When upstart courses in World Literature began to proliferate in the 1990s, sacrificing depth for breadth with their eclectic surveys of texts chosen to represent as many literatures as possible – and read, moreover, in translation by undergraduates – many comparatists treated them with disdain as a superficial vulgarisation of their area of expertise. This gave ammunition to those colleagues in single-language literature departments, who tended to view the whole notion of Comparative Literature as suspect, the domain of the dilettante and the dabbler.
Meanwhile, theorists of postcolonialism criticised translation’s direction of traffic in World Literature, characterising it as a plundering of cultures that entrenched the global hegemony of the English language. The process both exoticised other cultures and created a false sense of equivalence between them, fetishising the appearance of alterity while erasing difference. Others objected to the commodification of literature for an elite market: the creation of an easily digestible World Literature canon, constructed by the academy, to attract a broader pool of fee-paying students. The phenomenon of World Literature, taught in the lecture hall via translations, seemed to validate Erich Auerbach’s gloomy prediction that ‘in a single literary culture … the notion of Weltliteratur would be at once realized and destroyed.’
My review of Emily Apter’s Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability (Verso, 2013) is out on the Sydney Review of Books.
Update 1.10.14: I’ve just noticed that this piece has been included as required reading on Stanford University’s ‘Comparative Literature 101’ course.