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Politics of Cross-Cultural Reading

Tagore, Ben Jelloun and Fo in English


Marion Dalvai

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.
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Chapter 1: ‘The Universal Possession of Mankind’? The Discursive Politics of World Literature



‘The Universal Possession of Mankind’? The Discursive Politics of World Literature

During the eighteenth century, literary magazines and collections published in cultural centres across Europe provided a growing reading public with more and more translations, not only of Greek and Latin classics but also from other – mainly, but not exclusively, European – languages. Over the decades, they contributed to the ‘eventual development and confirmation of a corpus of classic fiction (presented in, for example, many nineteenth-century collected editions) that would include foreign works in translation’.1 As Gillespie argues, this intensification of literary translation actually enabled the establishment of a separate English literary canon over and against the classics.2 In other European countries the canon was expanding along similar lines, integrating translations of modern European works and non-European literature. In Germany, book production expanded by 50 per cent between 1750 and 1800 and steadily grew in the nineteenth century, more than tripling in the twenty-five years between 1820 and 1845 to over 14,000 titles per annum, thanks to Friedrich Koenig’s high-speed press and the advent of the steam engine.3 Many of these books were translations. It is no coincidence that Johann Wolfgang von Goethe proffered his widely ← 7 | 8 → quoted sentence about world literature after a long life of reading translations from dozens of languages and after a recent, intense engagement with translations from the Chinese: ‘National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must...

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