The Parochial Spirit in Translation Through the Lens of Radomir Konstantinović

This is part of a roundtable, Serbian Philosopher Radomir Konstantinović: “Parochialism” in Translation.


In his 1968 book, The Philosophy of Parochialism, Yugoslav poet, novelist, literary historian, and philosopher Radomir Konstantinović develops the notion of a parochial spirit that lies at the root of culturally and politically nationalist tendencies. In summary, Konstantinović poses the parochial spirit as a reactionary provincialism that shields itself from the world-at-large, as well as from linguistic creativity and history itself. This self-protection is aimed at protecting values (based on a sort of “tribal” coherence) that the nation where the parochial spirit resides has lost, but in the recovery of which it sees its true nature and destiny, seeing its future in its past. The shame of this loss, and the desire to preserve that shame, is the cause of national “closedness.” The world (and history) is to blame, and the shame of losing primal authenticity transforms into a grand narrative of a great destiny and equally great oppression (from the outside), or victimhood. Hence, the parochial spirit’s suspicion of what is “beyond the hill” is expressed in its purges and scapegoating, as well as in its often violent lashing out at the world, i.e., the Other, which it views as deceitful and hostile, as envious of its moral superiority (the cause of its current suffering), as an aggressor who desires to conquer it or compromise its strivings for the power it is deservedly due in recompense for its suffering.

Konstantinović’s theory simultaneously branches out and turns in on itself, digressing tangentially and snowballing with historical examples. A modern reading will likely draw connections to a series of contemporary political events and movements, primarily Russia’s current actions and propaganda in its war on neighboring Ukraine and the rise of nationalist, white-supremacist, and xenophobic Trumpism (and related trends) in the US. The application of The Philosophy of Parochialism to critical discourses addressing the rise of authoritarian and reactionary governments today seems fruitful and necessary. Indeed, Konstantinović’s prescience is as impressive as his renewed relevance is discomfiting. Yet, his encyclopedic and ingenious mining of Serbian literary history—and that literature’s connection to state- and nation-building political and cultural projects—also suggests analogical inquiries into the genesis of dominant literary cultures elsewhere. I began to see analogous trends in the rise of US literary institutions operating on aesthetic theories that have been shaped by xenophobic, reactionary, and anti-historical notions and by a deep anxiety about the authenticity and exceptional purpose of “American” literature. In particular, Konstantinović’s deconstruction of the parochial spirit could shape an understanding of the problematic place of translation in (and the threat it has posed to) “American” literature.

If, as Nietzsche posited, we can infer “the degree of the historical sense of any age … from the manner in which this age makes translations and tries to absorb former ages and books,” we may deduce even more from the manner in which translations and translators are positioned vis-à-vis a culture’s literary production in “its own” language—a language constituted by historical and political factors and powers but perceived as “natural,” as a “mother tongue.” Lawrence Venuti has argued that in dominant US literary culture, translation is dismissed as “a second-order representation … derivative, fake, potentially, a fake copy.” In a recent addition to the discourse that examines translation’s place in the literary field (established in part by Venuti), translator and exophonic writer Johannes Göransson elaborates a theory of translation’s (perceived) inauthenticity as a (perceived) threat through a discussion of twentieth-century anxieties over communication and technological mediation.


Drawing on Kittler, we might say the translation is a kind of “ghost”—flat and inhuman. It lacks interiority, authenticity. This might be why […] the corpse is such an important metaphor in discourses about translation: Either the translation is already dead, or all foreign texts are corpses which must be revived, given an “afterlife” (as Walter Benjamin noted in his seminal essay “The Task of the Translator”). […] There’s a necrotic dimension to our anxieties about both communication and translation. This is because Western emphases on voice, interiority, and meaning repeat Western preferment of the ‘spirit’ over the ‘body’. Translation is the persistence of the body, but it also enfigures the potential of the body to change, to rot or release emanations. (22)


