Comparative literature and translation, historical breaks and continuing debates: Can the past teach us something about the future?

Boldrini, Lucia. 2010. Comparative literature and translation, historical breaks and continuing debates: Can the past teach us something about the future? diacrítica. Dossier Literatura Comparada,, 24(3), pp. 181-199. ISSN 0808-8967 [Article]

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When in 1993 Susan Bassnett declared that “Today, comparative literature in one sense is dead”, she saw it destined to be subsumed within translations studies. More recently, Bassnett has admitted that her prediction has shown itself to have been flawed: “translations studies has not developed very far at all over the last three decades and comparison remains at the heart of much translations studies scholarship.” Bassnett’s death knoll for comparative literature 15 years ago, like Spivak’s more recent one, are the consequences of the perceived Eurocentrism of the discipline, and the strong sense that the practices and the ideologies that sustain it require to be radically revised – if not even rejected – in the contemporary, more fluid, post-colonial, globalised world.

Haun Saussy’s recent diagnosis that comparative literature “has won its battles” may sound rather more positive, but it also contains a stark warning about the discipline’s institutional low status and its risk of dispersion among other more established subjects to which it has contributed methods and an openness of the syllabus that was unthinkable until not very long ago.

Even before Bassnett had time to revise her earlier prediction, Stanley Corngold had queried the notion of the close relationship between comparative literature and translation studies, remarking instead on their essential difference: while translation means carrying over a piece of foreign language into one’s own, “comparison” means being momentarily without one’s language, not needing to translate precisely because of one’s ability to translate, and thus respecting the otherness of languages and cultures.

Emily Apter’s recent The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature proposes a mediation of these positions. In her excellent study, translation emerges as the fulcrum of a new vision of comparative literature able to expand towards – to take up Spivak’s terminology – a genuine planetary criticism by pursuing unexpected links between as disparate issues as philology, globalization, war and peace, the web, the genetic code. Two opposite theses mark the two poles of Apter’s argument: nothing is translatable, and everything is translatable; at one end, the radical incommensurability of different languages and of cultural, political, aesthetic systems, at the other, the human(ist) will to find common roots, interests, concerns, and the search for codes that can translate one language into another.

It is these lively debates over the relationship between comparative literature and translation on the one hand, and over the present and future of comparative literature on the other, that will form the context and the background of my paper, which proposes to reconsider these positions from different but related angles. What can a historical perspective contribute to our understanding of the relationship between comparative literature and translation in their present predicaments? For example, how can the assumptions of (un)translatability, the relationships between culture/knowledge and power, between translation and imperialism be illuminated by a renewed awareness of the link between translatio studii and translatio imperii as it was formulated in the middle ages and early modern period to describe the transferral of culture and of power from east to west – (from the Middle East to Greece, from here to Rome, and later from Rome to the Holy Roman Empire, or to the Anglo-Norman court of Britain)? How can the question of the flattening effect of a global form of English be not only reconsidered in the light of the lingua franca of Latin in the medieval world, but also informed by a reflection on the heritage of the medieval mediation of human knowledge through the linguistic sciences of the artes sermocinales, which ensured a form of universal translatability of the known? How have later recoveries of these perspectives, such as Eliot’s rather debatable statement on the easy translatability, and thus the superiority, of a Dante who writes in a recognisable common language because of its proximity to Latin, continued to inform, and to an extent deform, our sense of the human values at the heart of the enterprise of comparing and translating?

It will be impossible to give definitive and expansive answers to all these questions in the short time of the presentation, and the aim of the paper is to suggest the widening of the debate on these issues to a broader historical and conceptual framework, and trace some possible directions that this opening up may take.

Finally, I would like to raise another question to which it may also be difficult to find concrete and pragmatic answers, but which must nevertheless be asked: what practical steps would it be useful for us as comparatists to take in order to continue to promote this “discipline” that continues to be declared dead, or flawed, if not even pernicious for the ideological heritage that it carries within itself, but which somehow carries on, evolves, and continues to fascinate us and push us towards the encounter of the other as equal, but not as same?

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comparative literature translation

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English and Comparative Literature



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13 Jun 2011 12:10

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02 Mar 2023 11:06


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