14 July 2008

The literary world system

In my previous post, I had suggested that, perhaps, there is a large international market for translations of Indian regional-language writing. If such a market really exists, it opens up opportunities not only for Indian-language writers, but also for Indian-language translators. This proposal, of course, makes sense if there really is an international literary space where Indian-language writing translated into English (or other languages) can snugly fit in.

While dwelling on this possibility of an international literary space for Indian-language writing, I came upon William Deresiewicz’ 2005 review of French scholar and critic Pascale Casanova’s book La R├ępublique mondiale des lettres (The World Republic of Letters). Here’s an excerpt from that review which appeared in The Nation:

…it helps to know how the international literary sphere is usually thought about – or rather, not thought about. Academic departments, literary academies, histories and reference works, honors and prizes: The institutions of literary life almost invariably partition the world of literature into discrete, autonomous national traditions – English over here, American over there; Italian in this classroom, Spanish in that; German Romanticism, French Symbolism, the Russian novel. Even the Nobel Prize, our one global literary honor, makes a point of emphasizing the national provenance of its laureates, so that it is understood that it is often a country as much as an author that is being recognized, and that the consecration of, say, a Saramago, shuts the door on all other Portuguese writers for the foreseeable future. As for the books that enter our national literary space from the outside (especially from outside the English-speaking world), do we ever think about why some reach us and not others? Where do translated writers ‘come from’? Are they simply the most celebrated authors in their own countries? (In fact, they often aren’t.) If we think about these questions at all, we probably assume that the writers we become aware of are just better than the ones we don’t. (But ‘better’ according to what criteria, enforced by whom?) In other words, we’ve bought into the myth of an international literary meritocracy, or, in Casanova’s words, “the fable of an enchanted world...where universality reigns through liberty and equality...the notion of literature as something pure, free, and universal.”

[Citation: The literary world system, by William Deresiewicz, The Nation, 3 January 2005.]

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