By Invitation
Reflections from Trans;form

On November 29-30, 2018, something small but magical happened at Stanford’s Humanities Center. Trans;form was a two-day symposium featuring keynote speaker Emily Apter that sought to answer the following question: “How is Comparative Literature shaped by consideration of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, or Urdu?”

As a field that was born in Europe and largely shaped by European, and particularly French and German thinkers, Comparative Literature has long been held down by the shackles of Eurocentrism. This symposium had the purpose of bringing together scholars of literatures largely marginalized from the study of Comparative Literature to discuss how consideration of these languages, cultures and theoretical traditions might transform comparative studies. The conference was divided into four different sessions across the two days. The first session focused on the translation of theory and the consequences of moving epistemological and ontological priorities within the field. The second session bore the title Trans-poetics and explored the ramifications of transgender studies founded on experiences and epistemologies from Urdu and Arabic. This panel also asked whether play with grammatical gender and pronouns via translation can shed light on how language works. The third session mainly dealt with the challenges of translating literary form and genre; it asked how the epistemologies of these various languages offer conceptions of form that depart from traditional European notions. The last session of the symposium was a workshop where participants split into groups and experimented with translating two entries from the Dictionary of the Untranslatables, “Poetry” and “Politics,” into their languages.

One moment in our discussion during the second panel perfectly encapsulated the essence of this conference for me. At the time, we were seeking potential solutions in our highly gendered languages to the problem of inclusion of gender-nonconforming speakers. As a second-year doctoral student still learning the ropes of conference etiquette, I let my emotions take hold of me during the second panel and made a comment that immediately struck me as naive and “unintellectual.” I asked everyone to stop and think about how incredible it was to have Arab scholars sitting beside their Israeli colleagues in conversation with Pakistani, Turkish, British, American, Brazilian, and Chinese interlocutors. I asked whether it would be possible, given the linguistic similarities between Arabic and Hebrew, to encourage collaboration between Arab and Israeli communities and between scholars of Semitic languages to devise a set of pronouns and verb conjugations suitable for gender non-conforming speakers. The room grew palpably quiet after my comments, and I was beginning to feel uncomfortable when, to my surprise, the discussion resumed with participants commenting that it was nice to see “utopianism” still well and alive in academia.

While it was exciting to see my proposal gain currency within our discussions, part of me wonders: is such a collaboration really “utopian”? An inaccessible “no-place” only to dream about and never to be visited? Isn’t this very conference a first step towards a brand of collaboration that transcends geographical, political, and linguistic boundaries and that seeks to deconstruct preexisting notions of comparative literature? Aren’t we, the participants of the symposium, and our animated discussions living proof that the privileging of universal humanity in our intellectual discussions is not only desirable but feasible?

The proposal I have made may indeed be “utopian” if we consider academic and intellectual discussions apart from reality. If the kind of peaceful, constructive and fruitful cooperation can happen on an academic and intellectual level, then we owe it to ourselves to remain hopeful that it could happen on different scales in local communities. Academic conferences and academia in general may be bubble-like and ivory tower-esque, but they by no means have to be. These environments should not be treated as experimental vacuums where what happens “doesn’t count.” It does count, and what goes on behind closed doors at universities does matter. The question then becomes one of bridging the gap between academic discourse and wider social discourse. How do we speak and write in a way that is concise and accessible to a wider audience and that can make an impact on social movements and on life in society? How do we change academic culture from one where public readership is mostly an afterthought to one where communication and understanding are main goals?

Trans;form may be a small start in this “utopian” project, but it’s a start nonetheless.

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Comparing Literatures: Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Urdu

Comparative Literature has spent the last few decades expanding its focus beyond Europe and the Anglophone Americas. But has it succeeded? Departments around the world include scholars working on Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, and to a lesser extent Turkish, Urdu, and other non-European languages. But the desire for coverage remains a chimera, always tempting with the prospect of inclusion: "if only we had somebody who did…" What would success, even if we subscribed to such teleology, look like?


One answer is that we would simply know more. We would have more information, more data, to answer the questions with which the discipline is concerned. Some of those questions are older: What is literature and what does it do? and some are newer: What happens after/beside humans? A representative selection of questions can be found in the 2014-15 Report on the State of the Discipline from the American Comparative Literature Association. Doubtless, information from outside the Anglo-European sphere is improving this conversation.

Is it enough to know more and ask the same questions? What happens if there are different questions? It is hardly a surprising observation that literatures outside Europe have different constitutions and concerns. Trying to render them in a vocabulary intelligible to European or Anglophone audiences is a translation problem, and it becomes sharper when the ideas being translated are themselves self-conscious theories, attempts to carve reality at different joints from those at which Comparative Literature is accustomed to cut.

These observations push us to realize that the direction of travel is critical: do we build theories in European languages and then test them on the world, or vice versa, or neither?

This goal of this Colloquy is to ask and start to answer these questions: what should it mean for Comparative Literature to engage outside Europe? Where is the field now, and what could change? What does Comparative Literature look like when thought through the literatures of Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, or Urdu?

The languages of this Colloquy broadly reflect the interests of the participants, many of whom come from a constellation of literatures with roots in a part of the world given various names: the Middle East, the Near East, the Islamic world, the Islamicate world, West Asia, and so on ad nauseam. The nausea comes from the inevitable problems of power and agency: the East was only Near or Middle for European colonialism, and academic neologisms such as Islamicate or West Asia scarcely have the power to hold sway within the ivory tower, let alone outside where the words people use have their own genealogies. Our aim in this Colloquy is not to readjust all the names and labels but rather to start with the literatures we know, and ask questions of our disciplines (literature, anthropology, translation) in the hope that some answers may prove useful when we think of other literatures around the world.

The Colloquy includes conversations that took place in recent years, book chapters and articles, and current think pieces—in addition to original scholarship, translation, and performance. It is open to new submissions.

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