Esperanto in the Anglophone Scholarly Literature
of ‘World Literature’?:
Scant Documentation

Compiled by Ralph Dumain

Lu Xun would talk about Hu Shi’s effort regarding the revival of Chinese traditional cultural heritage as something totally reactionary. As you know, Lu Xun himself was an anarchist; in 1907, in Tokyo, Japan, there was a group of Chinese anarchists, and they launched a magazine which would be very influential. In the same year, in Paris, there was a group of Chinese intellectuals, led by a founding father of the nationalist party—this is again a paradox—so the founding fathers of the nationalist party were anarchists in the first two decades of the twentieth century; these people were Wu Zhihui, Li Shizeng and Zhang Jingjiang, and the group included also Cai Yuanpei. They launched a magazine called New Century. At that time I would say that perhaps they went to extremes; somebody would argue, for instance, that the national language should be abolished. So, when we talk about the active and fruitful interaction between nation building and the spread of world literature, we also need to be a little careful, and must beware of the possible consequences of all kinds of very uniform ideas projecting world culture. Because at that time they said that all national languages have a very dirty historical past. We need to start anew, they said. That’s why people in the first two decades of the twentieth century, people like Lu Xun, Cai Yuanpei and Hu Shi, were so carried away by the idea that Esperanto should be the language of the world. Thus world literature came to China hand in hand with the spread of that idea of Esperanto. It seemed that we should all use this new language, so we would all became totally equal citizens of the world, using one language that would not have any cultural or historical burdens. Of course, this kind of effort would be futile, because Esperanto is a language without a history and without a very rich “burden” of literary tradition. It couldn’t go very far.

But somehow the idea of Esperanto became part of the orthodox ideology in China. This was because in China, we have a so-called internationalism, and internationalism means that we have to get away from the national, its very limiting boundaries. We have to transcend national boundaries to reach the status of being international, being part of the world. But sometimes such Utopian dreams can be futile. So the fate of Esperanto in China is very telling: even at the end of the Cultural Revolution, newspapers still carried articles about students using Esperanto and reported who had written many books in Esperanto. One author at that time, in the early 1980s, was very famous; his surname was Su. One of the leading novelists in China in the twentieth century, Ba Jin, who was also an anarchist, was influenced by that group of Chinese intellectuals living in Paris. He helped translate “Cooperation” (i.e., “Mutual Aid”) by Kropotkin, and Ba Jin even maintained his enthusiasm for Esperanto after the Cultural Revolution. He went to Sweden to attend a worldwide, very important annual gathering of Esperanto supporters in the early 1980s. I think it is very rare for one of the leading novelists of a big country to attend a conference on Esperanto. Nowadays no one talks about Esperanto in China, although that particular episode could be illuminating when we are discussing issues like world literature and the fate of Esperanto.

SOURCE: Lu Jiande. Dialogue Section B: “The Interactions between the Local and the Universal: A Few Thoughts after Listening to the Talk of Professor Damrosch,” in Tensions in World Literature: Between the Local and the Universal, edited by Weigui FANG (New York: Springer, 2018), pp. 325-330. This quote: pp. 328-30.

In one of my previous articles, I mentioned the case of two modern Chinese writers, Ba Jin and Ye Junjian, who both studied Esperanto. The former could only read the artificial language, and the latter even wrote literary works in it. Obviously, Ye’s Esperanto is much better than Ba Jin’s. But Ba Jin’s works have become works of world literature with the help of skilled translators, while Ye Junjian is remembered by contemporary readers merely as a talented translator of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales (Wang, “World Literature” 12). This undoubtedly proves that any valuable work of art, whether written in Chinese or any other foreign languages, could become part of world literature through translation.

SOURCE: Wang Ning. “Chinese Literature as World Literature,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature / Revue Canadienne de Littérature Comparée, September 2016, pp. 380-392. This quote: p. 388.

