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Language and Translation in a Multilingual Nation

A Multilingual Nation: Translation and Language Dynamic in India edited by Rita Kothari, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2018; pp VII + 365, ₹1,495.

Language, in modern times, with the growth of printing technology and formation of nation states, plays a central role in human society both symbolically as well as substantially. For innumerous communities, it has become a rallying point for identity formations. It holds the promises of enabling and empowering. It also becomes a tool for subordinations and marginalisation. Multiplicity of languages, their complex and dynamic nature could better explain our sociological and political realities. But, sadly, such dynamic roles of language have been hardly studied. In India, where these dynamics are even more complex and multilayered, languages are seen by many, even today, merely as tools of communication or part of “fissiparous tendencies.” Only in the recent decades, scholars have begun to seriously study languages in order to explain the sociological, historical and political realities in India (see, for example, King 1994; Dalmia 1997; Rai 2001; Orsini 2002; Aquil and Chatterjee 2008; Sarangi 2009; Jha 2018a). In fact, I have argued elsewhere that various challenges and complexities of democratic politics and nation-building in India could be better understood by thoroughly exploring its languages (Jha 2018b). The book under review, A Multilingual Nation: Translation and Language Dynamic in India, edited by Rita Kothari, is a welcome and much needed collection of brilliant chapters in this direction. It comprehensively explores the language dynamics in India by focusing primarily on the im/possibility and even desirability of translation in a multilingual nation. This volume re-examines notions such as language, translation, meaning, and utterances by critically engaging with the everyday lived realities and performances of various linguistic communities in South Asia. 
 
Various Methods to study Language
 
All 16 chapters, plus an introduction and an epilogue, are appropriately structured into four sections. Section 1 deals with the question of “translating in the times of devotion” while Section 2 is about making and breaking of the linguistic boundaries. Section 3 focuses on literary texts, variances in their performances and challenges in translating them, whereas Section 4 is aptly titled “re-imagining the time of translation.” Together, these essays highlight the multiplicity of approaches and methods to study language dynamics in India and the im/possibility of their translation.
 
Rita Kothari in the introduction rightly argues about, and it echoes in other chapters too, the discrete nature of language. Language in this sense is seen not as a steady/stable entity, but a part of the larger network of languages which defines the multilingual scene as opposed to the supposedly “monolingual world” of advanced societies.1 In a “monolingual world,” while translating, it is easier to be truthful/authentic to the “source” and the “target” language. In this view, the translation is understood as “bridge/linkages/solution/integrating/joining” between two mutually incomprehensible and discrete languages. 
 
However, Kothari, including many other contributors, challenges this understanding and argues that translation is an inherent and inalienable part of languages, particularly in South Asia. Hence, they are apprehensive about the desirability of official or formal translations. Translations in post-independence India have been officially used as a tool for “national integration” or for the promotion of Hindi. She asks a fundamental question: If “India is a linguistic nation, and an unbroken chain of communication characterises its linguistic network regardless of differences between languages, do we need translation?” (p 5). This provokes us to seriously rethink about the practices and desirability of translation in Indian languages, especially when the translation is done not directly between two languages, but with the help of a third language, mostly English but also Hindi. And, how meanings are lost in such translations is beautifully illustrated in Mini Chandran’s chapter “Dancing in Hall of Mirrors: Translation between Indian Languages.” 
 
Language of Devotion 
 
Linda Hess’s bhakti poetry of Kabir (Chapter 1); Francesca Orsini’s study of multiple and fluid renderings of “Na Hindu Na Turk” across the linguistic spheres (Chapter 2); and Neelima Shukla-Bhatt’s “Songs on the Move” of Mirabai and Narasinha Mehta (Chapter 3) present a distinct and fascinating account of language use by different linguistic communities. They situate understanding and meaning of words or utterances; poems or songs in their locations in the larger social world, embodiments, literary movements and performances. Devotional literatures in India, prior to the coming of print, often transcended the linguistic boundaries. For instance, circulations of devotional poetries of Vidyapati in Mithila, Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengal, and Sankardev in Assam in 15th and 16th century across east India are wonderful examples of the ease with which literary works travelled across linguistic spheres even without their formal “translation.” 
 
