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Before Global Modernism: Comparing Renaissance, Reform, and Rewriting in the Global South

Fig. 1. Albert Einstein and Rabindranath Tagore, July 14, 1930.  Photograph by Martin Vos. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Where and when does the story of “global modernism” begin, and what is its relationship to translation? It is perhaps axiomatic that twentieth-century literary modernism outside the European metropole typically emerged under colonial, semi-colonial or neo-colonial conditions and coincided with anti-colonial nationalist movements. Earlier, in the eighteenth to early twentieth centuries, intellectuals in vastly diverse non-Western locales had initiated wide-scale “renaissance” and “revival” movements explicitly aimed at modernizing their societies though ambitious projects of social, cultural, religious, political, and linguistic reform.[1]

Intertwining national (re)definition with resistance to the reified “West,” these programs were facilitated by rapid, large scale translation of European literature and philosophy as well as non-European thought. Non-western literary modernity thus developed symbiotically with reformism and through translation. That the emergence of the “non-Western novel” is itself intimately connected to projects of social reform and national self-definition is evident, for example, in the canonical works anointed “first novels” in Hebrew, Arabic, and Turkish.[2] As these symbiotic cultural-political projects carried over into the early phases of national sovereignty and decolonization in the twentieth century, they tended to persist, often overlapping with the consolidation of modernist genres and styles. For example, the Arabic sphere of the 1940s–1950s witnessed the advent of “free verse” poetry in Iraq, poetic modernism in Beirut, and the realist novel and drama in Egypt and Syria— all seen as modernist “milestones”—even as many Arabic literary practitioners continued producing work in the more didactic, Romantic style characteristic of the Arabic nahda (revival). To see newer genres and styles as superseding the older forms even as they continued to enjoy currency and create social meaning for their publics, is to subscribe to a Eurocentric teleology.

Now for a methodological conundrum. Many (if not most) studies of non-Western literary modernity take a single national language/culture as their object of scrutiny, a logical outcome of the norms of scholarly training and the academic privileging of cultural specificity. Numerous excellent studies have elucidated the psychological processes that attended discursive responses to imperialism or Western influence, on the national level.[3] In addition, anthologies of global modernism as well as non-Western modernity juxtapose chapter-length studies on individual nations.[4] But by definition, “global modernism” implies something more than an amalgamation of individuated cases: it presupposes comparison, connection, and synthesis. Although cross-cultural and transnational comparison always runs the risk of cultural reduction or essentialization, comparison can illuminate points of connection between individual histories and reveal shared typologies. In the best-case scenario, comparative work should offer a more capacious perspective and a point of exit from the familiar model of a single nation confronting or mediating Western cultural and political hegemony. Strong connections and parallels are evident among different case studies of non-Western modernity within the primary sources discussed by the scholarly literature as well as in the scholarly language itself. Concerning the former, modernizing intellectuals across a plethora of languages evince preoccupations with questions of cultural authenticity, “failure,” and belatedness; as for the latter, a striking cross-section of scholarship on non-Western modernity utilizes the nomenclature of divergent spatialities and temporalities such as “peripheral modernisms,” “belatedness,” and “compressed modernity.” [5]

The simultaneity of modernism and nationalism in the non-West and the strikingly similar typology of its articulation across different regions have not gone unnoticed.[6] In her 1995 study of “translated modernity” in China, Lydia Liu observes: 

Not unlike their counterparts in modern Greece, India, Africa, and the Arab nations, Chinese intellectuals struggled to survive in an age of nation building and culture building in which they had little choice but to confront the powerful reality of the West and to come to terms with it . . . This level of experience generates a surprisingly common vocabulary shared by otherwise hugely diverse cultures and societies. Terms such as “nation,” “culture,” “tradition,” “history,” and “modernity,” are, therefore, not just translations of metropolitan European theories but, more important, mediated forms of expression that carry the burden of these people’s experience of a totalized West. (Liu, Translingual Practice, 184, emphasis added)