But the mere acceptance of ideograms in the world is not enough to erase Japanese people’s persistent self-doubts about their language. As we have seen, the man who later became Japan’s first education minister called for the nation to adopt English. And as mentioned in chapter 2, the acclaimed novelist Shiga Naoya called for the defeated nation to abandon Japanese in favor of French. Even more surprisingly, ultranationalist thinker Kita Ikki (1883–1939), who would be executed as the brains behind the failed military coup of February 26, 1936, urged the nation to take up Esperanto. Since he was a socialist, perhaps his position should be no cause for surprise—and yet seeing an ultranationalist’s name in conjunction with Esperanto is startling. Why did this political extremist advocate the adoption of an international language based on Western languages? Because he considered Japanese to be “exceedingly inferior.” If Japanese people took Esperanto as their second language, then, he claimed, Japanese would “by the law of natural selection” vanish in fifty years. But there was more to his advocacy of Esperanto than this. In a book called Kokugo to iu shisō (The ideology of national language, 1997), written in Japanese, Korean sociolinguist I Yeonsuk quotes Kita as saying that should the Empire of Greater Japan spread to Russia and Australia, then forcing the language on those populations “the way we forced Koreans to use Japanese” [8] would never do. (With understandable wrath, she adds, “The Korean nation compelled to use this ‘inferior’ Japanese was a pathetic sacrificial lamb.”) [9] In any case, it is striking that these three influential men—one a high government official, one a celebrated novelist, and one a radical enemy of the state—all saw Japanese as irredeemable and urged its abolition.

SOURCE: Mizumura, Minae. The Fall of Language in the Age of English, translated by Mari Yoshihara and Juliet Winters Carpenter (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 194.

It was in the company of another faux-Parisian, the Ecuadoran poet Alfredo Gangotena (1904-1944)—who had come to France from distant Uruguay in 1924 and adopted its language, earning the respect of the greatest writers of his time and getting published in all the leading Reviews—that [Henri] Michaux set out on the famous yearlong journey in Gangotena’s native land that produced his first book, Ecuador (1929). Michaux’s unfashionable determination in this book, which many readers found shocking, to resist all temptations of poetic exoticisrn is more readily understood if one realizes that his trip was an occasion for verifying the suspicion that Ecuador was only Gangotena’s Belgium. It was their similarity as outsiders fascinated with France, and their common interest in refusing to glorify, to grant any reality to the distance—geographic, linguistic, and cultural—that separated their homelands from Paris, that enabled Michaux to universalize his decentered position. Bilingualisrn also permitted them to identify with each other: Michaux, a Walloon, had been educated in Flemish and as a young man was intrigued by Esperanto, in which he saw a chance to escape the hold of both Flernish and French. He thus established a sort of equivalence between his hated Belgium and Ecuador, a land of literary exile for Gangotena as well as his native country.

SOURCE: Casanova, Pascale. The World Republic of Letters, translated by M.B. DeBevoise (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2004), pp. 213-214.

21. See, for example, Albert J. Guérard’s reminiscences of the activities of his father, Albert L. Guérard, on behalf of Esperanto and world government: “Comparative Literature, Modern Thought and Literature,” in Building a Profession: Autobiographical Perspectives on the Beginnings of Comparative Literature in the United States, ed. Lionel Gossman and Mihai I. Spariosu (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 89-97.

SOURCE: Saussy, Haun. “Exquisite Cadavers Stitched from Fresh Nightmares: Of Memes, Hives, and Selfish Genes,” in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization, edited by Haun Saussy (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2006) pp. 3-42. This quote: p. 37.

The truth in this matter was expressed by the Greek critic Longinus many centuries ago: there is a sublimity which is inherent in the thought, and which therefore is universal. Longinus gave as an example: “Let there be light”—perhaps the first time the Bible was appreciated purely as literature. The stark majesty of these words stands unaltered in Hebrew, in Greek, in English; and it would lose nothing in Tagalog or Esperanto. [p. 22]

*     *     *

For two hundred years, this philosophy of the unconscious and the subconscious has been advanced, not in literature only, but in many other domains. [….]

You cannot “decree a city into existence,” said Joseph de Maistre. Such is not the way of nature; a city must start by chance and grow unconsciously; the proposed capital to be named after Washington will never come to life. You cannot, by taking thought, manufacture a language: every Volapük or Esperanto is stillborn. And, in the same line of reasoning, you cannot, by your own individual effort, create a masterpiece. The masterpiece must pre-exist in the collective soul. The “author” is only the instrument that brings it to conscious life.

