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Module 1: The Translation Practice and The Postmodern Narrative

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The Challenges of Translation

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Hello and welcome to today’s session of the course introduction of world literature. (Refer Slide Time: 00:17) In this session we are looking at 2013 essay by Kathleen Shields, it’s titled “Challenges and Possibilities for World Literature, Global Literature and Translation.” The crux of this essay is on looking at the practice of translation from an entirely different point of view trying to see how different kind of an approach or more focused approach on the practice of translation may yield a lot of fruitful results for reading world literature itself. The main argument of Shields’ essay is that Goethe’s concept of Weltliterateur, as he had used the term originally for world literature, it was grounded in translation practice if you recall some of our early discussions on the term weltliterateur and how a literature emerged as a concept in the late 18th the early 19th century, you may also remember that translation, the circulation in different countries, in different tradition those with the bases on which the idea of world literature was grounded. And inShields’ essay she also tries to play with this idea that in creating a canon representing the best of each nation, translation occupied centre stage and Shields is trying to question the nature of this occupation, the nature of the importance of translation has not had in world literature and she is encouraging us to look at translation as a political act, as something which is not limited to linguistic or philological frameworks but something which has an overarching geopolitical significance. The essay can be accessed in this link. (Refer Slide Time: 02:00) At the outset of the essay, Shields talks about four major challenges in the context of world literature. One, the nation-state is weakening -the kind of significance that nation-states had in the 19th century and even in the early 20th century is getting increasingly weakened in the contemporary. And the idea of Weltliteratur perhaps as a consequence of this is also in decline and she also tries to link this up with the emergence of, with the rise of English language as a supra-language or as a global language. And then she draws our attention to the third challenge which is asymmetries in relations between languages and she draws our attention to the small number of translation languages which are becoming more market, which also means that it is not as if all languages are getting translated into different languages; literature in only particular languages, literature which occupy only particular kinds of political and social significance is getting translated into certain languages and here again, she links this up with the idea of the significance of English language where we find more translations to the English language than to any other language and on the contrary, we do not find enough translations happening from the English language towards other languages either. And finally, as a challenge and at the same time as a possibility she is also introducing us to be idea of digital reading and how the digitization of the materials, digitization of literature also brings in new challenges and new prospects for World Literature. (Refer Slide Time: 03:44) The first half of Shields’ essay has to do with understanding translation. She tells us about different modes of translation and she also alerts us to the idea that translation cannot be and need not be seen as a singular monolithic concept and she reminds us that in the beginning in the first phase translation was perhaps seen as a mediating force in multiple bilateral contexts between the literature of Europe, and it was in this context that Goethe had used a term Weltliterateur because he found that his own works were being translated and they were in circulation in different parts of Europe. So it was seen as a mediating force especially in the context of how 19th century Europe also began to be divided into different nations states, also how 19th century Europe began to see a lot a of divisive forces at work and translation was one such thing which could perhaps act as a bridge across cultures, across nations and traditions but now when we look at the translation, Kathleen Shields reminds us it operates as a pyramidal model, there is a certain pyramid in a place where English serves as the base of all kinds of translations, the English language serves as a foundational base for all translation practices across the world and this is the phrase that she uses: “Literature in English, literature translated into English, literature is written to be translated into English, then literature in English they become the dominant forms.” So that is all about literature which is written either in English or about the kind of literature which are written to be translated into English so that they are accessible to a certain geopolitical space so that they become part of a certain kind of a canon which has been designed and devised in particular . So there is a very evident shift in the way that we understand translation from being seen as a mediating force across the literature of Europe, we find that today there is a shift towards more unmediated sutra literature, this is the term that uses for literature available in English or literature originally written in English. So from translation being a mediating force across literature, across traditions, there is a move towards a single language, a single kind of traditional literature which according to Kathleen Shields is also unmediated sutra literature. (Refer Slide Time: 06:25) Mapping how world literature has been defined is a useful trajectory to continue with and shields use the three-fold definition given by R K Dasgupta in 1967 and the three ways in which the Dasgupta attempted to define world literature one as a total of all literature of the world, secondly as works in the different kinds of the literature of the world which have attained world recognition and thirdly as different kinds of the literature of the world conceived as one literature. So we are increasingly using the definition the second and third definition more and more because of the first definition total of all literature of the world, it is an almost impractical task to bring together all literature in the context of the definitions the second one and the third one, we are also talking about a move from national literature towards single word literature. So the question this is a practical question or not? That is perhaps that is something that we need to discuss in another lecture. Given these definitions and the various