‘We cannot conceive of World Literature without translation’ (Bassnett 312). From the forefront of World Literature Studies, this statement corrects a longstanding perception of translation as the handmaid of literature. In common with David Damrosch and Emily Apter, likewise pioneers in the field, Susan Bassnett highlights the role of translation as a key part of literary production rather than its by-product. More than the mere transfer of a text from one national context to another, translation – which includes ‘translations, versions, and rewritings’ (Bassnett and Damrosch 296) – has shaped literary and cultural history, a fact that has been overlooked because of the long-held ideal that the traces of translation should be invisible. Translation is a spur to further creation, offering new life to classical and canonical texts which in turn inspire adaptations and transformations in new languages. But it is also a form of original creation. Bassnett’s suggestion that every text is ‘in some way, linked to a source somewhere else’ (308) shows how poetic production is translation: all writing is rewriting. Translation is thus an aesthetic mode; its traces call attention to linguistic innovation as the sign of literary innovation. The Argentine-Spanish author Andrés Neuman echoes this idea by likening poetic creation to speaking a foreign language:

No language is entirely native to poetry. Its writing translates the words into a different language, whose grammar is not yet fully established. The strangeness with which a poem stutters every syllable reproduces, in some way, the experience of the foreigner when attempting to pronounce another language. (NeumanA 93)

If translation as aesthetic mode is the literary condition, it is present at the genesis of literature as well as in its global circulation.

The identification of translation as an aesthetic process lags behind a phenomenon with a more practical function: translation as market demand. Translation Studies and World Literature Studies are coming together at a time when both people and books are mobile on an unprecedented scale; moreover, reading publics are increasingly connected online, so that it is difficult today to think of merely ‘national’ bestsellers. Emphasizing the outdatedness of monolingual approaches to literary history based on discrete national (or indeed imperial) categories, Emily Apter calls for a ‘translational model of comparative literature’ as part of a broader ‘translational humanities’ attuned to the effects of a shrinking globe on contemporary cultural developments (583; 597). There are potential pitfalls in moving beyond the national model, not least well-intentioned liberal assertions of universal values that would undermine cultural diversity, inadvertently promote homogeneity and reproduce geopolitical inequalities by overlooking the structural privilege that Western culture enjoys on the global market.1 Apter argues that translation answers this challenge in several ways. First, languages are ‘inherently transnational’ because their histories are hybrid; they are fluid and marked by cross-cultural exchange that does not necessarily mimic, and may even pre-date, imperial power relations (583). Second, translation throws up the problem of the ‘untranslatable’, a force that resists any smooth exchange between languages. Significantly, ‘untranslatables’ are not a barrier to translation, but an inspiration for ongoing translation, because their singularity prompts innovations and interpretations in the target language that force readers to rethink the relationship between concepts and their linguistic expression.

Apter’s argument revolves around Barbara Cassin’s Dictionary of Untranslatables (2004; English 2014), an encyclopaedic work exploring key terms that have shaped philosophy and intellectual history, but which pose linguistic problems when translated from their original language. By exposing these problems and the ongoing attempts to resolve them, the Dictionary reveals how the untranslatable drives a global intellectual culture:

Does one understand the same thing by ‘mind’ as by Geist or esprit, is pravda ‘justice’ or ‘truth’ and what happens when we render mimesis as ‘representation’ rather than ‘imitation’? Each entry thus starts from a nexus of untranslatability and proceeds to a comparison of terminological networks, whose distortion creates the history and geography of languages and cultures. (xvii)

It is the untranslatability of these words that renders them so significant. The global circulation of foundational philosophical ideas is marked by consistent efforts to become receptive to foreign terms, so that ‘an Untranslatable moves […] between historically and nationally circumscribed contexts to unbounded conceptual outposts, resistant yet mobile’ (Apter 586). The ‘untranslatable’ exposes the limits of any single language for understanding, or making understood, apparently universal concepts. It reveals that world culture develops not from easy equivalence but through resistance to a process of translation that, precisely because of this resistance, never stops. Apter’s ‘translational model’ is one solution for World Literature theorists who are sensitive to cultural difference but wish to move beyond increasingly insufficient national models. It represents a potential global mapping of literature without false universalism, and thus leaves the door open for differentiation and geopolitical critique. But in its recognition of the inherent mutability of language, it also returns us to the aesthetic issue with which this article opened. Economic, political and aesthetic approaches to World Literature all insist on the centrality of translation.

The focus of this article is a model of World Literature inspired by German Romanticism and revived in Neuman’s 2009 work El viajero del siglo [Traveller of the Century, 2012].2 The novel is set in Germany in the late 1820s in the conservative fictional city Wandernburgo. It opens with the arrival of the eponymous traveller Hans, a literary translator, in the city. He means to stay for only one night, but like his namesake Hans Castorp on Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, he finds himself getting attached, befriending an old organ grinder and a Spanish trader named Álvaro. A major reason for his inability to leave is Sophie Gottlieb, whose literary salon he attends. Sophie is engaged to a prominent landowner and descendant of the local aristocracy, but she and Hans soon become lovers and meet regularly in secret. Hans additionally invites Sophie to collaborate on an ambitious literary project for a journal commission. They translate poetic masterpieces from languages including Spanish, English, French, Italian, and Russian into German. Although the translation work provides a useful pretext for regular meetings, it soon becomes as important to Sophie and Hans as the actual affair. Hans is particularly keen to contribute to the ‘Weltliteratur’ project so recently advocated by Goethe.3

Neuman’s work represents a translational approach in several ways, not least because his own background of migration has influenced his approach to writing. Born in 1977, he spent his childhood in Argentina and attended primary school there; as a teenager he moved with his parents to Spain, where he attended secondary school and later taught Latin American literature at the University of Granada. Neuman has spoken about the effect of emigration on his relationship to the Spanish language, which he had to reassess in the new context of Spain: ‘when immigration alters directly the use of that very language which we consider our own, what becomes uprooted is the foundation of speech with ourselves’ (NeumanA 92). This amounted to ‘[a] foreignization of my native tongue’, a feeling that has crystallized into a translational aesthetics: this foreignization is ‘precisely the function of literary language’ (NeumanA 92). Writing, and reading, in the native language is as much a process of translation as moving between languages. This becomes clear in Neuman’s treatment of his protagonist Hans, a native German speaker who feels out of place in the German city Wandernburgo. His displacement within his own language is mirrored in the experience of the native reader, who is aware that the action of the novel takes place in a language (German) other than that in which it is written (Spanish). As such, El viajero del siglo fits Rebecca Walkowitz’s model of the ‘born translated’ novel, which intentionally removes cultural ownership from a pre-determined national readership by ‘build[ing] translation into [its] form’ and ‘block[ing] readers from being native readers’ (6). In short, the ‘born translated’ novel makes its own language seem foreign.

