Thoughts on Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading

Thoughts on Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading

John C. Hunter

 Too much polyphony, and too much monotony: it’s the Scylla and Charybdis of digital humanities.

Franco Moretti, “Style Inc.”

 As we have observed throughout our considerations of Moretti’s work, what he is interested in first and foremost are new methods of approaching literature. With this is mind, I think that it is important to begin by locating his methodology in the context of other branches of scholarship. His self-description as a plucky naïf trying new things without really knowing what will happen is charming and may work in a purely literary context (and I stress “may” – there were people involved in what used to be called “humanities computing” doing similar things as far back as the early 1990s). But his “distant reading” can also be described as a version of what scientists call a “meta-analysis,” and some attention to this context—about which Moretti should be much more explicit—can help us to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his methods.

In the two article abstracts that I circulated last night, you can see how this works in the sciences. In the Li, Mao, and Wei article, a group of scientists in Beijing studied literally hundreds of scientific studies written over a thirty-year period to look for patterns of connection between addiction and certain human genes. Experimental scientists are trained to be as reductive as possible (in the non pejorative sense of that term): try to isolate single genes, single causes, eliminate as many variables as possible. The Beijing team looked across all of these local, isolated studies to try to find patterns: are there genes that are consistently associated with addiction? Which ones and in what ways? No single team of experimental scientists could hope to determine this by themselves, but aggregating the work of hundreds of labs could and this is what they did. The result is a scientific research article in which the authors have done very little of the research themselves: they are just collating, interpreting, and analyzing the research of others. And this is a perfectly respectable scientific approach these days, one that is made possible by online access to research from many countries, increased data processing power, and the tyrannical leveling effect of the English language (the world-wide language of research science and a subject to which I will return). It is just like Moretti’s refusal to close read and his move to see what can be learned from far away, rather than up close – he is performing a meta-analysis of the literary corpus.

The Evans and Foster piece on “Metaknowledge” can be read as a theoretical reflection on this process – reading the sentence in their abstract about how meta-analysis “uncovers regularities in scientific claims and infers the beliefs, preferences, research tools, and strategies behind those regularities” and we can almost hear Moretti studying the history of the novel in local contexts all over the world and finding his pattern of the modern novel in the periphery: Western forms in a complex interaction with local material and a local narrative voice. Regularities, beliefs, preferences, and strategies . . . exactly what Moretti wants to find. Evans and Foster are sociologists of science rather than bench scientists themselves, and they represent another broad current of academic inquiry that bears on Moretti’s method (one that goes back to Thomas Kuhn’s path-breaking Structure of Scientific Revolutions [1962]). Kuhn outraged many scientists by asserting that there were patterns that scientific activity follows that are, in effect, unconscious, and Moretti is saying the same thing: think of his fascinating observations on the length of titles in “Style Inc.” – how they got shorter, why, and what patterns can be observed in the process. As with the scientists, the novelists didn’t consciously collude to do this to their titles (one can’t imagine Jane Austen thinking to herself: “What shall I call my new novel? The Education of Miss Elizabeth Bennett, perhaps? Nah – too long . . .”), but Moretti has shown (to my satisfaction at least) that the process DID happen.

The point here is not to denigrate Moretti or to imply that he is dishonestly piggy-backing on work done in other fields (though I do think it would behoove him to write about how his work fits in these scientific and social-scientific trends); I enjoyed reading this book and think there is a lot of fruitful material here. My point is to assert that his new methods are very much of a piece with much larger trends in the global academy, trends connected with the exponential growth of our data processing power and its applicability across the academy. He may present as a maverick in the literary context, but he looks much less so if one takes a step back and looks at larger academic trends. This can lead to a number of important questions that do not bear on our debates this week (the place of the humanities in the academy, for example), so I will leave this with just one more observation: all of this work may have been published in the New Left Review and in a Verso book, but its heritage suggests that there is nothing necessarily oppositional or subversive about it.

