are receding in importance in favor of colonial or imperial languages: English, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese. If a writer today from, say Somali, wants to reach an international audience with his novels, does he write in Somali (16 million speakers), or does he write in one of the colonial languages?

There are exceptions, however, which I will discuss in the next post.

Picture credits: Leonel Graça; India the Destiny

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