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Trevor Ross

The literary canon, theorists contend, is a selection of reputable works that abstracts their value for specific purposes: to safeguard them from neglect or censure, reproduce social and institutional values, maintain them as exemplary in the formation of personal or communal identities, or objectify and enshrine standards of judgment. The value of canonical works is not felt reducible to these uses or the interests that canon-making may serve, but canonization is nonetheless thought to be a recognition of their value, even confirmation that this value has been sufficiently established, by consensus or institutional edict, that it no longer requires demonstration. The discourse of canonicity thus relies on an economy of belief about the possibility and validity of agreement about literary value. Within this economy, the canon, in whichever composition, is both the evidence and the outcome of agreement, without which value would seemingly become entirely speculative. At the same time, canonicity is also a form of attention paid to valuable works, and it is not the only such form. Canonical works are treated differently than are other valuable works, and the value of the same work may be described in a different rhetoric of valuation depending on what kind of valuable work it is perceived to be. A work may be treated as a reference point, a familiar and influential text whose contribution to culture is measured relative to one context. It may be viewed as a classic, a singular and standard work whose value is perceived across a distance of time or culture. Or it may be esteemed as a canonical text, whose vital and indefinable contribution is not seen as relative to any particular time or place. The discourse of canonicity thus serves to generate belief in the possibility of suspending, however provisionally, speculation and contingency.


Translation is a social activity that fulfills other functions than mere communication: political, economic and cultural. Thus translation can be used as a political weapon to export or import texts conveying an ideological message, such as socialist realism. As evidenced by the promotion of world bestsellers, translation may in other cases serve economic interests. Literary translations also serve cultural purposes, such as the building of collective (national, social, gendered) identities, the representations of other cultures, or the subversion of the dominant norms in a literary field (as defined by Pierre Bourdieu), which can be illustrated by the reception and uses of William Faulkner’s novels in France in the 1930s (namely by Jean-Paul Sartre). The study of translation has become a research field called “Translation Studies,” which underwent a “sociological turn” at the beginning of the 21st century, and was also renewed at the same time by the rise of “world literature” studies in comparative literature. While translation studies are interested in norms of translation (as defined by Gideon Toury), which may vary across cultures, especially between domesticating and foreignizing strategies, the sociology of translation and of (world) literature asks how literary texts circulate across cultures: who are the mediators? Why do they select certain texts and not others? What obstacles stand in the way of the transfer process? How are translations used as weapons in cultural struggles? The circulation of texts in translation can be studied through a quantitative analysis of flows of translation (across languages, countries, publishing houses) and through qualitative methods: interviews with specialized intermediaries and cultural mediators (publishers, translators, state representatives, literary critics), ethnographic observation (of book fairs, literature festivals), documentary sources (critical reception), archives (of publishers), and text analysis. However, internal (text analysis) and external (sociological) approaches still wait to be fully connected.