Politics of Cross-Cultural Reading

Tagore, Ben Jelloun and Fo in English

by Marion Dalvai (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 330 Pages
Series: New Comparative Criticism, Volume 3


The last two decades have witnessed an upsurge in scholarship on world literature. In most of this work world literature is understood as a concept in intellectual history, as a cultural system or as a curriculum to be taught. Grounded in three empirical case studies, this book complements such approaches by asking what world literature in English is or has been and what role authoritative readers (translators, editors, publishers, academics and literary critics) play in constituting it as a field for others.
The ambivalent position of English as a roadblock to international visibility and as a necessary intermediary for other literary languages justifies a particular attention to what is presented as world literature in English. By emphasizing the constitutive function of cross-cultural reading, the book encourages reflection on the discrepancy between what is actually read as world literature and what might potentially be read in this way.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • A Note on Language
  • Introduction: Reading World Literature in English
  • Chapter 1: ‘The Universal Possession of Mankind’? The Discursive Politics of World Literature
  • Chapter 2: Rhetorical Power and Symbolic Capital: The Middle Zone of Literary Space
  • Chapter 3: At Home in World Literature? Rabindranath Tagore’s The Home and the World
  • Chapter 4: ‘I now lay before you the book, the inkwell, and the pens’: Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child in English-Language Criticism
  • Chapter 5: Who is Afraid of Dario Fo? Translation and Adaptation Strategies in English-Language Versions of Accidental Death of an Anarchist
  • By Way of Conclusion: Why Investigate Acts of Cross-Cultural Reading?
  • Appendix I: Summary of The Sand Child
  • Appendix II: Untapped Resources: A Provisional Bibliography on Tahar Ben Jelloun’s The Sand Child in French
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index


This book started out as a doctoral project at Trinity College Dublin where I was the recipient of a Trinity Long Room Hub scholarship within the Texts, Contexts, Cultures programme. At the university of Dublin, I am most grateful to Peter Arnds, my supervisor, for helping me to develop my arguments, encouraging me to persist with them and accompanying the work through several drafts. Caitríona Leahy and Cormac Ó Cuilleanáin read and commented on an early draft of what has become the theoretical part of the book. Many thanks are due to my internal and external examiners, Moray McGowan (Dublin) and Susan Bassnett (Warwick) for a viva that turned into a wide-ranging and stimulating discussion of the field.

I thank Nivedita Sen (Delhi) and Sreejata Guha (Kolkata) for our conversation about translation theory and practice, and Hans Harder (Heidelberg) and Habib Zanzana (Scranton) for sharing their work on Tagore and Ben Jelloun. Sofia Jamaï (Casablanca) kindly tracked down and posted to me material from a Moroccan academic publisher.

Participants at the ‘Comparative Literature/World Literature’ conference at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver (March 2011), ‘Voices in Translation’ conference at the University of Copenhagen (November 2011) and the ‘Tagore: The Global Impact of a Writer in the Community’ conference at Edinburgh Napier University (May 2012) listened to what I had to say about Ben Jelloun, Fo and Tagore and helped clarify my work by their questions and comments. A portion of Chapter 5 appeared in Authorial and Editorial Voices in Translation, edited by Anna Wegener and Hanne Jansen. I would like to thank the editors for their permission to reprint it.

My talented friend Chiara Tomasi created the cover image. Grazie mille!

At Peter Lang, I would like to thank Hannah Godfrey, Alessandra Anzani and Jasmin Allousch. ← vii | viii →

Finally, endless thanks go to my partner, Andrew Cusack, who gave generously of his time to discuss and proofread my work. This book is also about the silenced voices beside the author that fundamentally shape the books we read. It would not be what it is today without Andrew’s unwavering support, constant encouragement and active interest in my research over the past six years. ← viii | ix →

A Note on Language

Readers may notice a discrepancy in the spelling of the terms world literature and Weltliteratur in this book. I do not use capital letters to distinguish the paradigm and the teaching practice of world literature and opt for italics when using the German term. When quoting other scholars I reproduce their preferred way of spelling.

I transcribe Bengali words phonetically, using the most commonly accepted (usually Sanskritized) forms. Arabic words are also transcribed phonetically.