But here, as in other nation-based monographs, such comparative reflections serve as scaffolding to the cultural configuration at the study’s center; explicitly comparative work on non-Western literary modernity and global modernism is less common, although the growing interest in “South-South” comparison augurs well for the decentering of European modernity and modernism.[7]

Amplifying other voices that disavow the novel as the heuristic marker of literary modernity in non-Western sites, I argue that an intensive focus on European modernist genres obscures not only the work performed by indigenous literary forms but also the more interesting sites of negotiation in transitional periods, primarily along what I call the “translation continuum.”[8] This is a term I propose to capture the motley spectrum ranging from the conventional notion of translation as the transposition of an original source text into a different language—a process that neither conceals the identity of the author nor radically alters the form or content of the translated text—to translations made from prior translations (referred to variously as “multilayered translation,” “secondary translation,” “indirect translation,” or “mediating translation”), to rewritings that toe the line between translation and recreation, sometimes reworking the original so extensively as to preserve only elements of the plot or thematic echoes. Given their high prevalence during the phases of colonial modernity and anti-colonial nationalisms as well as their importance for modernizing cultures, multilayered and reworked translations have received surprisingly limited attention within discourses on global modernism and World Literature. I view these lesser studied translational practices and the reform projects to which they are appended as constitutive of non-Western modernity and the emergence of global modernism.

Finally, I suggest that if we are serious about deprovincializing (and indeed, decolonizing) global modernism, we ought to historicize it through the ideas and praxis of these multidisciplinary reform projects. In other words, synthesizing and building on the work of Jusdanis, Liu, Wang, Ertürk and others, I propose that resituating global modernism as an outgrowth of internal historical processes rather as a belated adaptation of European or Euro-American aesthetics will elicit a more historically and culturally specific view of the relationship between non-Western modernity and global modernism, even as we compare relationally across cultures. In what follows, I elaborate on the intersection of reformism, reworked translation, and novelistic genres, whose mutual interaction I see as essential to the emergence of “global modernism.”[9] I then briefly consider Ladino and Yiddish reworked translations and their connections to Jewish modernization and reformism as illustrative examples of a genealogy of non-Western literary modernism.[10] 

Language Reform, Translation, and Rewriting

In Western Europe, the standardization of dialects was a major facet of nationalism and political centralization. Translation and the co-optation of the foreign also played a major role in building German-language literature. In the non-West, reformers confronted the challenge of language reform and modernization not only as a question of national redefinition but in order to keep pace with scientific and political change. This was much more than a technical matter: Western Europe had established secular enlightenment values, Romantic nationalism, and linguistic standardization as convergent streams. Thus, across the globe, language reform became an important stage for ideological decisions. In Bengal and China, a vernacular was elevated to the status of a vehicular language; for Arabic, a classical literary language was stylistically pared down; Turkish, Rumanian, and Vietnamese were Romanized (implying identification with Latinate civilization and culture), which in Turkey all but eradicated the Ottoman past; for Hebrew and Celtic, an archaic language was revived. In many cases a standard literary language was created nearly from scratch out of an inherited structure of diglossia. Throughout these myriad contexts, language reformers doubled as literary practitioners, such that the process of language reform often took place not only through extraliterary debates or as a matter of top-down policy but through literary and translational practice itself, in what was a politically saturated, ideologically driven process.

Rapid and wide-scale translation of European literature and philosophy played a pivotal role in these projects. Translation (including rewritings and adaptations) worked symbiotically with language reform: it introduced new concepts, which in turn prompted new linguistic coinages, and it was also the means by which European literary genres were absorbed into the culture. In his now-classic study of translation and prestige, André Lefevere emphasizes the ideological functions of rewriting, which he employs as a broad concept that subsumes translation, and argues for the “importance of rewriting as the motor force behind literary evolution.”[11] Lefevere also points out the prominent role of translation within both Western and Eastern Europe during the same era, noting that

