Does the future of “comparative literature” mean anything independent of the institution of departments of Comparative Literature? I cannot see how it does, though I’m sure I am afforded such a perspective by the fact that I neither teach in nor have any degrees from Comp. Lit. departments. And yet my work, which engages with different formations and interactions between the notions “translation” and “Chinese literature,” is “comparative” enough that I have often suspected I must suffer from a kind of “Comparative Literature envy,” writing and thinking as if I were part of the institution and discussion of comparative literature.

The institutional pull of comparative literature is great indeed. One reason literary theory has the cachet that it has had for so long, for instance, derives from comparative literature’s institutionality: without a common language such as those assumed for “national literature” departments, comparatists have had to search for new groundwork upon which to base their comparisons. This has in turn made previously under-discussed literary (or even non-literary) works and texts available to discussion within comparative literature, and these new texts have provided their own groundwork for changing the theoretical common language: premodern Chinese poetry, for instance, was brought into comparative literature by James Liu under the common language of New Criticism and by François Cheng under the common language of Structuralism; once established as part of the conversation, it could then be used to support or rebuff other attempts at theoretical common language, with scholars such as Stephen Owen, Pauline Yu, Zhang Longxi, Haun Saussy, and others putting Chinese poetry in dialogue with New Historicism, Deconstruction, Postcolonialism, and so on. Who knows what languages we’ll be speaking by 2025? While in some ways the institutional need for a common language or reference points keeps us talking about what we already know, it also institutionalizes the ability to add to the conversation.[1]

Of course, the institution of comparative literature has been fraught with anxiety about its own institutionality, as seen in the impulse to report on the state of its discipline every ten years. Can our institutional ethics remain ethical outside the institution? But these institutional reports have also been influential outside the discipline of Comparative Literature. In large part because of literary theory, members of departments of English, French, German, film studies, cultural studies, anthropology (on a good day), philosophy (on a bad day), and Chinese are all likely to pay attention to the decennial report on the state of comparative literature.

The question beneath the state of the institution of comparative literature is, I think, the state of the discipline of literary studies. If I step further now and assert that the particular future of “comparative literature” fades in relevance in the face of discussions of literature, I am not making a statement on the future of the institution of departments of Comparative Literature (I neither believe that literature exists as a self-evident, transhistorical category, nor that all departments of literary studies, national and trans-national, should necessarily merge). While we cannot see what departments of Comparative Literature do as strictly “comparative” (does anyone say explicitly that Italian literature is better than Russian, or that the story is better than the poem?), I do however feel that many of the trends and topics that have first shown up in comparative literature deserve better dissemination in all departments of literary studies in the future, especially with respect to world literature, a topic that I believe will and should stay with us for some time. In particular, I have in mind the related issues of translation and problematizing the nation. I’ll end on metaphor.


Over twenty years ago, Susan Bassnett wrote that comparative literature “should look upon translation studies as the principle discipline from now own, with comparative literature as a valued but subsidiary subject area.”[2] Though she later walked that back, describing both translation and comparison as “ways of reading that are mutually beneficial”[3], I would like to echo her earlier call for all literary studies to pay more attention, in a positive way, to translation.

Translation has long proven embarrassing for ideas of comparative literature (and perhaps even more so for ideas of national literature). In 1963 René Wellek disparaged translation by lumping it in amongst “externals” such as “second-rate writers … travelbooks, [and] ‘intermediaries,’” too much study of which would turn his beloved field into “a mere subdiscipline investigating data about the foreign sources and reputations of writers.”[4] Later generations of more Marxist-bent comparatists have not minded basing their superstructural analyses on what Wellek called “the foreign trade” of literatures, but suspicion of translation has remained. If we talk more about the “problems” or “problematics” of translation than we do about its solutions, though, or if we make the critique of translation more important than its promotion, we end up promoting a world of more pressures to learn English, not fewer, and fewer, not more, reasons to learn other languages and the understandings such learning brings. Certainly not every translation demonstrates good ethics or aesthetics, but attacking an industry that can claim less than three percent of all books published in English—less than three percent, that is, including cookbooks, travel guides, children’s literature, politicians’ memoirs, economics blockbusters, and manga—does not represent us at our boldest or most valiant.[5]

Understanding translation, and institutionalizing our understanding of translation, will require an adjustment of how we read, particularly how we approach our texts. This should even make itself visible or audible in our vocabulary: epistemologically, the denigration of translation relies on a privileging of the “original” as read in the language of its composition. The reason we in translation studies use the terms “source” and “target texts” is to keep from reiterating the trope of translation as secondary to or derivative from the originary origins of “original.” Calling a source text an “original” not only implies an ideological faith in the sanctity of the text, and by extension the authenticity of its culture, it also exalts the interpreter sanctioned by access to said authenticity.