Translation appears here only as the means of diffusion “and hence reformulation from one language into another.” Plot endures and style is changed to suit local conditions. This is clearly not an important issue for Moretti, and this strikes me as a much more serious challenge to business as usual in comparative literature than distant reading will ever be. It is also the build up to his largest historical claim: that there are two distinct world literatures, a pre 18th c. one with a mosaic of local cultures and lots of diversity and a post 18th c. one that shows a “stunning amount of sameness” and a change mechanism based on convergence. This puts a LOT of weight on the bloom of full modernity (in the shape of mercantile capitalism and colonial expansion). It makes sense in the Marxist context because (as we have already observed) it is a fine example of base and superstructure, but a lot of nuance is lost in the process. On p. 127, Moretti asserts that powerful core literatures interfere with peripheral ones but that this is seldom true in reverse. But is it this simple? The single most fertile scene of formal innovation in the novel over the past fifty years has unquestionably been Latin America: could any English-language novelist claim to be as formally innovative or influential as Garcia Marquez, Fuentes, or Roberto Bolano? Could anyone deny their huge influence on writers in the English-speaking world? All this to say that diffusion is always a two-way street.

I think that this complicates his assertion about modern world literature a lot, and I would enjoy discussing this further with the group. The danger of treating literary texts and traditions as data that do not need to be read but aggregated is that it tempts us to think that we are merely compiling data and not always already interpreting it. This is what our scientific colleagues do when they say “the data doesn’t support that” as if data speaks for itself. To cite the title of a very useful book that I teach in my foundation seminars, “raw data is an oxy-moron.” Even in distant reading there is interpretation . . .




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Different Reading

I talk a lot about public-facing online writing environments, and how they challenge students to think about audience in a way that more traditional essay forms do not. I encourage them to think about primary and secondary audiences, and to remember that what they write might have a much broader audience than they anticipate. I encourage them to engage with that (unknown) audience. I caution them to be cautious as they write. I will now proceed to ignore my own advice.

I have struggled this week: I came a day late, and haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I’ve been a dollar short. I have small Latin, less Greek, no German or Russian or Japanese or Chinese .. I code (some). On the whole I have felt that I’ve been an interloper in the East Reading Room as everyone talks about translation and translatability.  Those of us who have become professional Digital Humanists have spent years in a defensive posture trying to explain to the rest of our Humanities folk why what we do is not something to fear; we spend so much of our time *doing* that that we often default into a position of being practitioners who foreground our DH-itude in order to demonstrate its (and our?) usefulness. We forget to do the reading.

Yesterday I tried to articulate (badly, I fear) why I wrestle with whether or not coding is an untranslatable. Specifically, I’m thinking about TEI-compliant XML, the encoding system with which I spend most of my time. But I think the argument plays out more broadly: that English has been so baked into machine readable language systems that I wonder how it is possible to mark up the Bengali works of Rabindranath Tagore without engaging in a dual language exercise that doesn’t serve the source text. Perhaps I should ask this question: must Digital Humanists who write in Bengali and work with Bengali texts be forced to code in English? I hope that someday Sukanta Chaudhuri talks about that.

I have a tense relationship with Moretti that stems, I only last night realized, from the fact that I am sick of the fan boyzz and grrlz in DH who worship him with such drooling adoration; I find it difficult to do anything but play the curmudgeon and scowl when he is invoked. I don’t trust any situation where gushing admiration isn’t matched by solid understanding of the person or his work. Look how that played out for the Beliebers. I can therefore only blame myself for not reading him in more than a cursory fashion. But Moretti doesn’t belong to DH, and I don’t think he wants to speak for them (us?), either.

I really truly enjoyed the reading. My scribbles in the margins became a dialogue between Moretti and me. I don’t often annotate like that, in the second person, with lots of punctuation marks. It was very satisfying – frustrating, at times, but satisfying. Frustrating, probably, because I was jumping up and down and there was no one to talk to about why I was jumping up and down.What I really loved in Distant Reading (more so than Atlas of the European Novel) was the confessional way in which he describes his interests and approaches and processes. There’s joy and humility (and ego, of course) in the way he presents his experiments. In fact, I think that he presents himself as an incidental Digital Humanist. I love that he says, “I soon realized that the tools for a large-scale gathering of data were not (yet) available to me.” (211) Perhaps I am being precious, but he does not say ‘I had not yet built a tool that would …’ He acknowledges that he cannot do what he does without others. He is fortunate to have the people at the Literary Lab to help him when he needs those tools. See Matt Jockers or Elijah Meeks. I also, perversely, love that his methods invite Digital Humanities to join departments of comparative literature as a permanent intellectual “thorn in the side” (62) of national literatures. That’s a fun place to be.

