UNESCO and the Fate of the Literary
Sarah Brouillette



UNESCO’s Collection of Representative Works

UNESCO’S FIRST MAJOR LITERARY PROGRAM, the Collection of Representative Works, was proposed by the Lebanese National Committee in UNESCO’s earliest days. The original idea behind the program, as expressed in the program proposal presented to the UN, was that “the translation and dissemination of the great works of all nations are a powerful means of promoting international exchange likely to increase the mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples and so contribute to the maintenance of peace and security.”1 The project of bringing the world’s most notable literatures together onto a global roster of masterworks was intended to foster cross-cultural understanding and help to establish the bases of lasting world peace.

The Collection of Representative Works still exists. Though it now supports the translation of a wide variety of types of writing, including contemporary literature, its first focus was exclusively classics, defined as works published before 1900, accessible to a general audience, “bear[ing] witness to the state of civilization” and taking their “place in the history of culture.” Classics chosen for the program would, “while revealing the human aspects of national culture, simultaneously bring out the unity and brotherhood of man.”2 Some of the classics brought into the program have been translated into “languages of little diffusion”; in addition, the Lebanese committee that first proposed the program promoted translation into Arabic and took the free movement of works into and out of that language to be a crucial measure of Lebanon’s modernity. Still, most translation has been into French or English. UNESCO’s initial plans for the program in fact suggest that “as a contribution to universal culture,” priority should be accorded to translation into the “main cultural tongues.”3

The records of the first meeting of the United Nations General Assembly refer to a discussion of the Collection of Representative Works. The program is described as being intended to entail a significant level of translation of the classics “deemed by the highest authorities to have universal significance and permanent value” into languages that are spoken in nations that in fact “do not have sufficient facilities and resources for the authentic translation of numerous classics into their languages.” The records state further that “such translation is greatly conducive to their cultural development.”4 On the basis of this initial plan, which was never quite realized in this form, the General Assembly referred the matter of the Collection of Representative Works to the United Nations Economic and Social Council for further scrutiny. The Economic and Social Council subsequently asked UNESCO to submit, by June 1, 1948, a report, “including particularly data on objective methods of selection of great books, the needs of various cultural regions, and suggestions for general assistance in translation, publication and distribution.”5 This resulted in a substantial document presented for the council’s consideration.

The nature of the document indicates that defining a classic and preparing lists of classic works for translation was an immense undertaking and an important part of UNESCO’s initial activities. Before preparing the report, UNESCO had already written to the governments of member states, asking them to inform the UNESCO Secretariat “of the official and private bodies, associations and persons in their countries best fitted to supply the necessary information.”6 It received replies from Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, France, Norway, Siam, the United Kingdom, and Venezuela. Using those replies, UNESCO staff then compiled a list of individuals and institutions, including universities as well as other academic bodies and learned societies, and sent a questionnaire to each.

The preamble to the questionnaire states that UNESCO takes a classic to be “any work, in whatever intellectual field . . . which is deemed representative of a culture or a nation and which remains as a landmark in the cultural history of mankind.” It goes on to say that, though “it may express a particular culture, it is a characteristic of a classic that it transcends the limits of that culture and is representative of it, not only within the nation itself, but also in the eyes of other nations.” It must have “stood the test of time and have preserved [its] human value for generations.” It states moreover that UNESCO will only publish those works which “no excessive difficulty of wording or meaning puts out of reach of a broadly educated and well-read public.” The questionnaire itself then asks what works are “classics,” but beyond that, also asks which of those works deemed classics “do you consider: (a) the most accessible to the rest of the world (‘universal’)? (b) the most representative of your culture and national genius?” Respondents are further asked which works they deem most worthy of translation, in order of priority; they are also asked to look beyond the nation to write a “universal list including the classics of all ages and all countries,” and to rank “100 of these in order of priority”; they are asked if there are works that have already been translated but that need retranslating; they are asked to draw up another list in order of priority of all works that should be translated; and finally, they are asked for the names of the best translators “at your country’s service for the accomplishment of this task.”7

The questionnaire was sent to those individuals and organizations originally suggested by the member nations who had sent in their surveys. Concurrently, because not all works, and especially not works in dead languages, are the recognized property of one particular modern nation, it was also sent to nongovernmental organizations, including PEN International, the International Commission on the History of Literature, the International Council of Scientific Unions, the International Union for the History of Science, the World Federation of Scientific Workers, and the International Institute of Philosophy. Given the onerous quantity of work that the questionnaire asked respondents to undertake, it is perhaps no surprise that at the time of the preparation of the report for the Economic and Social Council, in June 1948, only three had been filled out and returned: one originating in Belgium, one in Austria, and one in the United Kingdom.

