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What is Comparative Literature?

Comparative Literature is traditionally known as the study of two or more literatures in comparison (English and German, for example) and their multi-dimensional components which may encompass aspects such as the historical, gender, economic, cultural, social, philosophical, religious, and linguistic factors of the distinct cultures being analyzed.

Non-traditional study may include other forms of readable expression such as film, gender studies, ethnicity, politics, graffiti or television. 

Student browsing library shelves.

Student Testimonials

"Comparative Literature to me isn't really just about literature. It's about paying attention to the ways in which we read, understand, and engage with the world and with meaning-making."

- Bess Rose, Program Alumna (MA, 2001)

"Comp Lit was interdisciplinary before interdisciplinarity became a trend."

- Program Alumnus

"For me comparative literature is simply an education in critical consciousness."

- Heidi Bohn, Program Alumna (PhD, 2010)

"To me Comparative Literature is a chance pursue interdisciplinary work and a way to challenge canonized approaches to theory and literature. It calls for constant dialogue between languages and fields both within and outside of academia."

-Mairéad Farinacci, MA Student 

"As a discipline, I believe Comparative Literature sets itself apart in methodology and praxis. Unlike other Humanities departments, Comparative Literature lends itself to a more experimental, cross cultural, and critical approach to knowledge and its production."

-Hunter Capps, PhD Student

"Comparative Literature offers a unique opportunity within contemporary academic practices to explore texts and ideas across barriers of language, temporality and discipline. While doing this, this program also allows us to reflect more deeply upon the nature of those barriers and how they gain their validation. "

-Rachit Anand, PhD Student

what is the comparative literature

What is comparative literature, and why should you study it?

Saga Briggs

Saga Briggs

Can anything really be translated? What’s lost in the process? What does literature and language say about a certain culture? These are some of the core questions driving students and scholars of Comparative Literature.

If you love learning, speaking, reading, and writing in multiple languages but also find yourself fascinated by what gets lost in translation, this may be a great field of study for you.

In this post, we’ll help you better understand what Comparative Literature is and why it builds the case for taking up a foreign language.

Studying a language online will help you better understand what Comparative Literature is.

What is comparative literature?

Comparative literature is an academic discipline devoted to studying how culture and literature are expressed differently in different nations and languages. According to some scholars, the term “comparative literature” was first introduced in French in 1816, as littérature comparée . It wasn’t until the later 19th century that the field was institutionalized across some European and American universities.

Criticism of the field quickly developed, as scholars realized that a more precise description of the field would have been “the comparative study of literature” and therefore “comparative literature” was a bit of a sloppy term. Another issue was raised concerning the Eurocentrism of the field.

Despite these issues, the field—and the term—have stuck around for over a century, and today’s comparative literature curricula tend to emphasize the complexity of the discipline. In fact, contemporary comparative literature is much more transdisciplinary, spanning other areas such as critical race theory and queer studies.

Comparative literature students often “read” across genres and media: fiction, poetry, nonfiction, graphic novel, film, TV, even graffiti. The point is to analyze the cultural narratives and stories being conveyed throughout history by different cultures. It’s also to determine how translation plays into the way these narratives are received.

Comparative literature students read across genres including graffiti.

Most comparative literature curricula teach texts that have been translated into English, while encouraging students to reach foreign texts in the original language alongside their primary reading list or minor in a foreign language. So while efforts have been made to make comparative literature less Eurocentric, most texts in comp lit classes still are taught in English.

However, one big part of studying comp lit is to try to understand what gets lost in translation. Students who are already interested in studying foreign languages, or already have competence in at least one, can choose to pursue a concentration in that language. They might then read English translations of texts by Latin American immigrants and compare those texts to their original Spanish versions.

Unlike strict discussions over the accuracy of the translations, comparative literature discussions would address what might have been lost in cultural meaning from one text to another. What kinds of shortcomings in translation might have an impact on the reader’s understanding of the culture being described?

Do patterns in translation across books, over time, influence entire nations’ understanding of one another? What might the political implications of this be? How much responsibility and power do translators have in this regard?

Why study comparative literature?

“Comparatists,” as students and scholars of comparative literature are called, are in a unique position to highlight and change the way literature influences culture.

“Due to the interdisciplinary and multi-national lens through which it studies its subject matter,” explains the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of Languages, Literatures, and Cultural Studies webpage, “[comparative literature] is a field of inquiry which has enormous potential to lead to greater global consciousness and sensitivity to the diversity and nature of cultures and the differences and similarities in their codes, languages, literatures, and artistic expression.”