What I find valuable about Digital Humanities and Moretti’s approach more specifically is that digital methods offer the scholar an opportunity (confidence?) to ask otherwise unwieldy questions and look for answers – and often unexpected new questions at a different point in the research process. “When it comes to phenomena of language and style, we can do things that previous generations could only dream of.” (212) That’s a powerful statement that is invigorating and not a little daunting. I think this is what he means by the years of analysis and day of synthesis. (47). The work that Moretti describes is indicative of the ways in which many who utilize digital methods engage with subjects. They have exploded the canon. Frankly (and with apologies to Harold Bloom and to John Hunter, who recently pointed out to me that I am, in fact, a sort-of Shakespearean) the canon is no longer valuable to us. Digital forms of engagement help scholars to pursue questions across genre and medium. ” Distance,” Moretti writes, “allows you to focus on units that are much smaller or much larger than the text.” (48-9) The challenge, then, is that “we must acccept losing something. We always pay a price for theoretical knowledge.” (49) Ok. We always have to leave something behind or out when we focus – however we choose to do that.

When he does talk about Digital Humanities explicitly, he points to the fact that we are about to come to the end of our “un-theoretical interlude.” (122) I think that’s right. There are others in the community who are talking about the same thing. I think there’s an eagerness about getting to this point. I’ll find a reference and add it here.

The one place where I will take issue with him, and where Moretti and I really went at it last night, is in the chapter “Network Theory, Plot Analysis.” After spending so much time explaining that he’s a specialist and therefore feels “like a charlatan” when it comes to world literature (45) why does he devote an entire chapter to Hamlet?  I get that he’s fond of Horatio (who isn’t?) but someone enlighten me as to why dramatic plot works better (?) for demonstration than any other kind of plot. Why not do this with Bleak House? And to a performance historian and theatre practitioner who also has to “stop working on the play proper, and work on a model” (218), there are much more compelling arguments about network that I think can be teased out through doubling charts. The only digital platform necessary is an Excel spreadsheet. Not even Google. Why can’t you have the same actor play Hamlet and Horatio (although that would be super cool)? What freaks the audience out when you have the same actor play the Ghost and Gertrude (that would also be super cool, and make the closet scene REALLY Freudian)? It has to do with who is talking to whom on stage or how many lines separate two characters’ bits of dialogue, affording an opportunity for the actor to dive offstage, change, and jump back on again. But sorry, I digress.

Ok. I’m late for work. In closing, many many thanks to Katie Faull for organizing this and for guiding us through the week and for keeping us on track when some of us started to veer off. And to Slava and to John for leading discussions. And to everyone in the group for being patient with me when I didn’t understand what you were talking about. I promise to do a better job with the reading next time.

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Slava’s Thoughts for Today

Here are Slava’s thoughts for Franco Moretti Atlas of the European Novel 1800

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Thoughts for Thursday

“In this book … the method is all.” (Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel, p. 5)  Last night I was asked the question, what is untranslatable about Moretti?  Is it the intersemiotic action that he engages in?  Is his a false, or hyper, or infinite act of translation?  Can we map, translate, transfer, the internal logic of the European novel onto cartographic space?

Moretti gives us a clear and overly modest answer: “It is a beginning.”  Perhaps like the Ngrams produced yesterday to illuminate our discussions of untranslatables, this is a starting point, based in quantitative methods that allows complex and new qualitative discussions.  Moretto asks us to look at the maps he produces of where action happens in a plot (plotting the plot?) and then invites the reader to step back and think.  “How is it, ” he asks “that geography shapes the narrative structure of the European novel?”  Of course this not yet Moretti’s distant reading.  It is actually a very close reading, but one that translates fictional space into a physical/isometrically measured place.

