Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability, by Emily Apter

Danielle Sands on a call for broader, more creative and politically engaged modes of thought

October 31, 2013

In his poem The Ninth Elegy, Rainer Maria Rilke’s returning traveller “brings, not a handful of earth, unsayable to others, but instead/some word he has gained, some pure word”. With his ensuing litany of commonplace nouns, Rilke’s familiar terms fizz with linguistic strangeness, testing the assumption that language is banal and transparent, and words easily interchangeable. In her paean to untranslatability, Emily Apter is similarly entranced by linguistic strangeness, rejecting the assumption that everything can be translated, exchanged or substituted into one universally accessible global idiom. Instead, arresting and unashamedly political, Against World Literature asks us to regard untranslatability - those thorny, frustrating moments of cultural dissonance and misunderstanding - as the key to translation and cross-cultural engagement.

Apter reprises the familiar role of scholar as troublemaker. “I invoke untranslatability as a deflationary gesture,” she boasts, while exposing the ways in which translation, in part via the discipline of “world literature”, has been co-opted by global capitalism. Ostensibly developed to increase the circulation of lesser-known (often non-Western) texts, for Apter world literature tends to be proprietorial and homogenising; blind to linguistic specificity and political nuance, it assesses, appropriates and anthologises “the world’s cultural resources” as easily digestible commodities. Although it is unsparing in its criticism, Against World Literature is also optimistic; Apter champions translation, emphasising its relevance both to the everyday politics of culture, communication and nationhood, and to philosophical questions of subjectivity, language and being. She envisions translation as philosophical and political intervention, a translation bold enough to explore the cultural insights that emerge from untranslatability. This in turn would challenge the territorial nature of translation, its associations with coercion, power and property, bringing us closer to James Boyd White’s image of “justice as translation”.

In a nod towards Raymond Williams, “keywords” are adopted as the titles of several chapters and to illuminate the ever-perplexing notion of untranslatability. Perhaps the most interesting of these is “cyclopedia”, naming Ephraim Chambers’ precursor to the encyclopedia, which, unlike its anthropocentric descendant, adopted an organic model of knowledge. Apter’s post-Foucauldian ear is attuned to the politics of forming and archiving knowledge, and here, untranslatability, alongside the cyclopedia, is presented as a tool for its decolonisation. Keen to practise what she preaches, Apter adopts a cyclopedic mode, her writing richly grained, tangent-led and short on linear argument. The book’s multiple approaches and nigh-on innumerable sources generate fascinating connections and produce an exhilarating if exhausting read. Oddly, however, this mode, with its millefeuille of references, engenders a certain timidity, a deference that depolemicises the book’s fiery material.

Aside from the focus on untranslatability, a term on which Apter perhaps hangs too much and around which her ideas only loosely coalesce, Against World Literature might also be read as a taster of recent philosophical trends as she looks to whet her rather unfashionable preoccupations - language and textuality - with the sharpened materialist edge of current thought. The results are intriguing, and Apter is nowhere more eloquent than in the understatement with which she exposes Alain Badiou’s disregard for language as his own political short-sightedness. Somewhat trickier however, yet fascinating in its ambition, is her appeal to radical ecologies and materialisms as a way to expose the parochialism of the “world” of world literature, to remind us of the insignificance of human knowledge on the planetary scale. The vertiginous “projections of how a planet dies” that close the book are a world away from the translation studies minutiae of its opening, yet they offer a point of disciplinary dissonance that is perhaps a deliberate failure, and that strengthens Apter’s call for more creative, ambitious and politically engaged modes of thought and translation.

Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability

By Emily Apter
Verso, 240pp, £60.00 and £19.99
ISBN 9781844679713 and 79706
Published 20 August 2013

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