But UNESCO had also convened an international committee of experts for a meeting in Paris to be held in May 1948. The report that was presented to the United Nations Economic and Social Council relies heavily on the views of the experts who attended that meeting, which included Alan Lane (a British publisher and cofounder of Penguin Books), V. S. Pritchett (a British writer and literary critic), Taha Hussein (an Egyptian writer and intellectual who was a figurehead for Arabic literary modernism), and Frederic Melcher (an American publisher, editor, bookseller, and libraries expert). In the report, the definition of a classic is reiterated. A classic “bears witness to the state of civilization and can take its place in the history of culture”; it was written before 1900; and ideally, “while revealing the human aspects of national culture, simultaneously bring[s] out the unity and brotherhood of man.” Its audience is neither scholars nor the masses, but the “generally educated public, for the development and increase of which this project is in fact designed.” The committee recommended edited anthologies and collections of selected works for this reason: such texts avoid the “appearance of difficulty to a public of a different culture.” It advised that a first list of seventy-five works “regarded as universal classics” be drawn up and submitted to all parties for comment before any decision was made as to a final list of a total of about a hundred world classics.8

The committee also recommended that each national committee set up a translation subcommittee, consisting of writers, scientists, and philosophers “representative of the various currents of thought in their different fields.” It should also include publishers or others familiar with problems of translation, publishing, and dissemination. These subcommittees would work with a permanent UNESCO committee, the International Committee for Translations, made up of relevant representatives from the publishing world and translation specialists. It would meet once a year and consult with international agencies to ensure that ancient languages and works from nonmember nations be included. A permanent special committee within UNESCO would be tasked with drawing up and maintaining the lists of works for translation. First priority would be given to the translation of the long list of all recognized classics into two or three “main cultural tongues” “as a contribution to universal culture”; the second task would be a short list of a small number of classics for translation into “the greatest number of tongues,” “as a contribution to the development of cultures at present least favoured.”9 That the first task became so overwhelmingly dominant is a sign of the sheer force within UNESCO of the French and English languages. It is also a sign of the persistent underdevelopment of the cultural infrastructures that would have supported substantial literary translation projects among the “least favoured” cultures.

The report does not ignore the practical difficulties of publishing and disseminating translated works. It suggests that the works be inexpensive, manufactured in a convenient trim size, and have a “high-standard” appearance—a specification that already privileges the book industries of the developed world. It also suggests that these publications provide helpful guidance for readers, such as “informative rather than critical” introductions, and annotations where needed. In the initial proposal, most funding was to come not from UNESCO’s own base budget but from the state or states from which a given translation project arose (for instance through bulk purchases for libraries and schools or the setting aside of a “reasonable proportion of the [rationed] paper at their disposal for the printing of translated classics”) as well as from foundations, learned societies, and the publishers themselves. UNESCO’s role would be to help publishers by providing the list of works and the list of translators. It would also offer further support through publicity, allowing publishers to “distinguish satisfactory translations by a symbol constituting an adequate guarantee for the reader and encouragement to him to buy and read the book.” The UNESCO brand would point out the “world-wide nature of the undertaking.”10

In the end, the first project consisted of the translation into English, French, and Spanish of works by Al-Ghazali and the translation into French alone of works by Avicenna, as well as the translation into Arabic of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Aristotle’s Politics, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale, Bacon’s Essays, Descartes’s Discours de la méthode, and Manzoni’s Storia della colonna infame. This first project took place under the auspices of the International Commission for the Translation of Great Books, which was founded in Beirut by the Lebanese government and UNESCO. The second project was the translation of Latin American works written in Spanish and Portuguese—the first an anthropology of Mexican poetry—into French and English under the auspices of the Organization of American States.11

Over the years, sponsored works have been released as co-editions with partner publishing firms, including some at the vanguard of large-scale global publishing, such as Macmillan. More common, though, are arrangements with firms that have a reputation as being elite and noncommercial, such as Columbia University Press, Grove Press, Alfred A. Knopf, and The Bodley Head. To date, the catalog contains more than thirteen hundred titles from more than eighty countries, translated from a hundred or so languages. Though the program has moved away from the exclusive focus on works published prior to 1900, later discussions of its mission have not substantially departed from the initial focus on a work’s unique local origins coupled with its legibility to a universal community. Discussing “World Literary Values” at the Federation of Translators in 1985, a Polish translator involved with the program described UNESCO as preserving “the treasures of world classical literature and the highest attainment of contemporary writers,” who, like Shakespeare, Dickens, and Tolstoy, embody “the life of their own people and . . . epoch.”12 She suggested that UNESCO’s task is to establish cultural ambassadors to provide a “fuller and more vivid picture of life in distant or unknown lands,” a picture that is “no less moving than an exotic voyage” but is seen through eyes that are more “penetrating” than the “naked and unprepared eyes of the tourist.”13

UNESCO’s own commentary on and guidelines for the Collection of Representative Works have continued to state that works must serve as a “reflection of a specific community or civilization.” To be included in the program, a work must be “known and acknowledged in the community in which it was created” and already have “full visibility and credibility in its original region.”14 What is important is that a certain community of experts have loyalty to the work. Its regional visibility is the criterion for its subsidized access to a larger sphere. Much as with later programs devised to preserve humanity’s tangible and intangible heritage—the Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage, for example, and the attendant management of World Heritage Sites—selection for the Collection of Representative Works entails becoming part of a permanent archive of items deemed worthy of a global community’s attention.


1. UNESCO, “Report of UNESCO,” 3.

2. Ibid., 8.

3. Ibid., 3.

4. United Nations General Assembly, “Declaration on the Establishment,” 96.

5. United Nations Economic and Social Council, “Resolutions Adopted,” 44.

6. UNESCO, “Report of UNESCO,” 4.

7. Ibid., 5–6.

8. Ibid., 8.

9. Ibid., 10–11.

10. Ibid., 12–15.

11. Besterman, Unesco: Peace in the Minds of Men, 64.

12. Mileva, “UNESCO and World Literary Values,” 98.

13. Ibid., 98–99.

14. UNESCO, UNESCO Collection, 15.