World Literature Pedagogical Spaces: Weltliteratur, Untranslatables, and Praxis
World literature has a tremendous capacity to broaden literary canons, but, when taught without a focus on translation, can succumb to cultural deracination, philological bankruptcy, and “the worst tendencies of capitalism” (Damrosch and Spivak 456). The World Literature Pedagogical Spaces seminar addresses these concerns by fostering interdisciplinary collaboration between scholars and teachers in literary studies, comparative literature, and translation. This roundtable’s goal is to diversify and exchange ideas on world literature in theory and practice, while developing sensitivity to translation in cross-cultural literary study and giving equal attention to scholarship, pedagogy, and praxis.
Starting with David Damrosch’s What is World Literature?, we take world literature texts as “literary works that circulate beyond their culture of origin, either in translation or in their original language” that maintain an active presence within a literary culture (4). A necessary part of the circulatory success (or failure) of a text in world literature is the translator. Pascale Casanova argues in République Mondiale des Lettres that the translator is a “creator of literary value” who mediates the exchange of ideas across cultures and nations (14). However, comparative literature scholars and instructors of world literature often assume a direct correlation between the language and culture of one people to that of another; this assumption can seriously cripple the field and limit understanding.
Emily Apter uses the term “untranslatable” in Against World Literature as a heuristic for investigating the academic organization of the humanities (40). She writes: “there is a quality of militant semiotic intransigence attached to the Untranslatable… Often it can come off as non-sense that becomes strangely accessible through the sheer force of grammar” (34). Weltliteratur is itself an untranslatable, for there is no equivalent word or term in English. Yet, scholars and teachers nevertheless invoke the term. We posit that collaboration amongst comparative and world literature scholars and instructors, and translators will shed light on existing assumptions and misunderstandings through a rigorous exchange of theory and praxis between and against disciplines. We thus activate concepts of translatability and untranslatability as ways to navigate interdisciplinary conversations about the teaching of world literature, and to explore the following questions:
- How do you engage translation and/or untranslatables in interactions with world literature(s)?
- How does translation affect our understanding of world literature?
- How can we encourage interdisciplinary collaboration in teaching world literature?
- How do we know if a world literature text has been taught successfully, and with sensitivity to issues such as cultural deracination, philological bankruptcy, and “the worst tendencie
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