I am not suggesting, of course, that we stop reading or studying texts in the language in which they were first written.  We do, however, need to master the art of reading translations. While experts in language and literature, and in the interplay, manipulation, reflection, and refraction of power and ideology exhibited in instances of language and literature, might seem to be good candidates for knowing and teaching how to read translations, we need more direct practice. This practice will entail understanding, appreciating, and valuing translations not only as reproductions of texts over which we assert expertise, whose success or failure then depends on the extent to which it agrees with our presumably pre-formed interpretations (and which must be “checked” the way we check our students’ exam scripts), but rather as their own elucidations, representations, and performances of texts of which our expertise only constitutes one competing or complementary understanding. In other words, we must begin to understand translations as works of literary scholarship equivalent to our own articles and monographs. This is not to overlook the necessary non-scholarly artistry of the act of translation, but rather to say that without appreciating both the art and scholarship of translations, translations are bound to seem secondary, and we are bound to make ideological statements about “untranslatability” of terms and genres (this may also help us get past any lingering degradation of art vis-à-vis scholarship, as well).[6]

I see two direct outcomes of institutionalizing translation in our study of literature. The second is more conceptual and its elaboration will occupy the next section; the first is direct and practical but no less political. That is, as a way of proving our respect for translation, we as scholars of literature must promote translation at every level, including in particular the academic credit for published translation by our colleagues and ourselves when being considered for tenure and promotion. If we want to teach any iteration of international or world literature, I believe we will find teaching without translations even more difficult than teaching literature with no available secondary scholarship. And insofar as a translation is, as I said above, an interpretation and representation of a text and its culture, it becomes an implicit argument with which we can engage, agree, or contend in our written work, as well. Translation’s work makes our work work. In an economic environment in which universities and their management theories lead to the increased likelihood of restricting credit for our work and the work of our colleagues, the work of translation deserves our endorsement and active support more than ever.


The second outcome I see in heightening our attentiveness to translation is that we will begin to see it everywhere; rather than translation as a form of scholarship, for instance, we may begin to consider scholarship as a form of translation. Brigitte Rath’s proposal here of “Pseudotranslation” may be helpful.[7] But also: if we begin to see translation as taking place in the goings-on of cultural exchange, we may begin to see past the nation as incontrovertible.

While translation is too often proposed as a “problem” rather than as a solution, it is indeed a problem to narrow conceptions such as that of the institutionalized nation. David Damrosch explains in his contribution here that what I referred to above as the common language assumed for national literature departments leads too easily to deeply engrained “Herderian assumptions”: “that the essence of a nation is carried by its national language, embodied in its highest form by the masterpieces of its national literature.”[8] Yet many of the paradigmatic forms of national literatures were in fact developed out of translations: blank verse was invented for the translation of the Aeneid by Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (c. 1516 – 1547), who also created the English sonnet by dividing the Italian into rhymed, metered quatrains (does the conceit of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese represent the form’s residual foreignness?).[9] The stakes I see in paying more attention to translation are not, then, limited to comparatists, but to people who think in and about and from institutions of national literature, as well.

The idea of “cultural translation” has been around long enough, but putting it to such concrete use will allow for the possibility Bassnett wrote of in which translation becomes a basis for comparison, as well as for Emily Apter’s imagination of translation studies as “a field in which philology is linked to globalization.”[10] By “globalization” I do not refer only to the process as we have come to know it under neoliberalism, but to any interconnectedness between peoples around the world as far back as we dare consider. Apter’s coupling of “globalization” with “philology” makes possible what Sheldon Pollock proposed as a way for comparative literary studies to move past not only its Eurocentric bias, but also its modernity bias as well.[11]

[This modernity bias is particularly prevalent in studies of Chinese literature from a comparative perspective. In some ways this is emblematic of the way in which modernity in China is, as we say, always already comparative, in that modern China is a hybrid against which notions of purity will be frustrated.[12] But too much of this only reifies the notion that China was a self-contained, ahistoric civilization existing blithely behind its hermetic and hermeneutic great walls before the Opium Wars rent it asunder.]

Comparative approaches to national literary histories can help correct such assumptions; the past, or so L. P. Hartley tells us, is a foreign country, and they do things differently there.[13] Certainly the kind of cross-historical comparative approach will be easier for languages like Chinese than for those with shorter histories, but if we bring time into our consideration of translation—say from Sanskrit, Arabic, classical Greek, Latin, and so on into later versions as spoken around the world—we will be able to understand the discontinuities beneath the continuances upon which national traditions assert themselves.[14] What Jacob Edmond says here about the “Archive of the Now” is essential, but if we forget to put it in relation to our archives of the past, then the archive of the now never needs to challenge the assumptions of the now.[15] Applying what we learn of translation and the assertions and desertions of meaning it entails to translations of the literary past into any given present, we may be able to work against such assumptions and their institution over our study of literature.


