restricted access Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature by Rebecca L. Walkowitz (review)
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Reviewed by
Rebecca L. Walkowitz. Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature. New York: Columbia UP, 2015. xi + 322 pp.

Serious readers are uneasy about reading in translation. They tend to assume that the nuances of a literary work are only recognizable in the language from which it originated. It would be limiting to read a translation. Ironizing this anxiety, Rebecca Walkowitz admits, “Some of my best friends read in translation. I bet some of your best friends do too” (171–72). In her wide-ranging new book, Born Translated: The Contemporary Novel in an Age of World Literature, Walkowitz challenges the distinction between original and translation by showing how a new kind of “born-translated” novel is mediated by and written for translation from the start. For many twenty-fist-century novelists, translation is not merely an afterthought but integral to their fiction writing. They may render a novel as if it had already been translated from another language, highlight English literature’s indebtedness to other languages and literary cultures, foreground the imaginative work of their own translators, or dramatize the circulation of world literature itself. The stakes of Walkowitz’s study are high, as these born-translated novels denaturalize the widely accepted belief that literary production necessarily precedes circulation. For authors ranging from J. M. Coetzee to Junot Díaz, global circulation is a source of production. Their novels are always already translations. In this way, Walkowitz argues that the born-translated novel offers a corrective to literary scholars’ tendency to assume that a novel must originate from and belong to one language. “Instead of asking about the contemporary novel from the perspective of world literature,” she writes, “we might ask about world literature from the perspective of the contemporary novel” (30).

While asking what the born-translated novel tells us about world literature, Walkowitz also considers what it may reveal about political belonging in the twenty-first century. She situates the born-translated novel in relation to two established theories of how books codify national community: the theory of possessive collectivism, in which the nation is understood as a collective individual whose character is embodied by a national literature, and Benedict Anderson’s theory of imagined communities, in which collectivism is conceived through an awareness of simultaneity among characters within a novel and readers without. While differing in many ways, these theories agree that a literary work originates in one language and that its readers will encounter it in that language. This idea, that novels are born in one language, began with the rise of national languages in the early [End Page 169] nineteenth century and, as Walkowitz argues, fails to account for “a text’s multiple beginnings, and for the ways that it participates in and cuts across various collectivities” (83). The born-translated novel neither originates in one language nor does it end there. It is not a finished product but rather an ongoing process that constantly redraws the boundaries of the text and frustrates expectations of linguistic fluency and textual mastery.

Born Translated is particularly interested in how the contemporary novel serves as a source of critical insight into its own production, circulation, and consumption. The second chapter, for example, shows how Kazuo Ishiguro’s fiction foregrounds the transformative effect of global circulation on cultural products and, in doing so, challenges the assumed correlation between aesthetic originality and political agency. While translation has long been accompanied by fears of cultural homogenization, Ishiguro’s novels question the idealization of individuality by revealing how it has historically facilitated imperial violence and restricted the terms by which political collectivities are formed. Through analyses of his novels The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005), Walkowitz demonstrates how Ishiguro imagines new forms of political belonging by dramatizing the circulation of copies, series, and lists that are externally rather than internally unique. That is, their originality is located in their fluid relationship to other versions, interpretations, and echoes. They are unique precisely because they are products of circulation and productive of future translations. This account of Ishiguro’s born-translated fiction illustrates a broader point Walkowitz makes about literature...