Why does this sort of translation matter?  How is it related to our discussions this week of the Untranslatable and World Literature?  I would argue, because of its method.  Mapping the action of novels, known and less known texts, is a heuristic that reveals patterns that Moretti supports through a kind of New Historicism (Marxist mapping?) that then allows him to refute some of the more dearly held readings of, for example, Jane Austen’s novels.  After Said’s claim that the British upper classes would be unthinkable without the colonies, many historians and critics have built careers and much scholarship on investigating the connection between the stately homes and estates of England (and Ireland) and the slave trade (see, for example, Madge Dresser’s Slavery and the British Country House (2013) and her earlier Slavery Obscured (2001)).  Moretti casts doubts on Said’s claim (although I would love to put Madge and Franco in a room together) through his close, spatial reading of Austen and translates what Said argues is an economic necessity into a plot device.  The colonies have to exist as a plot mechanism that allows Austen to dispose of difficult characters.  But why the colonies?  why not the Continent?

The existence of the colonies, argues Moretti, permits a “strictly symbolic function” to occur in that they belong for Austen and her readers to a mythic geography, and allow for unexplained wealth to suddenly appear in a plot (pecunia ex machina?).  Do we agree with him when he claims that “it is not economic history that explains it, but ideology that projects, literally, an uncomfortable reality away from Britain.”  (p. 29)  What do we think of a geography of ideas?  Is, for example, the very “other placeness” of Russia in the 19th century the “fulcrum” that moves the plot/sujet of Dostoevsky’s novels along?  Moretti thinks so: “geography may, if not exactly determine, at least encourage morphological change.” (p. 32)  What is the causal connection here?  Do we accept the privileging of geography as a morphological device? Space can produce its own genre?

We return to the borderlands again that for Apter is a place of linguistic slippage and policed exchange, needing to be “untranslated” and destabilized as a checkpoint of nation/state/security.  Moretti’s borderlands are places that intensify figurality. (p. 45)  Maybe echoing Joseph Campbell, but clearly articulating Lotman and Propp, good morphologists of narrative, Moretti correlates plot to space, metaphor becoming the spatial container of plot.  Can morphology become topography?

Mapping Samuel Coleridge's tour of the Lake District

Mapping Samuel Coleridge’s tour of the Lake District

Maybe.  The work of Ian Gregory and David Cooper (both at Lancaster University) relates to this  in their development of a literary GIS.  As the co-authors state in the paper from which this figure is taken,  “the paper focuses on the ways in which GIS can be used to explore the spatial relationships
between two textual accounts of tours of the English Lake District: the proto-Picturesque journey undertaken by the poet, Thomas Gray, in the autumn of 1769; and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s self-consciously post-Picturesque ‘circumcursion’ of August 1802. Alongside this text-specific focus, the paper also draws on recent spatial literary criticism to reflect, more generally, on the critical possibilities and problems associated with the digital mapping of space and place in literature. Ultimately, the paper seeks to open up methodological and critical space for the ongoing development of literary GIS.”  See Mapping the English Lake District

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Thoughts for Wednesday

If translation, as Apter claims, is the central moment of the Enlightenment’s project to create a discursive space of mutual recognition, democratic freedom, mutually agreed upon rules, structures and  a disinterested program of civil rights (Apter 2013, p. 129) then the elevation of Untranslatability might seem to counter all those hopes.  How can we live in a world of mutual misprision?  Isn’t it incomprehension and unintelligibility that cause conflict, war, hatred?  In her brief chapter on the keyword “Peace” Apter articulates the goals of the field of Comparative Literature in terms that would gladden any Dean of Arts and Sciences’ heart.  Uncannily echoing the goals of the program to inculcate Enlightenment values of mutual respect and community building circulated just yesterday by our director of new student orientation (see email “Being Bucknellians” inviting faculty to facilitate discussions of new student comprehension of our university mission statement), and also our our program goals in Comparative Humanities, Apter summarizes the field’s educational mission as “dedicated to producing complexly cultured, linguistically proficient citizens of the world who foster global understanding and the pragmatic conviction that universal consensus … is achievable through an enhanced linguistic commons.” (Apter 2013, p. 129)  The problem with this vision of ethical and linguistic transparency is, however, its maintenance.  Indirectly invoking the figure of Edward Snowden as the great “Untranslator” of Babel before its fall, the reader is warned of the spectre of state security.  Translating into terms closer to home: yes, it is an excellent model for student behavior for all to agree to create a community of mutual respect and care, but this must be maintained, monitored, surveilled.   The Enlightenment must also be policed.  Those of us who lived through the years of the “socialist garden” will recognize those arguments: “Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser” (Markus Wolf)

