Saturday, October 7, 2017

Mockingbirds, Good Fences, Bad Neighbours, Refugee Mothers and Children: Or Teaching American Literature in the times of Donald Trump

Literature, as Ezra Pound famously said, is news that stays news. Resonance of quote comes freshly alive for me when I am teaching  American texts like To Kill a Mockingbird, “Mending Wall”, and a poem by the Nigerian-born–settled-in-America writer Chinua Achebe titled ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ as part of the core introductory course for the Bachelor of Arts with English honours (at the first year or ‘freshmen’) at my University in Baroda, Gujarat.

Teaching Harper Lee’s celebrated novel (1960) about racism and growing up in the American south in the backdrop of the recent racist violence of Charlottesville and  the Las Vegas shooting made me recall Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic as a book that has not finished saying what it has to say.   Though racial segregation may have been legally dead in America after the Civil Rights Movement –the event that forms the historical background of To Kill a Mockingbird, the racial segregation of the American hearts and minds seem far from deceased. It is precisely this failure of the law to ensure justice that forms the central theme of this novel, the theme that is critical even today, when the far right has drastically resurged in the western society, fifty seven years after the novel was published

Chinua Achebe’s moving poem ‘Refugee Mother and Child’ made students discuss the burning issue of refugees that has so deeply influenced the global politics today, whether it is ‘Brexit’ or Trump’s anti-immigration policies. Multiculturalism as a political ideology of globalization seems to be on a decline and one of the things fueling this decline is the Syrian refugee crisis and the underlying Islamophobia. Unsurprisingly, my students brought up the issue of the Rohingya refugees too. Clearly, the poem published in 1971 in America has not yet finished saying what it had to say 46 years ago. 
The Robert Frost‘s classic “Mending Wall”, published in 1914, too, has not finished saying what it has to say , especially when the current President Donald Trump has come to power promising the Americans to build a wall to wall out Mexican immigrants,  103 years after its publication. The speaker in the poem mischievously wants his farmer neighbor to rethink his traditional wisdom regarding ‘ Good fences make good neighbours’by drawing attention to that  there is ‘ something’ -probably something supernatural ( an elf? ) or even natural ( winter) that doesn’t love the wall. I don’t think I am as good natured as the farmer -speaker in the Frost poem to ask the President-who is not particularly known for his interest in literature unlike his coloured precursor- to even consider the fact that the ‘something’ that doesn’t love a wall is neither an elf nor winter, but history.

It is precisely this question of history and its relation to culture and literature that drove home to me how baseless is the anxiety of globalization as cultural homogenization (or Americanization).  Many of my students, especially from the metropolitan cosmopolitan (and yes upper-caste) background, are brought up regularly consuming wide range of American cultural artifacts: from fashion to popular novels like  Twilight, from the Hollywood films to  American TV series like “ the Game of the  Thrones”, from  American junk food to American social media ( Facebook or Tinder). Or even American English.And yet they could hardly comprehend most of the content on the first two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird. Who are the Southerners? Who was Andrew Jackson and who were the Creeks? What on earth is a ‘Methodist’ and what is a human chattel? They could hardly catch the Lee’s sarcasm regarding how the white families in the South could trace their lineages back to the Battle of Hastings, nor could they get the joke about  how Simon Finch,  Scout’s forefather, was escaping  persecution of the Methodist by “ more liberal” Christians in England. How is Robert Frost’s New England different from Harper Lee’s Alabama?

The displacement and annihilation of the Native American population, the American Revolution, the Civil war, racism , slavery, the Puritans and various Christian denominations, American social and cultural geographies that the first two pages of To Kill a Mockingbird pack are things that are part of shared collective memory of the Americans ended u p acting as a boundary that separates the American cultural text from the non-American readers who regularly consume popular American cultural artifacts. In short, artifacts are not cultures, and as the cultural theorist Yuri Lotman would point out, culture is non-hereditary memory of a group and it is always bounded (dividing ‘us’ from ‘them’).
The myth of globalization as Americanization is unfounded- we may be consuming more and more American artifacts, but the American cultural memory will never replace non-American cultural memories. And I doubt whether globalization can erase the cultural memory of non-American cultures, because as Lotman has pointed out, the cultural memory is not an archive or a library of past events ,but a mechanism embedded in the present and the contemporary that creates the image of the past and projects it backwards.

Reading and teaching literary texts from other cultures, from Lotman’s perspective, would invariably involve translation and translation according to his theory is the primary mechanism of generation of new meanings and information. Reading such American texts in the non-American societies and cultures would result in translation and generation of new information in those cultures. Globalization accelerates the translation and generation of new meanings in other cultures, leading to added dynamism of cultural change in those local cultures. This dynamism will be chaotic and unpredictable, not a simple Americanisation of the  world. 
[Check out my older presentation on American Poetry with reference to the poetry of Dickinson, Frost and Whitman  embedded below]

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)

Check out my Video Presentation on  Contemporary Translation theory and Practice