Against this romantic theory of obscure growth, the Individualistic conception has managed to hold its ground, and even to recapture some important positions.  [....]  [pp. 71-72]

SOURCE: Guérard, Albert Léon. Preface to World Literature. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1940.

Note: Guérard was also the author of A Short History of the International Language Movement (1921).  See also “Comparative Literature, Modern Thought and Literature” [Excerpt] by Albert J. Guérard.

25. Coetzee’s South African novel, In the Heart of the Country, also features Spanish, of a kind. The narrator uses made-up Spanish, spelled out in rocks, to communicate with airplanes she believes are flying overhead. Some critics have referred to this language as a kind of Esperanto. Rita Barnard, “Coetzee in/and Afrikaans,” Journal of Literary Studies 25, no. 4 (December 2009): 84–105.

*     *     *

111. One might imagine that the opposite of works designed for particular languages would be works designed for universal languages such as Esperanto (introduced by L. L. Zamenhof in the 1880s) and Europanto (introduced by Diego Marani in the 1990s). Consisting of words and syntax taken from Romance languages with a little help from German and Slavic, Esperanto blends together several different tongues in the service of transnational communication. It would seem to facilitate translation, but in fact it tries to make translation redundant. A language that could work for all Europeans would require, for Europeans, no translation at all. Such a language produces a larger collective, but it is a single collective all the same. Utopian works such as the Communist Manifesto likewise imagine a future in which differences among readers would no longer matter. While universal languages skip over translation by creating a language for everyone (relatively speaking), advocates of “post-exotic” and “minor” languages have sought to make translation obsolete by dislocating or “impoverishing” language altogether. These languages, too, are resisting national or tribal consolidations. However, instead of expressing an alternative collective, as Esperanto does, “minor literature” expresses foreignness: the experience of those who “live in a language that is not their own.” Minor writing is not translated; it is blocked or “underdeveloped.” Minor works aim to hold back or pare down, but they are generally aimed at a specific national language. Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 22–23; 19; 26. Writing in this tradition, contemporary French writer Antoine Volodine calls for “foreign literature in the French language.” Volodine aspires to write, he says, in a “translated language [lange de traduction],” but he means by this that he is using French, a language whose “genius” [genie] he celebrates, to resist the habits and customs of French society. Antoine Volodine, “Ecrire en francais une literature etrangere,” Chaoïd, no. 6 (Autumn–Winter 2002) . For an analysis of Volodine’s “post-exotic” project, see Christy Wampole, “Self-Begetting Theory: Volodine’s Post-Exotic Aesthetics,” presentation at the “Actuality and the Idea” conference, Princeton University, May 11–12, 2012.

SOURCE: Walkowitz, Rebecca L. Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), p. 250 n 25, 260–261 n 111.

By definition world literature is a global notion, but it is necessarily localized whenever it appears in a real context. No work of literature is created as a work of “world literature” for the simple reason that it is always inextricably linked with a particular language and a particular tradition. Despite the anxiety of losing distinct linguistic and cultural traits in what Stephen Owen has criticized as “world poetry,” no significant work of world literature is produced originally in a “universal language” like Esperanto or written in such a way as to be translated for global transmission and consumption. [2]  It is true that a global tendency is emerging that some internationally well-known contemporary writers have produced works in one language but have given permission to translation of their works into other languages to be released simultaneously, sometimes even before the original version is available. These are often internationally best-selling novelists such as Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo, Paul Auster, and Gabriel García Márquez, not to mention the hugely popular Harry Potter series. Contemporary success as international best sellers, however, may not guarantee the status of a canonical work in world literature, while the success of these very works depends in a significant measure on the special local features of a tradition that situates the narrative in a humanly meaningful manner.

SOURCE: Zhang Longxi. From Comparison to World Literature. State University of New York Press, 2015. Introduction, p. 8.

