Pizer on Weltlitteratur

First, see my post on Goethe and translation.

Pizer’s general thesis in The Idea of World Literature is that world literature courses should revive the concept of Weltlitteratur as constructed by Goethe, which involves considering the intersection of the global or universal and the local. Pizer uses terms like “subnational” and “transnational” and insists one must look at the subnational (the regional) as well as the transnational (which is not necessarily the same as universal, I note). Bakhtin, who uses the word “locality,” is one of Goethe’s best readers on this question of the subnational-transnational dialectic.

World literature depends on translation, and Goethe’s translation theory is therefore key – because he does appreciate alterity. His most significant pronouncements on translation are in his notes to the West-östlicher Divan, which is his most seminal creative engagement with Weltlitteratur. He wants to bring together a “great meeting of all nations” and he says there are three main ways to translate:

1. To flatten difference, making us aware of the foreign through the filter of the familiar (as in typical World Literature in English Translation courses);
2. “Parodistically,” wherein the translator is imitating the style of the poet he is translating and appropriating the foreign sensibility so as to re-represent it with his own;
3. Where the translator creatively captures the essence of the original (as when the artist attains a style and is able to represent an object by rendering visible its inner essence) and is able to make original and translation identical. [Here Pizer notes, on 9, n. 20, which is on 153, Goethe’s influence on Benjamin.]

Pizer explains all of this in chapter 1. Chapter 2, on Goethe and the Romantic school, says more on Goethe’s translation theory. Goethe’s idea of translation was oriented toward alterity: “its highest ideal [is] the movement of the self toward the Other, not a dominion over the Other or a leveling of the Other. This embrace of alterity, grounded in a unique principle of estrangement that forces the self to become foreign to itself, serves the twin causes of intercultural dialogue and respect for the foreign.” (XXVIII) (This blogging software is interpreting my eight as a Smiley icon.) The Divan represents the “completion and confirmation” of the poetic self, and translation develops the poetic self. (30) Translation makes universal mediation possible. (40) In an ideal translation, “one alienates and obscures personal identity in bringing the alterity of the translated language to the forefront” (41) – unlike some Romantics who use the Other as a means to an end of their own.

Note that Goethe apparently developed the term Weltlitteratur in response to Romantic universalism / nationalistic tendencies of German Romantics. This is important. In Goethe the self participates in and interacts with the foreign, and is not simply “influenced” by it. Intersubjective dialogue is the goal. See the Goethe / Schlegel contrast on 44-45.

Later on in Pizer’s book, we see that the desideratum of the world literature classroom is an engagement with Otherness, and that Weltlitteratur even has to do with biculturality (136-37) and mestizaje, as it were.


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