What might this policing look like?  Apter, calling on Hamilton, turns to the old fashioned discipline of philology as a tool to examine critically the spread of “globish” and to monitor the discourse of the post 9-11 world.  For example, how has the discourse of security overtaken and bled into the talk of peace?  Resorting to the distant reading of HUGE AMOUNTS OF BOOKS through the Google Ngram tool and entering the terms “peace” and “security” in English language published (and scanned) texts from 1600 to the present day we see the graphs of occurrence.

peace and security

peace and security

If we change the corpus to only “English fiction” we see a different graphic:

"peace" and "security" in English fiction

“peace” and “security” in English fiction

Does this mean that fiction is more concerned with the Enlightenment project of perpetual peace, or, sorry, eternal peace as Kant probably meant (drawing on the semantic fields and lexica of theological discourse) than non-fiction?  Maybe the distant reading leads us to a closer reading, a more careful reading that relies on the etymology of words, a translational act that can become an infinite inquiry?  Maybe the Untranslatable is actually more of a perpetually translatable, always trying to speak the remainder of the source language, becoming poetry.

The translation of the Dictionary of Untranslatables is not, I am afraid, an example of this.  I chose to read through the entry on “sex” and was infuriated by the translation.  This is “Frenglish,” a thinly veiled anglicization of French discourse that only served to obfuscate rather than enlighten the reader on the complexities of the interrelated interlingual fields of gender, genre, genus, Geschlecht and sex.  How bizarre that the Untranslatable has become the poorly translated in a work that appears to have as its mission the foregrounding of the complexity of words and the love of logology.

Pravda and Truth


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German/Polish borderlands, July 2014

German/Polish borderlands, July 2014

Thoughts for Tuesday

Just over a month ago, I visited my mother’s birthplace, Forst/Lausitz, an unassuming town located on both sides of the Neiße river, intentionally developed as a production center for textiles and cloth in the 18th century by the Saxon statesman, Carl von Brühl.

Like his nearby palace, Pförten, Forst was devastated by a repeated change of hands; from the Seven Years War to the end of the Second World War the geopolitics of Central Europe determined its fate.  In 1945, as the Ukrainian divisions approached the Neiße, the German army gave the order to blow up all the bridges that connected the eastern side of the town with the west.  And so the bridges have remained; like snapped off rods, jutting out across the river and its low banks.

As a child, the mysteriously overgrown and unattainable other side of the river haunted/taunted me.  Innocent of the consequences, one afternoon, while our parents were visiting old friends who lived on the cobblestoned street that ran along the river, my sister and I went down to the bank and she asked me to take her photograph.  I dutifully obeyed, only to be accosted by an East German border guard who demanded to have the film from the camera.  Taking photographs of the state border was forbidden.  My mother, who must have been watching from the window, flew downstairs and explained to the incensed border guard that we were just children, how did we know that those prettily striped poles on either side of the bombed bridge signified a geopolitical flashpoint?  He looked at her with sheer amazement and then took our film.

Der Steg, Forst/Lausitz

Der Steg, Forst/Lausitz

Since that moment, borders have evoked fear in me.  Maybe from an early  encounter with the invisible lines drawn through cities and landscapes that have the power to trigger “the shoot to kill” policy of the inner-German state division, or traumatic experiences at US immigration checkpoints, I await the moment where my right to travel across that bridge, or through that port of entry, is revoked.  And, if Apter is right, maybe that is why I have been drawn to translation theory and its subsequent field of study in a romantic mission to rebuild those exploded bridges.  Maybe I too have been guilty of what she identifies as the attempt of translation studies to use “border crossing” as a prime metaphor of general equivalence (Apter 2013, p. 101), a location of meaning exchange and inter-disciplinarity.  Maybe I too see the new German/Polish border crossing just up the river from Forst, where the checkpoints were built but never used, as a “space of flow” in a new European world order.  This  travel  without checkpoints, however, does not take us to a translation zone of positive interchangability.  It produces a narrow zone where the Euro and German are the accepted currency, where Germans go to buy cheap petrol and cigarettes (and maybe a bunch of flowers, too) and then hastily return home, away from the gazes of the linguistic and cultural other.  Drive too far out of this zone, and you pay with sloty and  communicate in Polish.

