Professor Birgit Tautz’s latest book shines a new light on German literary history around the turn of the nineteenth century. Translating the World: Toward a New History of German Literature Around 1800 (
Tautz, the George Taylor Files Professor of Modern Languages, says the book is a reaction against the traditional idea in German literary history that emphasizes the idea of nationhood or “idealized citzenry,” which she says can be misleading. The period she looks at is the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the so-called Romantic Period, during which Germany was a collection of states rather than a unified nation (for all you non-historians out there—this didn’t happen until 1871).
She tells the story through the lens of two very different German cities, Hamburg and Weimar. Hamburg was an important center of global trade with a flourishing literary reputation in the eighteenth century, while Weimar was a small, provincial and insular town that became an increasingly important cultural center, with such luminaries as Goethe and Schiller making it their home. Tautz describes Weimar as “a dumpy, little town where world-renowned writers jockeyed for position, against stale-minded, but still influential aristocrats.” Hamburg, by contrast, was “very powerful and worldly, playing an instrumental role keeping transatlantic trades alive while the colonial empires of Britain and France were at war.”
The book, however, is as much about global as it is about local perspectives, says Tautz. Central to the work is the relationship of German culture to expanding global networks, including the slave trade, which played a central role that is often neglected by scholars. “My book abandons, or dents, the story of German belatedness or innocence when it comes to colonialism, the slave trade, and empire-building.” Tautz explains how German traders played a major role in establishing sugar plantations in the Caribbean, while at the same time supporting the cultural and literary scene back in Europe.
Another important aspect of the book, says Tautz, is the concept of “translation,” and how it goes beyond the act of simply converting a literary text from one language to another. “There is also the act of translating the spoken word into written text,” she says, “as as well as an examination of how different works of literature interact to transform the urban cultural landscape as they are translated and move throughout the world.” In this way, said Tautz, the book aims to bring in the perspectives of audiences who are familiar with different national traditions.