Cover image for Translating the World: Toward a New History of German Literature Around 1800 By Birgit Tautz

Translating the World

Toward a New History of German Literature Around 1800

Birgit Tautz


$96.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07910-3

$37.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07911-0

Available as an e-book

280 pages
6" × 9"

Max Kade Research Institute: Germans Beyond Europe

Translating the World

Toward a New History of German Literature Around 1800

Birgit Tautz

Winner of the 2019 Book Award (Monograph) from the South Atlantic Modern Language Association

“Concentrating on texts other than the classics of the canon allows for fresh perspectives. If ‘all politics is local,’ so, too, seems culture. Includes impressive bibliography, documentation, and index. Recommended.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
In Translating the World, Birgit Tautz provides a new narrative of German literary history in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Departing from dominant modes of thought regarding the nexus of literary and national imagination, she examines this intersection through the lens of Germany’s emerging global networks and how they were rendered in two very different German cities: Hamburg and Weimar.

German literary history has tended to employ a conceptual framework that emphasizes the nation or idealized citizenry, yet the experiences of readers in eighteenth-century German cities existed within the context of their local environments, in which daily life occurred and writers such as Lessing, Schiller, and Goethe worked. Hamburg, a flourishing literary city in the late eighteenth century, was eventually relegated to the margins of German historiography, while Weimar, then a small town with an insular worldview, would become mythologized for not only its literary history but its centrality in national German culture. By interrogating the histories of and texts associated with these cities, Tautz shows how literary styles and genres are born of local, rather than national, interaction with the world. Her examination of how texts intersect and interact reveals how they shape and transform the urban cultural landscape as they are translated and move throughout the world.

A fresh, elegant exploration of literary translation, discursive shifts, and global cultural changes, Translating the World is an exciting new story of eighteenth-century German culture and its relationship to expanding global networks that will especially interest scholars of comparative literature, German studies, and literary history.

“Concentrating on texts other than the classics of the canon allows for fresh perspectives. If ‘all politics is local,’ so, too, seems culture. Includes impressive bibliography, documentation, and index. Recommended.”
“Birgit Tautz has written a convincing and powerful book that makes an important contribution to eighteenth-century studies, not only in the field of German literature. Using the idea of a network of urban intellectuals mediated through translated texts, she provides an original and nuanced perspective on emerging global networks in late Enlightenment Europe. Translating the World opens up fascinating possibilities for rethinking eighteenth-century European culture.”
“Deploying the suggestive neologism Glokalisierung, Tautz’s timely and innovative book places the profoundly local and particular in eighteenth-century Germany (cities as divergent as the tiny, apparently parochial Weimar and the world city Hamburg) into dialogue with national and transnational developments. Translation, gossip, and rumor emerge in her study as potent vectors of sociability that mediate international, national, and local concerns.”

Birgit Tautz is Professor of German at Bowdoin College. She is the author of Reading and Seeing Ethnic Differences in the Enlightenment: From China to Africa.


Preface and Acknowledgements


The City and the Globe: On Remaking German literature

Chapter One

Theater Channels: Translating the British Atlantic World for the Hamburg Stage

Chapter Two

Lessing Dethroned: the Hamburg Dramaturgy and the Eighteenth-Century World

Chapter Three

Leaving the City: Conversion to Community, Redemption, and Literary Sociability

Chapter Four

Classical Weimar Reconsidered: Friendship Redeemed, Foundations Laid, and Monuments Made


