Conference Report: World Authors and Translators in the Global Circulation of Capital 2 July – 3 July 2015

By Anna-Katharina Krüger,

Anna-Bilder-2Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München


The first conference day started early in the morning, after a wonderful breakfast during which  I already had the chance to meet some of the speakers while enjoying my morning croissant and coffee. All of us were warmly welcomed by Rebecca Braun, who gave an inspiring opening talk which set the tone for the following two days.

Rebecca Braun introduced the event and the research hub, a fantastic collaboration of different disciplines and researchers from the departments of English and Creative Writing, Linguistics, European Languages and Cultures, as well as History and Contemporary Arts at Lancaster University. Braun provided interesting information about the hub’s former research strand on literary celebrity. However, when a research hub is called ‘The Author and the World’, it seems obvious that one of the major focus areas would be world authorship and its many different concepts. Braun argued that Goethe’s concept of world literature already encapsulated what we may understand as world authorship today: Weltliteratur articulates performances of subjectivity on the boundary between the local and the global. In the making of Weltliteratur the role of the different actors on the field of global literary production must nevertheless be examined more carefully. In her talk, Braun also drew on Bruno Latour’s actor-network theory, where mediators take a message from A to B but not without leaving a trace, or changing the message. These two different concepts highlight perfectly what can be understood as world authorship: a collaborative pool of different actors or agents, such as authors, translators, publishers, legal specialists, academics, readers and marketing experts shape what is today sold and read as representative of world authorship. Braun remarked that this idea helps to demythologize the author as the genius working in solitude, but also as a purely discursive function. By granting a full account of the market and its influence on the making and shaping of authorship, we can recalibrate our conceptualization of the relations between the local and the global. The conference set out to explore and to research the human face(s) of literature without fetishizing authors as its sole creative force, while always reflecting on one’s own position in the field as an academic author who has a stake in the circulation and canonization of specific authors.

After this dense and thought provoking introduction, the first keynote speaker Aleida Assmann (University of Konstanz, Germany) gave her talk on ‘Four Models of World Authorship’, introducing different phases of authorship while looking into the history of the annual ‘Peace Prize’ sponsored by the German Book Trade which has served as a public platform for celebrating globally successful authors since the 1950s. Assmann identified the manner in which Shakespeare became published posthumously as one strategy in the first phase of institutionalizing the author as a figure of great public interest. While the marketing of Shakespeare can be traced to his poetical writing, the German poet Goethe chose a different but no less successful model to market his authorial persona. He constructed the persona of a modern author-genius by reflecting on his creative work and the writing process within his texts, as well as stressing the transnational scope of literary production and its influential networks. Goethe also understood the dialogue between the ‘classics’ and ‘new’ modern writers to be important for the growing network of Weltliteratur and its authors.

Assmann recognized with Karl Marx the birth of the world author within the space of the literary market-place. The Communist Manifesto also finally establishes translators as important cultural mediators. With P. B. Shelly, one of the most influential English poets of the Romantic Period, the poet or author becomes the authority for visions of the future, and for imagination.

According to Assmann, the ‘Peace Prize’ of the German Book Trade must be understood as an intellectual space in which influential authors recognize each other’s success and both sustain and spread their world-wide influence – in many ways a problematically elitist space. Assmann argued further that the reader’s interest plays an important role in the establishment of a world author; here the institution of the public library serves as an example. In the sphere of the public library, a space accessible for all, prize authors often become immortalized not only in the form of their books but also in the material presence of their busts that often populate the public space, thus enshrining their world-authorship status for generations to come.

The first panel of the day ‘Authority, Authorship and the Global Market’ gave voice to three scholars who reflected on writers from different continents and epochs. I was honored to start the panel with my presentation on Dave Eggers’ book What is the What and its negotiations of authority and authorship. I argued that the fictional autobiography with its self-reflexivity and meta-reflections follows not only a poetological strategy but sees in it a necessary technique to recognize and criticize the genre of testimonial writing. I raised the question of the distribution of power and authority in a book like What is the What, where author and narrator work in collaboration and the author becomes the narrator’s spokesperson. I pointed to the problematic situation of the publication, where Eggers brands himself poetologically as a socially aware writer but simultaneously overpowers the narrator Deng’s voice and authority over his own autobiographical narration.

