Bridging Literary Borders with Paulo Horta

Paulo Lemos Horta, Assistant Professor of Literature, NYUAD

NYUAD Assistant Professor of Literature Paulo Horta is doing things a little differently. "When 90 percent of comparative literature being taught and published in the United States pertains to European languages, we need to go beyond that," he said. Every day, in both his research and inside his classroom, he is part of a movement to change the landscape of world literature by rethinking the current theory in a more global way.

The latter course delved into how "the work crystallized in the Arab world and yet draws stories from Greek, Hindu, and Persian traditions, and then it traveled to Europe." Horta describes the text itself as "emblematic of syncretism and cross-cultural collaboration," and, with that in mind, had the unique opportunity to bring in renowned English director Tim Supple to discuss his upcoming groundbreaking theater production of One Thousand and One Nights.

Horta is also doing unique work with One Thousand and One Nights in his own research. "I am very much interested in how the story moved across time and space." Horta notes how many stories were co-created by translators and the local informants they relied upon, and is working to "recuperate the role of the collaborators who bequeathed their translators these stories" in a book manuscript on One Thousand and One Nights.

Outside the classroom, Horta is the co-director of a five-year series of conferences on world literature that takes place across three continents. He is now working to organize the next conference, scheduled to take place this year in Abu Dhabi, and describes the five-year project as "all about getting the principal theorists of world literature in dialogue with thinkers in the Middle East and elsewhere."

Organized along with collaborators in France and the United States, as well as the NYUAD Institute, the Abu Dhabi conference will focus on world literature in translation, including NYUAD's translation initiatives such as Faculty Director Philip Kennedy's Library of Arabic Literature. Thus far, conferences have taken place in Santa Barbara (California) and Paris; after Abu Dhabi, the project will move to Taipei and London. Abu Dhabi is an important inclusion in that list, explains Horta, as the city is "a central place to think about the role of translation in establishing canons of literature."

It is precisely due to this cross-cultural work that Horta does every day that the world literature status quo is changing. "NYU Abu Dhabi is certainly not like past literary study. We have to blow that open."

Inside his classroom, Horta is making important developments in terms of teaching world literature. "We are teaching courses here under the rubric of literature, which is very unique to NYUAD." While most universities separate English and foreign literature into very different fields, at NYUAD, Horta is teaching English and comparative literature together. As he excitedly puts it, "What we are doing is very different; we are doing a lot of translation because our students are incredibly multilingual. In any given week, a certain number of students can read the texts in translation, be it in Portuguese, Arabic, French." This semester, Horta is focusing on this subject in particular, teaching the course Literary Translation.

A fundamental introductory course on literary translation, the class challenges students to think about what is gained in translation. "The cliché is that translation is always a betrayal or a loss," Paulo explained. "But by definition, any work of world literature has traveled across time and space and has acquired some currency outside of its source culture or language. What we find is that texts actually acquire new meaning."

In particular, Horta's class focuses some of its time on Portuguese poet Luis de Camoes's poem, The Luciads. Camoes is said to have sojourned in the Gulf, and Horta describes how "teaching this material here is different from teaching it anywhere else. We are dealing with works of literature that are interwoven with our location. Part of the excitement is reminding students that this is a place where they can access layers of history, literature, and culture when we take them to places like Oman and Ras al Khaimah."

Last semester, Horta taught two classes, Magic Realism and A Thousand and One Nights. The former, Horta explained, "is one of the staples of contemporary fiction. [January Term Global Distinguished Professor] Elias Khoury has written in that style. It is one of the contributions that the non-Western world has made to the development of the novel and allows me to take examples from all over the world."