A reading of “emphases on voice, interiority, and meaning,” through Konstantinović allows us to see more than a “preferment of the ‘spirit’ over the ‘body’”: it reveals the fear of translation’s entropic, bodily energy, accompanied by a fear of the outside world—“the body and irrationalism are only possible outside the parochial world” (131). For Konstantinović, the parochial spirit’s abhorrence of the irrational (e.g., night), entropy, and the sensual body goes hand in hand with its suspicion and intolerance for linguistic creativity. Konstantinović writes: “Body (irrationality) ‘equalizes’ city and nature as the oblivion of humanity whose principle is the one of parochial closedness, its rationalism and man’s ‘tight rein’ on himself” (130). Furthermore, “[t]he anathematizing of the ‘foreign’ is … the anathematizing of time itself,” which the parochial spirit, “faithful” to “staticism,” “experiences as hellish speed.” Only a “standstill” would support the “mythical timelessness” necessary for the “organic unity” this spirit desires, but “does not manage to attain, being itself in time (history) which it opposes” (178-179). “There is no doubt,” Konstantinović writes, “that for this spirit of tribe in agony the fear of contact with a foreign culture is inevitable” (179).

Anxieties about mediated communication are a driving force behind New Criticism’s pedagogies—they taught (and valued) literary texts for their ability to perform (or simulate) direct communication between interiorities—the writer’s and the reader’s.[1] Within such a construct, the mediating place of such a “second-order representation” as a literary translation is treated with suspicion. Rather than suspecting translation of being a “traitor” to its source text (as in the famous Italian expression “traduttore, traditore”), New-Critical-inflected US literary culture frames the problem of translation as one of potential loss—of value, of wholeness, and of the possibility of “true” communication—suffered by its target audience. But, if “Poetry is what is lost in translation,” (Robert Frost), what is “poetry”? Because “translation displaces the poem from the originator,” Göransson writes, it introduces potential “noise,” making communication inauthentic by introducing an intermediary—the translator. Yet, crucially, Frost’s implicit definition of poetry (that ineffable quality which is lost through the entropic process of translation) is also a national authenticity, the voice speaking in its mother tongue.

The parochial fear of technology (as mediation)—something Konstantinović talks about in terms of the parochial resistance to speed (the movement of historical time itself)—is relevant to anxieties about “communication failure.” As a mediating technology, translation is a catalyst (like the telephone or the internet) for concerns over privacy—the private realm that, for the parochial spirit, guarantees insularity from the world, which Konstantinović characterizes as the “bourgeois privacy” that is “domesticity.” Thus translation inflicts on the target reader a potential “deceit.” This is the term Konstantinović uses again and again when he speaks of the parochial spirit’s perception of a threat from the world outside (e.g., “European civilization,” “progress,” etc.), that which comes from “beyond the hill” or “over the fence.” Göransson writes that


The ideal of the poem as unparaphraseable is one of the most pervasive rules in modern discussions of US poetry: any version of the poem is inherently a degradation because every word is in the right place. The poet’s authority assures the reader that the poem is not accidental, not noise…The reader loses the assurance—or “currency”—of mastery, opening up the threat that the poem might be a hoax, a counterfeit. The threat of translation is the threat of excess: too many versions of too many texts by too many authors from too many lineages. Poetry becomes too volatile in translation’s excess.


In its potential for both excess and counterfeit, Göransson sees that “[t]ranslation questions the very idea of a nationally coherent literature.” This is the root issue behind Frost’s oft-repeated pronouncement and the underlying, unspoken source for New-Critical suspicions of translation. If, as Göransson notes, “New Criticism offers tools to come to the ‘right’ interpretation,” it is somewhat stymied by translated literary works, which it understands as mediated by a translator who may imbue a text with his or her own intentions. It is by now (and yet still) a suspicion so ingrained in US culture that one frequently hears high-school and college students wondering aloud if the assigned text of a foreign poem or novel is an “authentic” text—is the translator messing with us, and is this really what the author meant to say? This is the parochial fear of “deceit” par excellence.

Konstantinović’s idea of the parochial may similarly aid us in unpacking the insularity of American “workshop” literature that begins in Iowa concurrently with the rise of New Criticism. Göransson shows that the “New Critical paradigm—like the communication ideal—functions according to an economic principle: meaning is the gold standard ensuring the value of language, while language is a currency otherwise susceptible to nonsense, inflation, chaos.” Likewise, Konstantinović speaks of the parochial spirit’s fear of nonsense and chaos in connection to its derision of genius (linguistic creativity).