Neuman is also a translator in the traditional sense, and has published a Spanish version of the Romantic poet Wilhelm Müller’s 1824 cycle Die Winterreise [The Winter Journey]. The final poem of the cycle, ‘Der Leiermann’ [The Organ Grinder], in which the traveller meets an organ grinder, was the inspiration for El viajero del siglo (NeumanA 95–6). The organ grinder is a central character in Neuman’s novel; his dog, Franz, is a playful reference to Franz Schubert, who immortalized the poems in music, as well as to the dogs that appear in ‘Der Leiermann’. Neuman’s protagonist Hans can be likened to Müller’s lyrical subject because he travels in winter, and because his departure in the final chapter marks the end of Hans’s passionate relationship with Sophie. Although the novel begins where Die Winterreise ends, with the encounter between the traveller and the organ grinder, it ends where the poem cycle begins: Müller’s first poem, ‘Gute Nacht’ [Good Night], describes the night-time flight of a disappointed lover. El viajero del siglo bridges the end of Die Winterreise and its beginning, thus mimicking Müller’s cyclical treatment of travel. The search for a point of arrival is ongoing even when Hans temporarily settles in Wandernburgo, because he continues his work as a literary translator, moving between languages. The novel is also strongly influenced by Friedrich Schlegel’s 1799 novel Lucinde: Hans and Sophie read Lucinde together, but the connection is much more than a superficial intertextual reference. Both their relationship, and their attitude to linguistic creativity, are modelled on Schlegel’s radical portrayal of free love as a mode of self-reflection, as I will discuss below. German Romanticism is therefore a significant influence on Neuman’s thinking about translation; indeed, he describes his novel as an ‘interpretación posmoderna del Romanticismo’ [a postmodern interpretation of Romanticism].4 Before taking a closer look at El viajero del siglo, it is first necessary to examine why German Romanticism provides such fruitful inspiration for a translational World Literature project.

German Romantic Models of Translation

The German Romantics were a generation of translators. Herder collected folk songs from around the globe and presented them in German, the Tieck-Schlegel Shakespeare became a German classic, and Hölderlin’s translations from Greek led to a creative remoulding of German syntax in his poetry.5 Moreover, the act of writing in a foreign language is both an actual and an imagined means of Romantic production, pointing towards the transformative potential of encounters with other cultures. The Frenchman Adelbert von Chamisso, namesake of today’s prize for German literature written by non-native speakers, created one of the most famous travellers in the German canon: Peter Schlemihl, whose outsider status drives him to travel the world and make new discoveries about nature. Writing in his adopted language, Chamisso presents a character whose foreignness in his own homeland opens up the world beyond its borders.

Meanwhile, German authors writing in their mother tongue were preoccupied with imagined linguistic journeys as precursors to self-transformation. Romantic texts focusing on a utopian future link the arrival of the self in a new state of harmony with the arrival in a new linguistic mode. Two examples are Novalis’s Heinrich von Ofterdingen (1801) and E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Der goldene Topf (The Golden Pot, 1814), in which the heroes’ Romantic education prepares them to transcend their everyday world and enter a state of intuitive poetic understanding. In Novalis’s Romantic Bildungsroman, this new state of being is predicted when Heinrich reads the future of his own life in a mysterious book, the language of which he himself cannot understand:

Endlich fiel ihm ein Buch in die Hände, das in einer fremden Sprache geschrieben war, die ihm einige Ähnlichkeit mit der Lateinischen und Italienischen zu haben schien. Er hätte sehnlichst gewünscht, die Sprache zu kennen, denn das Buch gefiel ihm vorzüglich ohne daß er eine Sylbe davon verstand. Es hatte keinen Titel, doch fand er noch beym Suchen einige Bilder. Sie dünkten ihm ganz wunderbar bekannt, und wie er recht zusah entdeckte er seine eigene Gestalt ziemlich kenntlich unter den Figuren. (NovalisA 264)

[Finally, he found a book written in a foreign language, that seemed to him to share some features with Latin and Italian. He would have given anything to recognize the language, for the book pleased him immensely even though he understood not a single syllable. There was no title, but he discovered some pictures. Miraculously, they felt familiar to him, and upon closer inspection he recognized himself quite clearly among the figures.]6

Heinrich reads his life in an unknown language; even before his understanding is encouraged by the pictures, he is intuitively attracted to the foreign words. Contained in Part 1 of the novel, ‘Die Erwartung’ [Expectation], the mysterious book foresees Part 2, ‘Die Erfüllung’ [Fulfilment], when Heinrich will go on to live the life already set out in this unknown language. Foreign language will no longer be foreign, because text and deed will be one and the same: the linguistic mode of being will be intuitive rather than deductive, so that the sign of language and what it signifies will be united. Heinrich will live the foreign text. A similar scheme is at play in Der goldene Topf. In order to win Serpentina, Anselmus must transcribe her father Lindhorst’s manuscripts, which are written in a language so foreign to him that he cannot even decipher the letters. But after Serpentina tells him the mythical story contained within these manuscripts, he finds he has transcribed the texts effortlessly. Anselmus’s conscious effort to comprehend the technicalities of the language gives way to an imaginative absorption in the new poetic world this language represents. This pre-empts his ascent to the mythical world Atlantis, which is nothing other than ‘das Leben in der Poesie’ [a life in poetry] (321).

