Wednesday, July 29, 2015

How Works Become World Literature

Photo Source:

World literature is the term generally used to refer the the national literatures of the world, or the literary works that have gained circulation and acclaim outside their home country. It may include critically acclaimed novels from ancient China and Japan, to the post-war works from Latin America and Europe. The boundaries are non-existent. In the words of David Damrosch, “a work enters into world literature by a double process: first, by being read as literature; second, by circulating out into a broader world beyond its linguistic and cultural point of origin1.”

World literature is both an old and new concept2. “It is old in the sense that it has ‘always’ been used to designate literature from around the world, and xxx it has been used not only to specify a literary canon but also to engage in the ethical project of enlarging our literary horizons to include more than just a few national literatures3”. At the same time it is new given recent methods used in classifying literary works4. This also takes into account the current onset of globalization, as well as the power of the internet to connect writers, publishers, readers and critics.

But not all literature, even the ones who have gained acclaim or popularity in their home country, can be considered world literature. For instance, Nick Joaquin’s novels are respected and well-read in the Philippines, but they are not considered world literature in the same way the works of Jose Rizal are.

Among the national literatures of various nations, a number can be considered world literature. Some of these are namely Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Wu Chengen’s The Monkey King, Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji Monogatari, the great Chinese novel Three Kingdoms, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, the poetry of Pablo Neruda, William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and more. On the other hand, the ordinary reader of the present time can have access to numerous writings from different parts of the world through the internet, but not all these materials can be considered world literature either. If national popularity or international access are not factors in classifying works as world literature, then what are the general standards used?

For a work to become world literature it must satisfy four criteria. First is universal connection5. It means that many people around the world relate to the literary work despite the cultural, historical and geographical differences. It creates a connection to readers around the world6 as it embodies a universal appeal7.

In a supposed conversation with Goethe after he has read a Chinese novel, he went:
“Within the last few days, since I saw you,” said he, “I have read many things; especially a Chinese novel, which occupies me still and seems to me very remarkable.” “Chinese novel!” said I; “that must look strange enough.” “Not so much as you might think,” said Goethe; “the Chinamen think, act, and feel almost exactly like us...8” 
Goethe was able to relate to a foreign novel - written a continent away from him - despite the obvious barriers. It held an importance to him; it related to his own feelings and experiences; it stuck with him for a time.

Second, a work becomes world literature if it has been translated9. A work written in a foreign language cannot be understood by global readers if weren’t so. If not for translation, it would be impossible for such works to gain audience beyond their country or community of origin.

Beneath the process of translation are the processes of selection, publication and distribution10. World literature relates to a global audience not only because it inherently does so, but because it was selected for its qualities, plot, theme or other factors which publishers deemed to be appealing to global audience. The way a work has been translated is also another factor which determines how it would be received. Sometimes, there would be minor embellishments to make it sound more appealing to readers outside the work’s country of origin.

Third, it stands the test of time that even at present it is still considered important11. A work becomes world literature when it represents a certain period in human history, or was written during that same time12. Thus most of what is considered world literature are works of the past, and not those of the recent past13. The current popular novels which have gained worldwide recognition are not considered world literature either.

Fourth, it expresses a certain artistic quality14; particularly a “certain expression of life, truth or beauty15.” This characteristic differentiate works of world literature from each other. This same quality also makes each work important and memorable from a historical perspective and an artistic perspective. For instance, the writing style of Cervantes in Don Quixote is very much unique to the said work. The same is true for Genji Monogatori, The Three Kingdoms, The Monkey King and even in Pablo Neruda’s poetry. They all represent distinct styles, expressions and themes which qualifies them to world literature status.

The works previously mentioned have ticked all the boxes of the criteria to be rightfully considered world literature. They all have universal appeal that transcends the boundaries of culture, geography and time; they all have been translated; they all have stood the test of time; and they each possess their own unique artistic quality which differentiates them from the rest of the literary works of their time.

Works that are considered by experts to be world literature are still being studied by scholars, students and ordinary readers even until this day. Knowing and reading world literature is important not only in making one’s self be more well-read or knowledgeable. It also makes us better versions of ourselves16. But as much as we appreciate various works of world literature, we should also know how they came to be regarded as such, and why they hold an important place in literary history.

1 Damrosch, D. (2003). What Is World Literature? Princeton University Press. Retrieved from
2 Stougaard-Nielsen, J. (n.d.) ELCS6093 Approaches to World Literature. University College London School of European Language, Culture and Society Official Website. Retrieved from
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.
5 Lombardi, E. (n.d.). A Classic - Defining the Term or the Concept of Classics in Literature. About-Education. Retrieved from
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Tachtiris, C.E. (2012). Branding World Literature: The Global Circulation of Authors in Translation. University of Michigan M Library. Retrieved from
9 See note 1.
10 See note 5.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 Ibid.
16 Currie, G. (2013, Jun.1). Does Great Literature Make Us Better? The New York Times. Retrieved from