In the Translation Zone or (German) Literary Studies in the Twenty-First Century




From the Introduction

“The City and the Globe: On Remaking German Literature”The year 1775 saw the publication of Johann Peter Willebrand’s legendary Grundriß einer schönen Stadt (Outline of a Beautiful City), one of the first manuals of urban planning. Yet neither the book’s prescriptiveness nor its later impact is what captures my attention here. I am transfixed by a casual, even flippant comment by which the author invokes China. Talking about urban infrastructure, he recommends that Hamburg, as well as other cities (e.g., Amsterdam), should take a lesson from Peking’s streets. In his view, the latter’s tamped-sand and clay streets represent an alternative to the washed-out cobblestone of the affluent northern German port city. Tamped sand also offered a viable solution for resource-strapped towns that could neither pay for nor easily procure stone. Willebrand furthermore supplements his specific suggestions for construction with administrative recommendations for urban management, including a central registry and reliance on denizens when it came to enforcing rules and regulations. Here, too, he compares and contrasts his experiences to Chinese and, to a lesser extent, British models. Thus, what seems like a passing reference turns out to be a marker of a beautiful city’s worldliness. Placing it in a network of world cities confirms the German city’s global existence.The recourse to Peking is unique in its manner of folding the global into the urban text. Willebrand relies on the Chinese city’s image as if it were a well-known fact, without any need to be authenticated by an anecdote, a travelogue, or a translated text. Making do without fiction is different from many other late eighteenth-century accounts that appear in this book. As we shall see throughout, nonfiction texts rely to varying degrees on incorporating alternate genres when introducing new information. Literary forms, styles, and corpora are thus born. Certain genres begin to dominate, while others are relegated to the margins, each circulating ideas of locality and worldliness in unexpected ways and rearranging relations between fiction and nonfiction.But Willebrand effectively conceals whether he invents the image of Peking or assumes that it is part of public knowledge about China and thus a solid point of reference for his readers. It hardly matters whether he succeeds as a writer; in fact, his goal lies elsewhere. He aspires to design a beautiful city, which exists, I suggest, in a global network and exchange with other cities. He invokes and coproduces their distinguishing features through comparison and contrast as well as the transposition of ideas. In the process, he creates a specialized book devoted to nascent urban modernity, setting it apart from city chronicles or representations of budding eighteenth-century urbanity in fiction. And just as the fleeting passage in Outline of a Beautiful City turns the reader’s attention toward the translation of world in local texts, it reminds us that literary historiography has told a different story of cities.Of Turns and Translations“Traditionally, the city has been the place of citizens.” Thus begins a chapter in a tome of German literary historiography, Hansers Sozialgeschichte der deutschen Literatur (Hanser’s Social History of German Literature). Claiming to be about a distinct space—the city—and its influence on literature, the chapter turns away from the broader urban context and zeroes in on what its author perceives as “the makers” of culture and literature, namely, the citizens. It then leaps, somewhat predictably, to what literary historians consider the ultimate goal of citizens’ communication in late eighteenth-century German lands: projecting an absent nation through public and—by extension—literary reasoning. This project, the story goes, unfolds in time, enacting a self-perfecting and reasonable public sphere that will culminate, eventually, in that most German of all imaginations, the Kulturnation (Culture Nation).Written in 1980 by Rainer Wild, the chapter’s first sentence is as beautifully minimalistic as it seems obsolete today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Untranslatable as it is in all the nuance of the original German (“der geographische Ort des Bürgers”), Wild’s assertion makes for an appropriate beginning of my study. The multiple meanings of Bürger still resonate, including that of a dominant, idealized citizen fully engaged in public life as well as the pre-eighteenth-century burgher displaying his property, occupational pride, and allegiances. While the former bears complex facets and simultaneously evokes and traverses, via translations, multiple cultural contexts (e.g., citoyen, Staatsbürger, the middle class), location and its nonportable elements define the latter understanding of Bürger. Accordingly, he remains, first and foremost, a (male) denizen, that is, the citizen of the town (Stadtbürger). Moreover, the statement suggests a place of belonging that is almost akin to a natural habitat, shoring up an ever more complex, anthropological picture of what urban space actually is, while further obscuring relations among inhabitants, literary life, and urban space.As Translating the World departs from existing research, it rethinks direction and also turns away from the nation: in emphasizing the nitty-gritty, often mundane places and spaces of the city rather than the role played by idealized citizens in forming an imagined, protonational community, my book proposes an alternative history of late eighteenth-century German literature. What would such a history look like if we considered it in the context of world? What if we examined the local ramifications of global engagements and their manifestations in literature and culture? Even posing the question shifts attention toward aspects of the literary city that may not equate easily with citizens’ intention: literary life, as much as any other aspect of urban existence, happened in the then present moment and often reflected rather diffuse intentions, developments, and contexts. It produced and circulated genres that spoke to intersecting intellectual and artistic, even leisurely, interests. Rather than casting a particular class’s or social stratum’s vision of itself into the future, it often remained on the verge of a mundane banality. As its poetic potential lent itself to mediating and transcending life’s eventualities, literary production played out against the horizons of urban perception, envisioning an attitude toward and relations with the wider, indeed global, world. In the process, literary life engaged with persons and objects, institutions and genres, the obscure use texts, new and old modes of thought, creating not only epistemological