Sunday, January 22, 2017

On Theorizing Indian Literatures and Cultures

         As a researcher in Indian literarures, languages and cultures, my interest in Semiotics of Culture as a theoretical framework developed by the scholars of the Tartu- Moscow School of semiotics especially Juri Lotman ( 1922-1993) stems from the fact that it:

I) Sees meaning as being essentially ‘translational’ and ‘culture’ as essentially multilingual  by underscoring the fact that no meaning-making system can exist in isolation or can be autonomous ( in contrast to Saussure) ……this core assumption makes it pertinent to Indian society which is mindbogglingly diverse and multilingual

II) sees literature (printed or oral or performative) as belonging to a expansive category of artistic texts thus going beyond the restrictive and colonial print-centric view of literature can allow us to understand the dialogic and translational exchanges between the printed or oral literary texts and  texts from cinema, paintings, dance or music

III) is of significant theoretical relevance to Comparative Indian Literatures.  The notion of vertical isomorphism of the semiospheres existing in dialogic interactions with each other at multiple levels  allows us to conceptualize a heterogeneous and stochastic ‘Indian semiosphere’ ( and consequently Indian literatures as being generated by the Indian semiosphere)made up of multiple semiospheres like ‘Marathi’ or “Gujarati’ semiospheres and these semiospheres can be conceptualized as being heterogeneous and stochastic in their own right, interacting dialogically with one another, different spaces within and interacting dialogically with cultural traditions and cultural histories that are neither specific to Marathi nor Gujarati (Sanskrit, Prakrit,  Perso-Arabic, European, Chinese, and so on).

The notion of semiosphere can also equip us to describe the cultural mechanisms underlying what Dionyz Durisin terms ' interliterary processes'. 
Similarly one can conceptualize ‘South Asian Semiosphere’ or ‘Asian Semiosphere’ or a Planetary Semiosphere that generates ‘ world literature’.

One can also understand gender, class and caste as semiospheres. 

IV) is a radical model of cultural historiography
a) It sees cultural historiography itself as a narrative and translational activity involving retrospective narrative reconstruction (translation) of cultural history (which is primarily unpredictable and irreversible) into the explanatory languages of the present ( e.g Habermasian sociology , Butler’s gender studies, Foucauldian analysis of discourse, governmentality or biopolitics )

b) it is a model of cultural change that highlights  differential and non-linear modes of development of the diverse co-existing meaning-making systems…for instance fashion, food and caste change at differential rates and poetry using the poetics of the 1940s ( the Ravi-Kiran Mandal lyricism ) can co-exist with the poetry using the avant-garde poetics of 60s in Marathi

c) It is a model of cultural change that views mechanisms of cultural change as being primarily ‘translational’….. it views the underlying mechanism in the generation of ‘the new’ as being translational

V) It provides tools and ideas for practical criticism of texts and their contexts
 The notions of semantic tropes, ‘the text-within-text, plot , the idea of symbol as plot-gene, continuous- discrete ( visual to verbal) dialogics and so on.

 The mainstream academic cultural studies in India due to its excessive reliance on French, American and British theories (which are monolingual, deterministic in orientation) has failed to come to terms with multilingual and chaotic social and cultural realities of India . 

Its lack of  critical self awareness can be seen in the fact that as it criticizes modernity ( with the ideas of nation or science) as being universalist, Euro-centric and elite on the one hand it has no  issues  uncritically accepting  ‘ Critical Theory’ whose roots go back to Frankfurt or Birmingham or Paris as if they are non-universalist, non-Eurocentric and non-elite.

The mainstream academic cultural studies have become reductive as it sees ‘political interpretation’ as the absolute horizon for all interpretation’ (as Jameson puts it)…. and extremely predictable almost conventional.  However the conceptualization of culture in semiotics of culture  subsumes the political as it sees cultural as fundamentally i) heterogeneous ii) asymmetrical iii) chaotically dynamic and iv) constructivist in terms of epistemology and cognition (seeing semiotic systems as ‘modelling’ systems)…in a sense subsumes political to the cultural rather than reduce the cultural to the political.

