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Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability

On the problems of translation in literary study

Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability argues for a rethinking of comparative literature focusing on the problems that emerge when large-scale paradigms of literary studies ignore the politics of the “Untranslatable”—the realm of those words that are continually retranslated, mistranslated, transferred from language to language, or especially resistant to substitution.

In the place of “World Literature”—a dominant paradigm in the humanities, one grounded in market-driven notions of readability and universal appeal—Apter proposes a plurality of “world literatures” oriented around philosophical concepts and geopolitical pressure points. The history and theory of the language that constructs World Literature is critically examined with a special focus on Weltliteratur, literary world systems, narrative ecosystems, language borders and checkpoints, theologies of translation, and planetary devolution in a book set to revolutionize the discipline of comparative literature.


  • “Just following Emily Apter’s dizzying array of texts from diverse traditions and times (including a tightly argued discussion of the philosophicality of Simone de Beauvoir, lost in translation to the best of US feminists), embracing much experimental material, all read with meticulous care, is an education. No one has thought the question of world literature in greater depth, at once re-thinking Comparative Literature as translatability studies.”
  • “Rarely does one read a book with the title Against that is so much for important causes and ideas: writing, translation, worldliness, diversity, cosmopolitanism, while fully aware of their promises and threats. In this moment of dispossession of the Humanities, we needed just that book to clarify matters and move beyond the contradictions.”
  • “Arresting and unashamedly political, Against World Literature asks us to regard untranslatability - those thorny, frustrating moments of cultural dissonance and misunderstanding - as the key to translation and cross-cultural engagement.”
  • “There is much value in Apter’s insights into the ambiguous nature of translation and language barriers”
  • “Apter's critique is relentless - World Literature is the handmaiden to a late-capitalist moment that transforms all cultural idioms into easily digestible products for an expanded global marketplace... Against World Literature has an astonishing range of critical and literary reference, with the introduction moving rapidly through an overview of world literature today, translation studies, the philosophy of Walter Benjamin and Wittgenstein, theology and language, and culminating in an attempt to "conjugate" the abstruse writings of Alain Badiou with those of the French philosopher of language Barbara Cassin... Emily Apter's study is essential reading for scholars working across nations and boundaries, and a chastening reminder of how crucial translation if for myriad forms of literary inquiry.”


  • "Staggering in breadth and depth" - Alexa Firat reviews Alexandre Beecroft's 'An Ecology of World Literature'

    Writing in the Journal of the Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World, Assistant Professor of Arabic at Temple University Alexa Firat reviews Alexander Beecroft's 'An Ecology of World Literature: from Antiquity to the Present Day.' Firat praises the books scale and erudition, writing that 'the journey through the six ecologies Beecroft lays out is altogether fascinating and staggering in breadth and depth.'

    Alexander Beecroft’s most recent study, An Ecology of World Literature, is a profound undertaking that uses the scientific framework of ecology to “facilitate the comparative study of the interactions between literatures and their environments” (28), and hopefully to provoke discussions about particular cultural contexts with specific ecologies. Beecroft’s intellectual interests grew out of his desire to say something useful about literatures (in his case ancient Greece and early China) in conjunction with each other that did not depend on claims of contact, leading to his acclaimed study Authorship and Cultural Identity in Early Greece and China [1].  Furthermore, the critical discourses on world literature, as productive as they are, left Beecroft searching for a theoretical model that could make sense of, for instance, the relationship between political fragmentation and cultural unity found in early Greece and China, and that furthermore did not use as a premise the value we, as modern readers, add to the texts we read (2) [2]. In addition to these questions, Beecroft was introduced to the work of the Sanskritist Sheldon Pollock. The confluence of these elements led him to consider that the models for understanding how literature circulates were actually a series of different concrete answers, emerging in specific contexts, to the same set of problems about the interactions between literatures and their environments (3). Drawing from the work of literary and linguistic scholars and modeled on the science of ecology, Beecroft developed a scheme of six ecologies for his interaction: the epichoric (or local), panchoric (a generic term he derived from Panhellenic), cosmopolitan, vernacular, national and global, that offer a conducive framework for comparative studies not bound by time, geography or language.

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  • 'It’s Only the End of the World': Emily Apter's Against World Literature reviewed in boundary 2

    Ben Conisbee Baer has reviewed Emily Apter's Against World Literature in the Summer 2014 issue of boundary 2. He writes:

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  • Reading Capital, 1965-2015—a conference at Princeton University

    On December 6 2013, in advance of the 50th anniversary of the publication of Reading Capital by Louis Althusser, Étienne Balibar, Roger Establet, Jacques Rancière, and Pierre Macherey, Princeton University is holding a conference celebrating the text and its continued importance to radical philosophy. 

    Robert J. C. Young, Bruno Bosteels, Alain Badiou, Emily Apter, and Étienne Balibar will present new critical readings of this seminal text.  

    Visit the event page for more details.

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