The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0730  Tuesday, 19 April 2005

From:           Richard Burt <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Sunday, 17 Apr 2005 08:44:44 -0400
Subject:        Greenblatt Op Ed


Words that shrink distances between cultures
By Stephen Greenblatt
April 17, 2005

"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.

[ . . . ]

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