Katy Stewart followed with her presentation on ‘Ondjaki/Ndalu de Almeida: Negotiating Cultural Identity on a Global Stage’ – Ondjaki is a writer from Angola who is praised by the press as the rising star of African literature. Stewart traced Ondjaki’s evolution from writer to brand. She argued that global authorship is often a necessity and not choice. She further reasoned that to achieve publication the writer had to cross borders by moving from Angola to Portugal. This creates tension in the perception of the author’s national identity. The writer is either perceived as an Angolan or an African writer on the lusophone market; in the international sphere of literary prizes, however, the writer is marketed as Portuguese. Yet the author’s name is attached to the persona and becomes a focal point for marketing the books, and for marketing other lusophone writers. Stewart claimed that cultural identity resists easy definition and translation, only Ondjaki’s topics, like his interest in childhood, can claim a universal translatability and foster global saleability.

The last presentation of the panel was given by Joanna Neilly. ‘A German Rousseau?’ Karl Gutzkow’s Jean Jacques in the Capitalist Market’ pointed out Gutzkow’s novella about J.J. Rousseau as an interesting case study for publishing and writing in the 19th century and the modern capitalist market. Gutzkow, one of Germany’s earliest professional writers, no longer supported by a patron, profited from the development of a market where publishers started to play an important role in the making of authors. Within this new market, Gutzkow set out to negotiate the role of the writer, trying to defend the idea of the artist and poet against the aesthetic sin of Vielschreiberei. J.J. Rousseau as the choice of subject serves here as both a product of self promotion and as model for the critique of the culture industry (Adorno).

After an inspiring discussion and a refreshing coffee break the second keynote speaker of the day, Anne Barron, gave a far-reaching talk on ‘Credit, Voice and Royalties’. Tracing the role of intellectual property through Anglophone and continental history, she informed us about the shaping of political economy through copyrights. She reminded us that by the end of the 17th century censorship was gone and writers gained more freedom to publish on a variety of topics – the public sphere became the market place of ideas. In 1710 the First Modern Copyright Act made copyright the key legal mechanism to regulate the market and its participating agents, authors and publishers. Up to today, copyright and trademark both equally control and influence the international marketing strategies that make and sell bestsellers. Barron further explained how a good understanding of copyright helps to apprehend the author as both a business person, craftsperson and the ‘genius’ creator who can be turned into a marketable brand.

The second panel ‘Political Translations of Authorship’ started after a very sumptuous and scrumptious lunch. Invigorated from salads and sandwiches we listened to Nathalie Carré’s presentation on ‘Major Writers in Minor Languages: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s Case, from Gikuyu to French’. She argued that translation is the most common and successful tool used by writers to accomplish a global, or at least international, sales. Her case study, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and his Decolonizing the Mind constitute the author’s famous goodbye to the English language. However, his English and French publications achieved what Carré called ‘global’ recognition and finally established his reputation. The publication of his texts in the languages of Europe and North America’s literary centers, Paris and London/New York, helped the politically engaged writer to achieve a worldwide audience over many years. But wa Thiong’o understands the unbalanced representation of languages on the translation market as a major issue, trying to promote the publication of works in the so called ‘minor languages’. Then, Alex Harrington took us from Africa to Russia. With her talk on ‘Anglophone Life-Writing on Anna Akhmatova and the Dynamics of the Myth of the Russian Poet in Russia and the West’ she closely examined the famous poet Akhmatova’s (self-) presentation in the West. Until today the only substantial and academically acknowledged biographies on the market are written by Western scholars. However, Harrington notes that these biographies follow Akhmatova’s own melodramatic and one-sided self-portrayals. It seems as if the poet set out successfully to create a very specific – and for an international audience recognizably Russian – image of herself and her writing to achieve global recognition as the nation’s greatest artist.

Sandra Mayer’s presentation on ‘Continental Reputation Equaling Posthumous Fame?’ looked at Benjamin Disraeli’s dual career as both elder statesman and writer of the two novels Lothair and Endymion. Both novels were highly celebrated as well as widely translated. Mayer argued that his political involvement served to promote his artistic success.