These moments of confusion and resolution predict the end of linguistic differentiation while also, paradoxically, underscoring how foreign languages resist comprehension. Importantly, Heinrich and Anselmus experience the desire to move towards the foreign even as it confounds their efforts. From their initial positions as uncomprehending outsiders, they end up embodying the new language. Via these linguistic, and simultaneously personal, transformations, they arrive in the longed-for new golden age which is the focus of all Romantic striving. Heinrich von Ofterdingen and Der goldene Topf are thus prophetic texts, pointing not towards an eternal striving, but its end-point. If their plots can be said to have a grammatical tense, it is the future perfect, in line with Kristina Mendicino’s reading of Romanticism as a prophetic mode. They provide a vision of what will have happened once striving ends; the fact that the mission is not yet complete is clear particularly in Der goldene Topf, as Anselmus is only the first of three youths who must pass a test before Lindhorst can return to the mythical world of Atlantis.

Romantic texts commonly enact this striving for meaning in their form. Inexplicable happenings, fragmented narratives, shifting perspectives, and sudden breaks in the plots beckon the reader forwards on a search for answers that, in the present moment of reading, remain tantalizingly out of reach. To this list, Mendicino adds something akin to Neuman’s ‘foreignization’ of the mother tongue: the intentional transgression of the limits of a single language. This characterizes prophecy and translation, both of which require a speaker or writer who is paradoxically present and absent at the source of creation. The Romantic mode of prophecy is linked to language and particularly to translation, because prophecy entails ‘speaking for or in the place of another’: it is an act of pronouncing that which has not yet been pronounced, and so it ‘at once confounds the source of speech and displaces whatever may be said’ (Mendicino 9). While translation similarly displaces language, Mendicino’s focus, like mine, is not so much on the act of translation as on the initial impetus to translate. She examines Romantic writers who purposely transgress and so expose the boundaries of their own language. Pointing to the limits of one language calls for recourse to another: the need to approach the foreign is then built into the form. Hölderlin’s poetry, with its mixing of Greek and German syntax and terminology, serves as an example, and is a linguistic answer to the problems experienced by Novalis’s and Hoffmann’s heroes. This type of writing refers to and enacts the Babel myth of the confusion of tongues. However, in mixing languages and rewriting the rules of a given language, Hölderlin also confounds any effort to delineate the different languages created at Babel. Instead, his poetry moves towards language as ‘an irreducible plurality that exceeds whatever it may convey in any one tongue, including the apparent limits of a single national language’ (Mendicino 5). The temporal displacement of prophecy, and the linguistic displacement of a ‘confusion of tongues’ come together in the Romantic experience of the future perfect, for both prophecy and translation are ‘modes of speech that expose to an extreme the fundamental uncertainty over what language and its speakers are’ (12). Both envisage a goal as yet unreached, that is, if we read the act of translation as prophesying the ultimate arrival of a text in another language.

Translation is therefore the ideal Romantic art, the practical application of the myth predicting a new golden age. It is the philological answer to Romantic philosophy, the ‘peculiar domain’ of the writers who sought to provoke a change in language as the harbinger of a change in being (Louth 36). With this utopian project in mind, both Andreas Huyssen and Kyoung-Jin Lee emphasize the second meaning of ‘übersetzen’ [to translate] as ‘über-setzen’ [to set on a higher plane] (Huyssen 133; Lee 113–14). This impulse is present in Novalis’s Blüthenstaub Fragment 68, in which he proposes different methods of translation. The highest method is an as-yet unrealized ‘mythische Übersetzung’ [mythical translation] (NovalisB 439), which would present not the original artwork, but its ideal form. This would be the apotheosis of Romantic art, for it would portray the pure spirit of the work, a near-impossible ideal demanding complete alignment of representation and intrinsic meaning. With mythical translation, Novalis posits a transparency of language: unmediated access to meaning.

The next best form of translation is ‘verändernde Übersetzung’ [modifying translation] (439), which rethinks linguistic fidelity. Translators working in this mode must also be creative artists, for they are required to convey ‘die Idee des Ganzen’ [the idea of the whole] in such a way that they simultaneously express the original poet’s idea along with their own. The marriage of these two perspectives is akin to the Romantic drive to bring together fragmentary and subjective experiences as part of an all-encompassing unity. The modifying translator is thus himself both an individual poet and the ‘Dichter des Dichters’ [poet of poets] (439), and his relation to the original poet is that of ‘der Genius der Menschheit mit jedem einzelnen Menschen’ [the genius of humanity to every individual human being] (441). Huyssen explains how, despite a seeming contradiction, the translator who changes the original is most faithful to it: in gesturing towards the idea of the whole, or the spirit of the artwork, the translator simply expresses himself in a way that the original poet theoretically might have chosen. Since the Romantic poet’s task is to express a unifying spirit, the original creation is in any case a translation of that ideal into language. Therefore, fidelity and modification are identical, because the translator and the poet each give only a different form to the ‘Idee des Ganzen’ (Huyssen 129).

This model of translation requires both an acknowledgment of subjectivity, insofar as it recognizes and validates difference in expression, and the merging of differences into unity. In this way it is connected to Novalis’s belief that the individual self already contains the whole universe, and yet undergoes constant transformations or journeys of discovery: ‘Wir träumen von Reisen durch das Weltall: ist denn das Weltall nicht in uns?’ [We dream of journeys through the universe: is not the universe within us?] (NovalisB 417 and 419). These germs of wholeness, which exist in each individual and strive to reconnect, are reflected formally in the Romantic fragment. Novalis claims that his own fragments gesture towards the ideal of the complete book: ‘Die Kunst Bücher zu schreiben ist noch nicht erfunden. Sie ist aber auf dem Punkt erfunden zu werden. Fragmente dieser Art sind litterarische Sämereyen.’ [We have not yet invented the art of writing books, but we are on the cusp of it. Fragments of this sort are literary seeds] (NovalisB 463). The finished book, imagined here in the future perfect of ‘noch nicht’ [not yet], is both the product and the dissolution of all fragments. It is akin to the final goal of all translation, for as Lee writes, Novalis’s dreamed-of golden age is an age in which translation is superfluous (121). Until such a point has been reached via mythical translation, modifying translation must be ongoing, propelling us towards the transparent language that is yet to come.


