- 'For God's and Virginia's sake why a translation?' —Virginia Woolf's Transfer to the Low Countries
Reception processes are not directly observable, but become manifest in a wide variety of forms: in the selection and transformation of the works, the attention given to them by publishers, reviewers, essayists and academics, the reactions of the buying and reading public, their modes of entry into cultural discourse, their inclusion in literary histories and schoolbooks, their intertextual and intermedial transmission, and in their influence on poetics and even on social thought. Underlying such appearances are prevailing and competing judgements, preferences, norms and interests held by circles of actors and institutions in the literary field. Since the beginnings of modern reception theory in Russian Formalism and Czech Structuralism, the notion of such a literary field or system has become connected to social mechanisms at large. Jan Mukařovský (1974)1 and Felix Vodička (1975)2 gave examples of how literary norms and values that constitute 'taste' reflect social segmentation and stratification, and how changes in society lead to shifts in cultural products and their valorisation. Although some theorists like Siegfried J. Schmidt3 and Pierre Bourdieu4 have argued that the (modern) literary field is an autonomous system, mainly independent of social, political, and economic constraints and governed by its own aesthetic conventions, others assume that it exists under heteronomic conditions.5 Bourdieu's own work offers a counter-example showing that social mechanisms such as the drive for recognition and prestige govern social behaviour in every domain of society including the cultural as well.6
A model which in principle includes the heteronomic conditions and is flexible enough to integrate different social factors in the description [End Page 201] and explanation of reception processes is Itamar Even-Zohar's polysystem.7 Central to the polysystem theory is the assumption that a culture consists of a system of subsystems, i.e., groups of actors who share repertoires of cultural knowledge, values and conventions. The subsystems and repertoires are hierarchically organized in terms of social prestige and economic success, but the structures of hierarchy undergo continual changes as a consequence of internal and external forces.
From the second half of the nineteenth century to the Second World War, Dutch society was compartmentalized according to confessional and ideological differences. Catholics, Protestants, Socialists, 'neutral' Liberals not only manifested their profiles in politics and education, but they also formed subsystems within the various cultural domains. All parties exploited their own channels of publication and articulated specific ethical and aesthetic principles, literary preferences and value criteria in their respective newspapers and journals. After the Second World War, increasing secularization changed the social and cultural landscape and new impulses and developments – such as the general economic growth, the second feminist wave, the introduction of new media, the expansion of the book market and, since the 1970s, growing multiculturalization – led to the loss or transformation of existing and the formation of new subsystems.
The transfer of a foreign literary work into such a mutable and evolving cultural space with its many shifting subsystems constitutes a crucial part of any work's 'career'. What is particularly fascinating to observe is how a work of literature sediments itself in such new environments, inspiring fresh evaluations that reflect on the receiving socio-cultural field,8 revealing as much about the aesthetic potential of the text9 as about the structures and processes underlying the receiving socio-cultural field. The expectation is, of course, that studying the reception of a foreign work will reveal a picture that is potentially quite different from the one that would normally result from the more narrow study of national literary histories, as the process of transfer will often bring to light unexpected characteristics both of the originary literary culture in its encounter with the receiving foreign cultural tradition as well as of the target culture itself. As is customary in literary historiography, the authors of Dutch literary histories, too, typically pay scant attention to foreign literature;10 this is all the more surprising since the Dutch and Flemish language areas – as a smaller language surrounded by such mighty neighbours as English...