World Literature and Translation


Celebrating 10 Years of the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival

By Arjun Bhatia, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


‘There is no surer foundation for a beautiful friendship than a mutual taste in literature.’

― P.G. Wodehouse

In a world that continues to be fissured along old and new lines, there is little that can be said to belong to humanity as a whole. But art has always been known to transcend borders and fault lines. A story from one part of the world possesses the power to evoke the empathy of readers living in another place entirely. World literature helps people around the globe acquire a better understanding of the world, and each other.

German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe celebrated the concept of Weltliteratur in several of his essays in the early 1800s. In his journal Propyläen, Goethe wrote, ‘It is to be hoped that people will soon be convinced that there is no such thing as patriotic art or patriotic science. Both belong, like all good things, to the whole world, and can be fostered only by untrammelled intercourse among all contemporaries, continually bearing in mind what we have inherited from the past.’

However, over the course of the next hundred and fifty years, interest in the world’s collective literary richness was submerged by a tide of aggressive nationalism. It was only after the World Wars in the twentieth century that world literature witnessed a revival, particularly in the United States. As a country of immigrants, with less entrenched national traditions than older nations, the US emerged as a fertile ground for the study of comparative and world literature. Today these subjects are actively studied and discussed all over the world.

Perhaps no one plays a greater role in the progress of world literature than translators. They are the unsung heroes, often with their names printed only inside books and not on the cover with the author of the original work. They act as bridges to help readers of one language and sensibility to cross over to the territory of another, serving up literary delights that both reflect and extend the words of the original author.

Some consider translation to be a simple task: learn two languages and translate books word for word. It isn’t that straightforward, as British translator Deborah Smith explains. Smith translated Han Kang’s The Vegetarian - which went on to win the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 — from Korean to English. Along the way, she encountered many phrases that sound beautiful in Korean but fail to have the same impact in English: ‘At the end of chapter two in Human Acts (another novel by Kang, translated by Smith) the Korean literally says something like “dawn broke like ice”. That’s just too vague to have the same power in English. So I had to think of a way in which dawn breaking might be ‘like ice’ that would make sufficient, but not too much, sense. It couldn’t be obvious or banal, because the original is neither of those things.’ After much thought, the sentence became, ‘The dawn light was calved from the night slow as an iceberg.’

The conundrum of preserving the essence of a work raises the question of whether more is lost or gained in translation. Scholars are divided on the matter. Some, like Columbia University Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, believe that the study of world literature in translation can smooth out the linguistic richness and political force of the original work. Others agree with Harvard University Professor David Damrosch, arguing that those works that thrive as world literature actually benefit in different ways from the process of translation. The view is perhaps shared by the Booker Prize Foundation, which in 2015 announced the evolution of the Man Booker International Prize into a prize for fiction in English translation, with the £50,000 prize money for the winning title to be split equally between author and the translator.

The role of world literature for mankind is less contested. Literature is reflective of prevailing philosophical and political principles of the era in which it is written. It helps societies to improve dialogue and understand the struggles and priorities of those different to them. It often takes the form of a statement of demands or a critique of a society: socially minded authors call for change by seeking support for a cause through the medium of literature.

According to the Communist Manifesto, world literature discourages national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness, while also acting as an agent for driving global trade and exchange. “In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climates… And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property” .

Continuing its legacy of celebrating the shared literary wealth of the world, the ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival, on the occasion of its tenth anniversary, will host many writers of world renown, including Francesca Orsini, Deborah Smith, Paulo Lemos Horta, Sholeh Wolpé, Urvashi Butalia, Adam Thirlwell and Arunava Sinha, as they discuss the importance of world literature and translation in the present day.





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