Friedrich Schlegel’s fragmentary 1799 novel Lucinde is a Romantic experiment in language. It is a journey towards mythical translation, towards the linguistic presentation of an ideal that has no language. The novel has variously been understood as a roman à clef charting the scandalous affair of Schlegel and the then-married Dorothea Veit, a radical statement on gender, a Romantic treatise on marriage, a response to Idealist philosophy, and a revolution in form.7 My reading deals mainly with form and focuses specifically on language: at its core, Lucinde represents an attempt to come to terms with the possibility of its own writing. It is perhaps for this reason that Lucinde has proved so intriguing to Neuman, as well as to his translator protagonists. The intertextual references to Lucinde in El viajero del siglo are clear enough: not only do Hans and Sophie decide to re-read the novel together, having both read it separately before they met, but their relationship echoes that of Schlegel’s protagonists Julius and Lucinde, and their real-life counterparts. Like Schlegel and Veit, Hans and Sophie meet in a salon, and their mutual sexual attraction is matched or even outstripped by their intellectual bond. Sophie is engaged to another man – a pragmatic match like Dorothea Veit’s – but, like Lucinde, she has had lovers before. Another intertextual reference is the brief mention of Sophie’s niece Wilhelmine, who shares her name with the free-spirited child described in Schlegel’s novel (Neuman 421–2; 459–61; SchlegelA 13–15). While Neuman’s form is not as radical as Schlegel’s, it could be called fragmentary in the sense that it is multi-perspectival; more interestingly, readers have access to characters’ thoughts before they speak, which highlights the fraught relationship between concepts or feelings, and their expression. The shaping of subjective intuitions into an objectively recognized linguistic form is the act of translation at the heart of both novels.

Plot is not a central concern in Lucinde, but a basic plot can nonetheless be sketched. The first-person narrator, a painter named Julius, is disillusioned with life: struggling to attain a coherent sense of his self, he engages in several relationships with women; these relationships end in dissatisfaction and self-reproach or disaster. He finds solace in friendships with men but retains the feeling of rootlessness, until he meets the free-spirited artist Lucinde. Julius’s relationship with Lucinde satisfies him spiritually, intellectually, and sexually. This synthesis of bodily desire and spiritual fulfilment becomes a blueprint for the novel itself, and not simply by providing its content. Rather, the relationship – a daring depiction of female sexual and intellectual emancipation as things to be desired, rather than censured, by men – dictates the novel’s form. Julius does not retreat to a private idyll with Lucinde; precisely because he feels their love has no end, he is inspired to reach beyond it in his writing. As he writes in a letter to his beloved:

[Glaube], daß ich nicht allein für dich sondern für die Mitwelt dichte. Glaube mir, es ist mir bloß um die Objektivität meiner Liebe zu tun. Diese Objektivität und jede Anlage zu ihr bestätigt und bildet ja eben die Magie der Schrift […] Dabei denke ich aber eben so wenig an die ganze Mitwelt, als an die Nachwelt. Und muß es ja eine Welt sein, an die ich denken soll: so sei es am liebsten die Vorwelt. (24–5)

[[Believe me], I do not write poetry solely for you, but for our world. Please believe me, my concern is really the objectivity of my love. This objectivity, everything connected with it affirms – indeed, forms – the magic of writing. Here I think just as infrequently of our world, as of posterity. And if I must think of one world, then let it be antiquity.]

Lucinde, then, is not really about the couple’s love, but the writing of it. At stake is the objectivity of this love, its universality. This is both the object of language when Julius writes about it (ich … dichte) [I write poetry] and the active subject creating language (bildet … die Magie der Schrift) [forms the magic of language]. Nevertheless, it remains ‘die Objektivität meiner Liebe’ [the objectivity of my love] (my emphasis). Julius posits a link between his independent spirit and the universe, common to all, in which this spirit and its expression arose. He cites the need to think of a whole world, and overrides temporal divisions by speaking of Mitwelt [the contemporary world], Nachwelt [posterity] and Vorwelt [antiquity] in one breath and in the wrong chronological order. Faced with this overawing spatial and temporal context far beyond his personal experience, he does not retire to a private space in which he and Lucinde can escape the world. Instead, conscious that an objective reality is the condition for his subjectivity, Julius embarks on the creative project of writing his self and his love into this universal backdrop. Asserting his status as literary creator, yet accepting that the means of his expression are created for him, Julius becomes the subject and object of Lucinde.

This accounts for the novel’s limitless form. The couple’s love is analogous to the novel itself, for both point towards the eternal: unending love and the absolute novel, or book of all books. (Spuler 167). The plot summarized above appears in the central section of the novel, entitled ‘Lehrjahre der Männlichkeit’ [The Apprenticeship of Masculinity]. This is the only part of Lucinde written in the third person, or as Spuler points out, in the traditional ‘epic’ novelistic form (168). It is the literal centre-point of the novel, with six sections preceding and six following it; these sections comprise letters written by Julius, digressions, and allegories during which Julius reflects on selfhood and writing, both of which are crystallized in the encounter with the beloved. There is no obvious temporal organization to these sections, and they dissolve distinctions such as past and present, presence and absence, imagination and reality. This dissolution is underway from the very opening pages, when Julius describes his creative approach:

zum Gliedern und Zergliedern der Begriffe war ich nicht sonderlich gestimmt. Aber gern und tief verlor ich mich in alle die Vermischungen und Verschlingungen von Freude und Schmerz. (7)

[I was not particularly inclined to structure and dissect terms and concepts. But I gladly lost myself deep in the mingling and entwinement of joy and pain.]

