Edited By Jean Bessière and Gerald Gillespie
By Land or Sea: Models of World Literature
← 60 | 61 → By Land or Sea
Models of World Literature
University of Chicago
One of the issues around which disagreements crystallize on the theme of world literature is translation. The more texts and traditions we aspire to talk about, the more we must rely on translation, except for a very few of us who are lucky enough to read ten or twenty languages in the original. And reliance on translation has always been frowned on in “truly comparative literature,” as Étiemble called it, the more demanding specialty that in France at least has “general literature” as its popular face. I think we’re right to be anxious about translation, because every age has a tendency to imprint its own idées fixes on the translations it makes, and presumably we are more likely to identify and resonate with idées fixes that are closer to our own than we would with the ideas in a text from remoter times and places, although it is the more foreign ideas that ought to be more valuable.
Given this suspicion of translation, which I share, it is astonishing to run across a poem like this one, a short fragment, possibly never finished, by Osip Mandel’stam, written some time in the 1930s while he was banished from Moscow at the time of great purges:
Tartars, Uzbeks and Nenets
And the whole Ukrainian nation,
And the Volga Germans...
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