This semester, I am teaching a seminary course, Survey of World Literature, in which we identify and enjoy works by different authors from around the world. I wish, however, that we had time to take this course to the next level as a Comparative study of world literature. In a Comparative course, we would compare the different national literature with each other in order to bring out, not only the national character of each, but also their unifying, human or contemporaneous character.
Its most fruitful method is that of comparing translations with their originals, or contemporary translations in various languages of a single work, or comparing the interpretation and treatment of similar subjects and themes by the various literatures, or comparing indigenous literary forms with borrowed ones.
In addition, in a Comparative course, we would investigate the historical connections between different literatures, to find out when, at what points, and why, they influence each other, what they give and take. How were these works translated? How were these translations received—what further effect did they have, what writers appeared to establish conversation between the literatures. What eyes did the different literatures see and judge one another?
Should different nations inform themselves about world literature, the other works in existence? Goethe was possibly the first writer to consider world literature: his acknowledgment to England in the translation of Ossian in Werther; his acknowledgement to Italy in the translation of Benvenuto Cellini; to France in his translation of Diderot’s Essay on Painting; Goethe speaks of Nordic Classicism in Hakon Jarl and Greek tragedy in Baldur’s Death,
“One lives with those who are alive” (Goethe and World Literature, (1949), 46)!
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, our nation was mostly aware of the works that were made available that were translated into English. Longfellow did this. He brought the German and French language and literature to the United States in the mid nineteenth century through his translations and his tenure as the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Bowdoin College, Harvard University. Now with access to the world wide web, works of world literature are available to us through many translations.
The purpose of this seminary course is to look at World Literature such as the writings of Homer and Shakespeare and compare them with a Biblical worldview. What is the Biblical worldview?
I have recently been applying the tenets of Comparative study to Scripture. We are privileged to read the Scriptures in English translations from the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages of the Scriptures. The writers of our Scriptures were from different parts of the world, different cultures, different languages, different world views—but their works are still unifying. The translators had to keep the original meaning considering that the Hebrew language has no fewer than 10,000 words as compared to the English language which has nearly 1,000,000 words (at the time of the first English translation, the Tyndale Bible was translated into Middle English which consisted of about 50,000 words)-the Greek speech with 200,000? We do have to consider divine inspiration as a large part of the answer.
One needs to consider that the Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and was then translated to Greek (possibly using the Septuagint) and then English for our purposes. Therefore, as we look at the grammatical structure of the Old Testament, we need to consider three different languages and grammatical structures just in the interpretation: Hebrew to Greek to English. Wow!
For one hundred years before the coming of Jesus, Hebrew was a forgotten language. Therefore, other than some scholars, the Jews no longer knew Hebrew. The other citizens spoke a derivative of Hebrew known as Aramaic. In the synagogues, the scriptures were read in Hebrew and had to be translated to the listeners into Aramaic. One danger in this oral translation was to avoid adding human feelings and actions to God. This dynamic continues to be true in translation from Hebrew to the Modern languages.
The New Testament, on the other hand, was written in Greek and Aramaic. In the Gospels, John was presenting Christianity to the Greek world, not the Jewish world, so he had to keep these grammatical structures in mind. John writes: “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God (1:1)”. In Greek, this Word is Logos defined as: 1. “a word, uttered by a living voice, embodies a concept or idea; 2. The sayings of God. “The Greeks were familiar with the idea of the Word, or Logos, from around 560 B.C., so John could use this concept. Now, in translating the Greek words of John to English, what does the translator do with Word? As we know, it stays the same, no change. One just needs to refer to the Greek Lexicon or consult a Bible scholar to know that this is referring to Jesus. According the “tense” of this text, Jesus has been in existence since the beginning of time.
Secondly, in Comparative study, we consider what the historical connections are between the different writings? When, at what points, and how have they influenced each other? How were these works translated? How are these translations received—what further effect do they continue to have? What writers appeared to establish conversation between their narrative? What eyes did the different literatures see and judge one another? So cool, so cool. I hope you will think on these things.
Copyright 2021 by Robyn Lowrie. May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)
I didn’t know Goethe did so much for world literature, thanks.
I am now reading about his connection to Russia! I will update after. Glad you stopped by!
The course sounds fascinating. I am a huge admirer of the world literature and I believe that everyone should read more translated works and more widely. Some of my favourite books were written in a foreign language and I am sure I am still to discover plenty. What is particularly impressive is that you are interested in discussing connections between works and their influence on each other. What an exciting literary journey!
Yes Diana it is an exciting journey. I appreciate any insight you have on this subject as you are multi lingual and love literature as well.