The world is more interconnected than ever before, meaning information travels faster than ever before. While this makes communication easier, it also poses a risk not only of misinformation but also misunderstanding between cultures. Messages get lost in translation frequently enough within a single language or culture, but across languages and cultures the picture gets even more complicated. That means we need more students and scholars devoted to highlighting these gaps in understanding and seeking to bridge them.

If you’re already a lover of languages , chances are you have a deep appreciation for different cultures as well. We need more people interested in uniting the world across languages and cultures. Studying comparative literature could be one way to contribute your personal passions to a global cause.

Where are the best comparative literature programs?

uUtrecht university has one of the best comparative literature programs.

Master of Arts in Comparative Literary Studies: Utrecht University, Netherlands

“In this program, we approach literature as a cultural medium from a comparative, theoretical perspective. How do different cultures and societies think about the present, remember the past, and imagine the future in and through literature? And how has literature itself been understood and theorized across historical periods and geographical boundaries? In this program, you will have the opportunity to explore these and related questions.”

Master of Arts in Comparative Literature: SOAS University of London, London, UK

“The opportunity to move from the familiar Euro-American literary canons into the fresh but less well-known worlds of African and Asian literature is what attracts most students to this popular MA. While exploring new horizons and breaking out of the Euro-centric space in which comparative literature has developed so far, the program covers the major theoretical contributions made by Western scholars.”

Master of Arts in Comparative Literature and World Literature: East China Normal University, Shanghai, China

“The School of International Chinese Studies at East China Normal University accepts applications from international students interested in pursuing a 3-year research-oriented program for a Master degree in Literature. The program is based on ECNU’s main campus in Shanghai. Our program focus is on Chinese literature and culture, and we encourage comparative studies between China and other cultures as we strongly believe that literary and cultural dialogue is very necessary for the world.”

Doctor of Philosophy in Comparative Literature: Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey

“The program prepares candidates for scholarship in the field and for teaching in comparative literature, separate departments of literature, and the humanities. The curriculum in comparative literature has two major objectives: while training students in one literary tradition, it also requires them to be seriously interested in at least two other literatures as well as in the historical, critical, and theoretical problems raised by the study of literature.”

Master of Arts/PhD in Comparative Literature: Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts

“The Department of Comparative Literature offers Comparative Literature as a secondary field in GSAS to enrich the education of PhD students in other departments who seek to do research and teach across the institutional boundaries of national languages and literatures. As faculty members, students specializing in a national literature may be called on to teach comparative courses or courses in general or world literature. The secondary field in Comparative Literature prepares them to do so by introducing them to basic issues in the field.”

The advantage of multilingualism

Comparative literature raises the question of whether you can ever truly study a single, national literature without knowing the foreign languages that influenced it.

“For serious literary scholarship,” writes comparatist Geert Lernout of the University of Antwerp, “monolingualism is not even a serious option: maybe contemporary writers read and write in only one language, but almost all the great writers of the past did not. How can you really read Ulysses without French, Thomas Mann without Italian?”

For most of the history of literary studies, Lernout points out, knowing more than one language was the norm, not the exception.

“It is therefore not a good idea to have Kafka or Don Quixote studied at universities in English translations only, and not even having these important authors written about by scholars whose command of German and Spanish is not sufficient to write in the language and who more often than not work with translations.”

The subtext here is that all fields of literature—not just comparative literature—need more students and scholars who know multiple languages. One way to prevent a single culture from dominating (e.g. “the Westernization” of the world) is to perpetuate and preserve other cultures through foreign language learning. Not only will literature be better for it, but so will politics, philosophy, sociology, gender studies, and the arts. What’s lost in translation is also lost in culture.

Woman reading Japanese literature at the library.

“Comparative Literature has many languages—this is what distinguishes it from the study of traditional national literatures such as English, French, or Spanish,” writes comparatist Joseph Pivato in his 2018 essay The Languages of Comparative Literature . “The positive study of comparative literature is built on the study of different languages.”

Though it’s tempting to think of comparative literature as a combination of literature and cultural studies, these sentiments suggest it’s more than that: comparative literature is the only field that examines how different cultures put language to use.

Being proficient in several languages is a worthy goal in and of itself, but comparative literature takes it a step further: How is what we achieve in these languages a reflection of the past, present, and future interests of a given culture?

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What is Comparative Literature


Comparative Literature is trans-national, trans-medial, and transcultural.

It is a discipline built on pursuing connections—connections between different aesthetic forms, cultural traditions, and ideas. Tracing those connections wherever they lead is what we mean by “comparison,” whether we are following a theme across national and linguistic borders, studying filmic adaptations of literary texts, or inquiring into the places where disciplines intersect.