ways in which this is been working, she also reminds us that translation continues to be one of the foundational practices which continue to be important because to be able to be seen as one there should be some kind of a unity which now can be seen in the way in which the English language is increasingly emerging as sutra literature. She is also clarifying that Goethe’s concept can be a seen as best as a structural sketch now, Goethe’s idea of Weltliteratur found in he is letters written to Eckermann, this was during the period between 1780 and 1820 from the late 18th century till the early 19th century. It could be said that this was the period during which the idea of world literature itself emerged if we can take Goethe’s use of the term Weltliteratur as one of the starting points. So it is during this phase from the late 18th till the early 19th century, in this phase Europe was going through several transitions and there was a much debate going on about translation itself as a way of mediating between the domestic and the foreign and this as reminded earlier, this was one of how conflicts could be resolved and this was also a way in which the domestic and the foreign the inside and the outside could come together with little conflict. So it was in this context that the need for translation, the need for single world literature, the need to conceive of a body of literature which is beyond the boundaries of nation-states, which is beyond the boundaries of languages and traditions, it was in such a context that this need itself had emerged. (Refer Slide Time: 09:12) So this again brings us back to the significance of the translation and translation practices, so why are we talking about translation? Kathleen Shields takes us through this journey and she tells us in detail about how translation practices evolved. In the 19th century Europe we find that the nation-states are being created and alongside there is also the emergence of an idea of transnational literature. So there is a way in which these two seemingly different movements go parallel. The nation-states, of course, assert individuality and the importance of being specific, the importance of the inside but the idea of transnational literature, on the other hand, celebrates a coming together of these differences and celebrate the importance of this connection this continuing contact between the inside and the outside and there is a way in which Shields tries to connect these various disparaging things in a single practice which is translation and translation according to her is an important tool for transmission and exchange there is no doubt about that, that is one of the most basic understanding, that is one of the basic functions of translations but at the same time, it could foster dialogue and understanding between nations. Here it ceases to be the onus of the writers or translators, it ceases to be the onus of the publishing houses there is a larger political function which translation begins to play rather inadvertently and at the same time, this cultural mediation she argues could compensate for the arrogance, intolerance and ethnocentricism of the nation-state, this also ties up with the various arguments put forward by Goethe, Marx and Engels where they talk about the need literature. The need to move beyond the national literature and talk about the transnational literature, talk about world literature and if you recall one of the earlier sessions Tagore also was hinting towards this when he gives a lecture on Vishwa Sahitya again loosely translated as world literature when he was asked to talk about comparative literature he chose to talk about world literature about comparing and amalgamating different traditions and different literary backgrounds into a seemingly one strand of literature and this was a need of the hour. Shields again reminds us because this was the age, this was the century when different nations states were have been created and this mediation in the form of translation was extremely imperative, it played a literary role, a cultural role and also a political role. Kathleen Shields finds Antoine Berman’s definition to be very useful. “The essence of translations is to be an opening, a dialogue, a cross-breeding, a decentering.” So here at this point, we begin to look at translation as a practice which is serving a higher purpose, it is not the just about the words which are being translated, it is not just about a story which is being made available into a different language or a poem or a lyric or an epic which is being made available into another language, it is also about the opening of the worlds, it is about initiating dialogues, it is about cross-breeding and very importantly it is about taking away the centre, unlike the early modernist period when the lack of centre was seen as a catastrophe where it was seen as a disaster in the contemporary there is, again and again, a need being felt to decenter where the absence of the centre is seen as an enabling fact, the absence of a centre also means that the distinction between the centre and the periphery, the centre and the margins are slowly becoming insignificant if not absent. (Refer Slide Time: 13:14) This leads us to the next segment in Shields’ essay where she is looking at translation as a political act. Translation, she points out, is also now functioning as a one-way bridge and this is a kind of bridge which has to be destroyed or which gets destroyed inadvertently when it has been crossed over. And she notes it is important translation as an activity, it is “Important for the creation of world literature but fades into the background once this ambition is achieved.” So it is not seen as a two-way act rather it ceases to be a two-way act it is more like a one-way bridge and here Shields is deliberately drawing our attention to another flip side of transition that the translation has been facing, she quotes Mona Baker to explain this further, Mona Baker argues that translation can also prevent dialogue, block contacts and support ethnocentricism on a global scale, in the so-called war on terror. This needs to be contrasted with the point that we just observed Antoine Berman’s argument that the essence of translation is to be an opening, a dialogue, a cross-breeding and a decentering from that in the contemporary there is also the risk of translation preventing dialogue, blocking contacts and supporting ethnocentricism especially in the context of the war on terror. Emily Apter’s book the Impossibility of Translation also talks extensively about the absence of translation or rather the irrelevance of translation in this context of the war on terror. We should perhaps take a detailed look at in one of the later sessions, while it is a matter of debate whether the translation has ceased to be an enabling