Unless otherwise indicated, all translations are mine. ← ix | x →

← x | 1 →


Reading World Literature in English

English is a global language, indispensable in commercial, academic and general life. Its preeminent position is nowhere more visible than on the international publishing market: between 1979 and 2004, the share of publications written in English rose from 40 to 60 per cent of the world literary fiction market.1 However, only a small percentage of these English-language publications were translations. In 2010, Edith Grossman painted the following bleak picture:

In the English-speaking world […] major publishing houses are inexplicably resistant to any kind of translated material at all. The statistics are shocking in this age of so-called globalization: in the United States and Britain, only 2 to 3 percent of books published each year are translations, compared with almost 35 percent in Latin America and Western Europe.2

Data collected since 2008 by Three Percent, an online initiative based at the University of Rochester that aims to raise awareness of the low number of translations into English, confirm that in the United States translations make up around 3 per cent of all works published yearly, with fiction and poetry usually averaging around 0.7 per cent.3 A recent report that collected data for three sample years (2000, 2005 and 2008) for the UK and Ireland ← 1 | 2 → found that translations of fiction, drama and poetry titles here proved to be ‘a little higher than the often-cited 3% figure, and consistently greater than 4%.’4 However, we cannot ignore that English functions as a source language for many other literary languages while relatively few works of fiction, drama and poetry written in other languages are translated into English. A 2010 overview of fourteen European languages and book markets found that two out of three translated books typically are from English originals.5 Clearly, English is less permeable to translation than other major literary languages. Edith Grossman explains this by saying that the ‘English-language market is the one most writers and their agents crave for their books’.6 Writers and agents are not only attracted by the profits to be made on the English-language market; they perceive translation into English as a catalyst for translation into further languages. The power and attractiveness of English-language publishing and its relative impermeability to other languages entitles us to ask: what are we reading when we read literature in English translation promoted as ‘foreign literature’, ‘international literature’ or ‘world literature’ – literature understood as not ‘one’s own’, either one’s national literature or literature written in one’s mother tongue? The asymmetry in favour of English described above makes the exchange with literature written in languages other than English rather unbalanced.

In the last twenty years, literary translation into English has grown an impressive 18 per cent, according to a forthcoming study commissioned by ← 2 | 3 → Literature Across Frontiers, a European Platform for Literary Exchange, Translation and Policy Debate founded in 2001 and based in Wales. While an increase in the number of works translated into English certainly looks like good news, the overall increase in the number of books published in English in the same period realistically means that the proportion of translated works has remained unchanged.7

The dominance of English on the publishing market is also reflected in the academic field. The majority of recent influential academic works that critically engage with the concept of world literature and teaching practices have either been written in English (What is World Literature? and How to Read World Literature by David Damrosch; John Pizer’s The Idea of World Literature: History and Pedagogical Practice; Debating World Literature, edited by Christopher Prendergast; Mads Rosendahl Thomsen’s Mapping World Literature: International Canonization and Transnational Literatures and Emily Apter’s Against World Literature) or have been translated into English in order to ensure a wider impact (Pascale Casanova’s The World Republic of Letters or Elke Sturm-Trigonakis’s Comparative Cultural Studies and the New Weltliteratur). While most of these works deal with world literature as a field of study and teaching, my book has a different focus: it aims to show how that field of foreign/international/world literature is constructed by agents making decisions and by the rhetorical strategies used to justify and explain these decisions. In this book I use the term ‘politics of world literature’ to refer to the selecting and rhetorical work of agents as they shape the fields of publishing and academic discourse. My work complements the studies published to date: it analyses agents and factors involved in constituting the field of world literature in English translation and investigates the ambivalent position of English as a roadblock to ← 3 | 4 → international visibility and as a necessary intermediary vehicle for other literary languages. Put rather pointedly, the guiding question of this book might be formulated thus: how can one explain the increasing academic interest in world literature in the English-speaking world when de facto there is rather little world literature available in English translation?

While the rest of the study is concerned with the historical manifestations of specific reception processes, the first two chapters develop a multifaceted model of that international literary space containing the object widely known as world literature that takes into account the text’s location in its producing culture and the agents’ location in the receiving culture. My method combines reception studies (Wolfgang Iser, Hans Robert Jauss and Peter Rabinowitz) with polysystem theory (Itamar Even-Zohar) and rhetorical hermeneutics (Steven Mailloux). The study proceeds from the working assumption that meaning is not an exclusive property of the text (a material object) or of language (an abstract concept). Meaning is negotiated in a complex interpretive process that involves an act of sense making (understanding) as well as an act of making-sense-to-others (persuading). Like meaning, authority and authenticity do not reside at one site (‘the original’ or ‘the author’) but are distributed among various agents participating in the production and positioning of a literary text.

Chapter 1 briefly outlines the emergence and persistence of the term ‘world literature’. I engage in more detail with the discursive politics underpinning several definitions of ‘world literature’ (Damrosch, Pizer, Casanova, Rosendahl Thomsen, Sturm-Trigonakis and Apter) before introducing the first two components of my model: polysystem theory and reception studies.

Chapter 2 introduces the third and final essential element to my model, rhetorical hermeneutics, and engages more deeply with the agents who shape texts in translation – publishers, translators, adaptors, editors, literary critics and academics – before moving on to a discussion of the importance of literary prizes for the contemporary international book market. As a final point, I briefly outline two central concepts that emerge in all discussions of translated texts: authorship and authenticity.