Göransson unpacks the two most well-known tenets of “American” aesthetics that have come down from the Iowa Writers Workshop (IWW):


Behind the phrase “write what you know,” is a profoundly regionalist model urging writers not to stray into the strange world beyond their home, not to subject themselves to “foreign influence.” […] it also suggests a limit to fantasies and stylistic excesses: don’t explore things you don’t know. The goal is to “find” one’s “voice” to communicate this interior essence. Writing is construed as a voice—i.e. not-writing […] it is natural, it comes from within, it is not artifice and it is not foreign. […] it’s a voice because it imagines the reader-writer relationship as […] friends “communicating,” resisting the transgressive circulation of modern society.” (21)


The regionalist bent of the IWW pedagogy is anti-urban, due in part to its Midwest setting and in part to its confluence with the southern agrarian wellspring of New Criticism that opposed the urban, left-leaning, and modernist writing of the 1930s. It is no coincidence that the pedagogy of creative writing would be born in rural Iowa and not in the city—a space of miscegenation where languages and cultures mix. The pastoral of the province (land-grant colleges in cornfields and their small-town students), following Konstantinović, is neither nature nor city.


In its absolute fidelity to closedness, the parochial spirit relates to nature as to the “world”: if it sees the world as personification of openness because it dissents from uniformity (pure polyphony of styles, a conflict and war among them, rather than a single prevailing style), it also sees nature as open because it is not the nature of its style. Just like the world, nature is denial of the province, precisely by this principle of openness. Contact with nature is contact with irrational openness […] Nature as a world before the parochial spirit (and before its tribal past), and the “world” (of the city) as the one after, hovers on the boundaries of this spirit. […] It is “irrational” […] vertiginous infinity, […] wherein everything verges on disaster, not being a stable balance of the province. […] City is the hell of a lustful body that again comes into power, just as that hell is the “animal” nature itself. (Konstantinović, 129-130)


I.A. Richards’ way out of the bind that the communication paradigm creates vis-à-vis translation is to posit “an authentic kernel of poetry outside of the words,” suggesting that, as Göransson quips, “cultural difference is something the translator can overcome by translating the essence of the poem, an essence that exists outside of the language.” Indeed, whether in fiction or in poetry, mainstream US translations aim to relay the “essence” of the original, or what has been referred to (in the English tradition) as its “spirit,” rather than its “body.” This is the case with both conservative, “faithful” translations, as well as, and all the more so, with the “free translations” by marketable poets who, not pretending to know the original language, work with cribs and “informers.”[2]

Meanwhile, in so-called experimental translations associated with current translation theory that radically rethinks or debunks prevailing frameworks of “fidelity,” all too often a kind of hyper-paraphrase emerges that appropriates (or “domesticates”) the foreign poets’ works to mean in and for contemporary US-American literature, thus also replacing “body” with “spirit.” Together with such adaptational strategies, contemporary trends toward “foreignizing” translations (or bringing the reader toward the writer, as Schleiermacher suggested more than 200 years ago) run the risk of “instrumentaliz[ing] the foreign text as a pedagogical tool for US readers” (Göransson , 44). “The foreign text,” Göransson reminds us, “does not need to be made more foreign by the translator—the foreign text is already foreign” (44).

Though tied to nation-building ideas, Schleiermacher’s Romantic imperative (reflected also in Benjamin’s famous “The Task of the Translator”) that translations should enrich the target language (and the target culture) has recently regained popularity in its service to the “foreignizing” approach advocated by a broad new wave of translators and theorists. Such translations, however well-meaning and different from the previous wave of “plain style” translations that carry (the translator’s sense of) the “spirit” of the original into English, are often just as keen to serve US-centric concerns. In questioning mainstream publishing’s choice of translated works in the growing canon of “world literature,” scholars such as Gayatri Spivak and Emily Apter have challenged the way translations uphold “universal” themes and thereby elide  difference in the service of the translating culture’s political and aesthetic imperatives and (like New Critical approaches) ignore the source text’s local and historical contexts. Katherine Hedeen, addressing the long history of US colonial-style extraction and exoticization of Latin American literature in Spanish, characterizes the trend in 1960s “Latin American Boom” translations (by the likes of Robert Bly, W.S. Merwin, James Wright, etc.) “as a response to what these poets considered to be a stale, conventional, formalist poetry in the U.S., bereft of emotion and political commitment.” She then describes how “the phenomenon is intimately tied to the way a U.S. poetry audience thinks poets in Spanish should write and how such writing can benefit that audience,” singling out translations of Pablo Neruda and Federico García Lorca:

