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Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature by Rebecca L. Walkowitz

Reviewed by Karolina Watroba, University of Oxford

Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Rebecca L. Walkowitz. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. £32.95. ISBN: 9780231539456.

In the introduction to his influential book What is World Literature? (2003), David Damrosch discusses an unfavourable answer to his title question. He quotes and paraphrases various critics who have defined ‘world literature’ as ‘new globally directed works all too easy to understand’ (18), ‘works produced primarily for foreign consumption’ (18), and a testament to the ‘McDonaldization of the globe’ (25). What all these descriptions have in common, is the emphasis on the complicity of ‘world literature’ with capitalistic modes of production and consumption in the globalized world. On this account, the new global novel is a depressing testimony to the crushing power of American cultural hegemony. Under the thin veneer of superficial diversity – the nationality of the authors that critics usually have in mind in this context ranges from Japanese (Haruki Murakami) to Turkish (Orhan Pamuk) – the new global novel in fact serves to solidify the existing inequalities in the cultural field.

Rebecca Walkowitz’s recent monograph Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature is a powerful voice against this reductive understanding of contemporary fiction. She subverts the critique of ‘globally directed works’ that are ‘produced for foreign consumption’ by focusing on the category of translation, and offering an illuminating account of works to which ‘translation is not secondary or incidental’, but rather ‘is a condition of their production’ (4). Walkowitz seeks to revaluate the category of ‘translatese’ – understood as ‘unidiomatic writing that seems […] like no language in particular’ (175) – and recast it as an aesthetic strategy, which is reflected in her provocative choice to concentrate on contemporary writers working in English, rather than those whose works are translated into this language of cultural and economic prestige. She analyses a broad range of authors, from J. M. Coetzee, Kazuo Ishiguro and David Mitchell to Mohsin Hamid, Jamaica Kincaid, Caryl Phillips and Amy Waldman, to Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries and Adam Thirlwell. In their works, which she calls ‘born-translated’, ‘translation functions as a thematic, structural, conceptual, and sometimes even typographical device’, and is presented ‘as a spur to literary innovation’ (4). These books feature multilingual characters and narrators who are native speakers of languages other than English, present themselves as works already translated from other languages, dialects or stylistic registers, or include explicit references to the fact of linguistic and cultural circulation in the globalized world.

One of my favourite parts of the book is Walkowitz’s reading of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel Never Let Me Go as a challenge to the concept of the original and, read on a meta-fictional level, as a challenge to the value we tend to attach to originality in literary and cultural production. Walkowitz’s attention to details, her persuasive argumentation and the masterly coupling of close textual analysis and the emphasis on the processes of production, translation, circulation and consumption of Never Let Me Go make for an irresistible and highly memorable interpretation. In hindsight, Walkowitz’s argument that ‘by seeing the likeness between human originality and the novel’s unoriginal objects – [the clone] Kathy H., the cassette, the song, the television program, the narration – […] we recognize the large networks of approximation and comparison in which individuality functions’ (107) seems so obvious and indispensable that I can barely imagine how I could have ever read Ishiguro’s novel without thinking about it. Walkowitz’s analysis of Never Let Me Go novel generates a powerful critical tool (the critique of originality), productively combining close reading and theoretical insight.

Another brilliant and highly stimulating part of Walkowitz’s study is her discussion of ‘reading in translation’, which she develops in the chapter on Jamaica Kinkaid and Mohsin Hamid. She starts with an incisive diagnosis of the academic aversion to translated literature:

Serious readers are anxious about reading in translation, which seems to lack rigor of several sorts. It lacks scholarly rigor because we are blocked from analysing the metaphors and idioms that have seemed crucial to any substantial investigation of literature. It lacks educational rigor because we have failed to learn the languages that would allow more direct access. And it lacks ethical rigor because the failure to learn a sufficient number of languages bespeaks a failure of interest in and engagement with the imaginative life of strangers. Of course, it is not only the reader of the translated object, but also the object itself that is implicated. For after all, what kind of literary work could be read – read in any way that would count – in some language other than its own? (171)

But then Walkowitz goes on to subtly dismantle this scholarly attitude by destabilizing the notion of ‘the native reader’ and ‘the original work’, urging us to read originals ‘the way we read translations’, that is, ‘treating every text as if its location were not simultaneous with our own’ (177). Although all of Walkowitz’s examples would be traditionally classified as written in English, her point is to destabilize the notion of writing in English, and show the myriad ways in which the authors she discusses make the reader imagine herself as a non-native reader, by experiencing ‘what it would be like to read English as a foreign language or, for that matter, as a language at all. English becomes a material rather than simply a medium. It begins to have substance’ (141). This statement would be a commonplace if applied to poetry, or highly experimental writing, like Ulysses: but the intensity of Walkowitz’s argument comes from the fact that her chosen texts are not elitist, canonical masterpieces of European modernism, but contemporary bestsellers, often close to genre fiction, and they manage to ‘foreignize’ English not by stylistic inaccessibility, but by using the common currency of the globalized world – the fact of linguistic translation and the global domination of English.

One arguably problematic aspect of Walkowitz’s book is that she does not sufficiently engage with the concept and methodology of national literary history. This category is curiously absent from her book, which is all the more conspicuous given that one of Walkowitz’s chief aims in Born Translated is to dismantle the conviction that works of literature (or books, as she – with her emphasis on the materiality of the medium – would probably put it) ‘belong’ to nations. In Franco Moretti’s famous dictum, the goal of comparative literature is ‘to be a thorn in the side, a permanent intellectual challenge to national literatures’; yet Walkowitz does not persuasively engage with the framework of national literature histories. In one of the few places in the book where she refers to this category at all, she states that ‘in literary studies, we generally distinguish between the disciplines of national literature, which typically refer to what books are, who wrote them, or where they were produced, and the discipline of comparative literature, which typically refers to what we do with books’ (101). This baffling remark, which comes somewhat surprisingly halfway through the Ishiguro chapter, requires more elaboration and contextualization.

Born Translated is an engagingly written, highly readable, in many ways path-breaking, and undoubtedly important book. It is refreshing to see male and female, white and non-white, Western and non-Western, more and less established authors represented genuinely on a par with each other. Another reviewer of this book, Rose Casey, suggested in Journal of Postcolonial Writing that Walkowitz’s approach works better ‘when applied to novels by prominent male authors from relatively comfortable backgrounds […] rather than more expressly postcolonial works addressing race, gender and power’. To me it seems, in contrast, that Born Translated achieves in practice what many other critics have called for in theory: it manages to develop a persuasive methodological framework that can account for a wide variety of writing, remaining highly sensitive to political dimensions of that writing, but without relegating some of it to the role of mere ‘tokens’. This is possible because Walkowitz considers the ways in which ‘instead of articulating distinctive cultures’, writers ‘are articulating geopolitical systems, including the systems in which their novels are produced’ (201). This is a welcome antidote to the impasse in the critiques of World Literature, with its obsession on the fundamental ‘untranslatability’ of foreign cultures, which, while certainly well-intentioned, can lead to further marginalization of non-Western literary voices. Rebecca Walkowitz shows one powerful way of getting out of this impasse.