The “literature” in Comparative Literature refers both to literature as it is traditionally conceived—as fiction, drama, poetry, and literary nonfiction—and also to visual culture and cultural production more broadly.

But fundamentally the discipline of Comparative Literature is also a practice, a habit of learning, a way of studying literature, film and culture without arbitrarily stopping at national or linguistic borders. We acknowledge that the world is interconnected. When we follow ideas across borders we assume, not that the world should come to us, cater to us, or be translated into our language, but rather that it is our responsibility to explore the world, to seek to understand cultures on their own terms, to find commonalities and respect differences.

A language requirement that asks students to begin the journey toward fluency in more than one language marks this fundamental value. We take the steps we can to read and view cultural texts in their original languages; when we cannot, we pay careful attention to what is gained and lost in translation.

Comparative Literature is both an individualized program of study with a high degree of flexibility and a strong cohort of faculty and students with shared interests and values.

what is the comparative literature

  • Frequently Asked Questions

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Comparative Literature

Comparative Literature situates literary and cultural production in an international perspective.  As a scholarly discipline and an undergraduate major, its focus is both particular works of literature, broadly defined, and literary history and theory.   The ComLit major offers a transnational model of comparison that takes as its point of departure the commitment to a relational, polyphonic, and contrapuntal—rather than merely binary and oppositional—understanding of literatures, cultures, and identities.


A More Detailed Description

As a discipline, Comparative Literature has always been peculiar.  At the same time that the field has provided openings to a multiplicity of literary cultures, it has also continued to participate in the solidification of a world literary system in which the collective cultures of “the West” have functioned as the center, the interpreter, and the point of reference for all others.  In order to overcome the Eurocentrism that has traditionally characterized the discipline, the Comparative Literature major attempts to represent Comparative Literature’s expanding textual universe, with novel comparative/ interdisciplinary constellations emerging frequently.   

 Comparative Literature is an interdisciplinary field not just because it works with a variety of literatures and languages, but because it also draws on interpretive methods from adjacent disciplines broadly concerned with cultural discourses, languages, and representations; among these are philosophy, history, religion, classical and area studies, Africana studies, feminist and gender studies, anthropology, music, and the history of art.  The flexibility to combine courses from several national literatures and to study literature along with other disciplines has been the hallmark of Comparative Literature studies.  

While advanced technologies now enable writers and readers to move between texts, bringing them into play with each other, studying texts of diverse cultures teaches students to put themselves in the shoes of people who see and experience the world very differently from their own perspectives.  The gateway to the revised major, CMLT 200: “Reading Transnationally,” provides the background to the practice of Comparative Literature, introducing students to a range of key theory-and-methods debates in the field, with particular attention to questions of history, globalization, cultural production and ‘the aesthetic.’ Like “Reader & Text,” then, CMLT 200 explores different strategies for cultural and literary interpretation, a spectrum of questions that can be asked of texts, while also trying to understand the ideologies that inform them (the texts and the questions).   The main difference is the transnational framing the choice of texts.  ‘Transnational’ here also refers to the flows and counter-flows of people, as well as ideas which challenge conventional epistemological categories, particularly those that pertain to the study of literature.  Other possible subtitles for CMLT 200: “The Global Bildungsroman: Narratives of Development”; “Narratives of the Atlantic World”; “Screening ‘Race’ Trans-nationally”; “Gender and Globalization: Transnational Voices”; “Queer Diasporas."  With the addition of another comparatist to the English Department faculty, new courses will continue to be developed to strengthen the revised major.

Along with proficiency in another language, requirements for the major include a genre course, a theory course, four required electives, two period studies (English Department or Language and Literature courses), and a capstone, senior seminar thesis.

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What Is Comp Lit Anyway?

Comparative Literature is the study of all modes of human expression: oral, written, visual—including film and other digital technologies. Comparative Literature majors become adept in multiple cultures and disciplines. Our students study topics like visual media, gender and sexuality, literary history, colonialism, human rights and global censorship, postcolonial and diaspora studies, literary theory, film, and translation.

Majors in Comparative Literature often pursue double majors, because of the flexibility of the major, which allows them to combine their interests in multiple fields and to structure their degrees around them. For that reason, it can also be a very good minor for all other majors on campus, including STEM fields and management. A major or minor in Comp Lit will add value to any resume.

Inter-cultural experience and knowledge of languages other than English give employees an edge in nearly every field. Comparative Literature graduates pursue careers in media, law, public service, the non-profit sector, international business, and academia, among others.