Though Dante’s text yields major insights from such defining comparative analyses, the Inferno’s textual history also reveals a past of translation and circulation well worth exploring, and insight into a history less linear and less confined to a central European tradition. One could begin by considering, comparatively, Dante’s own translations, looking to what he himself read in Latin and French, as he constructed the plurilinguistic vernacular that we today call Italian. But one could also work in a different comparative direction, looking to all the translations and adaptations of Dante’s text that have journeyed over time and place for centuries. Following such trade routes, we find translations and adaptations into Arabic, Armenian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, Finnish, French, Gaelic, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Latin, Lettish, Polish, Portuguese, Provencal, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, a number of Italian dialects, and Esperanto. And what about the ekphrastic, or intersemiotic translations so vividly expressed in Botticelli, Doré, Blake, Salvador Dalí, Rodin – or the 2010 video game, Dante’s Inferno? For the teacher and scholar of comparative literature, following these translations and their cultural metamorphoses into new languages and media reveals the encounters of Dante’s text with other languages and cultures, suggesting how he might be read as a “global” author, especially by readers proficient in methods of comparative literature. [p. 177]

SOURCE: Bermann, Sandra. “World Literature and Comparative Literature, in The Routledge Companion to World Literature, edited by Theo D’haen, David Damrosch and Djelal Kadir (Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon; New York: Routledge, 2012), pp. 169-179.

Cosmopolitan literatures throve best in contexts in which they had no vernacular rivals, at least at first, and in which to be literate meant being literate in the cosmopolitan language. Likewise in our times, English (and the other world-languages) have spread through many domains and will spread through more, but literature in world-languages will spread fastest where it has no written rivals—and will likely, as Akkadian, Latin, Sanskrit, and classical Chinese did before it, inspire the emergence of written verbal art in local vernaculars. The world may be shrinking and flattening in many respects, but until we all speak English (or Esperanto), our bedside reading will remain, often, in our own native languages. Will the texts that we read speak to us as citizens of the world or as residents of a specific place? In translation or indigenously in our language? Using the resources of that language richly and inventively or in a manner stripped of particularlity? All these are questions whose answers will be shaped by the choices we make as readers and as writers, teachers, and scholars.

SOURCE: Beecroft, Alexander. An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day. London; New York: Verso, 2015. Conclusion of book.

Emily Apter on comparative literature, translation, artificial languages, & Esperanto

[Erich] Auerbach greeted the massive literacy campaign in which he himself was a participant with extreme pessimism (placing it in the wider context of a global standardization of culture—“an International of triviality and a culture of Esperanto”), [33] but the issue of literacy became a crucial theme in his 1958 masterwork Literary Language and Its Public in Late Latin Antiquity and in the Middle Ages. [p. 53]

*     *     *

Jolas’s desire to release words from the chains of the “millennial curse” of Babel (the separatist, sickened condition of language use in the balkanized territories of Europe) prompted him to construct an “astral” poetics based on the dogma of “vertigralism.” “The vertical language,” he wrote in an essay of that title, “ is the true international language.” Vertigralism placed faith in “winged wordes” to assuage an apocalyptic apprehension of “cosmic fear.” [17] Proposing interracial fraternity as the means of righting the toppled tower of Babel, extolling the miracle of modern aeronautics in the conquest of gravitation, Jolas set great hopes on Vertigralism: “Vertical aimed to be an astro-mental vision of a pluralistic universe. I believed in the existence of other worlds, of beings living on planets, of a cosmological conception” (V 157). Confirming, perhaps, that fusion of “irrational elements” and “pseudo-rationality” that Adorno diagnosed in the Los Angeles Times astrology column as a sign of the occult in modern life, [18] Jolas depicted an explorer in the space of artificial languages, a traveler, who, in Planets and Angels, fords the banks of Babel and the Atlantic lip to reach the planet Astralingua. [19] Here, the migrant of his earlier poetry, scouring the byways of vernacular America, is replaced by a space nomad, dodging asteroids and comets, discovering new dimensions of the universe, and conversing in astral tongues. “Our words leap-tumbled into new words, into new dimensions of words. . . .We talked with interplanetary beings in a language that was music and balm.” [20] In another book, Secession in Astropolis, Jolas experimented with science fiction language, inventing forms of alienspeak. The cast of characters ranges from “beings” who are “half root half man” gathered around a campfire reciting sagas, to races of “women-men” inscribing the temples of Astropolis with “baffling ideographs.”21 Unlike “Atlantica,” Jolas’s semi-decipherable private Esperanto, these astral languages resemble the Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs—they are beyond translation, beyond Babel. As such, they represent an ideal of universal utterance that can only be realized through futuristic fantasy.