Byron and his generation did not read Goethe’s Faust in German, but in the abbreviated French version contained in Madame de Staël’s bestselling De l’Allemange (On Germany). Pushkin read the Byron he admired so much in French, not in English, and certainly not in Russian, a language he would speak only to his servants. (Translation, 5)

While the classical Chinese literary “system” was able to resist change longer than any analogue, when it eventually collapsed in the nineteenth century due to massive social and political changes, it was “undermined from within by a large number of rewritings, namely translations of Western works of literature, in most cases through the intermediary of Japanese, which supplied the models for a new poetics” (25). Here Lefevere uses the term “intermediary” to describe a culturally dominant language that facilitates translation activity between two other languages with limited bilateral relations; other scholars have employed “pivot language,” “relay language,” and “interlanguage” to describe this function. In the period from 1880 to 1930, Japanese was also the pivot language for translations of Russian literature into Chinese.[12]

To generalize from this example, we can observe that in the contexts of non-Western literary modernities, different literary constellations had their own pivot languages for translations and rewritings. In nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, Jewish language authors often translated French and English literature into Hebrew and Yiddish via prior German translations (as, for example, did Joseph Perl for his Hebrew and Yiddish translations of Tom Jones). In the Arabic sphere, as Marget Litvin has shown, the earliest (1901) Arabic translation of Hamlet was “cribbed from the French Hamlet by Alexandre Dumas’s père (1802–1870),” with later twentieth-century adaptations made via Russian.[13] Well into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, pivot languages continue to facilitate translation between nonmetropolitan languages; Latin American fiction reaches audiences in India via English translation and criticism while Russian novels are translated into Portuguese for Brazilian readers via French. In short, that the translation processes underscoring the production of non-Western literary modernities (and later, of non-Western modernisms) were so often mediated through a third language and culture should complicate regnant narratives of the rise or emergence of “national” literatures in the non-West, which have emphasized the bilateral negotiation of a given “peripheral” culture with the European “metropole.”

Multilayered Translations in Jewish Literary Modernity

The sphere of Jewish-language literature provides rich examples of translated fiction and rewritings. In her edifying study of modern Ladino literary culture, Olga Borovaya explains that beginning in the 1870s, Ladino periodicals based in the Ottoman Empire began publishing serialized novels, a new genre dubbed romanso—a term that then appeared on the title pages of Ladino novels. By 1939, a few hundred romansos had been published, sometimes first in periodicals and later as chapbooks. Ladino novels were often published anonymously or with pseudonyms; original authors were acknowledged inconsistently; and some novels were even republished more than once under different titles.[14] As Borovaya writes, this genre “emerged as the adaptation of foreign fiction [love stories and adventures], most often produced [originally] in French, but later also in Hebrew and some other languages. Consequently . . . all Ladino novels—including those that claim to be original works—borrowed elements from foreign-language texts and thus depended on them to varying degrees.”[15]  Noting that the degree of what she calls “dependence” cannot be quantified, Borovaya describes all Ladino novels as “rewritings” and refers to their creators as “rewriters” (Borovaya, Modern Ladino Culture, 140).

The rewriters, as Borovaya explains, viewed themselves as modernizers addressing a mass audience of both genders to encourage literacy and disseminate new forms of secular knowledge. Many were graduates of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, a French-Jewish educational network that adapted the mission civilisatrice to the Jewish communities of the Islamic world. The Alliance-educated rewriters turned nearly exclusively to material they perceived as European masterpieces rather than indigenous works because they viewed literary translation as a source of progressive ideas, which they associated with European origins. The most prolific Ladino rewriter, Alexandre (Bekhore) Benghiat (1862–1924), adapted works by Jonathan Swift, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Daniel Defoe, and Victor Hugo, among others. Illustrating the transcultural potential of rewriting, Benghiat’s rewriting of Gulliver’s Travels reverses its message by transforming it into a “semi-religious story” promoting religious obedience. Interestingly, some Sephardi literati justified their textual selections for rewriting by identifying them as having already been “translated into all other languages” (Borovaya, Modern Ladino Culture, 148). Indeed, texts rewritten by Benghiat were also published serially in Turkish, Armenian, Russian, Spanish, or Yiddish; such texts were widely translated throughout other non-Western sites such as Russia and India. Benghiat essentially adopted an existing canon that reached him through French periodicals as well as the reading lists and libraries of the Alliance schools. Once rewritten, however, these texts came to resemble one another, consolidating their new status as romansos. Borovaya concludes that the various Ladino rewritings were ultimately far more similar to each other than to their respective foreign-language sources. [16]

