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Politics of Cross-Cultural Reading

Tagore, Ben Jelloun and Fo in English

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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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Introduction: Reading World Literature in English

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INTRODUCTION

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...

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