In Chapters 3 to 5, I apply the model developed in Chapters 1 and 2 to three works translated into English that are commonly described and ← 4 | 5 → promoted as ‘world literature’: The Home and the World by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), The Sand Child by Tahar Ben Jelloun (born in 1944) and Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo (born in 1926). Choosing which texts to use as case studies proved one of the more difficult decisions when planning this book. At first glance, there may not be any obvious links between the three case studies, and at times Tagore, Ben Jelloun and Fo may seem to sit slightly uneasily together, much like travellers in a railway carriage, thrown together by chance and studiously ignoring each other.8 But in a sense the canon of world literature is rather like a railway carriage whose occupants are brought together by chance, travelling on different journeys but sharing the same vehicle. The railway metaphor points to another working assumption guiding this study: that inclusion in the canon of world literature is to a significant degree a matter of contingency. As I intend to show, this chanciness is a function of the situatedness of agents and their temporal agendas. In the case studies, I engage with the strategies and methods of decision-making and the discursive practices of several agents responsible for the way in which The Home and the World, The Sand Child and Accidental Death of an Anarchist are presented to the English-speaking readership. My focus varies in each case study in order to show the versatility of my model which can be applied either to give a bird’s-eye view of the reception of a literary work over a relatively prolonged period of time (Tagore), or to ‘zoom in’ on one particularly insightful aspect of reception, such as the academic criticism on a specific work (Ben Jelloun) or a close reading of the paratextual and metatextual commentary provided by agents other than the author within the covers of a published text (Fo).

Chapter 3 reconstructs the complex reception history of Rabindranath Tagore’s novel The Home and the World in the English-speaking West. The first Asian writer to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1913, Tagore was reduced to a marginal figure in the English-speaking West by 1960. I present some reasons for the decline in Tagore’s literary reputation and compare the reception of Tagore’s work in the English-speaking West with ← 5 | 6 → that in several European countries. Finally, I proceed to agents and factors responsible for the reintroduction of Tagore into the canon of world literature in its English implementation over the last thirty years. Tagore’s fate is interesting because it shows that consecration, the process by which an author is admitted to a canon, is reversible.

Chapter 4 focuses on a single aspect of the reception of Tahar Ben Jelloun’s 1985 novel The Sand Child: academic criticism written in English. The chapter concentrates on specific readings of Ben Jelloun’s novel as well as on the cross-fertilization between individual critical readings and between critical discourses across cultures. Establishing which lines of argument are accepted as meaningful and which arguments put forward in French are acknowledged or adopted in English-language Ben Jelloun criticism allows one to discuss why claims of a professedly disinterested engagement with literature, on the one hand, and the location of academics within specific institutions and the wider academic field, on the other, are often at variance.

Chapter 5 concentrates on the paratextual and metatextual commentary provided by editors, translators and adaptors of English-language versions of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist. I reconstruct the specific translation and adaptation strategies, and link these to the wider politics at work in the transposition of theatre texts and theatrical traditions.

The conclusion argues that, when dealing with works of world literature in translation, we need to take into account a text’s transnational trajectory and the changing positions of politico-cultural agents towards that particular text: in short, we need to acknowledge the processual nature of all cultural transfers in order to be able to do justice to both the effect and affect of literature in translation (the text’s effect on the reader and the affective relationship of text and reader). I also engage with a matter that rather unexpectedly emerged in the course of writing this book: a preoccupation with authenticity and faithfulness shared by many agents who shape literary works in translation and argue for their value within their reading communities. Finally, the conclusion points out several ways in which scholars and general readers interested in world literature can be empowered to become agents for change themselves. ← 6 | 7 →


1    See Susan Pickford, ‘The Booker Prize and the Prix Goncourt: A Case Study of Award-Winning Novels in Translation’, Book History, 14/1 (2011), 221–40. Here 221.

2    Edith Grossman, ‘A New Great Wall. Why the Crisis in Translation Matters’, Foreign Policy (May/June 2010) <http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/26/a_new_great_wall> accessed 5 October 2014.

3    See ‘Three Percent: A Resource for International Literature at the University of Rochester <http://www.rochester.edu/College/translation/threepercent/index.php?s=database> accessed 8 October 2014.

4    Jasmine Donahaye, ‘Three Percent? Publishing data and statistics on translated literature in the United Kingdom and Ireland’ (2013) <http://www.lit-across-frontiers.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/Publishing-Data-and-Statistics-on-Translated-Literature-in-the-United-Kingdom-and-Ireland-A-LAF-research-report-March-2013-final.pdf > accessed 5 October 2014. Quote on page 4.


X, 330
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
World Literatur Rabindranath Tagore Sand Child Cross Culture Reading
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2015. X, 330 pp.

Biographical notes

Marion Dalvai (Author)

Marion Dalvai is Research and Teaching Associate in the School of Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews. Her main research interests are: transnational literature, especially world literature in English translation; intertextuality; young adult fiction and translation of contemporary literature.


Title: Politics of Cross-Cultural Reading
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344 pages