My Articles using Semiotics of Culture for Indian literatures :
 i) Indian Writing in English
ii) Indian Poetry in English
iii) Namdeo Dhasal and Dalit Literature
iv)  Modern and Modernism in Gujarati
v)  Avant-garde Gujarati literature
vi) Poetics and Politics of Self-translation


--- “On the semiosphere.” Translated by Wilma Clark.  Sign Systems Studies 33.1, 2005

---‘ The Text within the Text’ . (1981) Trans. Jerry Leo, Amy Mandelker , PMLA, Vol. 109, No. 3 (May, 1994), pp. 377-384

---“ Technological Progress as a Problem in the Study of Culture”, trans.  Ilana Gomel Poetics Today, Duke University Press Vol. 12, No. 4, National Literatures/Social Spaces (winter, 1991), pp. 781-800. 

---Universe of the Mind. A Semiotic Theory of Culture. Bloomington/ Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. 1990. 

---‘Culture as Collective Intellect And Problems Of Artificial Intelligence’, trans. Ann Shukman, Russian Poetics in Translati0n,  No. 6, 1979, pp 84-96

---‘ The Poetics of Everyday Behaviour in the Eighteenth Century Russian Culture’, Translated by Andrea Beesing from “Poetika bytovogo povedeniia v russkoi kul’ture XVIII veka,” Trudy po znakovym sistemam, no.8 (Tartu, 1977), pp.65-89.

Thursday, September 8, 2016


Many students and researchers ask me questions regarding probable areas of research in translation studies in Indian context ( click on the links to read my other blog entries on the subject). My response would be as follows: 

In spite of being a vibrant multilingual society, translation studies has not developed as much as it should have in India. There is still a wide-spread tendency among Indian academics to conceive of translation narrowly as a process and mostly in normative terms.  Therefore, very often in seminars and conferences, one comes across the conversations about ‘ problems’ and ‘ issues’ faced in translation often in terms of ‘ loss’ of  the ‘original essence’ in translation. This may be largely due to the stubborn persistence on the colonial notions of both translation and literature.

There is also tendency to take up actual activity of translation of literary texts from Indian languages into English. While this would certainly seem a good idea, our own limitations as non-native uses of English and largely clichéd findings regarding ‘problems faced’ would not make such a project very useful in terms of research. My own advice would be to translate contemporary literary texts, theoretical and intellectual statements into non-English languages.

 However, translation studies (thankfully), since the nineteen-eighties, has undergone a paradigm shift in the terms of methodologies and critical approaches i.e in terms of research questions asked about translation. Translation today can be conceived as a product generated by the translating language (T.L) culture whose contextual reading and functional analysis reveals a wealth of information about the historical development of the receptor culture. Asking whether Gandhiji’s translation of John Ruskin’s UntoThis Last is a ‘good’ translation or not as it has involved ‘loss of essence of the original’ will not help us to understand the immense historical and social significance of Gandhiji’s translation. It is also interesting that this English text was retranslated into English from Gandhi’s Gujarati version by Gandhiji’s followers. 

The idea of what is meant by a ‘literary’ text (the conventional ‘object’ of literary studies) has also undergone a shift, largely due to the radical developments in ‘theory’ and cultural studies. It is no longer conceived merely as a canonical work in print, but also as a non-canonical work in other media (visual, oral, performative) in digital or ‘analogue’ media. Hence the translated text can be thought of any text produced by ‘intralingual’, ‘interlingual’ or ‘intersemiotic’ translation as famously discussed by Roman Jakobson, i.e. one can study visual adaptations, retellings in various formats. Hence, we can study graphic novel renderings, paintings, musical compositions, cinematic adaptations, TV series or even the stage or dance enactments of texts (like Peter Brooks’ Mahabharata) from other languages as translations. 

Translation is a decision-making process involving choices and options at multiple levels including the selection of the source and the target languages, the text and the author to be translated as well as numerous strategies chosen by the translator. The contextual analysis of translation involves deductive interpretation and comprehension of this decision-making process in the context of social, historical and cultural influences i.e. how have these forces impacted the agency of the translator, while the functional analysis of translation involves the analysis of the role of the translation in impacting the prevalent and succeeding poetics and cultural politics of that language. Apparently, literary research in translation studies, like literary studies in general would merge ultimately into historiography of culture. 