Hess convincingly argues about the necessity to understand the embodiment of oral traditions and performances as well as social practices in order to construe meanings and understanding of bhakti poetry. Orsini’s major argument is about the intersectionality and dialogical ways in which languages interact. This argument is further developed by Kurup Shah and Pooja Thomas by examining the multiple narratives of Jhaverchand Meghani and folk traditions in western India and linguistic scenes in the city of Ahmedabad respectively. Orsini argues about a shift in scholarships “from single models of vernacularization … to a polyvocal, multivocal understanding that is not simply interested in the process of vernacularization (as a teleological, zero-sum game) but in the proliferation, trajectories, and indeed discontinuities of literary production and circulation in both high languages and vernaculars” (p 62–63). 
 
This approach is apprehensive of the modernist understanding of language in singular often seen in a continuum of script, language, grammar, literature and community. However, one would like to argue that although it is true that languages in actual living spaces even now intersect and “borrow” from each other but over the three centuries “spheres” or “boundaries” of each language are more or less demarcated through/in which not only aesthetic, but political and material needs too are articulated and expressed. Thus, languages differ, or are made to differ, and therefore, one needs to examine the un/making of such differences sociologically, politically as well as historically. 
 
Power and Language
 
Making of the linguistic boundaries in India was started by the colonial government. It was an arbitrary exercise of power. However, it set a pattern. Now, more and more communities construct their identities and make demands on the basis of their languages. Sanjukta Banerjee (Chapter 4) and Rita Kothari (Chapter 5) examine the “European gaze” on Indian language and the contentious nature of such classifications and demarcations. Kothari argues that Grierson’s Linguistic Survey of India brought the imagination of language as a discrete entity to Indian soil (p 118). She critically examines the making of different categories of languages in colonial India as “mother tongue”, “standard”/”non-standard languages” and their inherent contradictions. Classifications of Indian languages were started by the Britishers as a political tool to establish “order” in the otherwise chaotic linguistic spheres. It was also done to “fix” the languages and their boundaries, define nationhood, and translate their differences. This approach of classification and enumeration of the Indian languages continues to haunt postcolonial India as various communities cite these enumerative exercises and colonial records to further their demands. 
 
However, social spaces of languages remain quite different from their official proclamations. Attempts to modernise one’s language and record one’s culture and idioms in print and their inherent contradictions are beautifully described in Sowmya Dechamma’s “Three Languages and a Book.” She captures such anxiety to “represent” and “standardise” in the context of Kodava speakers of Coorg/Kodagu area of Karnataka and the ways in which they negotiate with the linguistic hierarchy of English and Kannada. Similarly, Madhumita Sengupta raises important questions regarding the making of Assamese linguistic boundaries and what she calls “ideologies of grammar.” She examines the inherent tensions in the making of modern “standard” Assamese and silences on the questions of Kamrupi and its other “dialects.” However, one may find such challenges and contradictions in most, if not all modern Indian languages.
 
Rohini Mokashi Punekar (Chapter 7) and Veena Naregal (Chapter 9) connect the question of language and translation with the education policy of the state. Punekar’s study of Jotirao Phule’s Gulamgiri illustrates language as a vehicle of new and radical interpretations, which contests the dominant narratives and norms. She critically examines Phule’s contributions in educational policies in colonial Maharashtra and the ways in which he subverted the upper castes’ narratives of Indian nationalism. Phule also provided an emancipatory narrative to the Shudras and other excluded communities. His claims of Shudra as Kshatriya; Aryan as invader/outsider; or an ideology of a prosperous and peaceful Shudra kingdom are debatable. However, he did provide an alternative “subaltern” imagination. 
 
Naregal questions the colonial bilingualism that created a hierarchy among the Indian languages. She argues that “relegation of vernaculars within the university system was a major landmark in the linguistic restructuring of colonial society” (p 202). She also points to the privileging of “nationalist paradigm” over “regional” or “local” paradigms in post-independence India. It made bhasha spheres as the “realm of intellectual inferiority.” The irony is that this continues to dictate the social sciences. How long will it continue this way?
 
Translating the ‘Untranslatable’
 
Translation assumes certain modes of communication or literary production. It privileges written over the oral; languages with script and grammar over languages without script and grammar; languages with access to print over those with little or no access to print. Mitra Phukan points out the challenges inherent in translating India’s North East into English. Here, she also explains the degree of hierarchy that exists between English and Assamese or the languages of Nagaland, Meghalaya, and Mizoram. She explains the dilemmas faced by translators when “varieties” of a language are used in the original text. In other words, she points to the challenges of translating “multiple tongues into a single one.” Tridip Suhrud examines the political aspect of translating or not translating a text. Using the example of Saraswatichandra, a canonical text in modern Gujarati, which “remained untranslated in any Indian language till 2015” (p 245), he establishes the political aspect of translation. His deeper engagement with the Gujarati society and its literature allow him to critically examine the dichotomy of “self-imagining or lack of it” in modern Gujarat and its influences on non/translation of a literary text.
 