So, what is Apter’s project with this provocatively named volume that positions itself immediately as an “against,” invoking the dialectic that she claims to so vehemently oppose in her chapter on chronology?  Is it to expose translations as “instruments of global consumption”?  Is to to argue for the de-provincialization of the canon?  Is it, to extend the eating metaphor from yesterday, to introduce “indigestibles” to this mass consumption (her style serves this purpose well) and then to make of the indigestible untranslatables the “fulcrum of comparative literature”?  Is it to foreground a kind of “glossolalia” that defies translation, a speaking in (non-referential) tongues that no-one understands? How does she deal with the semiotics of the Untranslatable that evoke God, logos, truth, Derridean transcendental signifieds?

What Apter claims to be promoting is a translational activity of “verkehrte Wahlverwandtschaften”, disruptive elective affinities that replace the organic ones, the false friends of translation that lead us down the slippery path of assumed equivalence (think for example of the horrors of the “Handy” or “Public Viewing” in German).  Or a World Literature that is “an experiment in national sublation that signs itself as collective, terrestrial property.” (p. 15)  More “War and Peace”?  The example she provides of such a successful translation and production of World Literature is Alain Badiou’s hypertranslation of Plato’s Republic, a work that demands both the closest of readings, “channeling Plato” (maybe understanding Plato “on his own terms” pace Lefevere), absolute comprehension, and what I would call an adaption where the cave becomes a movie theater.  The untranslatable, as the Stein des Anstoßes, produces new knowledge, it becomes an “epistemological fulcrum for rethinking philosophical concepts and discourses of the humanities.” (p. 31)  And hopefully not a fetish object of the new world order.

This then would seem to be the reason for her fascination with the Dictionary of Untranslatables.  Celebrating mistranslations, sophistry, and logology, Apter invites us to to survey this cartography of philosophical differences.  Writing about the entry on “pravda” Apter sees the untranslatable as “militant semiotic intransigence,” the remainder of translation that has the potential to undercut national language ontologies but still resorts to nationalistic essentialist thought (you know, my Weltschmerz is not accessible to you because only the Germans feel it in their Waldeinsamkeit).  Can the zone of untranslatability become a new Habermasian  public sphere, a negotiation zone between languages and cultures that undercuts nations?  And how can we fit World Literature into such a zone?  Does it then consist of an “enlightened common culture,” an ecologically aware “planetarity,” a literary world system that foregrounds a poetics of difference and a cartography of scale that is the very stuff of Comparative Literature?

This zone of untranslatability might be so large, so filled with the HUGE DATA of world literature, that only the philological tools of the telescope/microscope in Moretti’s Literature Lab can navigate it.  How do we read so much and not reduce it to the easily digestible pap of globalized fast food?  Reaching for the utensils of systems theory, Moretti developed the mathematical modelling of the dynamics of the economy, the spread of disease, the neural networks to examine the evolution of literature (the novel as a genus-gene-genre).  Only in exile, she claims, he claims, do these genres bear great fruit.  “Are new genres made by virtue of translation failure? Does differentiation come at the expense of hybridity? (see Apter 2014, p. 50).  Forgiving his Eurocentric focus, Apter recognizes the potential of Moretti’s notion of a global web/system.  She sees his quantitative formalism as a way in which to map/grid the small/micro politics of a literary work to the global/macro political context.  Such excitement in the hyperbole of Stanford’s Literary Lab, who describe  themselves as space men exploring the great unmapped territories of the great unread oeuvre of the novel, might be a way forward for the field.  But I don’t think Apter is quite sure, yet.