Hence research on translation would basically deal with historiography of translation in Indian languages. The research projects on historiography of translation can be delimited in terms of the following:
i)  Specific periods (e.g translation during pre-colonial or postcolonial times),
ii)  Specific language pairs (e.g.Gujarati- Marathi, Assamiya- Bengali etc) ,
iii) Specific movements or genres (e.g. The Theatre of Absurd, Dalit literature, feminism, realism or surrealism), this may involve translation of critical texts as well as literary texts.
iv)  Specific authors (e.g. Tagore, Saratchandra, Shakespeare, Baudelaire)
v)  Specific texts (e. g the Gitanjali or the Wasteland) in your language and multiple translations of these texts.
These projects can be combinations of multiple delimiting parameters like, for instance, “The Feminist Translation of Gora into Gujarati”( which I am not sure exists at  all).
Other projects can involve preparing bibliography of translated texts in your language and discussion of methodology, findings and theorization.
It may involve developing digital tools (which would require knowledge of both cultural theory and computing) for archiving and analysis of translated texts as a part of a digital humanities project.

Links to Related Subjects:

i) Translation Studies in India
ii) Why Translation Studies
iii) On Research in English Studies  
iv) My Published Papers on Translation Studies 
v) My Doctoral thesis on Translation of Narsinh Mehta 
vi) My book on Indian Translation Studies  (Trans) Migrating Words: Refractions on Indian                  Translation Studies
vi) Read my blog on using Semiotics of Culture as a Theoretical Framework for studying Indian literatures and cultures.


i)                   Baker, Mona. Ed. Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London :Routledge, 1998

ii)                  Bassnett, Susan and Harish Trivedi.ed. Post-colonial Translation: Theory and Practice. London and New York: Routledge, 1999

iii)                Bermann, Sandra and Catherine Porter  ed. A Companion to Translation Studies, Wiley-Blackwell, 2014

iv)                Dingwaney, Anuradha and Carol Maier.eds.  Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-Cultural Texts. Delhi: Oxford University Press. 1996
v)                  Hermans, Theo. Ed. The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation.(1985), London and New York: Routledge, 2004
vi)                Hewson, Lance. An Approach to Translation Criticism: Emma and Madame Bovary in translation. Amsterdam/Philadelphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2011
vii)              Kothari, Rita. Translating India: Cultural Politics of Translation. New Delhi, Foundation Books, 2003
viii)            Kuhiwczak, Piotr and Karin Littau  ed. A Companion to Translation Studies ,Multilingual Matters Ltd , Toronto, 2007,
ix)                Lefevere, Andre. Translation, Rewriting and Manipulation of Literary Fame. London and New York: Routledge, 1992
x)                  ---. Ed. Translation/History/Culture: A Source Book. London and New York: Routledge, 1992
xi)                Malmkjær, Kirsten and Kevin Windle ed. The Oxford Handbook of Translation Studies Edited by OUP, 2012
xii)              Mukherjee, Meenakshi. Elusive Terrain: Culture and Literary Memory. Oxford University Press, 2008
xiii)            ---. Perishable Empire: Essays on Indian Writing in English. Oxford University Press, 2000
xiv)             Mukherjee, Sujit. Translation as Recovery and Other Essays. Ed. Meenakshi Mukherjee, New Delhi, Pencraft International, 2004
xv)               ---Translation as Discovery and Other Essays. New Delhi, Allied, 1984
xvi)       Mukherjee, Tutun. ed.  Translation From Periphery to Centrestage. New Delhi: Prestige Books, 1998.
xvii)             Munday, Jeremy. Introducing Translation Studies. Theories and Applications. London and New York, Routledge, 2001
xviii)           Niranjana, Tejaswini. Siting Translation: History, Post-structuralism and the Colonial Context, Orient Longman, 1992
xix)         Palumbo, Giuseppe .Key Terms in Translation Studies. London and New York. Continuum  International Publishing, 2009
xx)        Ramakrishna, S. ed. Translation and Multilingualism. PostColonial Contexts, Delhi: Pencraft International, 1997 
xxi)      Ramakrishan, E.V. Locating Indian Literature: Texts, Traditions, Translations. Orient Blackswan, 2011 
xxii)          Saldanha, Gabriela and Sharon O’Brien .ed.  Research methodologies in translation studies , St Jerome Publishing, 2013
xxiii)       Talgeri, P and Verma, SB. eds. Literature in Translation from Cultural Transference to Metonymic Displacement. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan, 1988
xxiv)             Venuti, Lawrence ed. Translation Studies Reader. London and New York: Routledge and Kegan        Paul, 2000.
xxv)             Wakabayashi, Judy and Rita Kothari. Eds. Decentering Translation Studies: India and Beyond. John Benjamins Publication,