Lost in translation: and all the better for it
The ‘McDonaldisation’ of literature doesn’t necessarily help world understanding
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: his concept of Weltliteratur has an implied ethic of liberal inclusivesness
Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability
The pope was worried. Nicholas I, in Rome, had got wind of the fact that an Irishman, Johannes Scotus Eriugena, was translating the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite from Greek into Latin. Dionysius was suggesting a bold synthesis of Platonism and Christian thinkings in his writings, and such dabbling in pagan thought produced unease.
The pope contacted Eriugena’s patron, the Frankish king Charles the Bald, asking that the translation be sent to the papal librarian, Anastasius, to be vetted for accuracy and orthodoxy. In March 860 Anastasius wrote to Charles full of puzzled praise. “It is a wonderful thing how that barbarian, living at the ends of the earth, who might be supposed to be as far removed from the knowledge of this other language as he is from familiar use of it, has been able to comprehend such ideas and translate them into another tongue: I refer to John Scotigena, whom I have heard by report to be in all things a holy man.”
If Anastasius insists as much on Eriugena’s piety as on his linguistic ability, it is because one never knows when a foreign idea put into circulation will give succour to the barbarians at the gate. When Luther translates the Bible into German and Marx makes his way into Russian and Chinese, whole worlds change.
Emily Apter, a professor of comparative literature at New York University, is alert to this subversive history of translation, the way it opens the reader up to other worlds of thinking and feeling. World literature, or the making available of the literatures of the world in translation, is what Apter calls a “blue-chip moniker; benefiting from its pedigreed association with Goethean Weltliteratur ”. The ethic of liberal inclusiveness implied by the term sits easily with a Kantian vision of perpetual peace through the sharing of an enlightened common culture. In the anglophone world, where less than 3 per cent of all published titles are translations, the idea of world literature would appear to be an urgent and necessary corrective to the political and linguistic hubris of the speakers of a dominant global language.
Apter, however, is not so sure. This is not because she does not believe translation to be valuable or important. In fact, it is precisely because she does believe it to be so crucial that she wants it to be taken seriously. Her concerns lie with a notion of world literature that erases difference or sifts out the foreign or the unsettling in the name of easy consumption. In this way world literature mimics a free-market fantasy of the endless, frictionless circulation of goods and information. In this McDonaldisation of the written word there is no room for difficulty or opacity.
The untranslatable is the world party pooper. It is the resistance of language to univocal meaning, the countless historical, political and cultural associations of words that trouble any easy traffic between languages. Apter, drawing on Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon , gives examples of words that are resistant to simple rendering. 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 “democratic cosmopolitics, the topology of exile, solidarity with persecuted minorities and refugees, Russian Saint-Simonianism and Russophilic worldviews”.