The term ‘world literature’ is used by journalists and academics. But what does it mean? What is world literature? Why is it important? In this post, both questions will be answered. I’ll also discuss issues in translation and comparative literature.

What is World Literature?

To understand what world literature is, you must understand national literatures. ‘National’ literature refers to the literature that comes out of a singular country. World literature brings all these countries together. Other fields such as religion, philosophy, art and history are also considered when studying world literature. View world literature as naturally comparative. This is because it invites comparison between different bodies of work. World literature also refers to literature that transcends national boundries, and has an international identity.

A great example of this is the literature of Salman Rushdie. Often cited as a master of British literature, his works are often viewed in a postcolonial light. This has resulted in large amounts of scholarship on Rushdie done from India and South America. Although Midnight’s Children is firmly about India, it can be approached from a global angle.

Of course, there is also Francophone literature, which combines works from Algeria, Canada and France. Because of that, ‘national’ literature is not the only way to sort literature. Literature is categorised also through genre and theme. (For example, ‘science fiction’ literature).

Note: World Literature does not necessarily take a globalised and international approach to literature. Most scholars working in the field would argue that the literary scene in Russia differs to South Korea. This is because all nations differ from each other, and therefore, their literature will too.

Why Is It Important?

Learning about world literature is important, for several reasons.

The first one is that reading world literature increases your knowledge. If you were to only read novels from your country of origin, or in languages you understand, you miss out. Literature, whilst subjective, does not lack knowledge or insight. For example, the works of Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. He’s clearly writing from his own experiences, with personal insights on human behaviour.

Here’s a great quote from him:

“World literature has it in its power to convey condensed experience from one land to another … with such strength of recognition and painful awareness as it had itself experienced the same, and thus might it be spared from repeating the same cruel mistakes.”

Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn

We read world literature so we can learn and study other countries, including their failures. As censorship is still a problem in China, I am able to read Beijing Coma in my western country. That’s because world literature can help authors gain a voice outside of borders.

Another reason to read world literature is empathy. World literature can challenge misconceptions people have of other countries. As with Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago uses Russian experiences to prove to the West that communism does not, and will never work. If anything, world literature bursts the bubbles we find ourselves in, and forces us to interact with the world around us.

To conclude this point, world literature matters because the world matters. We can’t get a single viewpoint from one country or language. To understand particular issues and philosophies, sometimes, one must look abroad.

What About Books Written In Different Languages?

Not all translations are created equal. Some are brush and crude, whilst others are poetic and musical. When you study the poetry of Goethe in translation, you are not understanding the full scope, and beauty, of the poem. That said: reading translations is still worth it. You capture alot while reading a translation: mood, themes, characters and events. You may never understand the aesthetic structure of Pushkin’s words, but there is more to literature than writing words.

However, translation can be spectacular. Umberto Eco’s works translate well into English. Of course, there are readers who despise translated works. That is understandable, even though the pros of reading translated works outweigh the cons.

Within comparative literature departments in the United States, students are usually expected to have a reading knowledge of the language written. Other subjects differ. For example, one can get away with studying a translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in theology. But not in an Italian class.

Are There Any Limitations To ‘World Literature’?

Yes, there are. In a globalised world, nation borders are not relevant to all genres of literature. For one, a Nigerian man could upload a romance to Kindle, just like an American would. Here, nations are irrelevant. Due to avenues of self-publishing and online advertising, nation-specific campaigns do not exist in all genres. However, there is an exception. Literary fiction. Books like Infinite Jest (American) and 1Q84 (Japanese) are embodied in their national consciousness. Also, prizes such as the Pulitzer specifically target U.S citizens.

Another trapping of world literature is that it traps and stereotypes the author. An author could be Australian, like myself. But have little in common with Australian authors, and is inspired by Polish literature. In cases like these, world literature is a limiting method to understanding how authors operate.

Despite these issues, world literature is important. It’s worth complimenting it with other methodologies and frameworks, to give a more nuanced approach to literature.

How Should I Approach World Literature?

Pick a few countries that interest you. Make a shortlist of authors from that country, or who write about it. By doing that, you have a great starting point of engaging with national literature. Repeat for other countries. Enjoy the books, and prepare for surprises. World literature is terrific.

You may want to compare different national literatures to each other. My suggestion is to compare literature from different angles. Often, comparative literature departments simplify whole books down to ‘postcolonialism.’ This does not provide a complete understanding of the literature. Compliment your world literature reading with history. By understanding the political, economic and cultural factors that shape a country, you’ll have a more sophisticated understanding of certain books.

Use world literature as a way to experiment with your tastes in literature. Read outside of your usual tastes. But also: have fun. World literature truly helps us engage with the world around us.

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