George Steiner Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

George Steiner (SHTI-nur), one of the most influential comparatists, critics, and translation theorists of the late twentieth century, was born on April 23, 1929, in Paris. His parents, Austrian émigrés, were both university professors, and, as the author notes in After Babel, his early youth was spent in multilingual surroundings—so much so that some critics consider him equally a native speaker of English, French, and German. He studied at various universities and subsequently filled professorial positions at universities in Europe and the United States. Steiner became a United States citizen in 1944 and is generally considered an American critic, although he has spent considerable time in Europe. After some time at Yale University, Steiner accepted a professorship in English and comparative literature at the University of Geneva, where he later became head of the comparative literature department.

Steiner emerged as a critical force before his thirtieth birthday with his first long work, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, published in 1959. This work is based on the premise that the function of the critic differs from that of the reviewer in that the critic distinguishes not between the good and the bad but between the good and the excellent. Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, as a gauntlet thrown in the face of the then-prevailing critical current of New Criticism, also proved that there was still much to say about literary greats through the employ of “old” critical methods, centering on the various nontextual forces that mold the literary work and that aid in its interpretation.

The Death of Tragedy appeared two years later. In this book the author locates the tragic tradition solely in the classical world (and in truly classically oriented works), which regard the forces that govern the fate of human beings as blind. The decline of the dramatic tradition is necessarily paralleled by the waxing of the Christian worldview of justice and redemption, as well as by the artistic heritage of Romanticism, with its cult of genius. This interesting volume ends with the (optimistic?) hint that the twentieth century world, with its unspeakable cruelty and totalitarian systems, might see the rebirth of this ancient dramatic genre. Steiner’s next book was a collection of essays entitled Language and Silence. This volume is an attempt to understand the scope, importance, and future of language and linguistic culture in the face of the antihumanistic history of twentieth century totalitarianism. Steiner speaks of a certain “retreat from the word”—the inability of modern language to function in the face of bestiality as well as of the necessary role of the spoken and written word faced with inhumanity.

Steiner was also working on his theories as editor of The Penguin Book of Modern Verse Translation. This anthology, with its enlightening introduction (published later as the essay “Poem into Poem”), became one of the most important texts in verse translation theory, and set translation into verse—the re-creation of a poem in one given language into another poem in another tongue—as the only viable and honest method of translating verse. The magisterial study After Babel derived from this preliminary essay. Like the foregoing, it battles the notion that “what remains untranslated in verse translation is the poem itself.” In After Babel Steiner suggests that all linguistic interpretation—even in everyday conversation—is a type of translation and delineates the re-creative process of the verse translator as a hermeneutic method, which he considers literary criticism of the highest caliber. (This idea is connected with Steiner’s conviction that literary criticism should be vivid, engaging, and text-rather than theory-centered).

Steiner’s volume entitled Extraterritorial continues in the vein of...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Chayette, Bryan. “Between Repulsion and Attraction: George Steiner’s Post-Holocaust Fiction.” Jewish Social Studies 5 (Spring/Summer, 1999): 67-81. Discusses the dramatization of Steiner’s academic concerns in his fiction.

Lojek, Helen. “Brian Friel’s Plays and George Steiner’s Linguistics: Translating the Irish.” Contemporary Literature 35, no. 1 (1994): 83-100. Uses Steiner’s literary theories to analyze the works of Irish playwright Brian Friel, focusing on the playwright as both the product of and shaper of his culture.

Sharp, Ronald A., and Nathan A. Scott, Jr., eds. Reading George Steiner. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. Several important articles on Steiner appear; the book includes essays on Steiner as a cultural critic, as a literary journalist, as an interpreter of literature and scholarship, as a Jewish critical moralist, as a theologian, as a writer of fiction, and as a thinker influenced by Martin Heidegger.

Young, Michael. “Real Presence and the Conscience of Words: Language and Repetition in George Steiner’s Portage to San Cristóbal of A. H.” Style 26 (Spring, 1992): 114-128. Analyzes the way in which Steiner sees the relationship between language and the Holocaust in his novel.