While they have areas of their work that are undoubtedly avant-garde, much of what they are known for in English translation is, on the one hand, some sort of innate connection to sensuality, passion, feeling, emotion, and the body that “Americans” don’t have or have lost. On the other, their political commitment (and that of poets writing in Spanish more generally) has been over-emphasized in simplistic and obvious ways. In other words, the canonization of these two poets is an exotifying move, highlighting the racist, neo-colonialist trope of a U.S. reader, weary of the hardships of a developed (capitalist, imperialist) country drawn to a more “primitive,” passionate art. Bly called it hot Surrealism. … the fashioning of the Spanish-language poetry in English translation canon highlights work that is not necessarily complex, cerebral, or intellectual.

Hedeen notes that this is a “typical colonialist/neo-colonialist dichotomy (as well as a gendered one): South equals sensual and irrational, an exotic land of corruption, dictators, and guerrillas; North equals cerebral and theoretical, a land of democracy and freedom, and more specifically, freedom of expression.”[3] She then suggests that such attitudes persist with a different twist, as in recent years independent publishers have highlighted “marginal voices” from Latin America “in a move that echoes the very popular and successful trend in the U.S. of poetry based on identity politics.” “In their search to discover the underrepresented,”  such “hand-picking” approaches bring across  “a limiting canon” that “mirror[s] back to a woke U.S. readership their own concerns and anxieties about representation.”

Expansionist tendencies of dominant-language translation are intertwined with domesticating objectives. When translation is placed in the service of shaping a national literature, it bolsters new US literary aesthetics by connecting foreign writing to domestic literary trends. The US translator becomes handmaiden to a colonialist project, and translation yields itself as a tool in the parochial objectives of US-American literary culture—its universalist positions, its abhorrence of what is actually foreign and unknown, historically bound, and embodied.

Likely, the aesthetic theories and pedagogies of New Criticism and the IWW would not have been so powerful in the building of American literary institutions had they not overlapped with political trends, and in particular a turn away from leftist modernisms—their pastiche, their miscegenation of high-brow and pop-culture and jazz, and their own brand of urban populism.[4] To push against what we might, using Konstantinović’s terms, call the City, the parochial (and nationalist) spirit searched for an “American voice”—local, provincial (in Konstantinović’s sense), non-mystical, and closed to the foreign.

From then on, creative writing programs would discourage artifice, leading to “the ‘plain style’ aesthetic so dominant in US writing programs” (Göransson, 23). The “plain style” is anti-intellectual and populist (in the provincial sense) on its surface. It is apparently unadorned “freedom of expression,” making it suitable as an “American” aesthetic and cooperative with Cold War propaganda. Peddled by the MFA and the Deep Image poets of the 1960s-80s (among them prolific translators Robert Bly and W.S. Merwin), the “plain style,” when applied to translation, contributed to what Venuti describes in The Translator’s Invisibility as “the illusory effect of transparency that simultaneously masks its status as an illusion”, so that “the translated text seems ‘natural,’ i.e. not translated” (Venuti, cited by Göransson, 23). In other words, “plain style” allows translation to be “viewed as an original and transparent self-representation, unmediated by transindividual determinants (linguistic, cultural, social)” (Venuti, cited by Göransson, 23) and  supports “a US hegemony […] by denying the cultural specificity of the rest of the world.”[5]

