I Had to Learn Spanish to Study the Aztecs
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I Had to Learn Spanish to Study the Aztecs

Talk with David Damrosch

In my department here at Harvard, it used to be assumed years ago that if you taught a work in French, you’d bring it in the original. Nowadays, you can’t assume that every comparatist even knows French. We may have someone from China who is doing four other languages. You just can’t assume a single set of common languages anymore.

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INEZ OKULSKA: Over the last 30 years, literary translation has been a thriving discipline in Europe, to mention only the so-called cultural turn and its consequences in the form of Translation Studies: now we have more and more courses, institutes, and even entire departments devoted to the field. However, I’ve observed a rather different situation in the United Staes. Let’s start with the institution: if you go through the structure and the seminar offer at Ivy League universities (which I realize are not representative of the whole country, but are nonetheless important as “trend-setters” for American scholarship), you will discover that every one of them has a whole department for comparative literature, but not a single one for translation. They do offer some courses on translation, but only as a part of comparative literature or language learning at national literature departments. Is translation studies not a discipline anymore? Are there no American scholars willing to deal with it? Has it been “swallowed up” by Comparative Literature (Comp Lit) as a field of study?

DAVID DAMROSCH: I really feel that there are good reasons for these fields to be closely interconnected, and there are still reasons why there are different locations or different programs, but American scholars of translation studies often feel rather isolated, often at the margins of Comp Lit or national literature departments, most of whose faculty take no interest in translation studies, even though they often use translations in their teaching and even scholarship.

I would say that rather than having swallowed up translation studies, comparatists are now finally taking translation seriously. Until fairly recently, most American programs in Comp Lit had few if any courses on translation. When I was a student at Yale in the 1970s, there were no courses on translation studies, because you were not supposed to use translations – the mark of being a comparatist in the 70s was to have a very good accent in French and German and not to need a translation. So why would they use TS as a field then? I think it is interesting that it was so much excluded in this country, partly because of the cultural isolation of the United States, or a kind of cultural imperialism, that assumed that translation just sort of happens naturally and you don’t need to study it. Americans have generally showed less concern with translation as a practical matter than in a lot of countries where there is more of a sense of needing to translate, to read works from abroad, and to get your own work translated. And in terms of comparatists in the United States, the European émigrés – who did so much to set the tone of the field after World War II in this country – came knowing French and German and Latin, and thought that was all we need to know. So why study translations?


David Damrosch is Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, Chair of the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University, and Director of the Institute for World Literature. His work during the past dozen years has focused on the concept of “world literature,” which he explored in his books What is World Literature? (2003) and How to Read World Literature (2009); he is also the founding general editor of the six-volume Longman Anthology of World Literature (2004), the editor of Teaching World Literature (2009) and co-editor of the Princeton Sourcebook in Comparative Literature (2009). Concerned with the matters of translation from the perspective of a literary comparatist, he has translated poetry from Akkadian, Middle High German, and Nahuatl into English.

What happens for people like me or Gayatri Spivak or Emily Apter? We are people who probably never had a course in translation studies – either theory or practice – but we began to get interested in translation just because our interests went beyond the few languages we could read, and in the case of Gayatri, she even became the English translator of Derrida and of the Bengali writer Mahasweta Devi. It was fairly rare for a comparatist in the 70s and 80s to devote substantial time to translation, but it’s happening increasingly now. So what I think is happening is a meeting of the minds of these fields that worked quite separately before.

So translation has become more important in practice for comparatists, but what about the theory?

Well, it is puzzling to me that Emily Apter writes about translation and never seems engaged with translation studies as a field, beyond a very specific Derridean tradition. Her new book Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability has many valuable ideas, but often she presents them as though they were new when they have been discussed at length over the years byBassnett or Lefevere or Toury or Venuti. So I think there is much more to do. With the Institute of World Literature that started a few years ago, we are regularly having seminars on translation, including by Bassnett and Venuti, for example, both of whose work I have taught for years. I think that translation theory is extremely important, and it is becoming recognized as a field that any serious comparatist ought to be thinking about. 

And concerning the students in Comp Lit: it is important for them to have a critical understanding of translations, because we are forced to teach works in translation for most students for most of the time. In my department here at Harvard, it used to be assumed years ago that if you taught a work in French, you’d bring it in the original, but now you can’t assume that every comparatist even knows French. We may have someone from China who is doing four other languages, and this is good, but you just can’t assume a single set of common languages for comparatists anymore. I think there is a kind of an overlap between translation theory and practice with comparative studies in their pedagogical frame and I think it is actually quite useful.

Speaking of the unpredictable language sets that contemporary Comp Lit students and teachers bring with them, one no longer expects everyone to know French, German, and Latin, as you said. And what about you? What is your personal toolkit? How many languages do you speak? 

Well, with very different degrees of competence and need of using dictionaries, I guess it’s eleven or twelve, but I can't speak or even read them all easily. I’m very envious of friends who have more spoken fluency, but more often I can just read and struggle along with the written texts.