If we might be able to create a translation zone with the DH tools of Stanford’s Literary Lab, we must still beware the traps of periodization.  In the discussion of three core courses in Comparative Humanities we have these discussions all the time.  How do we deal with the given that critical traditions are embedded within European typologies? How do we navigate the totalizing nomenclature of World Literature (Chinese art, Japanese modernism, Russian music)? How do we develop a translational literary history that is not determined by “fetish dates” of Eurochronology?

Bucknell's Carnegie Building

Bucknell’s Carnegie Building

Our colleague at Penn State Eric Hayot proposes breaking down periodicity by focusing on one year and then building out from that (we started HUMN 250 like that); our ex-colleague Kathleen Davies points out the link between periodization and cultural political categories (exemplified in the names around the Carnegie Building on campus-a prime example of “tycoon medievalism”).

Like Nietzsche, we should instead reject the Hegelian dialectic, disable linear history, and subvert periodization, producing a “verkehrte Geschichte,” thoughts that are not of the season in sequences that perhaps reflect more of a Benjaminian sense of the “Jetztzeit.”  The action of politics on time, an Untranslatable now.

The Mauerweg, Berlin-Rudow, June 2014

The Mauerweg, Berlin-Rudow, June 2014

In her interrogation of world literature and translation studies, Apter may frustrate the reader with a style that deliberately trips us up with incessant bibliographical references, complex sentences, and obtuse neologisms and revived archaisms.  But this also wakes the reader up to the potentially sloppy thinking that has accompanied the spread and study of world literature and the practice that makes it possible, translation.  Border zones, interlingual and intercultural spaces should not be seen as places of equivalence but rather thresholds of untranslatability and blockades.  But, in order to be able to argue this, Apter has chosen her borders carefully.  How would she parse the discrete “Mauerweg” that surrounds what was West Berlin.  Where once the “Todesstreifen” signalled the impassable divide between eastern and western bloc, there is now a bike path, flanked by blind lampposts, curved like shepherd’s crooks, that has melded into the landscape.  Unlike the bombed bridges of my mother’s hometown, here is an untranslatable border.


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Thoughts for Monday

In his piece on the ACLA website, the guru of World Literature, David Damrosch talks about the issue of scale and world literature; namely, who can read everything that is out there?  And how can we read it?

We can think of ordering all this literature/ work in terms of center/periphery (some have thought in terms of the hierarchy of major/minor –see Kundera and Kafka) or seeing the expanse of World Literature is so vast that we cannot think of it in terms other than national book markets.  Other critics argue about the question of language, post-coloniality, planetarity (Spivak) and ask what kind of approach to literature are we teaching our students?

For Damrosch, the nation/world question is one that is best thought of as figure/ground.  But, is it possible to think this way within the conditions of market and post-coloniality?  He claims, yes, but not returning to the crypto-nationalism of the 19th century (what was crypto about it?) and the notion that high literature is the embodiment of a nation’s highest cultural values [Herder].  This however elides the examination of minority cultures or bilingual authors [see Kafka].  Bilingual and minority culture authors confuse the genealogy of national literature: nation<->culture<->language.  Add post-coloniality to that and the picture becomes far more complex.

What is translatability and the “dream” of equivalence?  Within Translation Studies there are formal/technical terms that we employ everyday.  See the entries.  However, we also must do this in the face of Derrida’s claim that everything is at one translatable and untranslatable.  Personally , I find that André Lefevere’s concept of the conceptual and textual grids is the very  useful in teaching students about translatability and I find his chapter in the Bassnett/Trivedi volume helpful. Given my obsession with spatial visualization, I like to think of translation as an act of “mapping meaning” and thus the concept of textual and conceptual grids allows us to examine the mapability of meaning within the greater hermeneutical framework of society and politics.  Lefevere brings up the old chestnut of “fidelity” and that it is not always the best guide to translation.  It is important in technical manuals but no in advertising, because of the need to “localize” in translation.