arrangements that took “the shape of a net” but also reflecting and constantly rearranging this network.Though I understand these arrangements as a global network, it builds on—and at the same time—transcends descriptors of the Atlantic world: slave-carrying ships and Caribbean plantations, revolutions in the New World, spiritual and cultural communities in the young United States. Africa, though ever present in this configuration, often remains a blind spot for scholars—just as the move across the Atlantic is mostly envisioned as a westward movement. What I hope to accomplish in this book is different: my move away from the national story of literature, and toward the globe and the city, amplifies the entangled, networked relations along the Atlantic rim and across the ocean: I observe patterns of resonance, rather than causal impacts, and chronicle obscure and often diffuse traces of the global that somehow surface locally. As I seek to tell a story that challenges predominant modes of transnational inquiries (e.g., bilateral German-British relations; the travel of a genre), something else comes into sharp focus between the city and the globe. Folded in the pages of this book is yet another story: that of the rise of modern academic disciplines, infringing upon and simultaneously highlighting the work of literature. Bringing these worlds into a text required then, as it does now, acts of reflection, mediation, and translation. Consequently, network and translation evolve as conceptual anchors in the following chapters; I understand both terms pragmatically—as functions of my reading this book’s materials—rather than dogmatically, that is, as applied theories or strict methodology shaping my text.Together, these considerations guide my argument: by telling literature’s story from the perspective of a city defined by global exchange with the eighteenth-century transatlantic world (Hamburg), and by contrasting it with that of a small place that, despite being far from any global network, would rise to international fame (Weimar), I challenge the category of the nation as the conceptual foundation of writing literary history. This turn leaves us with a few perplexing observations. For example, upon reexamining Hamburg’s buzzing and globally engaged—some might say cosmopolitan—literary and cultural scene of the late eighteenth century, an inevitable question arises: What happened? How did the city find itself so thoroughly relegated to the margins of German literary historiography? In contrast, sleepy, provincial Weimar—a town really, much more so than an urban center—emerged as the symbol of the German national literary tradition. Why? “Because of Goethe” is the short, predictable answer, but it is also, I am afraid, a shortsighted one. Similarly, a fresh look at Weimar—and the globe—at the end of the eighteenth and the first decade of the nineteenth centuries (ca. 1770–1810) presents us with a more complicated picture. It consists not merely in challenging the claim that Weimar was a secluded, sleepy town. Nor does it simply affirm the image of a cosmopolitan Weimar bustling with literary and cultural energy. Instead, I propose to tell a story that reveals how the town’s self-fashioned place and aspiration in the world prove to be a clever strategy of containment as well. Despite its alleged interest in global connections, Weimar very much embraced its place away from the (trade and transportation) networks of the eighteenth century. How these two vastly different legacies came about and how Weimar’s literature and culture came to eclipse Hamburg’s is the story I tell in this book. Rhetorically, my argument exploits what sums up the fate of the city in modern cultural history and in literary history in particular: its symbolic transformation from an actual place into a figure of perception and representation. Rather than exploring architecture and urban planning, or the more elusive urban fabric—that is, the symptoms of the spatial, communicative, and social relations that make up the city—the cultural history of the past two hundred years has witnessed the city dissolve into snapshots of individual perception. It has henceforth existed as a mental image, morphing from an idealized space of bourgeois action—reinforced by Jürgen Habermas’s seminal Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere—to expressing the modern subject’s feeling of alienation. In studies of literary representation, the city has been refracted through an occasionally simplifying understanding of modernist discourse, with effects of industrialization and technological modernity dominating the study of urban environments, including those of the eighteenth century. In recent years, however, scholars have challenged this trend, and telling the city’s story in the history of literature and culture has become a fraught, fragmenting, and altogether contested enterprise in which the city represents more than one diffuse image: discussions of the city often conjure up images of the ephemeral, the underworld, and various twilight zones of human existence, often in palimpsest fashion. But they also extol miniature representations of suggestive, comprehensive clarity, evoking equations between snapshot-like, metonymic images and the city as a whole. At times, they even conjure up a photographic image, likening the city to a postcard, an object, or a thing. Like so much else in cultural history, the city turns into a commodity, a place whose characteristics can be transported elsewhere—whether to actual lands or within the imagination. Going back and beyond any modernist narratives that engage an individual subject’s response to and/or the movement of the city, eighteenth-century accounts display different textual dynamics. As they precede the city’s transformation into representation, they complicate its role in literary historiography. As a distinct space, the late eighteenth-century city emerged and developed in relation to literary genres and the cultural fabric they form. Literary genres interact with each other, intersecting in ways that shape the city and urban discourse; conversely, they depend for their genesis on urban spaces. At the same time, genres act globally: traveling across multiple languages and morphing into local and regional variants in different literary markets, they also move their readers in a more figurative sense across the globe, stirring captive audiences’ global imagination and expanding their cognitive horizons. All the while, genres remain confined by the limits of individual readers who, after all, engage with texts, no matter how community-forming literature professes to be. How literature fashions its appeal matters, as do its modes of circulation, but they are not the only parameters that create its success and impact.(Excerpt ends here.)