This article contributes to the forum on original languages by examining debates about reading in translation in comparative literature studies. Traditionally comparative literature has eschewed the study of works in translation, but new interventions in world literature challenge this long held piety. I argue that reading in translation can be a valuable practice for scholars of English and comparative literature alike because it demands that we reconsider the link between the commitment to original languages and the promotion of theories of culture that prize alterity and difference over encounter and intersection. I further suggest that the preference for foreignness and defamiliarization as critical strategies of translation and reading limits the kinds of literary works that constitute postcolonial and world literature canons, particularly in the English language.
To illustrate these claims, this essay turns to the career of Rabindranath Tagore, whose auto-translations of many works, including Gitanjali and The Home and the World, render him a bilingual writer of Bengali and English literature. By close reading Tagore's translations and their receptions among early Orientalist and late-twentieth-century critics, I show that his under-appreciated translations are key to understanding the development of his style across both languages. Even more importantly, the reception of his translations as awkward and old-fashioned, or what I call “Babu English,” reveals continuities between Orientalist and postcolonial approaches to the elevation of cultural difference. Tagore's Babu English refers to his uncanny English translations, which are neither fully assimilated to the target language nor assertively foreignized. Their partial domestication shows up the exoticism desired by Orientalist readers and equally challenges the notion of complicity assigned to domesticated translations by contemporary critics. Tagore's English-language works are thus best approached not as timeless works of art, but as untimely translations whose history of circulation, reception, and stylistic change across languages and nations must be made visible in order for Anglophone and Bengali literary history to become more comparative and more entwined.