Interviewing Alexander Beecroft, author of An Ecology of World Literature

"The idea seems to be that globalization isn’t one simple story, but neither is it a collection of unrelated stories—it’s a tangle of narratives."

Alexander Beecroft is Associate Professor in Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina. He teaches courses in Greek and Latin language and literature, ancient civilizations, both ancient and modern literary theory, and theories and practices of world literature. His key fields of research specialization focus on the literatures of Ancient Greece and Rome, and pre-Tang (before AD 600) Chinese literature, in addition to contemporary discussions regarding world literature. His second book, An Ecology of World Literature: From Antiquity to the Present Day, was published by Verso in January. In it, he argues for the benefits of an ecological, rather than the conventional economical, framework in the discussion of global literatures, shedding light on the difficulties involved in ascertaining, defining, and assimilating multifarious linguistic forms.

I spoke to Professor Beecroft through email about the intersections between world literature, politics, geography, and the advantages and disadvantages that literary translation can have on upholding minority languages.

Rosie Clarke: Could you begin by briefly outlining your academic background, and explaining what brought you to write An Ecology of World Literature?

AB: My earliest training, as an undergraduate, was in Classics, and from there I moved into an interest in early China. As I entered graduate school, I knew I wanted to combine those interests, but struggled for some time to figure out how. As I worked on my dissertation, I began to realize that, while many things about archaic and classical Greece and early (pre-220 BC) China were different, they did have an intriguing similarity. Both were politically fragmented regions within which circulated some sense of a shared culture. That first book explored that particular connection, but led me to think about how those kinds of structural similarities between literatures might be discussed in a more general way.

RC: Can you explain why you chose to structure the investigation here with an ecological framework?

AB: We’re very used to thinking about modes of cultural production, circulation, and exchange in terms of economic metaphors. Those metaphors have a real value: cultural recognition, like just about everything else, is in scarce supply, and so the language of markets and economic efficiency has much to teach us about culture.

I thought it might be helpful, however, to consider ecological models as an alternative. Ecology, like economics, deals in how scarce resources get distributed in a given context—but where economic models tend to suggest a single winner, and a single winning strategy, ecology suggests that there can be multiple strategies for surviving in different niches.

I think this is a particularly important point in today’s world. The power of English and of the English-language publishing industry worldwide makes translation, especially into English, into the most lucrative form of literary success—but in fact writers can and do thrive through other strategies, including by writing work designed for their own local context. Further, we need to recognize that the ecologies within which literatures operated in the past were different, operating for example under court patronage or with other kinds of relationships to the political and social order.

RC: Those points are certainly true, although I think there are still “patronages” in play in the ecology of contemporary publishing, albeit less explicit.

AB: Of course! And part of the discussion I’m interested in furthering with this book is the discussion about what those patronages look like, how they compare to earlier systems, and what they reward or discourage.

RC: You introduce the notion of a “biome”—could you define this term, and describe its relevance to the discussion of world literature?

AB: In ecology, biomes are regions, scattered across the planet, with similar climatic and soil conditions, leading to similar ecological challenges, which are often met in similar ways. For example, the Mediterranean basin, California, central Chile, the Cape region of South Africa, and Western Australia, all have similar climates and soil types (including hot, dry summers, and rainier winters), which mean that unrelated plants living in each of these regions tend to look quite similar.

I argue that we can compare unrelated literatures from around the world in the same way that we might compare plants from Chile and from California—not on the basis of a shared history, but rather because they face similar structural environments and challenges. “National” languages, for example, exist in some kind of symbiotic relationship with the nation-state. National pride has often led to institutional support for writers and writing, as well as to strong local markets for local writers, but thinking in terms of the nation-state can complicate the task of the writer. These complications, I argue, are worth comparing from country to country, whether in Canada, in Argentina, in China, or in the Arab world.

RC: You propose an alternative to the adage, “language is a dialect with an army and a navy” as, “language is a dialect with a literature”. Can you explain why you think this is a more beneficial way of considering language?

AB: In the case of many language families (like the Romance languages of Western Europe; or the Indic languages of North India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; or Chinese) the spoken language of ordinary people can differ city by city, village by village. These “dialects” don’t necessarily divide tidily into discrete groups we can call languages. Political borders often become the borders between “languages”, even when that doesn’t fit the realities on the ground, hence the saying about language as a dialect with an army and a navy.

I argue that written linguistic standards matter, too—that they form norms for languages, and then people start to experience their spoken language as a local “dialect” which is an imperfect version of that written standard. And while dictionaries and grammars are crucial to developing a new written language, and to defining its limits, you can’t have a really rich and useful written language unless you have “well-written” texts in that language to use as models. In other words, literature.