In his monomaniacal commitment to making an extraterrestrial language world, Jolas may be classed as an important precursor of Louis Wolfson, another obscure American writer (now rumored to be living as a recluse in Puerto Rico), who, in his 1970 novel Le Schizo et les langues ou La Phonétique chez le psychotique (Esquisses d’un étudiant de langues schizophrénique) (The Schizo and Languages or the Psychotic’s Phonetics [Notes of a Schizophrenic Language Student]) invented a homonymic French that transliterates German, Hebrew, Russian, and English word-sounds. [p. 119; Wolfson continued through p. 121]

*     *     *

Unlike the messy border wars that prevail in [Ismail Kadare’s] The Three-Arched Bridge, pitching Ottoman polyglottalism against European monolingualism in a fight that can only end in Balkan Babel, Broken April constructs its paradigm around a technocratic language of almost digital simplicity: strokes and naughts, hits and misses, minimal margins of error. In this paradigm, dialects and standard languages alike are flattened into an Esperanto of intelligent machines, an Esperanto close to what the linguist Randalph Quirk termed “nuclear English.”

Nuclear English designates a language akin to C. K. Ogden’s Basic English (BASIC)—that is, a language, in his words, that would be as “culture-free as calculus.” [p. 135; Nuclear English continued through p. 137, followed by next quote below]

*     *     *

In addition to spelling out causal connections between the rise of universal language ideology and imperialism, [Louis-Jean] Calvet interprets the rise of Esperanto as a response to the growing divisionism of Europe on the eve of World War I. Nineteenth-century “logothèthes,” he notes, invented around five hundred schemes for artificial languages that would transcend the imperfections of natural languages. “Cosmoglossa” (1858), “Universalglot” (1868), Volapük (1879), Weltsprache (1883), Esperanto (1887), Mundolingue (1890), Dil (1903), Simplo (1911), and Europeo (1914) were among the most popularly disseminated. Volapük, for example, sustained twenty-five journals, 283 societies, and an academy.

The idea of Nuclear English reveals the reductive drive inherent in Leibnizian schemes for a scientific language that were famously castigated by Ernest Renan in De l’origine du language (1859) as “mangled, tortured, artificial, painfully constructed, and inharmonious,” in short, “plus barbare que l’iroquois” (more barbaric than Iroquois). Even worse than their infelicitous form, he argued, was their specious pretense to logic: “Premeditated linguistic reforms . . . are often less logical than humble patois.”[15] If Nuclear English derives on the one hand from Leibniz, or from revolutionary standardizations of language, state-sponsored single-language policies, and lingua franca movements in turn-of-the-century Europe, on the other hand it has also been traced (by Alistair Pennycook among others), to British philosophical traditions of pragmatism, positivism, and utilitarianism that influenced Ogden’s development, in 1930, of BASIC (an acronym for British American Scientific International Commercial). Comprising a vocabulary of only 850 words, boosted by Winston Churchill in the 1940s as part of a meliorist colonial platform, Basic English aspired to technological rationalism and mathematical simplicity. BASIC set a precedent for future wars against linguistic proliferation and prepared the way for future fetishizations of a supersimplified English vulgate or technological Globalspeak. [p. 137]

*     *     *

There is also the emergence of what has been called the “sixth language,” the language of the Internet, otherwise known as Netspeak or Netlish (where English is the root language). [2] In the case of both “other Englishes” and “Netlish,” norms of literacy, literateness, and literariness are challenged by the Net’s indulgence toward ungrammaticality and outsider aesthetics. [p. 136; continues to next quote below]