Yet, this “parochial closedness” to the foreign in New Critical pedagogy and in IWW aesthetics and the development of “plain style” translation are not born of a vacuum but rather run along familiar pathways, emerging from Walt Whitman’s poetics and carried into modernism by William Carlos Williams (the “American grain”). One finds a suspicion of the foreign—and of the translator—further down that path, in a remark by Ted Berrigan about Anselm Hollo, a translator-poet originally from Finland who emigrated from Europe to the US and wrote in English. “Anselm [Hollo]’s poems … like the poet himself, are exceptionally civilized,” Berrigan writes in a blurb on the back of Hollo’s 1977 Heavy Jugs, separating the “European” poet from himself‚ a New York School poet from Tulsa. “Civilized” suggested refinement and restraint, and also inauthenticity. For Berrigan, this refinement marked Hollo’s difference from the Whitmanian-Ginsbergian freedom from tradition, a home-grown, countercultural, and “authentic” modernism steeped in the residue of a “USAmerican” (as Hollo says) myth of self-reliance and self-invention. Here the land itself is imagined as a tabula-rasa and its poets, both cowboys and Indians at once, are imagined as simultaneously unrestrained (or un-restrainable) natives and unrefined and (territorially) expansive settlers.

The complex relation of US literary parochialism to colonial and expropriative politics would far exceed the scope of this brief reflection. It is worth noting that this inward-gazing and appropriative US-American mythos hinges on the ideas of exceptional (“manifest”) destiny and autochthonous authenticity that we find in Whitman and the Beats as much as in Robert Frost or the southern-agrarian Fugitives. Indeed, the parochial spirit, as Konstantinović demonstrates, works in mysterious ways. Rather than postulate an exceptional, US-specific parochialism, I would suggest that the US formulation of poetic “freedom” from tradition contributes to “parochial closedness,” offering a corrective (or correlative) to Konstantinović’s many-faceted deconstruction of parochial rationalism and its mandate for “man’s ‘tight rein’ on himself” (Konstantinović, 130). In any case, we can safely say that US exceptionalism of several kinds contribute to the suspicion of translation.

Through Konstantinović’s theory of the parochial spirit, we see the forces underlying a pervasive fear of translation in the Anglo-American literary field. That fear is comprised of mistrust of the translator (a go-between, a figure with one foot in a foreign culture), anxiety of what the translator “brings over” (the foreign work, the foreign manner, the foreign world), and a distaste for (and mistrust of) translation as a second-tier, unoriginal, and inauthentic literary production. This fear is at the root of historical biases against translators of bilingual and bicultural heritage, as well as foreign translators (those translating into English who are not native English speakers). The fear undergirds notions of “loss” and “impossibility” in translation, as well as the often-heard appeals to “fidelity” and “equivalence.” At the same time, it engenders many of the metaphors used by translators and translation theorists alike in their attempts to define translation itself as a metaphor involving “ghosts” or a dead texts waiting for an “afterlife.” The translator is defined as a (spiritual) medium and other terms pertaining to the uncanny world of the Other. Based on precepts originating in New Criticism, this fear also governs dominant tendencies in the curricula of “English” classes and the pedagogy of creative writing, which emphasizes homegrown, local American idioms.

Translations of literary works by translators (not by celebrity writers or poets) are appraised by publishers and editors based on “readability,” i.e., the degree to which the translation is transparent or invisible. For much of the twentieth century, translations published in the US—when not made by celebrity writers or translators—have by and large concealed the fact of translation or revealed it only in the fine print. Venuti and others have critiqued the resulting “invisibility of the translator,” pointing to the way the press usually reviews translations without mention of the translator’s work. Public proclamations in support of translation as an antidote to American solipsism and exceptionalism are a direct response to this invisibility, yet their rhetoric belies the fear of the untranslated (“unnamed”) other as a dominant paradigm. Meanwhile, translation prizes and fellowships, as Hedeen notes, aggressively police citizenship or residency in the US.