Disinclined to write a chronological or otherwise ordered narrative such as we find at the centre of the novel, the first-person narrator instead invites and celebrates the confusion of all things. To borrow Lacoue-Labarthe’s formulation, Lucinde ‘make[s] possible an ontology other than causal ontology’ (2). In the process, the text develops outwards from its own traditionally novelistic centre, overcoming temporally circumscribed narrative to become ‘an active literary text, as opposed to an intriguing historical document’ (Bullock 459).

This ‘deliberate obfuscation of temporal sequence’ (Nygaard 335) has a bearing on my reading of Romanticism as translational World Literature, insofar as the starting point of Lucinde is unimportant or even unidentifiable. Is Julius creator or creation? Does he start the story or continue it? Such distinctions become irrelevant because the written text is a mediation between active and passive, and transcends chronological ordering. Julius’s life will never be ‘told’, but is always in the telling, and this telling is a constant effort to define something boundless. Julius symbolizes the ultimate Romantic translator. Like Novalis’s ideal translator his writing is mythical, for the goal of his striving is an all-encompassing word that needs no further deconstruction. He briefly touches on this when he meets his soulmate, for in the moment of fulfilment, ‘er hatte das Wort gefunden’ [he had found the word] (57). But Julius’s attainment of this mysterious word is not a permanent end-point, in keeping with his non-linear development as a writer. Rather, Lucinde, which Julius calls the novel of his life (15), reveals his anxiety that language is an inadequate form of representation. The answer to this problem lies not in identifying an end-point, but in embracing the inadequacy as a spur to further creation. By this logic the book must never be finished.

Paradoxically, the novel will approach (although never attain) completion by accepting fragmentation, instead of striving to contain the universe in its wholeness. This idea is set out in the fourth chapter, ‘Allegorie von der Frechheit’ [Allegory of Impudence]. Here, Julius moves into an abstract realm in which novels are personified as male actors playing first on an external stage and then within his mind. The male personification of ‘Witz’ [wit] introduces these novels as immortal youths facing a crossroads, and indeed the play shows the young men unable to decide which direction to take. They are drawn to characters including ‘die Frechheit’ [impudence], ‘Sittlichkeit’ [decency], ‘Bescheidenheit’ [modesty], and ‘die schöne Seele’ [the beautiful soul]; these are female players and so represent conflicting male desires. In line with Lucinde’s rejection of social constraints, one young man/novel chooses ‘die Frechheit’, at which point the action relocates to the internal stage of Julius’s imagination and becomes a whirling carnival of love and joy in which divinity itself is revealed.

This episode breaks down conventional divisions, between word and deed when novels become actors, between external and internal when the play moves into Julius’s mind, and between man and god when earthly lust dissolves into a divine vision. Julius tries to express the melting together of all oppositions – that is, he tries to write Lucinde – but finds he cannot: ‘ich besann mich, daß meine Lippen die Kunst nicht gelernt hätten, die Gesänge des Geistes nachzubilden’ (20) [I reflected that my lips had not yet learned to reproduce the spirit’s song]. Witz, his guide, tells him how to proceed:

Du mußt das unsterbliche Feuer nicht rein und roh mitteilen wollen […] Bilde, erfinde, verwandle und erhalte die Welt und ihre ewigen Gestalten im steten Wechsel neuer Trennungen und Vermählungen. Verhülle und binde den Geist im Buchstaben. Der echte Buchstabe ist allmächtig und der eigentliche Zauberstab. Er ist es, mit dem die unwiderstehliche Willkür der hohen Zauberin Fantasie das erhabene Chaos der vollen Natur berührt, und das unendliche Wort ans Licht ruft, welches ein Ebenbild und Spiegel des göttlichen Geistes ist, und welches die Sterblichen Universum nennen. (20)

[Do not aim to describe directly the immortal fire in all its purity […] Form, invent, transform, and preserve the world and her eternal shapes in a constant exchange of new separations and new unions. Disguise the spirit, bind the spirit in the letter. The true letter is all-powerful; it is the original magic wand. It is the means by which the irresistible capriciousness of the great enchantress, imagination, touches the sublime chaos of nature’s fullness, bringing to light the eternal word, which is the image and the mirror of the divine spirit, and which the mortals call the universe.]

Huyssen writes that for Schlegel the spirit represents a philosophical element, while the letter represents philological and historical elements. When the two merge, we have Schlegel’s philosophy of philology (Huyssen 109). This philosophy states that the only way of expressing unity is in fragmented language. In the above quotation, the eternal word is identified as the transparent mediator of the divine spirit, its image and its mirror. This word announces Novalis’s golden age, in which translation is no longer needed (Lee 121), because its meaning does not need to be inferred or deducted: the word is a replica of meaning itself. Julius, however, is told not to search for the word, but the letter. This is because, within an overarching divine unity, the world’s forms are eternal but move between new separations and new unions. All parts of the universe are endless, but they are also endlessly moving. Their individual fixed form provides permanence, while the relations between them provide flux. This is why the smallest possible fragment of writing, the letter rather than the word, is the writer’s best tool. Reformulating and reordering letters is the only way of approaching the eternal word. If we view this statement as a theory of translation, the letter might represent one specific mode of expression, or a language, whereas the word represents authentic original meaning, or spirit. The idea of any single letter, or indeed language, ever having fully expressed an essential meaning is rejected. Instead, each linguistic mode touches on this essence in different and yet equally valid ways. This does away with the fixed source language. Instead, language is true to meaning because it is fragmentary and pluralistic: it is the elusive and changing expression of an internally differentiated whole. Working between these fragments, Lucinde and its language are not so much ‘born translated’ as born translating.

The final piece in Lucinde’s linguistic puzzle is the relationship between the lovers, which is an allegory for translational writing. Lucinde is not Julius’s missing half, nor does she make him whole: love does not overcome splintered identities. Instead, it reveals that fragmentation is the answer rather than the problem, and it does so by making Julius aware for the first time of the unifying context that has been there all along. Writing about the Romantic conception of marriage as an autonomous union based on love, Adrian Daub argues that ‘the whole that they [the married couple] represented actually preceded the parts that they seemed to unite’ (27). A couple whose marriage takes its authority from feelings, rather than from the church or the state, is not aiming for something higher than the two constituent parties, but already belongs to a metaphysical system of unity sanctified by love (Daub 17–18). In this sense, Julius and Lucinde’s ‘marriage’ is a mirror, reflecting back Julius’s disparate impulses and desires as an ordered disorder.