When foregrounding fidelity, Lefevere warns us of the danger of assigning primacy and privilege to the source text and suggests that we can think of the ST as Europe and TT as the rest of the world.  Calling on the ubiquitous master trope of EATING, there exists the danger that the intention and style of the ST will devour the TT [is there the fear that the TT might do the same to the ST?]  and that there will be a wholesale transposition and translation of ST’s conceptual and cultural grid onto TT culture.  The predominance of translation into English (and other European languages) perpetuates the colonizing process.  A good example of the politics of translation is that of Fitzgerald’s translation of Omar Khayyam which was considered to raise the ST to the status of art within the dominant culture.

For example, how do you translate a sexual “sweat” in Shakuntala into the national language of the women who only glow?

What is translation according to Bassnehtb-giantbanyantree-randygardnertt and Trivedi?  Must it always be linked to a spatial metaphor, the carrying over of meaning in the German and Latinate calc?  Can’t we also think about it as a temporal figure?  A “Nachsagen”?  anuvad?  How does this change our conception of the translational act?  How might the image of the banyan tree with its branches becoming new trees help us?  Is this a form of “rhizomic” translation?

We then also have to face Salman Rushdie’s claim that all postcolonial writers have already been translated.  What is the status of English as the language of the postcolonial writer?  Chapter 2 considers strategies of postcolonial writers who are writing and publishing  English to signal their “otherness”.  Indian and African writers who do not reject English but who already see themselves as translated or hybridized and thus, within their texts, signal this through code-switching/uses of culturally specific terms, perhaps even needing to gloss their own pages (Chinua Achebe adds a gloss of Igbo terms at the end of Things Fall Apart, as does Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Half of a Yellow Sun).

Do we agree that Rushdie’s English is already a translation because it is a language that no-one would speak in India?  “Indian English writers are thus not so much translating Indian -language texts into English as using various strategies to make their works read like translations.” (Bassnett/Trivedi, p. 53.)  A Schleiermacherian move to produce the “alienating translation” in order to “creat[e] an English that resists easy appropriation British or the West as a whole is thus a primary task” of the postcolonial writer (Bassnett/Trivedi, p. 55).

So, that brings us to Emily Apter’s critique of the project of World Literature and her elevation of the concept of Untranslatability to the “fulcrum of comparative literature.”



Posted on by Katie Faull | 1 Comment

Summer Reading Seminar in Humanities–On (Un)translatability

August 11-15, 1-4pm (due to the Humanities Open House on Friday we will start closer to 2pm)
East Reading Room, Ellen Bertrand Library

This summer the program in comparative humanities will host a week-long seminar on the topic of (Un)Translatability.  The last ten years has witnessed an explosion  of the phenomenon of  “World Literature” in the global sense of Marx’s “International” and Goethe’s “Weltliteratur.” As human interconnectivity has grown with the expansion of access to the internet and also availability of travel, the publishing program of World Literature has sought to “deliver surprising cognitive landscapes” from those places that might not previously have been accessible to the English speaker.  

However, behind this program lies the  assumption that all language is translatable.  Within the CH program, our courses draw on the world literatures of both the present and history, many times looking to find translations of  texts from Turkish, German, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Greek and Latin.  This tendency towards the globalization of our curriculum and other reading programs (see, for example, our Common Reading in  2014 “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”)  tends to elide the problematic assumption of universal translatability.

Is everything translatable?  Why (not)?  Why could the assumption of universal translatability actually undermine the very core of comparativism?  Drawing on the recent work of Emily Apter in both her monograph “Against World Literature” (Verso, 2013) and the  English translation and edition of “Dictionary of Untranslatables” (Princeton, 2014) we will explore the problematics of World Literature and translation.  

The rationale behind this week’s discussion is to foreground assumptions about a) English as a universal language and the implicit problematics associated with such an assumption and b) explore ways in which both the concept of World Literature and its critique can be incorporated into our seminars in the Humanities at Bucknell, not only in the Comparative Humanities program.  In all this talk of a “globalized” world, whether this refers to finance or literature, how do we avoid the reduction of culture to a MacDonalds of thought, and the flattening of language to “translatese”?

In the course of the week, we will also be drawing on the theories of post-colonial translation theory (Susan Bassnett) and asking how the hermeneutics of distant reading (Moretti) inflect the problematics of World Literature.

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