A World of Writers

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– image from Children’s Book Chat

The most recent English department colloquium “What is Global Anglophone” offered its attendees a crash course in the history of and debates surrounding Global Anglophone literature. Dr. Kate Polak and Dr. Ian MacDonald both examined the complexity of the “Global Anglophone” label, as well as acknowledging its usefulness and offering some critiques of its limitations.

The area of Global Anglophone literature seeks to address the realities of a globalized world where writers from every country draw inspiration from other writers from diverse nationalities and cultural experiences — often in translation. It also reflects the connectivity across nationalities and cultures made possible by the internet. Global Anglophone literature is, as Dr. MacDonald quotes, “a literature of globalization.” However, Global Anglophone does not just include works written in English from outside of the US and UK but also literature in the English translation.

Translation was a major theme in Dr. Polak’s portion of the colloquium. She recounted her story of disappointment that she would not be able to use Blindness by Portuguese writer51et0wuhpjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_José Saramago as a feature in her graduate studies because it was a work in translation.

She also spoke about translation more generally and theoretically. For example, the limitations of translation in conveying the subtlety of idioms and the cultural context of language, and the idea that all language is a “translation” of our subjective experience. The nuances and local specificities of cultures can be lost in both the process of translation and in the larger category of Global Anglophone literature. She pointed out that while there is a risk that the differences between cultures may be obscured by the common usage of English, it is also possible that the way that writers from diverse cultures use English can highlight distinctions. Ultimately, the conclusion that Dr. Polak reached regarding Global Anglophone literature was one of cautious acceptance; we can recognize the limitations of Global Anglophone literature while being open to the exposure to new voices that it offers.

Dr. MacDonald’s approach to the concept of Global Anglophone was more skeptical. He framed his critique of Global Anglophone literature in terms of how the area is presented in the university. Seen through this lens, Global Anglophone literature is a convenient way of organizing writers who do not fit into the conventional categories in university English departments, as well as an inclusive category for hiring new professors who may have studied any number of literary traditions from around the world. He observed that the emergence of the Global Anglophone label is the result of a confluence of factors: the waning of critical interest in Postcolonial theory, the consolidation of disciplines such as anthropology and various foreign languages into English departments, and the perceived novelty (perhaps the novelty of “otherness”) of English-language works by writers outside of the United States and the UK. However, Dr. MacDonald acknowledged that with the decline of multilingualism in the university, the Global Anglophone approach of teaching works in English translation is becoming necessary if students are to be introduced to these authors at all. Dr. MacDonald concluded that while Global Anglophone has become a feature of the contemporary academic landscape, it is best approached with an awareness of the critiques advanced by Postcolonial critiques.

Reflecting on the content of the colloquium, I think about some of the works I read in translation, like Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and how this and other books are made invisible in the curriculum by disciplinary boundaries. As English majors, we also spend a lot of time looking to the past: to historical contexts, texts from different time periods, and critical interpretations from the more recent past. So this colloquium was unique in that it included some predictions about the future, specifically, that English departments will likely start teaching works in English translation, perhaps even dropping the department’s linguistic distinction to be labeled just — literature.

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– Reid Donato

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