*     *     *

Not just a form of Netspeak, Netlish may be identified as a narrative device or “organizational complex” that connects everything to everything else. [16] In William Gibson’s novel, Pattern Recognition, pattern is not only a system of links allowing for huge jumps between real and virtual worlds, but also a way of re-cognizing the barest semantic unit as a grapheme (a minimal writing unit), a glyph (an abstract form selected as a character), a “dingbat” (typographical ornament or symbol), or an alphabetic supersign. [17] Pattern emerges as a universal language transversally cutting across numerous mediums from language technologies to the practice of corporate branding. [18] Gibson’s female protagonist, a professional trend-spotter and logo tracker, becomes a pawn in a war between partisans of encryption and corporate raiders who want to expropriate electronic watermarks deposited like secret signatures inside a piece of “footage” circulating as a contraband commodity in the international market. The stealth patent thus emerges as a power signifier in the age of image and information piracy. In Pattern Recognition Netlish is synonymous with bits of intelligible code that are both enframed in the narrative and comprise its very bone structure.

Though the jury remains out on whether Netlish will become a babelian fount of plurilingual dialects, an addled form of Basic English that will dominate the globe, a software program for machine translation (like Babelfish), or a language of trademark super-signs negotiating the electronic byways of the Internet, it nonetheless seems clear that the monster to be harnessed in the name of a multilingual Net is some form of lingua franca housed in a Turing machine. That machine is none other than machine translation itself, an artificial intelligence system currently divided between two approaches, interlingual versus transfer. In the interlingual model there is a source language that moves to artificial interlingual representation (Esperanto) and then to the target. Linguistic universality is the hallmark of the interlingual approach. By contrast, the transfer approach performs work at the source and target levels, attempting to bypass the Esperanto intermediary. The best results thus far are produced through a combination of the two approaches, as in Cambridge’s Core Language Engine, which draws on a database of already existing translations. The memory database and the search engine emerge as increasingly powerful coordinates of a future pantranslatability.

In defaulting to Esperanto, machine translation, or at least the interlingual kind, revives the old dream of one-world-one-language endorsed throughout history, most notably by Leibniz, the Port-Royal school, and socialist movements in the 1880s and 1890s. In the 1920s and 1930s, lingua franca fashion shifted from a philological model (drawing together etymological roots and grammars from multiple Indo-European languages) to a technical model in which science and logic would be conjoined. In the 1950s and 1960s, as Lydia Liu has demonstrated, the technical model gained further applications still, as cybernetics joined forces with cellular biology in searching for “the letters, codons (words), and punctuation marks of the nucleic acids to decode the speechless language of DNA in the Book of Life.” [19]

It was Walter Benjamin, with his customary prescience, who intuited how the language of techne would reshape the human sciences. Think of crossing his “The Task of the Translator” (1923) with the later essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility”  (1935), and you come up with the “The Task of the Translator in the Era of Technological Reproducibility,” a problematic addressed indirectly in an essay titled “Problems in the Sociology of Language,” written in 1934 that Benjamin published in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung in 1935. A prehistoric version of Netlish can be located in Benjamin’s intriguing reference to Eugen Wüster’s Internationale Sprachnormung in der Technik, besonders in der Elektrotechnik (International Standardization of Technical Terms, Particularly in the Electrical Industry), Bern 1931. Here, Benjamin examines “the ways in which technologists—who have a special interest in developing an unambiguous vocabulary—have tried to standardize terminology.” [20] He notes, “Around 1900, the Verband Deutscher Ingenieure [German Engineers Association] set to work on a comprehensive technical lexicon. Within three years, index cards for more than three-and-a-half million words had been collected”(PSL 76). The association soon realized it was facing massive overload and had insufficient funds to realize the project. Noting the link between philology and this new attempt to forge a standardized technical language, Benjamin wrote: “Incidentally, the attempts to standardize technical terminology have set in motion the most serious endeavors to create a world language—an idea whose lineage, of course, goes back hundreds of years. This lineage, in its turn, especially its ramifications in logic, are another subject which would merit separate investigation by sociologists” (PSL 76–77).