This year’s Gdańsk Meetings of Literary Translators: “Found in Translation” will take place 9–11 April under the theme of translations from English. Discussion topics will include Shakespeare, Polish literature on the English-language publishing market, translating post-colonial literature, and the place of translations on the book market. Events include an appearance by Olga Tokarczuk and her translators. On Friday, April 10, the Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński Translation Work Award will be presented.

Festival Programme

And what languages are we talking about? Where and how do you learn them? 

I grew up speaking only English, so I didn’t have the multilingual background that has often inspired people to become comparatists. My first serious instruction started in when I was in the American seventh grade, at age thirteen, and continued in high school, where we did French, German, and Latin, so the basic set of languages for a comparatist. And then in college I also began doing Egyptian hieroglyphics, Greek, and Old Norse, and in graduate school Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs, but for that I had to learn Spanish first. It was a rather unusual reason to learn Spanish, which was not taught in my high school; it was an old-style school, even though it was in New York, where Spanish was spoken on the street outside, yet it was not considered as a language possessing sufficiently high cultural capital to be worth teaching at the school. So I had to learn Spanish to work on Nahuatl, so as to work with Spanish-language editions, scholarship, and dictionaries. It’s pretty funny now that when I want to teach Cervantes, I can read the original thanks to my interest in the Aztecs. And then I learned Hebrew and some Italian and Portuguese, and finally Akkadian to be able to work on the Epic of Gilgamesh. 

Speaking of Nahuatl and Akkadian, you chose very particular languages to be able to read particular works of literature. Does that mean you always read a text in the original if it happens to be a language you know? 

I wish I would be more energetic about that, to be honest, but no, I also read a lot of translations, even from languages I know myself. And with Nahuatl there was a quite opposite story. I started to study this language only because I had fallen in love with Aztec poems, which I read in English translation, in a book called Aztec Thought and Culture by a great scholar, Miguel Leon-Portilla, which was a translation of a book he’d originally written in Spanish. So I was reading a translation of a translation – from Nahuatl through Spanish into English. I got deeply interested in this type of poetry, sensing the beauty of the original language, even though only through a relay translation. 

David Damrosch at the Conrad Festival in Krakow / photo: Grzegorz Ziemiański, www.fotohuta.pl

Did you read these poems again after you learned Nahuatl?

I did, and it became something different and better. The whole structure of an Aztec poem is so different from anything I'd known before, and the vocabulary is fascinating, as Nahuatl is an agglutinative language, putting many elements into a single word. The Aztec poets really played with this quality of their language, inventing fabulous compounds, such as itzimiquilxochitl, “knife-death-flower,” which is a neologism used in a poem glorifying conquest, made up from itzli, “obsidian knife,” plus miquiztli, “death,” plus xochitl, “flower.” This new term makes a double play on words, first between miquitli, “death,” and quilitl, “plant” (the words can become quite similar in different cases), and also suggesting an actual flower, the itzmiquilitl, which in English we call portulaca. So the Aztec poets had very distinctive ways to create surprising and beautiful imagery in their poems. You could get a sense of that in the translation, even as the translation made me want to know the original.

That’s still a beautiful story. But a polyglot comparatist could challenge the use of translations.

Well, translation is, as Venuti says, an inscription in the new literary culture. Even without a polyglot ability, as a comparatist you can get so much by looking comparatively at a couple of translations of a certain work. Even if you don’t know the language, you can begin to see what you’ve been given in this translation. If you have only one translation with no paratext, then you read it purely as a work in your language and that’s all. But even two translations of a given poem or a story can offer you an insight into their original language. However, I still think every comparatist should know six languages at a minimum, even if it’s not possible to attain full fluency in all of them; it’s possible to learn languages on a sliding scale of level of fluency, and thus not be a prisoner to translations. Just being able to check a translation against the original, to analyze what kind of phrases have been used, makes a huge difference, even if one is reading primarily in one’s native language, in my case English. American comparatists do like to learn other languages, but in the United States, this interest in the foreign has perhaps come too much at the expense of the home culture; this is almost the opposite extreme to Comp Lit in many other countries, often very closely tied to the national literature, its influences and its fortunes abroad, whereas often American comparatists have no knowledge of American literature. They may know the literature of any other countries than their own. I think a balance is necessary.

But let’s stay with English for a while. Comparative Literature as a perspective, a method or even a field of study started a long time ago and from the very outset struggled with the unsolved problem that is the broad scope of languages one ought to know or use. The first comparative journal, “Acta Comparationis Litterarum Universarum,” published in 1877-88 in Cluj, tried to present “world literature” from Europe and beyond in at least ten languages, but without success. This was partly because of the typographic issues involved in printing scripts like Chinese, but there were also problems with languages that used a Latin alphabet. Though Polish and Islandic were counted among the official languages of the journal, no texts were ever published in these tongues. The primary languages were German and Hungarian, which were dominant in what was then Austro-Hungarian Empire. And so the great idea of multilingual exchange failed. I think we face the same problem today. Is comparative literature only possible in English these days? Isn’t that absurd?