Before meeting Lucinde, Julius imagines his life as ‘eine Masse von Bruchstücken ohne Zusammenhang’ [a mass of disjointed fragments] (37) and feels ‘[e]ine Liebe ohne Gegenstand’ [a love without any object] (35). Through Lucinde, he reimagines his internal conflicts as the expression of higher unity, so that for the first time his life ‘[wird] […] zu einer gebildeten Geschichte’ [becomes a coherent story] (53). His halting search for self-expression and the seemingly unrelated episodes characterizing his journey to selfhood become one story. Furthermore, this ordered self is a microcosm of the grand cosmic order. Putting his self into words is a step towards translating the higher mystery into language. Love is not the end of linguistic searching, but its validation, for his very first communication with Lucinde affirms that the great mystery of the ‘word’ exists within apparently senseless individual utterances: ‘Julius wagte nur einzelne abgerißne Worte, die bedeutend aber nicht deutlich waren’ [Julius ventured only a few incoherent words, which were significant although unclear] (53). Having finally glimpsed the harmonious ideal, Julius can continue translating it into words, now with his object in mind. The linguistic breaks and stumbling blocks are an intrinsic part of this revelation.

Assured of the order underpinning fragmentation, Julius can embark on a new stage of creation. Novalis’s modifying translator must blend his own mode of expression with that of the original poet, so that the translation merges the creating self (the translator) with the other (the original author). The modifying translator speaks two languages in one and so, symbolically, does Julius. He is initially the desiring subject who tries to write his love for Lucinde, his object. But he is also glad to sacrifice his role as subject to Lucinde, to become her object in a game where he tries to mimic her feminine passivity and she his masculine dominance. Widely understood as a reference to sexual role-play, this is also a linguistic game, for its object is to glimpse ‘die Vollendung des Männlichen und Weiblichen zur vollen ganzen Menschheit’ [the perfection of masculine and feminine into the wholeness of humanity] (13). Expression of such completion is Julius’s objective in writing Lucinde; by inhabiting the feminine, or passive mode, he merges his voice with another. The resulting work is ‘not a mixture, in which the elements are set side by side, but a fusion’ (Bullock 463).

Ultimately, these games, transformations, and reformulations reveal meaning. Each of the lovers gains a deeper understanding of themselves: ‘Sie waren ganz hingegeben und eins und doch war jeder ganz er selbst, mehr als sie es noch je gewesen waren’ [they were entirely given over to one another, they were one, and yet they were each more themselves than they had ever been before] (54). This suggests that the spirit of the self is somehow more visible, that the self takes on a form better approximating its essence, again a metaphor for ideal linguistic expression. It is therefore not surprising that one of the first images Lucinde inspires Julius to paint is of Narcissus, ‘ein Jüngling der mit geheimer Lust sein Ebenbild im Wasser anschaut’ [a youth contemplating his own image in the water with secret desire] (56), whose literal self-reflection ends with his transformation into a beautiful flower. Viewing the self in the mirror of the lover prompts a metamorphosis that brings the ideal Geist to the surface. This is the linguistic task of the Romantic poet. Given the prevalence of dissolution and metamorphosis in Lucinde, one final point should not require much explanation: sexual fidelity is not a requirement for Julius’s ideal of love. The reason is obvious. There are many valid paths to harmony, for all paths are already within it. If we read Lucinde as an allegory for Romantic translation, the intertwining of love and language in the novel means that to devalue sexual fidelity is to interrogate a central principle of translation. What constitutes faithfulness to the original comes under scrutiny, and this brings us to the travelling language of El viajero del siglo.

El viajero del siglo

If translation merges source and target languages into something new, El viajero del siglo suggests two ways of seeking this third language. Hans, the travelling translator, is the first and most obvious metaphor for linguistic transformation. Jenny Haase argues that the novel presupposes movement as a condition for literature (Haase 224). This is not confined to Hans’s actual travelling – in fact, there is very little travelling in the course of the plot. As Haase shows, the novel moves flexibly between genres; it blatantly disregards the taxonomy of literary movements in its mixing of realism, Romanticism and postmodernism; and it contains deliberate anachronisms that invalidate chronological boundaries. This results in an intentionally blended aesthetics (Haase 224), suited perfectly to this example of literature on the move. A refusal to be contained in any one literary category is the formal expression of the novel’s main theme: desire for the other and for contact with difference (Haase 236). The sexual chemistry between Sophie and Hans drives the plot forwards but, as with Lucinde, is not its raison d’être. Speaking about his novel, Neuman has stated that it is unclear whether translation is really the pretext for the couple’s lovemaking, or whether in fact the lovemaking is an excuse for them to translate together.8 The traveller, his desire, and his translating together make up an allegory for the new global novel, for as Héctor Hoyos writes, ‘there is no satisfaction for the unbridled desire that is world literature’, which strives towards nothing less than ‘a new consciousness of the world as a whole’ (16; 20). For this reason, the cosmopolitan polyglot Hans mistrusts his own inclination to stay in Wandernburgo longer than planned. He claims that a life on the move is his only way of being (119; 129), and believes that journeys are the prelude to poetry: ‘los viajeros en el fondo son músicos o poetas, porque persiguen sonidos’ [Deep down, people who travel are musicians or poets because they are looking for sounds] (156; 170–1). As a travelling linguist, Hans represents the search for expression we see in Lucinde. Poetry is a multilingual quest.

