"Perhaps people will soon be persuaded that there is no patriotic art and no patriotic science," Goethe wrote in 1826, toward the end of his long life. "Both belong, like everything good, to the whole world and can be promoted only through general, free interaction among all who live at the same time." These noble words lie at the heart of what Goethe called Weltliteratur, world literature, which he conceived of as a ceaseless process of exchange across the borders of nations and cultures.
At the center of this process is the work of translators, for, though it is highly desirable to be multilingual, the range of cultural access even among gifted linguists is inevitably small in relation to the enormous number of languages in the world. In addition to the flood of new works in translation, classics from the Iliad and the Odyssey to "Madame Bovary" and "Death in Venice" are constantly translated anew. None of this could occur without a huge cohort of go-betweens, many of them virtually anonymous, through whose incessant labors something one might term "cultural mobility" is facilitated.
Cultural mobility is the process by which the symbols, self-conceptions, modes of expression and ritual actions of people rooted in a specific place, time and society are detached from those roots and set in motion, to reach other places, different times. There is a paradox, or perhaps a tangle of paradoxes, here: People tend to admire cultural forms that seem autochthonous, sprung from their native soil. These forms have a distinctiveness, a rich specificity bound up with their origins. And yet such distinctive forms are also appreciated away from their native soil and hence require a whole range of displacements, repackagings and transformations that enable them to travel. Even on one's home ground, this principle of displacement applies after the lapse of only a few years -- for the past, in the novelist L.P. Hartley's famous words, "is a foreign country; they do things differently there." Moreover, under careful scrutiny, it turns out that the supposedly native and unchanged forms are themselves products of a prior translation process, less visible but no less real than that which allows us to encounter whatever is alien to us.