Skills learned by students of Comparative Literature:

analytical, reading, writing, and advanced research skills

strong skills in at least one language other than English

ability to think critically in multiple languages

vision to develop new frameworks

deep appreciation for language, literature, and culture


Working between, within, and across borders, Comparative Literature allows students to build facility with multiple languages and skills in critical thinking, viewing, writing, and oral presentation. Comparatists also apply the insights and methods of translation studies, philosophy, history, linguistics, sociology, and the other human sciences to the study of literature and media. 

See what's new in the department on our News page »

Why Study Comparative Literature?

The concentration in Comparative Literature at BU is designed for students whose interest in literature embraces works in multiple languages.

A fundamental project of Comparative Literature is to cultivate reading across linguistic boundaries in order to highlight everything that the exclusive focus on a national literature tends to obscure. Studying literature traditionally meant picking an academic department that reflects the nation state on a basically European model.  English, French, and German programs each focus on the canons of their respective national traditions. But literature and readers have both always ranged outside the boundaries of one national language. German literature is brimming with the influences of English and French and Italian and Greek and Roman literature and so on. And even writers who knew nothing of one another may show fascinating similarities and differences; a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé and a poem by Emily Dickinson throw each other into startling relief.

Traditionally, too, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern literatures (when they were studied at all) were long relegated to the rubric of Area Studies. The European literatures were understood as both aesthetically autonomous and expressive of the “national genius,” while texts from the non-West were read more from an ethnographic, historical, or anthropological perspective than as works of literature in their own right. The field of Comparative Literature also endeavors, then, to overcome this division between “the West” and “the Rest” by combining the formal rigor of European literary studies with the interdisciplinary reach of area studies.

Students of Comparative Literature trace the transformations and travels of literary genres and texts across time and space. They explore the connections of literature with history, philosophy, politics, and literary theory. And they study the intersections of literature with other cultural forms such as film, drama, the visual arts, music, and new media. In our increasingly globalized age, translation studies are also an important part of the comparative approach to literature. It’s surprisingly tricky to say that even a single sentence in one language is truly “equivalent” to its translation in another language; in what sense, then, can we really translate the complexity and nuance of novels, poems or plays? And yet we all depend on translations sooner or later. Literary translations also have their own kind of history and even politics. Why do some texts get translated and others not, for example? And how have the practice and theory of translation changed over time?

At the core of the concentration in Comparative Literature are courses introducing Western, East Asian, Middle Eastern and South Asian literary traditions in comparative perspective. These courses introduce students to the global diversity of literary forms and genres while acquainting them with the methods of comparative literary study. After or in tandem with the introductory courses, students meet with their advisors to put together a program of study that best suits their interests and goals. This will include advanced work in at least one foreign language and its literature and a series of interrelated courses of your choice. One attractive aspect of the Comparative Literature major is its flexibility. In close consultation with your advisor you might decide to focus on anything from the modernist novel to Romantic poetry, postcolonial literature, or Greek and Japanese epics.  At the same time you will have the opportunity to take courses listed or cross-listed under the Comparative Literature rubric (“XL”) that further hone your skills as a comparatist, such as “Gender and Literature,” “Literary Translation,” “Theory of the Novel,” or “Literature and Empire.”

A concentration in Comparative Literature is an excellent foundation for further work at the graduate level. It also prepares students to work in any field where critical thinking, strong writing skills and foreign-language competence and a sophisticated understanding of cultural difference and diversity are called for.

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About Comparative Literature

The interdepartmental major in Comparative Literature leads to the Bachelor of Arts degree. Comparative Literature investigates literary works from the perspective of more than one national literature; works are often studied in conjunction with other intellectual disciplines, such as anthropology, the arts, history, and philosophy. Traditionally, comparatists have focused on literary movements, genres, and historical periods, and on the history of literary themes and ideas. Comparatists are interested in Western, non-Western, and emergent literatures, in minor genres like biography, in the history of education and the theory of reading, in women's studies, and in literary theory. The major in Comparative Literature has historically been among the popular choices for students minoring in Early Childhood and Childhood Education.

Welcome, Irish Track Students

We welcome the newest group of students matriculated in the Comparative Literature B.A. program, students of Irish language and literature. Irish is a Gaelic language of the Celtic branch of the Indo-European family. It possesses one of the oldest literatures in Europe. Lehman College is the home of the CUNY Institute for Irish-American Studies and, fittingly, the Department of Languages and Literatures offers a wide variety of Irish language and literature courses. Check out the Irish Track of the B.A. in Comparative Literature for more information.

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