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Words that shrink distances between cultures

April 17, 2005|Stephen Greenblatt | Stephen Greenblatt is university professor of the humanities at Harvard University and the author of "Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare," a finalist for the 2004 Los Angeles Times Book Prize in biography.

"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.

The emblem of world literature, for Goethe, was his ability to be drawn into a Chinese novel, recognizing a surprising at-homeness among characters who superficially seem entirely different: An apparently unbridgeable distance vanishes, and "one very soon feels oneself as one of them." This experience, the sense of entering an alien world and eerily feeling oneself at home in it -- or, alternatively, the sense of being addressed directly and personally by people you could not possibly have known, from a world outside your own -- is at the heart of literary culture. It is also, as St. Paul understood, close to the heart of any text-based religion: Reading the Hebrew Scriptures, written centuries earlier in a strikingly different cultural and political setting, Paul nonetheless felt that "these letters" were written directly to him. In turn, generations of the faithful who read Paul's words not in the original Greek but in languages that did not even exist in the time he wrote have had the same experience.

What this means is that cultural mobility is pervasive and that it quickly hides its own traces. There may be markers of distance -- exotic settings, unfamiliar turns of phrase, novel concepts -- but the successful work of translation almost always renders these markers incidental, in order to promote the absorption that fascinated Goethe or the startling intimacy that fascinated St. Paul. Both pervasiveness and concealment have been greatly abetted by the increased speed of modern communication that Goethe already marveled at 200 years ago, so that people everywhere in the world seem to share the same moment of time. If such global simultaneity runs the risk of flattening everything out onto a single plane, as if history had come to a standstill and all human differences had been erased, the triumph of the present moment can be at least partly restrained by continually looking back at what has been left to us and reminding ourselves that what we are encountering is the product of people and cultures long dead.

The effect, Goethe ardently hoped, would be a new cosmopolitanism, an unregulated free trade in expression and feeling, an epoch of global respect founded on the conviction that "poetry is the common possession of humanity and that it emerges everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of people." The German mentality and the German language, he felt confident, were particularly well suited to this capacious, tolerant encounter with the unfamiliar.

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