Friday, March 24, 2017

How to Read Literary Translation

Most of the discussions around translation in India, whether academic or otherwise, seem to be struck in an obsolete paradigm. (Check out my blog on why translation studies)

 It approaches translation from the perspective of practice- it sees translation as something to be DONE, and hence all the repetitive talk about ‘problems of translation’, whether particular translation is possible or not continues inanely.  Not enough discussion about translation from the perspective of theory and methodology is available in the Indian context, i.e. the questions about how to READ/STUDY/RESEARCH translated texts. There are notable exceptions of course. Here I want to discuss the basic questions of how to READ translated texts for the beginners who have just started researching translation studies. (Check out my blog on some possible areas of research on literary translation)

One obvious pitfall while studying translation is being judgmental (normative) , we are obsessed with the questions like whether a particular translation is ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘readable’. Being judgmental closes the door of the inquiry into the great significance of translations, however ‘bad’, as points of entry to the study a particular cultural history.

                  As translation is a decision-making process starting from the choice of the texts/ authors and the direction of translation (e.g. from Gujarati to English or the other way round) to the decisions involving choices of titles, cultural elements, idioms, literary devices and so on, one way of reading translation is to see how the history of target language culture has influenced these decisions.

                  A powerful theoretical tool in translation studies is Andre Levefere’s idea of translation as a kind of ‘refraction’. Translation, according to Lefevere, can be considered as one of the ‘ refractions’ or all forms of rewritings of texts from one language into other , including cinematic, televisions or comic book adaptations of the Mahabharata or The Godfather to critical commentaries, glosses, summaries of the texts in other languages. Critical articles on Baudelaire by the Gujarati critic Suresh Joshi or the Marathi writer Dilip Chitre ‘refract’ Baudelaire for Gujarati and Marathi audience. Once you see translation as ‘refraction’ you situate it within the larger cultural politics of the period and you can see the role it plays and the agenda behind it.

                  Translation, like all other ‘refractions’, Lefevere notes are done under certain constraints of translating culture (TL Culture) and the task of reading a translated text is to understand the strategies of translating ( the decisions made by translators) in the context of these constraints.  According to Lefevere these constraints are as follows: i)  the constraint of language  i.e. the verbal structure and texture of the translating language force the translators to make certain choices, ii)  the constraint of poetics i.e. the dominant poetics of the translating culture compel the translator to choose a particular mode of translation (e.g. AK Ramanujan’s choice to translate the oral -performative genre of Bhakti poetry where the word-music is an essential feature into the imagistic -ironic free verse developed by Eliot or William Carlos Williams), iii) the constraint of patronage – for instance the demand to conform to what your publishers want ( or the publisher’s version of what the reader/market wants) or even the state or political patronage ( what the Polit Bureau wants)  and so on. Refractions, Lefevere argues, are basically manipulative and have an agenda of influencing the audience.  Reading translations as refraction helps us to uncover the rich cultural history of the period. Reading multiple translations of the same literary text or author (e.g. Shakespeare, Sharatchandra or Tagore) over a period of time reveals the cultural politics of the period in which these translations were made and help us reconstruct the history of culture.

                  Another significant question while reading translated texts is to consider translation from functional point of view, i.e. asking the questions like what is the role and the function of the translated text in the development of literary tradition. What is the role of translation in inaugurating or consolidating a literary movement (like modernism or Dalit literature)? What role does translation play in establishing a particular poetics or genre (e.g. Romanticism, the Brechtian theatre, or the Theatre of the Absurd, or genre like the sonnet, the ghazals, the short story or the novel. How does translation influence not the author, but poetics and the form? As the term ‘influence’ is a problematic one (creating a hierarchy between the influencer and the influenced), more constructive way of looking at resemblances between literary traditions and cultures is to see them as what Dionyz Durisin terms as ‘interliterary processes’. (Click here to read my blog on application of Durisin's ideas to Indian literatures) 

                  Durisin’s view of literary and cultural phenomena as processes avoids the tendencies to create hierarchies. When we see that the product ‘Chai’ is produced by the process (mixing ingredients like sugar, milk or tea leaves and boiling it) we no longer see chai as being ‘influenced’ by ‘milk’. Hence, if you see the films like Dharmatma or Sarkar as involving the Hollywood ingredients, say the elements of The Godfather, you no longer create a hierarchy between Hollywood and Bollywood.   Hence while exploring the function of translated texts in the translating culture, we are interested in ways in which translation contributes to these ‘interliterary processes’.

(Also check out my blog on Theorizing Indian literatures using semiotics of culture as theoretical framework)

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.