Hans makes the above statement before his affair with Sophie properly begins. At this point, his translational aesthetic rules out staying still. And yet, remaining in Wandernburgo enables an intense period of poetic translation and collaborative creativity. This points towards a second model for literary translation, represented by both the organ grinder and Wandernburgo itself. Wandernburgo is a city of changing borders. This makes it a quintessentially nineteenth-century German location; its boundaries shift because it is alternately under Prussian and Saxon rule, depending on the changing political allegiances of the Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic eras that shaped Germany’s geopolitical fate. The inhabitants of the city are largely conservative and welcome the end of the revolutionary years. Neuman blends this historical realism with science fiction, because the topography of the city is ever shifting too, with streets that inexplicably change position. Wandernburgo is historically stuck in Metternich’s Europe, and yet topographically would be more at home in a China Miéville novel; it is also geographically fixed but politically unstable. It moves while going nowhere.

Neuman’s ideal creative mode would be ‘writing in my mother tongue as if it were a foreign tongue’.9 This familiar strangeness is represented by Wandernburgo’s fixed state of flux, embodied in the organ grinder who has never left his home city. The organ grinder posits an alternative to Hans’s aesthetics of movement, suggesting that staying still allows him to absorb new influences as they pass through his life. If Hans’s translation operates on a horizontal axis of constant motion, the organ grinder’s creativity is mapped vertically:

Yo creo que la música ya estaba, no sé si me explico, la música suena sola y los instrumentos tratan de atraerla, de convencerla para que baje […] no veo por qué hacen falta los viajes para perseguir sonidos, uno también puede quedarse quieto, muy atento […] y esperar a que los sonidos pasen por ahí, ¿no? (155–6)

I think music is always there, do you see, music plays itself and instruments try to attract it, to coax it down to earth […] I don’t see the need to travel in order to find sounds, can’t you also be very still, attentive […] and wait for sounds to arrive? (170–1)

Music that pre-exists sound is akin to Lucinde’s eternal word. The organ grinder and Hans are two sides of the same coin, because they seek the ultimate meaning found ‘im steten Wechsel neuer Trennungen und Vermählungen’ [in a constant exchange of new separations and new unions] (SchlegelA 20). One stays still and allows himself to be changed, the other moves to effect change. Their meeting begins a new phase in Hans’s development, for as well as constantly searching for novelty, he must learn to re-encounter himself and his native language. This is a Romantic enterprise, in keeping with Novalis’s declaration that the universe is to be found within us. Notably, Novalis attempted to define the ‘world citizen’ even though he rarely left his native Saxony.10 This makes him a spiritual brother for Hans:

Hay poetas que parecen muy seguros de dónde están, su lugar puede ser una tradición, un género, una patria o lo que sea. Mis preferidos son los poetas viajeros, o sea los que no están en ninguna parte. Ahí entrarían el primer Schlegel y los de Athenäum, que escribían en fragmentos, que no buscaban un sistema o les parecía imposible encontrar uno […] y me he dejado para el final al mejor de todos: Novalis. (405)

There are poets who seem sure of their roots, which may be a tradition, a genre, a country – no matter. I like the wandering poets, the ones who are not rooted anywhere. That’s where the younger of the Schlegel brothers and the poets of the Athenaeum come in, they wrote in a fragmented way, they weren’t looking for a system, or didn’t believe they’d ever find one […] I’ve left the best until last – Novalis. (442–3)

Turning his gaze inwards, the intellectual wanderer Novalis discovers the world in the self.

Lucinde demonstrates that writers need a spiritual mirror to help them arrive in their own language. El viajero del siglo literalizes the allegory by making the lovers actual as well as figurative translators. Neuman identifies in love and translation a similar ‘grammar’ because lovers ‘construct a precarious language together’ (NeumanC). Their suspension between intimate acquaintance and fascinated desire is the experience of the translator who ‘covet[s] the meaning’ of the foreign text she seeks to familiarize (NeumanC). Like Schlegel’s Julius, ‘[t]he person who translates approaches a strange presence in which, in some way, he recognizes himself’ (NeumanC). Sophie and Hans put this into practice as they aim to ‘rescatar libros de otros países’ [[reclaim] the literature of other countries] by translating world poetry into German (302; 330). Far from a project of assimilation or annexation, ‘reclaiming’ means ‘el libre intercambio literario’ [a free exchange of literature] (302; 330), allowing the translators to enrich their native culture by viewing it from a foreign perspective. It is therefore significant that Hans and Sophie review German literature, as well as foreign. Sophie’s admiration for Lucinde is one of the first things that sparks Hans’s intellectual desire (79; 85). When they re-read the text together, they change to become more like their true selves (376; 410). Hans is Sophie’s transformative mirror, and vice versa. His role is confirmed by a comparison to her fiancé Rudi, whose image of Sophie alienates her (379–80; 414). They do not merely mimic Lucinde and Julius, however. Sophie objects to the novel’s idealization of women as pure poetry, and upon her insistence that novels should evolve, Hans suggests she write a prologue for a new edition (377; 411). Their reading of Lucinde is a link in the infinite chain of translation and re-translation proposed by Schlegel and Neuman. Hans and Sophie modify themselves and their earlier interpretations of the novel, and so translate without moving out of their native language.

Beyond the bedroom, Sophie’s weekly salon provides a forum for Hans to sharpen his theories of translation. As Rudi is a member of the salon, it also is an occasion for Neuman to explore, often playfully, the link between sexual and linguistic fidelity. The classic translation conundrum of whether to be faithful or free is played out in the tension between movement and stasis. In this binary model, the travelling translator would be the more faithful, because he moves towards the foreign language, whereas the one who stays still can be freer because her greatest creativity is in her own language. Neuman rejects this distinction, showing instead that a translational World Literature must be attuned to the flexibility of the source culture as well as to the possibilities of other languages. Since no language is fixed, the opposition of fidelity and freedom becomes redundant. A faithful translation must be free if it is to replicate the ever-evolving nature of the original language. Neuman’s description of a good translation as ‘a second original’ recalls the German Romantics’ conviction that translation adds to meaning (Louth 32).11

