Cross-language Lit

Cross-posted from The Valve

The vital concerns of literature (by which I mean reading and writing) have relatively little to do with the language the reading and writing is carried out in. In other words, the vast majority of the vital elements of novels, of poetry (more arguably), of drama, of essays, of scholarship are very largely beyond the originating language. Specific language issues are an important but very specific specialty within the vast domain of the concerns of literature. (Is this even controversial? Did the English language force George Eliot to write Middlemarch and not say Crime and Punishment, or for that matter, within her own language, Wuthering Heights? Of course not. Did the English language cause the flow and feel and sentence structure, etc, in Middlemarch to be at least somewhat different from War and Peace? Of course, but these are relatively marginal elements compared to the nature of the novels as a whole.)

Apart from the humanities, we can consider science and science literature, scientific literature: language is only an obstacle to be overcome by translation or multilingualism both in conducting research and in teaching (again, apart from some very specific linguistic concerns).

Of course the humanities are _somewhat_ different, especially in considering aesthetic issues, but even in this, language differences account for only a fraction of aesthetic issues. And aesthetic issues make up only part of the elements and focus of literature.

Language differences should not be allowed to limit the access that writers and readers – not to mention students – have to literature, and I think the department(s) should be reorganized to ensure this as much as possible, especially since in an ever more globally integrated age (which, incidentally, is not what the corporate-state establishment means by “globalization”), people can benefit from and otherwise need insight into and from the world over – across geographic and language differences both, and more.

And of course the departmental evolution away from both geographic/national and language insularity is going on, not least in scholarly World Lit courses and other broad international offerings. This trend is obvious in many MFA programs (where aesthetic and comprehensive concerns are often primary), as MFA faculty teach literary works from all over the world, translated from all sorts of languages, and no one necessarily thinks twice about it, except I suppose often about how exciting or intriguing such diversity is. It makes no sense to say these are “English” (&/or American) Department courses, or even “English Language” Department courses when many of the novels have been translated into English (or are even read in the original non-English language, as at the University of Texas El Paso (and elsewhere) which offers a bilingual MFA degree).

Fundamentally question the national basis of “English” (& American) Departments (a very good thing to do, in my opinion) and you’re left with quite possibly no justification for a large “English” Department. On the other hand, easily justifiable at large Department size is a wholesale “Global Literature Department,” or simply “Literature Department” that would include literature written everywhere in any language (translated, typically).

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