Paralleling the Ladino romansos, nineteenth-century Yiddish adaptations of European and American classics found an enthusiastic reception among newly fashioned consumers of popular literature.[17] Leah Garrett studies a popular 1820 Yiddish adaptation of Robinson Crusoe entitled Robinzon di geshtike fun Alter-Leb (Robinson, the history of Alter-Leb), “based on Joachim Campe’s 1779/1780 German reworking of Robinson Crusoe as Robinson der Jungere rather than Defoe’s original” (Garrett, “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe,” 215). The Yiddish reworking was published anonymously in two parts and later attributed to a Jewish maskil (enlightener) named Yoysef Vitlin. As was common in many Jewish-language rewritings during this period, Vitlin peforms a cultural translation of the source text, heavily Judaizing the story.[18] Crusoe acquires a Jewish name and becomes a practicing Jew from Hamburg, while Friday becomes “Shabes” (Sabbath), and the island takes on a Jewish iconography. In Garrett’s reading, the Jewish Robinson Crusoe “marks out the limits of enlightenment mandates” where the “universal” (Christian) everyman of Defoe and Campe confronts the specificity of Jewishness. As she also notes, this translation, so emblematic of the larger translation project of the Jewish Enlightenment or Haskalah (in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, and other Jewish languages), represents what Lefevere identifies as a culture with a “low self-image” that invites translations and rewritings from higher-prestige cultures. Like the Ladino rewriters, Yiddish rewriters often sought to use their translations to “modernize” their reading publics by propelling them toward “the cultural center of Western discourse” (Garrett, “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe,” 216). In the process, they also adapted these “great works” to the cultural worlds of their readers.

Eli Rosenblatt, who has studied the Russian Jewish maskil Isaac Meir Dik’s 1868 Yiddish translation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, writes that Dik likely worked with earlier German translations to adapt it “for the Jewish masses.”[19] The first American novel to be translated into a Jewish language, Stowe’s 1852 classic was reinvented by Dik as a kind of fictional travel narrative. He retitled it Slavery or Serfdom (Di Shklaveray oder di Laybeygnshaft) and printed it without Stowe’s name; Dik’s initials appear only at the end of his preface. Here too, Dik retains much of the plot yet Judaizes the story: “[Dik] changes Uncle Tom’s Christian owners to Jewish ones and seems to take an ameliorationist rather than abolitionist stance. At the conclusion of the novel, Uncle Tom is not martyred but lives as a free ger toshav [resident alien] with his family in a Jewish settlement in Canada” (Rosenblatt, “Slavery or Serfdom”). While adapting a story about American slavery to the frame of Slavic peasantry (as indicated by the title), Dik also interweaves intertextual references to Jewish law concerning the treatment of slaves. These plot revisions, Rosenblatt argues, are designed to demonstrate both the ethical superiority of Jewish slaveholding practices over Christian ones and the efficacy of the Russian abolition of serfdom over the American emancipation of slavery.[20] Ultimately, Dik “translates the politics of racial difference into Yiddish terms” (Rosenblatt, “Slavery or Serfdom”). In his original preface, says Rosenblatt, “Dik says almost nothing about Uncle Tom’s Cabin as literature, but provides historical background in a dense and disarrayed mix of humanistic concern, racial knowledge, and Biblical prooftext.”  Echoing the assessments of Borovaya and Garrett, Rosenblatt concludes that the reworked novel’s significance for the target culture is the introduction of Western ideals and values to a wide readership, the “rank and file of Eastern European Jewry.”. In summary, Ladino and Yiddish rewritings of world literary classics demonstrate the importance of literary translation as an instrument of cultural modernization and social reform, while also suggesting a genealogy of global modernism that subsumes the European novel within other historical and cultural frameworks. Indeed, even while imparting European ideals, Dik reaffirms the superiority of biblical and Talmudic ethics for his Yiddish readers.

