Call for Papers - Erotic Literature: Adaptation and Translation in Europe and Asia

29-30 June 2015
University of Cambridge, Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH)

Organizers: Johannes D. Kaminski, Rudolph Ng
Keynotes: Eva Illouz, Laura Moretti

This conference will address the semantic demarcations of erotic literature. Transgressive by nature, no genre of literature is more defined by the social and aesthetic conventions that it playfully disregards or unwillingly reproduces.

Leopold von Sacher Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870) is an excellent example of an erotic novel that has prompted a multitude of adaptions. Its translations have resonated strongly in different socio-cultural settings, no doubt in part as a result of translators’ efforts to tailor the text to new audiences. Film adaptations cover a broad spectrum, from mainstream soft-core porn to acclaimed psychological dramas such as Roman Polanski’s latest feature film (2013).

Often enough, the cross-cultural transfer of erotic literature must negotiate incompatible concepts. When Franz Kuhn translated the 17th century Chinese text The Carnal Prayer Mat 肉蒲 團 into German for the first time (1959), he glossed over the finesse of its physiological detail. The anthropological conceptions that inform the text simply proved too inconsistent with contemporaneous Western notions of the body. At any rate, upon publication, Swiss authorities decided to place the translation on the index.

Bridging linguistic and topological disjunctions, the transpository process entails a delicate balancing act, which, for Roland Barthes, comprises the pleasure of reading itself (cf. The Pleasure of the Text, 1973): in each case, the rhythm between the said and the unsaid must be measured anew, as different languages and genres answer to different aesthetic sensibilities.

This conference aims to unite literary and scholars of the visual arts with an interdisciplinary ambit. Contributions will touch upon European and Asian topics or both. Possible case studies will be concerned with one or more of the following questions:

  • How do the demarcations of the erotic vary a) when a text is transposed into different literary genres, b) when adapted to film or other visual media, or c) when translated into another language?
  • Which factors determine the fluctuating rules that determine the lines between the explicit and implicit? Who dominates the discourse of the erotic, if not white middle-aged men?
  • How do adaptations pierce the thin layer that separates private enjoyment and public outrage? How do juridical and aesthetic concerns intertwine when the erotic is distinguished from the pornographic?
  • If the erotic only works within such defined cultural parameters, how is the 50 Shades-effect possibleas a global phenomenon?

Proposals for a 20-minute paper should include a 250-word abstract (alongside a mini-bio) and should be sent to eroticliterature2015[at]gmail[dot]com by 15 November 2014.

Conference website:

Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH), Cambridge, and the Tiarks Fund of the Department of German, Cambridge.