No, not at all. I believe that people only think so because they are not paying attention to what has been done in comparative literature in many other countries – there is a lot of contribution to comparative and world literature being done in Poland, and in Estonia, in Japan, and Korea, to name just a few, and these discussions are happening in their own languages. It’s certainly true that English has become a kind of international scholarly language, rather in the way that Latin was in the Middle Ages, which didn’t mean that vernaculars didn’t thrive in the Renaissance where Latin was still a common language of scholarship and diplomacy. So I always think that English is a useful tool which should not take the place of developing these concerns in different languages – nor does it, in fact.

As a speaker of eleven languages, do you write your articles in any other languages besides English?

I did finally write one in German in the collection Figuren des Globalen, which was a struggle for me. But Katharina Piechocki, whom we recently hired as an assistant professor in our department, has published in four languages – English, French, German, and Italian, while also being a native speaker of Polish, which is a great argument for comparative literature in practice, even given the convenience of English for global communication. At the summer sessions of the Institute for World Literature we have people from 25 countries, so there is no other way to communicate than in English. And even last summer when we met in Hong Kong, and I asked our host if it wouldn’t be proper to have some seminars in Chinese, he said he didn’t want to ghettoize Chinese speakers together, who would only talk to each other and miss the point of an international meeting. 

So if I understand correctly, to a comparatist, those six languages are a tool that enhances their access to their literature of study, yet the actual research is published in English in order to reach the broadest possible readership. 

I think that ideally every scholar who is interested in connecting to audiences both at home and abroad should be prepared to write in two languages when their home language isn’t English. They will reach a different readership, and will sometimes, or in some cases often, be writing on topics primarily of interest in their own national context. Yet English is a very useful tool for transnational communication; we can’t deny it. And even for translations! Orhan Pamuk has said that half of the translations of his work are going through English and that he would prefer to have good translations via English than bad translations directly made from the source language, e.g. from Turkish to Vietnamese, where there is almost no one who can do this or check it to see if it’s done well. So English is very useful and puts languages in connections even in that way.

That sounds rather like one of the Venutian scandals of translation, where “the content,” a story, and the presence of a writer on the global market are more important than the original touch of his language, his own idiom.

You promoted the term “world literature” for academic purposes, but it has become more than just an academic concept. You created a very interesting series called the Invitation to World Literature,” where you and other comparatists present works of “world literature” in 20-minute videos, featuring exhaustive information about the contexts, interpretations, and writer biographies on the website.Among them is Pamuk and his novel My Name is Red. So you promote his work in English and the name of the translator doesn’t even appear on the list; it’s only visible once you click through to the details. This is another example of an English translation becoming the quasi-original, the base text to be discussed, compared, studied, and even translated in further languages.

This is true. I recently had a set of very nice emails from a group of high school students in Korea who had been watching the series in class. They wished me a sunny day, inventing a greeting that I hadn’t seen before in English. So English provided a medium that could enable them to learn about Pamuk in Seoul, and I hope some were inspired to go out and buy the novel, either in Korean or in English; and if one of them gets inspired to go and learn Turkish, that would be even better.

And what about the selection? What was the idea behind your choosing thosethirteen works out of the billions of titles available? There are founding works in literary history and culture such as the Odyssey, the Epic of Gilgamesh, Thousand and One Nights, Journey to the West, the Tale of Genji, and the Bhagavad Gita; there is also Voltaire’s Candid and the recently popular Popul Vuh, a 15th century text written in Quiché Mayan. Contemporary writers are represented by Pamuk, García Márquez, and, in English, Chinua Achebe and Arundhati Roy. What about Shakespeare, Kafka, Goethe, and Cervantes? Im afraid we can no longer assume that these authors are very well known, even in their own countries. Shouldn’t we start with them? Don’t they count as an invitation to world literature?

One has to begin somewhere, and for the purposes of the video series, it proved difficult to do justice to more than one work at a time in one 20-minute episode. We would never claim that the thirteen works chosen have special status higher than Shakespeare or Dante; instead, we were selecting works that would collectively give an initial picture of the varieties of literary experience across time and around the world. Naturally, we hope that viewers will want to go further than just these thirteen, or any thirteen works. Just now, I’ve signed a contract to write a book for Penguin Books, introducing world literature for a non-academic audience. For the book, I could have many more authors, though I also wanted to be selective enough to have room to say something meaningful about each. I also wanted a kind of engaging narrative structure, so I’m calling the book Around the World in Eighty Books, playing of course on Jules Verne’s book, and in this book I am indeed including Shakespeare, Goethe, Dante, and Cervantes, along with the Ramayana, Sophocles, Woolf, Borges, and many more.

Increasingly, I think that the term “world literature” needs to be thought of in the plural: there are many world literatures, not only in different countries but for different readers in any given country, and I would like readers to take an active role in selecting their own world literature, one that can help them find their place at home as well as in the wider world, in translation as well as in their native language or languages, and ideally will inspire them to learn a new language they never knew they couldn’t live without, until they read a beautiful poem in an eloquent translation.

This series of interviews and articles on translation and translators is published in cooperation with the City Culture Institute in Gdańsk, organizers of the Gdańsk Meetings of Literary Translators: “Found in Translation” and the European Poet of Freedom Festival.