International Foundations of National Cultures

The nation repels foreign elements. In fulfilling their duty to select works and texts that are representative of the genius of a people, the histories of literature and ideas are key witnesses to the arbitrary separation of the national and foreign. Cultural theories are refined without altering the a priori classification of facts by nations that can be compared but not related to one another or observed in common historical-social processes. Conversely, globalization theories and transnational studies by considering the nation as a weakened category tend to deny it and to generalize sociocultural processes that transcend singular cultures. The relationship between national and universal thought is not evident in the light of the traditional schemes of literary and intellectual history (which, as was said, exalt the particular) or of philosophy (which belittle the singular and only focus on the ideas that the academic doxa treats as transcendent). However, every culture is made, “in fact”, out of non-exclusive elements, with materials (ideas, customs, attitudes, patterns, techniques) that are to some degree foreign or shared with other cultures.2

In the historical sense, the international relations that shape a national culture (an essential dimension for any cultural and social study of translation; hence the title of the chapter) may be observed at two moments. First, these relations are evident, notorious, and explicit at the dawn of a nation: for example, the shaping character of the American and French Revolutions, or the Napoleonic wars for the independence of Latin American countries.3 Second, the international relations present in the differentiation of a nation become sublimated and denied when the power of the State to symbolically unite the citizens sheltered in the territory it protects is strengthened. The education system (not by any means the most sensitive issue in Weinberg’s academic concerns) is the engine for instilling feelings of national belonging. Under the practical logic of nationalism, the particularities of a people are represented as the emanation of a collective soul, of a genius, of a character and style that “owes nothing to anyone” who does not share the same origin. An exclusive attitude is thus forged.

The sociological observation of the phenomena that I link here cannot elude the relational, structural, invariant dimension to which I refer: a nation is legitimated in relation to others. The symbolic power of a nation is constituted by its relative position in relation to other cultures of the same type, other nations; not just any nation but those that are effectively complementary. The universal exhibitions of the 19th century were theatres where this structuring dynamic emerged. In these rituals, the dominant national States manifested their power of “cultural irradiation”, spread patterns of civility on a planetary scale and incited regular competitions for cultural supremacy, the driving force of progress. Nation States in the process of consolidation, like some Latin American countries, made enormous efforts to present themselves at world exhibitions; showcases to make their products known as evidence of the desire to become modern. The exhibitions metamorphosed the suspicion of others, inevitable at the moment of emancipation of nation States, into symbolic battles aiming at the imposition of nationally founded patterns of universality.4

In literary culture, this process of competition-legitimization was forged in the tension between forces of universalization and particularization, through certain genres of writing such as philosophy, literature, and human sciences. Translation became an inexorable fact both for the international expansion of a culture and for the appropriation of general models of thought in order to differentiate ideas of a recognizable national origin.

This chapter investigates an Argentine manifestation of that general process. To this end, it discusses the genesis of one of the most decisive book series for the imposition of a canon of Argentine thought in the second half of the 20th century, together with the foreign elements necessary to its emergence (works of universal thought to be translated or foreign structures of publishing). For this purpose, it is necessary to treat books, authors, and writing as agents and practices related to other social agents and practices (publishers and publishing houses, translators and translations), ideas in their spatial circulation (national, regional, international). All these phenomena need to be set within the framework of processes of reception, classification, and reclassification. The history of books and publishing, the anthropology of the international circulation of ideas, and the sociology of culture offer perspectives that I believe to be essential for observing and understanding translation as a major event in the history of cultures.5

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