Literary Culture and Translation

Nipun Nutan

In this edited volume Dorothy Figueria, a scholar of Comparative Literature and a critic of concept of World Literature, along with Chandra Mohan, Secretary General of the Comparative Literature Association of India, have tried to put forward the cause of Comparative Literature focusing especially on India through a series of 21 essays by some of the most eminent scholars of the contemporary and preceding generation in the field of Comparative Literature. Figueria has explicitly mentioned in the Introduction that there has been an attrition in the Comparative Literature and the book has as its purpose to move forward the dialogue on Comparative Literature in India. Through these words we can infer that the editors have conceptualised this volume with both intellectual and emotional quotient to address the tensions that Comparative Literature is witnessing with the arrival of other paradigms like cultural studies, postcolonialism, and World Literature.

The volume subtitles itself as ‘New Aspects of Comparative Literature’; this subtitle points towards the 1989 edited volume by Chandra Mohan, Aspects of Comparative Literature. The first section of the present volume is also titled ‘Aspects of Comparative Literature’. Moreover, two out of the four essays in this section are reprints from the 1989 volume. Thus, we can consider this as a continuation of the same dialogue that takes into account the new issues that have surfaced during the last 28 years which essentially are the competing paradigms and discourses in the domain of Comparative Literature. With regard to the main title ‘Literary Culture and Translation’, before reading the volume it gave me the impression that the volume at large discusses the interrelationship between literature and translation. However, the two domains are kept separated and almost four fifth of the book is dedicated to literary culture that could be interpreted as Comparative Literature and its issues and only one section comprised of six essays are termed as ‘General Translation Theory’.

The four essays of the first section discuss the history and methodological framework which is a suitable read for any student of Comparative Literature. Sisir Kumar Das’s essay traces the history of Comparative Literature in India and as it was published in 1989 (and reprinted in this volume), this historical account stops at that particular period. The discussion is carried forward in an essay in the second section by Sayantan Dasgupta. The second essay is reprinted with the motive to provide understanding in intercultural studies and as mentioned in the title it provides a methodology in this domain. This essay is seminal in nature and must be part of the curriculums across the nation. The latter two essays make a point against and for interdisciplinarity respectively. The third essay by Juri Talvet is unique among all as it is the only one in the volume that argues for the coexistence of Comparative Literature and World Literature.

The first three essays of the second section by Gerald Gillespie, Eugene Eoyang, and Dorothy Figueira are intense and make a case against World Literature and Westernisation. Gillespie starts the discussion from where he left off in the 1989 volume, i.e. the condition of the Comparative Literature domain in 1970s and 1980s and goes on to heavily critiquing the concept of World Literature and terms it to be aiding only the political players and not the actual academics. He further goes on to warn India to not get tempted with World Literature. Similarly Figueria terms the paradigms of ‘multiculturalism’, ‘postcolonialism’, and ‘World Literature’ as tokenism and gestures of illusionary inclusion. She puts it bluntly that it will be ironic if India falls prey to the new hegemony of World Literature. However, the supporting arguments in both the cases are serious and interesting to read. Anne Tomiche while talking about French Comparative Literature reiterates in a novel way what was already discussed in a Dasgupta’s work ( Aspects of Comparative Literature, pp. 19–26) and goes on to the further developments of Translation Studies and France’s unique études culturelles (Cultural Studies).

The three subsequent essays in the section are based on Comparative Literature in India. Sayantan Dasgupta shows the direction in which the domain has moved in India from British literature to now bhasha literatures in translation. Ipshita Chanda’s essay grasps the present condition of the literary domain in India. The case of oratures is taken up in another essay terming them as ‘Concepts of the Margins’ and forwarding the argument that oratures do not have a place in Comparative Literature Studies in India.

Though the title contains the word Translation and Mohan too discussed the domain of Translation Studies in the preface, and there is a whole section on Translation (titled General Translation Theory, comprising of six articles out of 21), the main focus of the book remains on Comparative Literature in India. The section begins with the reprint of Indra Nath Chaudhary’s essay ‘Towards an Indian Theory of Translation’. It was originally published in Indian Literature, a journal of Sahitya Akademi in 2010, although the present reprint missed that information. The article shares its name with a previous article published in 2003 by Shibani Phukan. Present article has an echo of a thin book (of 56 pages) by Ashit Chakraborty published in 1976, namely Translational Linguistics of Ancient India; surprisingly neither the original version nor this reprint has a mention of this book. The essay includes other issues too. In my opinion we need to revisit Chakraborty’s work in our attempts to develop or look for an Indian theory of translation, if there existed any such singular entity and not a tradition or traditions of translation.

