Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability: Books

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Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability. By Emily Apter. Verso, 240pp, Pounds 60.00 and Pounds 19.99. ISBN 9781844679713 and 79706. Published 20 August 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. …