RC: In the final section of the book, you discuss global literary ecology. Can you begin by explaining your notion of the “plot of globalization”?

AB: I’ve noticed that a lot of recent texts—from films like Babel and Traffic to novels like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 and Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy—seem to be using the old trick of multi-strand narration as a way of thinking through globalization and its consequences. Where the novel of the nation often has a more straightforward plot, moving linearly forward in one main strand, a lot of these works seem interested in presenting multiple stories which seem unrelated at first, only to be linked through some kind of coincidence (another great, old-fashioned plot device!). The idea seems to be that globalization isn’t one simple story, but neither is it a collection of unrelated stories—it’s a tangle of narratives that turn out to be interdependent even when they look like they aren’t. That seems to speak to our particular historical moment, when globalization seems very far advanced in some ways (movements of capital, say), but not in others (such as the development of cosmopolitan empathy and fellow-feeling).

RC: You mentioned writers working in non-English languages thriving by writing work designed for their own local context. With this in mind, what significance does literary translation have in the destruction and/or preservation of world literature?

AB: Translation is obviously essential if works written in smaller languages are to get an audience beyond their borders. But I am sympathetic to the concerns that people like Tim Parks and Minae Mizumura raise, that the pressure to be translated may be distorting the kinds of books that writers write. I can imagine two kinds of futures for world literature—one where we end up with a blandly homogenous “world literature” all produced in English, or designed for quick translation into English; and a more optimistic future where increased globalization leads to more curiosity about other cultures and bigger global audiences for those locally-adapted texts. I think part of the strategy for arriving at that second future is for us to have much more translation, so that we get to see a richer slice of what’s happening around the world, not just the smaller number of books designed for the export market. But that’s not going to happen without more institutional support.

RC: Absolutely—this is something we know first hand at Asymptote, as the sort of financial support for translated writing and journals specializing in such is very limited. It is consequently easy to understand why non-English writers would write with English translation in mind, or in English in the first place. I look at the success of someone like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, for example, and wonder if she would have attained that level had she written Half of a Yellow Sun in Igbo.

In your book, there appear to be two, possibly conflicting, desires: the desire to preserve regional languages and dialects in their pure form, and the desire to expose and promote such languages and dialects through translation into more widely spoken languages. Do you think these are reconcilable, and if so, how?

AB: I think they need to be reconciled, because, as you point out, if they aren’t, then the economic pressure to write “translatable” novels is too great. Part of the how, I think, needs to be working on building an audience for translated fiction: an audience that is not only larger, but that is also as sophisticated as possible, and an audience that’s willing to take the imaginative leap of reading a novel that is rooted in the local conditions of another culture, rather than demanding a kind of bland internationalism from everything they read.

I think the increasing prominence of prizes for translated fiction—like the re-booted Man Booker International Prize—are good steps in this direction. Certainly László Krasznahorkai (this year’s winner) is no bland internationalist. But I think scholars have a role to play here, especially in our undergraduate teaching. We need to make sure that we do our best to assign rich and challenging literature in translation where appropriate. When we teach world literature, postcolonial literature, even hemispheric literature or Great Books, it’s tempting to rely heavily on the English-language texts we can read most easily ourselves (or texts from the one or two other languages we know well). Assigning more literature in translation in undergraduate classrooms would boost sales and build markets right away, but would also encourage those of our students who become active readers as adults to keep reading in translation, and to keep on with the challenging but rewarding task of engaging with the unfamiliar.

RC: Finally, you’ve spoken out about the plans of your alma mater, the University of Alberta, to cut access to classical languages, particularly Greek and Latin.

Why do you think it is so important for people to continue acquiring, and studying, these so called “dead” languages, in comparison with widely spoken languages such as Chinese and Spanish?

AB: First of all, I’m happy to report that the study of Greek and Latin is alive and well at the University of Alberta, as it is at many other institutions. I do think that ancient languages are a vitally important component of building a creative and open-minded citizenry, alongside modern languages of course! But if all we learn about is the present, it can be harder to understand what makes our time unique—and harder to think through what we might be able to change in the future. It’s not that the past necessarily offers answers to the problems of the present—as a student of Ancient Greece, I’m grateful we’ve moved beyond many aspects of that culture. What studying the past can do for us is to show us what sorts of things about our current reality are not inevitable, things that were different in the past and could be different again in the future. My own scholarship would never have happened if I’d focused exclusively on literature in European languages from the past two centuries, and I think any number of questions in the humanities and social sciences are opened up in exciting ways if we can look at the past as well as the present.