Rethinking Global Modernism as/through Translation

The deterritorialized Jewish language examples discussed above depart from cases such as Arabic, Greek, Chinese, or Russian, insofar as Jewish intellectuals were preoccupied with questions of their minority status and with Jewish exceptionalism.[21] At the same time, Jewish intellectuals and their work share many typological characteristics of non-Western modernity, such as anxiety about one’s own cultural status in relation to the “enlightened” and worldly European subject. Most significantly, the Yiddish and Ladino cases demonstrate the centrality of secondary translations and rewritings to emergent literary modernity, as well as the need to re-theorize non-Western modernism as an outgrowth of this broader discursive and translational process, which was itself embedded within reformism. Indeed, the moment of the novel’s absorption into Yiddish, Ladino, Chinese, Arabic, or Bengali is also the moment of the invention of modern languages, when revolutionary decisions are being made about vocabulary and orthography, about the relationship between the classical and the colloquial, about creating a new literary idiom. For these reasons, I advocate the theorization of “global modernism” as a translational process in which vastly diverse expressions of collective selfhood entailing language, national history, and literary genres are mediated through their authors’ engagements with other languages and cultures, all while grappling with questions of status in the coalescing world stage. By foregrounding transnational and cross-cultural comparison, by resituating cultural and literary modernity in broader contexts of social, political, and religious self-scrutiny and redefinition, and finally, by attending to the intermediate, translational genres and processes through which these transformations were negotiated, we can untether the history of global modernism from a narrowly focused narrative of reliance on European aesthetics.



[1] I use the term “non-West” to encompass not only Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean, but also “peripheral” European sites such as Greece, Romania, Ireland; and even Russia, whose ambiguous status defies East/ West categorization. My intention is not to reify “West” and “East” but to synthesize studies of similar discursive phenomena in various global sites outside the Western European metropole, in order to identify meaningful patterns. I use “modernism” to refer to the stylistic taxonomy originally associated with early twentieth-century Euro-American cultural movements, and “modernity” to connote the post-Enlightenment social, economic, and political conditions that encompassed late European imperialism, Romantic nationalism, and early non-Western anti-colonial nationalisms.

[2] For example, Josef Perl’s 1819 Revealer of Secrets or Abraham Mapu’s 1853 Love of Zion, variously considered “the first Hebrew novel”; or for Arabic, Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s 1914 Zaynab (some recent scholarship questions its “firstness”); or for Turkish, Şemsettin Sami’s 1872 Tal'at and Fitnat In Love.

[3] Some examples include: Gregory Jusdanis, Belated Modernity and Aesthetic Culture: Inventing National Literature (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991); Lydia Liu, Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity–China, 1900–1937 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995); David Der-wei Wang, Fin-de-siècle Splendor: Repressed Modernities of Late Qing Fiction, 1849–1911 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997); Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997); Stephen Sheehi, Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2004); Jing Tsu, Failure, Nationalism, and Literature: The Making of Modern Chinese Identity, 1895–1937 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005); Shaden M. Tageldin, Disarming Words: Empire and the Seductions of Translation in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011); Nergis Ertürk, Grammatology and Literary Modernity in Turkey (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); and Ben Tran, Post-Mandarin: Masculinity and Aesthetic Modernity in Colonial Vietnam (New York: Forham University Press, 2017).