For Benjamin, this world language takes its cue from Rudolf Carnap’s notion of logical syntax, which “treats language as a calculus” (PSL 77). “Syntax, pure and descriptive, is nothing more than the mathematics and physics of language,” Carnap wrote (PSL 79). Though Carnap would qualify this assertion by specifying the conditions of application, Benjamin extracted the more general ideal of a world language aspiring to formal logic. Translation, in this schema, provides the modest but crucial service of converting mathematical code into syntax, thereby allowing language to be at one with thought. Benjamin seems here to anticipate the Chomskyean idea that the brain is essentially a computer, molded from inside out, containing “a hard-wired ability to learn language.” [21]

In the fifties, the Chicago School systems theorists updated the idea of a universal language of techne in their hopes for an Esperanto of interdisciplinary communication. Using the term “translationalism” they imagined information theory as the key to deciphering biological and social organization. In his introduction to a series of papers published in 1953 on modeling in the behavioral sciences, James Miller commented on:

. . . the problem of the Babel of many tongues spoken by the different disciplines and schools. It is not always easy for an economist and a political scientist to understand one another, much less a historian and a physiologist. We attempted to meet this block to communication by employing a sort of scientific esperanto of neutral terms not sacred to any single group, and we relied more and more on mathematical and logical formulations. [22] [pp. 231- 233]

*     *     *

33. As cited by Karlheinz Barck, “Walter Benjamin and Erich Auerbach, p. 82. Robert Stein’s more precise translation of this phrase (and the passage of the letter in which it is set) reads:

I am more and more convinced that the contemporary world situation is nothing other than the cunning of providence to lead us along a bloody and circuitous route to the Internationale of Triviality and Esperanto-culture. I’ve surmised this already in Germany and Italy, especially in the horrible inauthenticity of “Blubopropaganda” [blood and soil propaganda], but here for the first time it has become for me a certainty.

As cited by Robert Stein in his unpublished paper “After Culture: Erich Auerbach and Walter Benjamin in Correspondence” (2004). [p. 260]

SOURCE: Apter, Emily. The Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006.

Commentary by R. Dumain

These are the references to Esperanto and other constructed languages I have found in English in the literature of ‘World Literature’ so far. Whether these passing references are favorable, unfavorable, or neutral, there is virtually no substantive content, thus a virtual blackout of Esperanto’s literary contributions. Esperanto should be recognized for its significant contribution as a vehicle of translation, including translations from geographically and linguistically more confined languages and even from the literatures of minority groups within languages of vast international scope, and all this includes literature that has never been translated into English. Of note also are writers who were advocates of Esperanto though they wrote in their native languages, or in both their native languages and Esperanto: Hungarians are especially important here. And then there are writers who wrote in multiple languages, such as the blind Esperantist Vasili Eroshenko.

As to the relevance of original Esperanto literature to ‘world literature’ or comparative literature, other than documenting works of some larger significance, including works translated from Esperanto into other languages, a more aggregate approach might be in order, i.e. examining the thematic characteristics and stylistic effectiveness of original Esperanto literature (considering its unique social location or non-location) and comparing its successes and shortcomings to other literatures, both prior to and in the current era of globalization.

For an introduction to this topic, listen to my podcasts in my radio series Studies in a Dying Culture. The direct links to the sound files are:

05/03/13 The Contributions of Esperanto to World Culture: Parts 1 & 2

09/07/13 The Contributions of Esperanto to World Culture: Part 3: The Esperanto-Hungarian Literary Connection (Continued)

“Comparative Literature, Modern Thought and Literature” [Excerpt]
by Albert J. Guérard

A Short History of the International Language Movement (1921)
by Albert Léon Guérard

Kio estas mondliteraturo?” de Antal Szerb
(trad. kun notoj de Eugène de Zilah)

Misisipi” de Lejb Malaĥ

Miguel A. Caycedo: Poeto de Negreco

Lu Xun: A Select Bibliography
(in English & Esperanto)

‘World Literature’: A Bibliography

Esperanto & Interlinguistics Study Guide / Retgvidilo pri Esperanto & Interlingvistiko


mondliteraturo @ Ĝirafo

Preface to World Literature
by Albert Léon Guérard

A Short History of the International Language Movement
by Albert Léon Guérard

Albert Léon Guérard - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Albert Léon Guérard (1880-1959): the Styles of a Humanist
by Sholom J. Kahn

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