After the first two panels of the day we all worked in smaller groups, discussing and brainstorming the key topics of the day. My group had a lively debate about the terms ‘globalization’ and ‘world literature’. We explored the question of why we differentiate between the terms ‘world author’ and ‘global author’, distinguishing global success from a contribution to the ‘world canon of literature’. We also reflected on our own position as academic gatekeepers who take part in the creation of the canon, and with this, control to an extent the circulation of certain texts.

The day ended with a wonderful dinner and a poetry reading by Palestinian-Icelandic poet and short story writer Mazen Maarouf. The reading was in Arabic, read by Maarouf himself, as well as in English and French translations of his work. This was a wonderful example of Maarouf’s writing, but also of the power of translation.

The second day opened with a vibrant and inspiring talk by Benedict Schofield. In his presentation, entitled ‘The Global Shakespeare? National Authorship, Transnational Appropriation, and ‘’Doubly Translated” Shakespeare’, Schofield asked the question: ‘When the author is gone – who takes over the author-function?’ – an interesting continuation of Michel Foucault’s famous notion of authorship. Every new theatre production of William Shakespeare’s has a set of people involved who leave their original mark in the play – this is identified by Schofield as a multitude of authors: Translators, directors, dramaturg and even lead players, all in their own way control the performance of the play.

He described in detail how during WWI, in the eyes of the Germans, the British became ‘unworthy’ guardians of the great William Shakespeare. The ‘new German’ Shakespeare thus became a representative of European values. Schofield focused on notorious German theatre director Thomas Ostermeier, known for his transgressive interpretations and stagings. However, Schofield also remarked that Ostermeier deliberately creates and confirms the image of the German Shakespeare as a radical one, standing up against the criticism of his non-realistic staging and his bending of genre conventions.

After lunch we were all invited to listen and participate in the round table. Together with editors, a translator, an author and a literary agent the conference guests were asked to rethink the concept of world authorship from a more practical angle.

The last panel of the day and therefore of the conference was entitled ‘Embodiment, Authenticity and Authorship’. This panel was opened by Caroline Summers. Her presentation ‘Discursive Dismemberment: Fragmenting Authorship in the “Body” of the Translated Text’ was a case study of Christa Wolf and her translated work. Summers suggested that it is possible to understand the ‘body’ of work of an author as similar to their physical appearance, signifying a specific meaning. This becomes especially important in translation, when the author is physically absent from public discourse. Here, too, Foucault’s notion of authorship has been taken further in an intriguing way. Summers concentrated on the cover designs of Wolf’s translated works; she understands them as an interaction of the author and the world – displaying different versions of the writer that can be categorized as artist, political figure and woman.

Kate Roy continued with her talk ‘Paratextual Politics – Global Images, the Visual Plane, and the “Authentic Author” in the Textual History of the Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin’. Roy’s paper explored questions of authenticity, orientalism and authorship while focusing on the usage of the author’s image to promote the text in different contexts. She argued that works have an ongoing life, after the author’s death. Literally so in the case of Emily Ruete, whose image is used to introduce not only the author but to give the text a certain frame. For example, the image can serve as a touristic agent, selling the impressions of the represented country and the author’s origin as ‘authentic’.

The last paper ‘”My body is a storm cloud waiting to burst”: Authorship, Authenticity, and Cross Cultural Mobility in Performance Poetry’ by Emily Spiers explored three different types of performance poets and the notion of embodiment in their work. Embodiment here is understood as a fierce form of ‘writing back’, Spiers identified it as ‘talking back’ or ‘acting back’, stressing the notion of immediacy and urgency in oral poetics. Spiers focused on the poets’ reception by the audience and their circulation in the sphere of (social) media. Further, she discussed how literary prizes and media awareness can promote international translations, on the one hand opening the way to the transmission from oral art to printed poetry and on the other hand raising questions of authenticity.

The final talk of the conference was given by Susan Bassnett. ‘The Power of Rewriting’ made a powerful case for the importance of translation studies. Bassnett portrayed the translator as a writer who makes an international exchange of literature possible, the force that drives the circulation – and even the survival – of genres. Bassnett talked about European detective fiction, which she understands as an example for cultural translation: It can soften national boundaries, it moves from land to land, continent to continent while creating its specific and often nationally bound content. Bassnett contended that translation studies helps to understand literature in the context of globalization; translations are complex processes propelled by manifold different agents who can no longer be viewed as nationally rooted. Translation constitutes a form of poetics as well as politics.




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