portrait of William Shakespeare

How the Literary Canon Fails to Reflect the Literary Landscape

Usually when people are encouraged to read the classics, they are given reasons like “you just have to, it’s a classic!” or “they’re the best books!” While these claims may occasionally be true and a classic book may actually be a good read, many people find them dull and far too dense to enjoy. These people might even begin to question why a book is even considered a classic in the first place.

There isn’t exactly a straight answer to that question due to several factors that have been attached to the classification. What most “classic” books have in common is that they are considered part of the literary canon. However, being a classic does not mean being a part of the canon, and being part of the canon does not mean being a classic. According to Sheree, these are two separate but related terms. I would argue that it’s higher praise for a book to be called a classic than to be a part of the literary canon because the current state of the literary canon does not effectively represent the entirety of the publishing landscape of any time period.

For a book to be added to the canon means that it is considered among the most influential and important works of literature, that it’s essential. For the most part, it is the highest ranked scholars who choose what is canonized. If you were to look up the current English literary canon right now on Wikiversity, I would say at least a quarter of the works listed are not essential or the most important of their time. Just by looking at the amount of Thomases, Johns, and Henrys on the list, it’s clear that the scholars who established the list were not concerned with any kind of equal representation.

During my undergrad degree in Literature, I took a lot of classes that basically had us read through a list of what my professors thought we should know in whatever subject the class was on. For example, I took Shakespeare, Women’s Literature, two different British Literature classes, two American Literature classes, etc. Although my professors did their best to make the readings as diverse as possible, there were some topics that just didn’t have much more than white European men for authors. I kept waiting for a more diverse set of people, and it took about until the list reached the twentieth century.

Around this time, there was something of a reassessment of the literary canon as many started to notice this lack of representation for women, BIPOC, and queer authors. Lists were made specifically for these different groups of people, however short they currently are. Despite this, much of this expansion has yet to really integrate itself into the social consciousness. Of course, most people are now aware of the prowess of Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou as writers but don’t know that they are also considered part of the African American literary canon.

When I was reading the prose and poetry of some of these older authors I couldn’t help but think, “Why are these works still considered so important? I’ve never heard of this person or their work.” I came to the conclusion that even though many of these authors are still considered important to scholars, they have little to no effect on the majority of society anymore. The only time the average person will come across a work like Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is if it’s made into a movie or they stumble across it online. Overall, the literary canon leaves a lot to be desired in a modern society like ours, but if you’re recommended the classics to read, maybe, just maybe, give one a shot. I recommend Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

stack of eight red books with gold titles

Why You Should Read Translated Literature

The saying “traduttore, traditore” is a well-known phrase in the world of translation. However, it has a negative connotation that no dedicated translator would appreciate when it applies to their work. Translators are literary heroes who spend months, sometimes even years, sitting with chosen or assigned books and turning them into another language so that readers can be exposed to different cultures and stories.

Some readers may be intimidated when opening a translated book, they might be apprehensive regarding the content, or they might simply assume that these stories are not the same as the original story. While there might be some truth to this given the difficulty of translating one language into another, readers should trust the process of translation and not fear reading stories from other languages. Translated books transport readers not only to places far away but to places where the authors grew up, and their experiences open windows into new territories, bring up new feelings, and offer broader perspectives.

According to Wolfestone, literary translation is more than just translating one language into another—it truly is an art. A text simply cannot be translated word for word into another language and expect to reflect the original sentence. Translating requires the translator’s genuine knowledge of both the mother tongue and the target language; in addition, a translator needs to understand the culture, the authenticity, and the deeper meaning behind the words. Ideally, translators not only feel the words on the pages but also the culture behind the words, and this propels them to a level where they can truly feel what the author is trying to say. The most important part of choosing a book to translate might be the sense of personal connection. Translators must fall in love with the books they translate and feel a personal connection to the story or the author in order to pour their heart and soul into that book, not to mention the long months, or even years, it can take to translate a book.

The world of literature can be an emotional journey. Most people read to feel the emotions of their chosen books, to resonate with the authors, or to travel elsewhere in order to experience something outside of their daily lives. It is the translator’s responsibility to read the original work, feel the words travel through them, and then transport those emotions to readers. If readers feel skeptical about feeling a book’s authenticity, it is almost guaranteed that they will get more than their fair share of the original language penetrating through the translated words; the book’s inner light and aura, along with countless glimpses into other parts of the world, can provide them with experiences like no other.

Translated literature such as Greek mythologies is something most of us have experience reading without even acknowledging to ourselves that they are from another language. Reading contemporary translated literature is important and very educational. When I read, I alternate between English-language books and translated books to make sure that I am exposed to both genres. Being bilingual and fluent in reading in a third language, I speak from personal experience when I talk about translated books. The magic of words on a page brings out different feelings and emotions in every language. Monolingual people should feel comfortable and have no worries about the art of translation. Branching out and getting familiar with foreign authors is made possible only through translated books. Dive into unknown territories with gusto! Don’t be intimidated. Once you get going, they are not going to seem intimidating, I promise.