Above, I questioned whether comparative literature was actually “comparative,” as if the only definition of comparison were one that required the valuation of one item over and above another. But of course comparison also describes the metaphorical process in which one item becomes vehicle for another’s tenor. While some have critiqued the ethics of comparison’s institutional assumption that the comparatist’s culture represents the factual tenor for which the other is merely vehicle, metaphor is at root what the Russian Formalists called an ostranenie. It is therefore linked to translation. As Eliot Weinberger puts it, “Metaphor: from the familiar to the strange. Translation: from the strange to the familiar.” (He continues, “The failed metaphor is too strange; the failed translation too familiar.”)[16] If the study of literature—and not only the act of comparative literature—doesn’t just involve studying metaphor but is itself a fundamentally metaphorical process, then reversing vehicle and tenor in paying attention to translation may not only offer another way out of the ethical trap we find ourselves in, but ultimately show how we can become strange to ourselves. Through paying attention to translation, we may de-institutionalize our institutions.


[1] See Karen Thornber’s contribution here on the need to “expose rather than to perpetuate inequities” in how, for instance, “an Asian-language text that has been translated into other Asian languages but not into any Western languages would generally not be spoken of as world literature” (“Comparative Literature, World Literature, and Asia,” State of the Discipline Report, March 3, 2014,

[2] Susan Bassnett, Comparative Literature: A Critical Introduction (West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 1993), 161.

[3] Susan Bassnett, “Reflections on Comparative Literature in the Twenty-First Century,” Comparative Critical Studies 3, no. 1 (2006): 6.

[4] René Wellek, “The Crisis of Comparative Literature,” in Concepts of Criticism, ed. Stephen Nichols (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963), 284.

[5] Some of us like to talk about big data and how it will change our field, but consider this bit of small data: 2013 was the first year ever in which more than 500 new translations of poetry and fiction saw publication in the US. We know very, very little about what is and has been going on in world literature, however defined. See Chad Post, “Updated 2013 Translation Database: The First Year to Break 500!,” Three Percent, January 24, 2014,

[6] I like what Shaden Tageldin says here; “Untranslatability,” State of the Discipline Report, March 3, 2014,

[7] See Brigitte Rath, “Pseudotranslation,” State of the Discipline Report, April 1, 2014,

[8] David Damrosch, “World Literature as Figure and as Ground,” State of the Discipline Report, March 21, 2014, On further discussion of the ills of nationalism for comparative literature, see Haun Saussy, “Cosmopolitanism,” State of the Discipline Report, March 3, 2014,

[9] See Florence H. Ridley, “Introduction,” in The Aeneid of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, by Virgil, ed. Florence H. Ridley, trans. Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, University of California Publications 26 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 32.

[10] Emily S. Apter, The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature, Translation/transnation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 11.

[11] Sheldon Pollock, “Cosmopolitan Comparison” (presented at the American Comparative Literature Association Meeting, New Orleans, LA, 2010). In his contribution to this report Haun Saussy refers to Pollock’s plenary address as “a scolding”: “Although we claim to be limited only by the dialectical conditions of possibility and to welcome works from every imaginable language, time and tradition,” Saussy writes, “Pollock showed, numbers in hand, that the great majority of the doctoral dissertations written in the field and a similar share of the articles in our main journals deal with English, French and German literature between 1800 and 1960” (“Comparative Literature: The Next Ten Years,” State of the Discipline Report, March 9, 2014,

[12] This is, however, a phenomenon that has developed only since the early nineties. Prior to that, most comparative studies that engaged with Chinese literature, particularly by the figures I named in the second paragraph, treated it as a self-contained whole up to the twentieth century, to be considered in contrast with the self-contained whole of Western literature.

[13] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953), 1.

[14] For examples, see Xiaofei Tian, Visionary Journeys: Travel Writings from Early Medieval and Nineteenth-Century China (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2012), and Alexander Beecroft, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day (London: Verso, 2015). Tian holds medieval China and early Chinese modernity up against each other not only for mutual illumination but for the illumination of China’s intercultural absorptions; Beecroft’s is still forthcoming, but promises a similar approach not limited to China.

[15] Jacob Edmond, “Archive of the Now,” State of the Discipline Report, April 11, 2014,

[16] Eliot Weinberger, “3 Notes on Poetry,” in Outside Stories, 1987-1991 (New York: New Directions, 1992), 60.