Madhava Chippali and Sundar Sarukkai’s (Chapter 15) and G N Devy’s (Chapter 10) arguments are thought-provoking and unsettle a number of assumptions about language and translation, orality and script, and their sequentiality. Chippali and Sarukkai question the understanding of language being “original and even unitary.” They argue that “translation—as a concept—is prior to the notion of language” (p 310). Thus, they separate the notion of translation from the actual act of translating where translation is seen as inherent in a language. By regarding transliteration as a correct method of translation, they question the assumption that “concepts cannot be translated with total equivalence, and hence are untranslatable” (p 315). In their assessment, and rightly so, any expectation of complete equivalence in translation of any works is unrealistic, which is equally true in translating concepts. 
 
G N Devy draws our attention to the close connection that exists between a language and human mind/brain. He also argues about the possibilities of “a translation time.” He defines it as a time when “neither script nor speech comes first, nor is either of them subsequent. It will be an interesting time when all originals will be simultaneous with their translations, all translations already embedded within their originals” (p 336). It invites us to revisit many assumptions about oral and written, grammar and script, sphota and dhwani, original and its representation, print and translation and their sequentiality. 
 
Summing Up
 
Methodologically speaking, there is simultaneous presence of pre/early-modern, modern, and postmodern approaches to study language and translation. Much of the analyses in the book are caught in between modernist search for truth and meaning in the singular and how to capture it through translation; and postmodernist approach to the very notion of truth and meaning in its multiplicity, plurality and relativity. It could be regarded as the strength of this volume, in a sense it brings multiple approaches together and thereby broadens our understanding of languages and translation.
 
This volume successfully problematises the idea of language and translation as a discrete entity and one tends to agree with their explanations of everyday communication and interactions across the linguistic boundaries in South Asia. Here, bilingualism or multilingualism is a lived reality where not just experts but everyone is involved in translation. This volume provides ample illustrations of these bilingual or multilingual interactions. However, language in modern print era—whether one likes it or not—has acquired an enormous power through its connections with emotive issues like nation and religion. And, there is hardly any serious analysis of ways in which language in modern India becomes the rallying point for various communities and how it influences the larger political processes. 
 
A major concern regarding the language issue in modern India is its instrumental use on the one hand and its rootedness in the cultural and emotional repertoire of communities on the other from where it derives its infinite power and authority. All languages and their speakers do not possess these resources to the same degree. However, such variance could be explained historically in a specific political context of their emergence. This volume fell somewhat short of raising or highlighting these important issues, let alone critically engaging with them. Possibly, that could have been beyond the scope of this volume. Nonetheless, it remains a significant trope in any study of language dynamics and translation in modern societies.
 
Overall, this volume raises many fundamental questions. Its strength lies in the multiplicity of approaches and a range of inquiries that it offers to study various issues and challenges pertaining to the question of language and translation in a multilingual nation like India.
 
Note
 
1 Read North America and Europe. Although, one can question the existence of such a “monolingual’ world. A language carries within it multiple worlds, thoughts, and imagination to be reduced to a singular entity.
 
References
 
Aquil, Raziuddin and Partha Chatterjee (eds) (2008): History in the Vernacular, Ranikhet: Permanent Black.
 
Dalmia, Vasudha (1997): The Nationalization of Hindu Traditions, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
 
Jha, Mithilesh Kumar (2018a): “Feature Essay: Language Movement and Democracy in India,” LSE Review of Books, December, https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/lsereviewofbooks/2018/12/13/feature-essay-language-movements-and-democracy-in-india-by-mithilesh-kumar-jha/.
 
(2018b): Language Politics and Public Sphere in North India, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
 
King, Christopher (1994): One Language Two Scripts: The Hindi Movement in Nineteenth Century North India, Bombay: Oxford University Press.
 
Orsini, Francisca (2002): The Hindi Public Sphere, Delhi: Oxford University Press.
 
Rai,Alok (2001): Hindi Nationalism, New Delhi: Orient Longman.
 
Sarangi, Asha (ed) (2009): Language and Politics in India, Delhi: Oxford University Press.

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Updated On : 8th Apr, 2020

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