Professor Defines Global Novel

Rutgers English professor Rebecca L. Walkowitz ’92 identified a new genre of fiction, novels that are intended to transcend language barriers, in a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute on Wednesday afternoon.

Walkowitz, who is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute this academic year, shared her research into “born translated fiction”—works that are written for translation and intended to be consumed by a global audience.

Most works of fiction are untranslatable, she explained, because it is impossible to replicate the original tone, format, or idea in a new language.

“They are more resistant to translation because the focus their attention on one language in particular,” Walkowitz said. “They use proper names whose cultural and historical associations are not easily rendered in another language. They generate metaphors with homonym, accent, and other vernacular effects.”

Walkowitz explained how, in contrast, writers could produce a global novel in only one language. She cited the example of South African-born author J.M. Coetzee’s “Summertime.” Coetzee structured the novel around a series of fictional interviews that, in the universe of the book, had been translated into English.

“Coetzee approaches this problem by producing his global novel in less than one language,” Walkowitz said. “That is, he presents English—his language of composition—as itself a foreign tongue. English appears in much of the novel as if it were a target language, not the original resource in which the novel begins, but the language into which words and thoughts have been rendered.”

Born translated fiction asks a different kind of focus from the reader than typical English literature, Walkowitz argued.

“On some level, attending to all of the words on all of the pages would involve reading many more editions than we can hold in our hand, or it would involve reading an edition that doesn’t really exist,” she said.

This new type of born translated fiction first emerged in the 1990s, Walkowitz said.

“There is overlap between an interest in experimentation with language and the question of what it means to write for global audiences in a global marketplace,” she said.

Janet Zong, a first year English grad student who attended the lecture, said she believes that the idea of global fiction is important to how we view culture in an era of globalization.

“World literature is such a big phrase, and people use it to mean different things,” Zong said. “[Walkowitz’s] talk shed some light on how we tend to think about things in scale instead of how everything—local and global—connects.”