The term world literature is often used to name the small subset of literary texts that are translated into many languages and circulate globally. One might see the work of the widely translated, globe-trotting poet Bei Dao 北島 (pen name of Zhao Zhenkai 趙振開) as epitomizing this narrow and still predominant conception of world literature as literature that travels beyond the borders of its nation and language of origin. A literary work need not, however, be translated to participate in a literary context shaped by translation. From its outset in the early 1970s, many years before it was translated, Bei Dao's work developed through translation, through both his reading of translated texts and his connecting of translation to literary creation. Bei Dao's career illustrates how translation is not secondary to the creation and reception of a literary work in its home language, place, and time but is a fundamental aspect of contemporary literature. It exemplifies the falsity of the opposition between the local and global, between national literatures and literature that circulates in translation, between Chinese poetry and the world. Fully recognizing the role of translation in literature means moving beyond notions that limit world literature or world poetry to those texts that travel beyond a nation or language and instead recognizing translation as a fundamental part of contemporary literature's continuous negotiation of multiple relations to and in the world.

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