This is the crux of a disagreement in the salon between Hans and the learned pedant Professor Mietter. Making the case against poetic translation, Mietter assumes the voice of the Romantic-era theorist Friedrich Schleiermacher. The Professor proposes a paradoxical truth whereby poems express a feeling beyond language, that can however only be expressed by their original language. This is because the link between one’s mother tongue and one’s feelings cannot be ruptured (317; 346). This ‘carácter intransferible’ [untransmissible essence] is ‘[imposible] de adaptar a otra lengua en los mismos términos de perfección’ [impossible to adapt to another language with a similar perfection] (315; 344). The best approach, therefore, is:

Renunciar a la ambición excesiva de traducir el poema y ofrecerle al lector una especie de guía, una transcripción fiel y literal del contenido léxico del poema, para que con ella se ayude y penetre en el original, que es lo que de verdad importa. (315–16)

[to renounce the overly ambitious task of translating the poem and instead offer the reader a kind of guide, a literal transcription of the words that would enable him to penetrate the original, which is what really counts.] (344)

As Charlie Louth has shown, a major shift in translation practice towards the end of the eighteenth century involved a new emphasis on word-for-word versions and ‘a tendency of ever closer encounter with the texture of foreign works’ (7). Schleiermacher’s 1813 lecture on the methods of translation raises the question parroted by Mietter, of whether translation is ultimately a foolish undertaking, because the translator must express the spirit of one language in words devoid of that spirit (Schleiermacher 45). In the same lecture, Schleiermacher rejects the approach of making a translation appear as if it were originally conceived in the target language (48) and instead calls for a replica of the original’s structure and style, so that the translation will seem very foreign to its readers (55). This appears to validate Mietter’s preference for fidelity to the letter and reverence for the source.

But Mietter overlooks the reasoning behind this approach. Although Schleiermacher emphasizes the near-impossibility of translating creative works adequately, his lecture references the same productive tension that inspires Neuman. For if the spirit of a language forms great thinkers, and by extension poets, the same poets and thinkers in turn shape their language. The genius leaves his linguistic mark, for his exceptional originality is the product of his own spirit as well as of his language (Schleiermacher 44). When translating original creations, the translator must contort his own language, and not just for the sake of fidelity. The foreignization of the translator’s mother tongue replicates the free thinker’s innovation in his own language; this in turn is a milestone in a nation’s cultural development (43). Admittedly, the translator’s language should unsettle the readers, who will feel its strangeness, but this is nevertheless an apologia for flexibility in both languages. Schleiermacher’s language of translation can only arise ‘unter einem Volk welches entschiedene Neigung hat sich das Fremde anzueignen’ [among a people with a decided tendency to acquire the foreign] (57). Romantic-era translation was understood to make an ‘incision […] in the history of the language, the literature and even the nation’ (Louth 31). It celebrates flexibility rather than denying it.

Unsurprisingly, Hans becomes the mouthpiece for this interpretation of Schleiermacher’s thought, although he takes it to a more radical conclusion. Replying to Mietter, he breaks the bond between native language and original ideas:

¿Goethe siente en alemán por un lado y habla seis idiomas por otro? ¿O más bien, como individuo que habla y lee en varios idiomas, Goethe ha llegado a sentir de un modo determinado, de una manera propia que en este caso se expresa en lengua alemana? ¿No es su cultura múltiple una corriente que se encauza, se traduce en su lengua materna? Y por lo tanto, ¿no son las traducciones de los propios poemas de Goethe a otros lenguas un eslabón más en una cadena infinita de reinterpretaciones? ¿Quiénes somos nosotros para determinar cuál sería la unidad originaria, el primer eslabón? (318)

Does Goethe feel in German on the one hand and on the other speak six languages? Or rather, as an individual who speaks and reads several different languages, does Goethe feel in a specific way that is peculiar to him and which in this case expresses itself in the German language? Isn’t his broad cultural knowledge a current that is channelled, translated into his mother tongue? And by the same token, are the translations of Goethe’s own poems into other languages not simply one more link in an infinite chain of interpretations? Who are we to decide which is the original, the first link? (347)

In one stroke, Hans dismantles the concept of the national genius, and so frees the translator from the bonds of fidelity. Going beyond Schleiermacher’s theory of the great thinker who changes the language that inspired him, he suggests that great thinkers are formed by a range of cultural influences. Given Hans’s profession and indeed the novel’s major theme, this amounts to an intervention in translation theory. It is not so much the death of the author as the death of the source, because translator and author fulfil the same task of linguistic reinvention and the ‘first link’ can never be identified. German poetry arrives in its own language as if by chance, having already passed through others. This ephemeral arrival foretells new originals.

German Romantic World Literature

The form of World Literature here described is Romantic, but not primarily because of its content. El viajero del siglo does reference Romantic-era literary salons, authors, and canonical works, most notably Lucinde and Die Winterreise, but its most significant connection to German Romanticism is formal and theoretical. It is a contemporary development of Schlegel’s rule that truly poetic works must theorize their own production [Athenäums-Fragment 238, SchlegelB 204]: a novel both about and of translation, problematizing while simultaneously performing the approach towards foreignness from within the self.

Latin American literature of our century is said to be one ideal category from which to abstract theories of World Literature. Without overlooking the dangers of reductionism, Hoyos re-evaluates the common impulse to group together a range of nations and cultures as one vast Spanish-speaking territory. Positing a sameness despite considerable geographical, political, and cultural differences is ‘a leap of faith’ that helps us to imagine ‘how works of fiction may belong to a planetary community’ (Hoyos 9). Neuman’s conviction that he is translating within the Spanish language speaks to this ‘open totality’ (Hoyos 9). It is the first step in his imaginative network linking Spanish and German, the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries, and Romanticism and postmodernism – a network marking uncanny fears, but also pleasures wherever the familiar meets the strange. A shift of perception takes place, whereby literary translation is reconfigured as translational literature, ever on the move, questioning the very concept of the source. The resulting multitude of originals belongs to the German Romantic universe: a kaleidoscope where internal changes pay homage to ultimate unity. Making one’s own language foreign and accepting the consequent changes to one’s self are the aesthetic and ontological outcomes of border crossing, whether the border is between languages, gender roles as in Lucinde, literary categories or even historical periods. This is German Romanticism’s living legacy to World Literature.