[4] For example, The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms, ed. Mark Wollaeger and Matt Eatough (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Other Renaissances: A New Approach to World Literature, ed. Brenda Deen Schildgen, Gang Zhou, and Sander L. Gilman (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

[5] On the “compressed time” of modernity in the non-West see, for example, Fredric Jameson, “Foreword: In the Mirror of Alternative Modernities,” in Karatani Kojin, Origins of Modern Japanese Literature, trans. Brett de Bary (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), vii–xx. For a critique of such approaches, see Harry Harootunian, “Some Thoughts on Comparability and the Space-Time Problem,” boundary 2 32, no. 2 (2005): 23–52 and “‘Modernity’ and the Claims of Untimeliness,” Postcolonial Studies 13, no. 4 (2010): 367–82, especially 369.

[6] In her study of Turkish literary modernity through language reform and writing, Nergis Ertürk references work on Yemen, Egypt, and Japan; Shaden Tageldin’s study of translation in colonial Eygpt briefly references studies of China, and Hebrew/Yiddish, and more extensively cites the work on colonial Bengal. See Ertürk, Grammatology and Literary Modernity; and Tageldin, Disarming Words.

[7] Recent examples of comparative work include Kamran Rastegar, Literary Modernity between the Middle East and Europe: Textual Transactions in Nineteenth-Century Arabic, English, and Persian Literatures (New York: Routledge, 2007); Marc Caplan, How Strange the Change: Language, Temporality, and Narrative Form in Peripheral Modernisms (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011); Lital Levy, “The Nahda and the Haskala: A Comparative Reading of ‘Revival’ and ‘Reform,’” Middle Eastern Literatures 16, no. 3 (2013), 300–316; Lital Levy and Allison Schachter, “Jewish Literature/ World Literature: Between the Local and the Transnational,” PMLA 130 no. 1 (2015): 92–109; and Harsha Ram, “The Scale of Global Modernisms: Imperial, National, Regional, Local,” PMLA 131, no. 5 (2016): 1372–85.

[8] See for example Ertürk, Grammatology, x, and Rastegar, Literary Modernity, 4–6.

[9] My argument complements Aamir Mufti’s contention that the translational labor of European scholars and philologists facilitated classic European Orientalism and gave rise to European notions of “world literature”; I see the translational labor of non-Western intellectuals as giving rise to global modernism. See Mufti, Forget English! Orientalisms and World Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), 48.

[10] On reworked translations in the Arabic nahda, see Samah Selim, “The Narrative Craft: Realism and Fiction in the Arabic Canon,” Edebiyat 14, no. 1–2, 109–28.

[11] André Lefevere, Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame (London: Routledge, 1992), 2.

[12] David Bellos, Is that a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), 213.

[13] Margaret Litvin, “Multilateral Reception: Three Lessons from the Arab Hamlet Tradition,” Middle Eastern Literatures 20, no. 1 (2017): 51–63, 55.

[14] See Bellos, Is that a Fish, 141, 156.

[15] Olga Borovaya, Modern Ladino Culture: Press, Belles Lettres, and Theater in the Late Ottoman Empire (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 140. Emphasis in original.

[16] See Borovaya, Modern Ladino Culture, 142–61.

[17] See Joel Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002); Leah Garrett, “The Jewish Robinson Crusoe,” Comparative Literature 54, no. 3 (2002), 215–228.

[18] For other examples, see Lital Levy and Allison Schachter, “Jewish Literature/World Literature: Between the Local and the Transnational,” PMLA 130, no. 1 (2015), 92–109.

[19] Eli Rosenblatt, introduction to “Slavery or Serfdom: A Preface to the Yiddish Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Annotated and Translated,” In Geveb, November 17, 2015.

[20] See Eli Rosenblatt, Enlightening the Skin: Travel, Racial Language, and Rabbinic Intertextuality in Modern Yiddish Literature (PhD diss., University of California, Berkeley, and the Graduate Theologial Union, 2017).

[21] See Lital Levy and Allison Schachter, “A Non-Universal Global: On Jewish Writing and World Literature,” Prooftexts 36, no. 1–2 (2017): 1–26.