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Eastern Texts and Western Audiences: Translation, Adaptation, and Reception

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Organizer: Julia Hartley

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In 1978 Edward Said presented Western interest in Oriental languages and cultures as motivated by colonial ambitions and inevitably characterised by a hierarchical belief in the superiority of European civilisation. Orientalism had a field-changing impact: it brought a critical self-awareness to Western scholarship and enabled the development of postcolonial studies as an academic discipline, creating entire sub-fields such as Francophone studies. But it also tainted the entirety of European writing on the Orient, making all literary engagements with Asian and Islamic cultures seem instruments of imperialism and thus inherently suspect topics for academic research.

Forty years later, it appears that enough time has passed for scholars to return to the subject and bring new perspectives to it. 2018 saw in particular the publication of Alexander Bevilacqua’s The Republic of Arabic Letters and Faith Beasley’s Versailles Meets the Taj Mahal. Without denying the colonial histories and power imbalances that have characterised relations between the so-called East and West, the seminar considers the history of European receptions of Asian and Islamic texts to be a multi-faceted area that warrants further investigation. In particular, the seminar seeks to move beyond the paradigm of Orientalism as the indiscriminate ‘othering’ of non-Europeans by Europeans, to focus instead on the reception of specific Asian languages, literatures, and religions at particular times and in specific places. Indeed, although they relied on vague terminology, European authors have historically been aware that the area they referred to as the Orient was composed of many different cultures. This variety compels us, to quote Beasley, ‘to dismantle a globalizing notion of “Orient” as well as recognize that not every Eastern country elicited the same response from every Western country’.

The broad scope of the seminar seeks to encourage comparisons with regards to how Western visions of Asian cultures have differed across contexts. The seminar’s starting point is the eighteenth century, because this was the century of the publication of Antoine Galland’s Les Mille et Une Nuits (Thousand and One Nights) and Barthélémy d’Herbelot’s monumental Bibliothèque Orientale. These landmark works were only the beginning of a movement to make Oriental sources available to Western audiences which snowballed in the nineteenth century with the publication of increasingly wider selections of texts and more accurate translations. We see the latest manifestation of this movement in world literature syllabi, with the pitfalls identified by Emily Apter in 2013.

Papers are invited on:
— Translations, adaptations, and anthologisations of Asian and/or Islamic texts aimed at Western audiences
— Receptions of Asian and/or Islamic texts in Western literature and culture
— The politics and pedagogies of teaching Asian and/or Islamic literature and culture in the West

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