The essays by Jasbir Jain focusing on comparative reading and Anisur Rahman comparing the act of translation with other works of creativity such as architectural developments that tries to bring back the focus on the aesthetics of the text and its interpretation rather than getting entangled in the larger debates of postcolonial theory on race and history. These attempts in my opinion seem to make a case in favour of Comparative Literature and are suggesting to refrain from postcolonialism. Assumpta Camps, while talking about transcultural writing and its translation strategy, puts forward the postcolonial perspective on translation and points out the qualities that a translator needs to have such as an ethical commitment and respect for the minority discourse. Thus, balancing the two previous essays. E. V. Ramakrishanan’s essay is seminal in nature and makes a case for ‘translation history’ in the literary history of India. The way he draws combinations between linguistic facts and contextual situations will also aid in developing future methods for doing research in translation history especially in a multilingual settings like India.

The fourth section of the volume is titled ‘Case Studies’. It starts again with an article from the 1989 volume by Harish Trivedi, with a newly added afterword. In my opinion this case study on Premchand is still relevant keeping in mind the even larger divide and ignorance between Hindi and Urdu and consequently between the attached communities. In the afterword, when Trivedi discusses the new concept of World Literature, he shows its rising influence by mathematically calculating and presenting how around half of another recent volume on Comparative Literature is made up of discussions on World Literature. This seems to be his archetypal style which I could also recall from a recent conference on World Literature where he mathematically presented the percentage of South Asian Literature in a recent canon of World Literature.

The essay on the Aphasia of India by G. N. Devy, is an essay without references which would mean that it is totally based on his own research. This essay is at the same time sentimental, contemplating, and raising awareness. Though it is placed in the section of Case Studies with reference to India, it is not a case study to be put at the end of the book but it is an essay from where the discourse on Indian literature should start. It makes us think beyond the present linguistic structuring of India and the hegemony of written over oral established by the Britishers and later blindly followed by the Indian Government leading to the slow death of chapters of Indian history and languages. In my opinion this essay should have been alongside Eugene Eoyang’s essay where he talks about the Western biases and should not have been placed towards the very end of the volume. This essay which is a pinch of the whole knowledge of G. N. Devy has lead me to further indulge with all four of his works in the field compiled under the The G. N. Devy Reader and will probably happen to other Indian readers too.

Globally, the new aspects that could be deciphered from this volume would condition informed and aware decisions when dealing with the World Literature and other similar paradigms; at the same time it presents an updated understanding of the World and Indian conditions of literary domains and creates some space for minority discourses. The discussions on translation are limited and are more inclined towards the comparative literature paradigm rather than on the translation studies paradigm, some essays even go beyond literary connotations of translation. In brief, the volume is highly informative with essays from some of the most eminent scholars from India and the world. Debutants in any paradigm of literature in India should read this as this will guide them to make informed choices. Moreover, the methodological discussions will help to improve the position of one’s own research.

I would like to conclude with the case of oratures in Trivedi’s mathematical style – this present volume on literary culture has contributed 9 pages to oratures and if we include Devy’s article which touches upon the topic of oratures in 10 pages, the count will go up to 19 pages, which makes up approximately 6 per cent of the total book. This proves the existing hegemony of ‘literatures’ over ‘oratures’ in academia. In my view the true literary culture of India cannot be deciphered until we dedicate more percentages to oratures. But more percentage of what, pages? That will leave them no more oratures but will bring them again under the hegemony of literatures. Then how to study oratures? A question that at the moment perhaps only Devy can answer.

Chakraborty, Ashit (1976) Translational Linguistics of Ancient India. Calcutta: Kanakdhara.
Dasgupta, Subha (1989) The French School of Comparative Literature. In: Dev, Amiya and Das, Sisir Kumar (eds) Comparative Literature: Theory and Practice. Shimla: Indian Institute of Advance Studies, 19–16.
Devy, G. N. (2009) The G N Devy Reader. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.
Mohan, Chandra (ed.) (1989) Aspects of Comparative Literature. New Delhi: India Publishers and Distributors.
Phukan, Shibani (2003) Towards an Indian theory of translation, Wasafiri, 2003: 27–30.