- Editor's Foreword:Medicine in Translation
This theme issue of Literature and Medicine began as a 2013 Modern Language Association panel organized by our guest editor, Karen Thornber. She called it "World Literature and Global Health." The title caught my eye: it seemed a compelling expansion of the name of this journal, explicitly opening up the domain of "literature" to texts from cultures not often attended to in these pages, and that of "medicine" beyond both disciplinary and geographic boundaries. In various ways the articles in this issue, some from that MLA session, engage this expansion of domains. This does not mean that, in what follows, "world literature" and "global health" denote a survey of literature from, or health and illness in, all corners of the world. Instead, these articles are all about the implications of breaching boundaries.
Of many definitions of "world literature," David Damrosch's seems most pertinent here: texts that "circulate beyond their culture of origin."1 World literature is writing published or otherwise circulated in places other than the country of its author, or written by an author outside his or her country of original experience, or translated into languages other than the one it was written in. It can also mean the circulation of literature in media other than the traditional published book, from oral transmission to dissemination via various networks in digital media, transcultural film adaptations, and so on. In such processes of circulation, transformation is inevitable. Words are translated; concepts are reevaluated. Emphasis shifts in the face of competing values and ideologies and resources.
While this issue includes the analysis of works by authors from Cambodia, Russia, or Mauritius, told in French, Yiddish, or Korean, translated into Japanese, English, or German, our focus is on the processes by which such texts have circumvented the containment of language, nation, culture, and on the implications of such migrations for questions of health, both ill and good. What happens, for instance, [End Page vii] when writing gives voice to failures of care, or threats to health, and then the production and reception of that writing traverses cultural borders? Might this process facilitate remediation of such threats and failures? To whom does such writing make its appeal, and what does that tell us? Whom does it empower, or silence, and why? The crosscultural circulation of both literature and medicine is always premised on questions of access. Whose story gets told, and to whom? Who is left out? Who gets to read what? Whose interpretation is made available? Who gets fresh water? Who stays free from abuse? Who gets the pharmacological fruits of clinical trials-and who does not?
In my foreword to the previous issue, I considered the meanings of the word "literature" in Literature and Medicine; I hope that the present issue will encourage attention to the meaning of "medicine," and its relationship with terms like "health," "health care," "public health," "allied health professions," "traditional medicine," and other, less institutionalized, ways of approaching the inescapable but inequitable reality of human vulnerability to disease, injury, and disaster.
"World medicine," in Damrosch's terms, would refer to theories and practices regarding illness and its diagnosis, treatment, and prevention that "circulate beyond their culture of origin." The etymological sources of "medicine" referred to a remedy, a material substance prescribed and taken for therapeutic purposes. Only as the allopathic science-based clinic came to dominate Western health care was the meaning of "medicine" narrowed to denote the professionalized paradigm exclusively. (The remedy, in U.S. usage at least, became "medication" to distinguish it from the more extensive domain.) The field of medicine, in this sense, encompassed only practitioners certified as most expert within it, the physicians (in the U.K. still conventionally excluding doctors trained in the "less learned" traditions of surgery or obstetrics). As a result, the term has become contentious for its apparent exclusion of the far wider historical and geographical range of health care theories and practices that also explore and offer remedies for human ills. But the word is a flexible one, and perhaps attending to the ways in which "medicine" circulates beyond its cultures of origin might be more productive than struggling to...