LiteratureWorld Literature

World Literature and David Damrosch

2 Mins read

Damrosch’s book, named, “What is World Literature?” simply tries to answer about what makes a piece of literature a world literature. He tries to establish a connection that a piece of literature changes when it stops to serve a status of nation’s literature and this, says Damrosch, transforms when a literature crosses the border from one country to another. His book presents a quote from the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels: “The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

In his introduction, Goethe’s coined German phrase Weltliterature is used for world literature to examine the phenomenon. He further explains that globalization has played a larger role in the world which makes it easier for literature to cross the borders.

Damrosch’s book is divided into nine chapters, which are further divided into three sub-sections. He develops certain points in concerning world literature and translation and concludes it in three patterns that he notices in world literature.

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The first one is: “world literature is an elliptical refraction of  national literatures.”

This means that how a piece of literature changes when it crosses the borders. However, its place of origin is never left but becomes two foci, one in the host country and one in the original country. For him, there’s not only one ellipse but, in facet, several ellipses with one focus in host country.

The second one is: “world literature is writing that gains in translation.”

This means that, like treaties or many other agreements has affects while translation. But other literary works like poems are difficult to translate because they are tied to their original work. And through this, they retain the status of national literature, but, when a literature is translated it becomes a world literature. The Epic of Gilgamesh is defined as an example of world literature.

The third and the last point is that: “world literature is not a set canon of texts but a mode of reading; a form of detached engagement with worlds beyond our own place and time.”

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Through this he means that these kind of works should not be credited so much for world literature, but they should also concern about the connection of cultures and times as this is interconnection. For another time, Damrosch uses the metaphor of ellipses and means that every culture, language has its variations and translations may also effect them. Marx and Engels describe this type of contact as “intercourse in every direction.” Then, literature from every aspect of life intertwines to create, and considered as world literature.


So, in his book, Damrosch defines what makes a literary piece a World Literature. Potential answers have been given and he proves himself to be an expert of this field. The examples he gives, although someone may consider it irrelevant, but one must know the background and understanding of what these literatures convey in the perspective of world literature.

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