If Konstantinović’s book “translated” into the US-American context allows us to see parochialism’s entanglement in our attitudes toward translation, it may also critically address trends in our contemporary social and political life more broadly. Konstantinović connects the fear of uncertainty that prevails in the parochial spirit to its moralizing tendencies: the parochial spirit opposes history and therefore opposes materialist (historically-based) politics, with its notion of a moral compass tied to past precedent (tradition) and (lost) “tribal” taboos. Notably, across political divides—whether in Trumpist ideas of “American” identity or in certain liberal and leftist discourses based on the politics of representation—the predominant rhetorical strategy utilizes moralistic language that breeds intolerance toward uncertainty.

In a section critiquing sociological positivism—which he argues “could, in fact, be accepted and have strong influence precisely because it was preceded by the parochial spirit” (178), Konstantinović deconstructs the “abstraction of the individual into typical” (178) that is perhaps the most radical (as in root) issue at stake in his book:


… the parochial spirit … — being the spirit of the omnipotent superego that, unreconciled to history and the “world,” opposes everything individual-alienated, unrooted in the community, unabsorbed by it—is inevitably the spirit of style or stylization, the spirit of generalization with style of everything individual. If culture is the creation of style, this creation is, again, the necessary creation of type. Thaine’s teaching of the “environment” and “the racial” as predetermining everything individual is uniquely acceptable for this spirit … as the one seeking a type, staring into the timeless-mythical that is always typical: there is no timelessness that would be the creation of the individual (to the extent that this individual is actually possible: as a specific and unrepeatable expression of the general, human). Mythical timelessness is always the creation of the typical, being the denial of everything temporal-individual.


In this light, Konstantinović’s book offers a way to think about identity-based politics (and poetics) in relation with parochialism and its attendant aesthetic values. The cancellation of political thinking and action in favor of identitarian factions based on “type” (race, nation, etc.) breeds a culture that is deeply pessimistic about poetics of relation. When Konstantinović writes that “… ‘there is no love’ because there is no urge for unification through communication between beings,” (134) he is speaking of the kind of communication translations (of that which is foreign) might foster through historically-rooted—and, therefore, always changing—linguistic transformation.


Matvei Yankelevich is a poet, translator, and editor, whose publications include Some Worlds for Dr. Vogt (Black Square), Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings of Daniil Kharms (Overlook), and the chapbook Dead Winter (Fonograf). He has received translation fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for Humanities. He is the editor of World Poetry Books, a nonprofit publisher of poetry in translation. In 2023, he founded the small press Winter Editions. He teaches translation at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.



Göransson, Johannes. 2018. Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation. Tucson, AZ: Noemi Press.

Hedeen, Katherine M. 2020. “Nuestra América: Strategic Positionality and the Politics of Translation.” Action Books blog, Sept. 1, 2020.

Konstantinović, Radomir. 2022. The Philosophy of Parochialism. Edited by Branislav Jakovljević, translated by Ljiljana Nikolić and Branislav Jakovljević. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.



[1] For New Critics like I.A. Richards, the ideal of communication had two main enemies: “the impasse of solipsism” and the “veritable orgy of verbomania.” (Göransson, 20).

[2] For instance, for the former see Osip Mandelstam in the translations of James Greene of the 1970s-80s, and the same poet in Christian Wiman’s “versions” of 2012. In both those cases, the “spirit” of the original is determined by expectations of the target language and the target culture’s received notion of the original’s style and (political) content—in other words, what they’re supposed to mean, according to an established, always ideologically motivated reception of the foreign writer.

[3] Along with Hedeen herself, I would recommend to the reader Jonathan Mayhew’s excellent study of Lorca translations in the US: Apocryphal Lorca: Translation, Parody, Kitsch (University of Chicago Press, 2009).

[4] For a sustained discussion of critical oppositions to Modernism (and its reframing as “high Modernism” by New-Criticism-aligned theorists such as Clement Greenberg), see Geoffrey Jacques, A Change in the Weather: Modernist Imagination, African American Imaginary (University of Massachusetts Press, 2009).

[5] As Göransson summarizes, citing Eric Bennett and Richard Jean So, the “plain style”—born from IWW-founder and communication theorist William Schramm’s notion of “empathy”—was exported through the Workshop’s more explicitly anti-Communist offshoot, the International Writers Program, to “spread the gospel of democracy and individual freedom” during the Cold War (24).


Published on February 15, 2024.


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