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Are Global Novels Dull?

A blog post by Tim Parks at the New York Review on the rising culture (and dullness) of the “global novel.”  It’s part of the larger liberal discourse about the general mediocrity that accompanies globalization — if it can be interesting everywhere, it really shouldn’t be read anywhere.  It sounds a lot like a geographical extension of the earlier 20C critiques of mass culture.  A lot of something just can’t be good.

I think the phenomena that Parks’ describes is actually true, namely, that there is a new global market for literature (which sadly just means “novel” today) and that it might in fact be dull (or duller).  But what interests me is the way the precondition of such a market is of course translation, or more specifically, translatability, that a work can be intelligible, at some level, to readers in different languages.  Parks wants to tell us that if it can be translated it isn’t literary — or the truly literary parts of literature are those parts that can’t be translated.

This too is an old line, and history is instructive here.  It was precisely during the romantic period when translation became a newly valorized literary practice.  And it was the romantic period that saw a new flourishing of international book publication.  With every new translation of Walter Scott’s novels into German, for example, the time between publication and translation became ever shorter — until Peveril of the Peak appeared in German before it appeared in English.  The swiftness of circulation that Parks’ attributes to digital media was already a concern with books and paper.  Romantic writers began to see translation as a key literary mode, not only because it supported the expanding international commerce of books, but because it grew out of it.  Circulation drew our attention to an important literary practice for making sense of circulation.

Pushing against the dichotomy of  literature v. translation (that which is literature cannot be translated) was thus a primary romantic concern.  And I think it was also the starting point of Benjamin’s now famous interest in translation.  For Benjamin, precisely that which could be translated was the essence of literature because it drew us one fractal turn closer to the elusive nature of language.  Every translation is a witness to the unidentifiable beauty of Language.

Not if its done in a corporate boardroom you say.  Fair enough.  But I think there are interesting windows of opportunity here, where this thing called “the global novel” might remind us, as for the Romantics, of the place of translation as a form of literary knowledge.  By drawing attention to the place of translation in such international networks we could be drawn into greater and greater degrees of reflection about the nature of language itself, and by extension into the nature of who we are as speaking animals.

I know this is a tall order for thinking about how Dan Brown appears in 23 different languages simultaneously.  But if one could bring to the foreground these translational practices — either as objects of study or practice — I think we would have a better sense of the absence of dullness that surrounds the new global novel.

How might we bring such translationalism into view today and how might it tell us something about the nature of language, literature, and translational knowledge?