factor in terms of promoting dialogues, in terms of promoting mutual interaction. It is also important to underscore the main point that Kathleen Shields is trying to drive home here that translations of literature are inevitably connected to politics, translation is essentially a political act and world recognition, though it may be present as a very innocuous, simple straightforward thing, world recognition also doesn’t happen without controversy, these are the two elements which she tries to pursue in the rest of her essay where she continues to argue that translation needs to be seen as a political act and it needs to be taken away from being a solely linguistic or philological activity and that world recognition there is no given thing or there is a no given formula, there is no given framework for world recognition that it is also fraught with a lot of controversies. (Refer Slide Time: 16:07) She gives us the example of the selection of Nobel laureates and she points out that this process, the selection of Nobel laureates have always been a fairly political act. 1913 Nobel prize where Rabindranath Tagore the Indian, the first non-European to receive the prize that was 1913 and this happens just before the world war. Shields very effectively situates this selection, this nomination and this winning by Tagore within this political context and in her own words this act of “not giving pean as a way of avoiding having to decide between countries on the verge of war.” So this was according to Shields an easy way out, some kind of reconciliation an attempted reconciliation through this announcement of the Nobel prize, one may choose to have a different opinion, one may choose to disagree with the point that shields are making but what is important here is how she is trying to identify the political elements which are also inherent in the idea of world literature in the conception of world literature and the processes through which world literature are framed and this sort of response is also extremely important because we cannot completely ignore the many seemingly natural or the seemingly commonsensical elements which are part of these loaded terms. Shields continues to perceived this point and she draws our attention to the fact that she can see Two Tagores -one is the Tagore writing in Bengali and the other is this Bengali writer the Indian Bengali writer whose translating himself into English and she of course also reminds us of the role that WB Yeats played in promoting Tagore as a universal figure and how she tries to bring together these two Tagores, the one who is writing in Bengali during the high nationalist phase exclusively for local regional language readers. And the other Tagore, who is also translating himself into English notably not any other Indian language but into English and this is a way in which Tagore himself perhaps tries to position himself as a writer who can be accessed by the world and this world, of course, is a limited world given that it is a world inhabited by the ones who can access works in the English Language, who can read works in English Language and this work can only be circulated in those areas where English is used as a literary language and Shields finds the case of Tagore very pertinent and she continues to state that: “The case of Tagore illustrates the ambivalence of supranational literature towards translation” and this happens in the early 20th century and Shields is also reminding us that translation and the creation of world literature, the creation of a world canon they were always a political act, it was always, already political that it is now hard to take the political element out of this and see them as pure works of translation, see them as pure acts of pure processes which made certain works into world canon of world literature. (Refer Slide Time: 19:43) It is in this context that Shields also tells us about the fate of the local when the local the regional is getting translated it becomes forgotten as soon as the writer makes it into the world stage. In her words translating the local becomes forgotten once the writer has made it onto the world stage and here translation merely becomes a way of paying lip service to the particular while erasing its particularity, I repeat translation becomes a way of paying lip service to the particular while erasing its particularity. If you use the same example that Kathleen Shields has used when Tagore translates his work from Bengali to English, of course, it is a significant act but at the same time the particular, the local the work which is originally there written in Bengali it loses its significance and the particularity of the works also get erased too because it becomes more generic, it becomes more global with less local or less original flavour. Of course, this is not to say that translation hence needs to be berated as a practice because it challenges, Shields’ intention here is to draw our attention to the many things which are otherwise overlooked when we are looking at translation practices especially in the context of world literature. (Refer Slide Time: 21:13) And this process is very organic. It brings in a lot of change while it is at work and Shields is telling us about the change in literary cultures when translation as practice begins to intervene in world literature. There is no other way in which world literature can be made the accessible translation, translating works from one language to the other, from one tradition to the other is perhaps the only way in which works can be made accessible and this causes a lot of changes within literary systems, within literary cultures and in the contemporary Shields notably points out that what is now happening is a reinforcement of English language as a super language. And she also says that a series of world events political and socio-historical events also had played an important role in affirming and reinforcing the supremacy of English language the fall of the berlin wall and the end of the Apartheid, are two significant events that she quotes and she also points out that several world languages such as Arabic, Hindi, French, German, Chinese, and Russian they are all yielding to English in the hierarchy of translations. Remember the pyramidal model that she spoke about at the outset of her essay s drawing our attention to how the base, the foundational base in this pyramid had become English Language and there is a way in which the hierarchy was beginning to be set in different paradigm altogether and English language the works being made available in English is now serving as a basis for other translations as well and this is the point that she continues to pursue throughout her essay. There are couples of other things also which have contributed to the changing literary systems and cultures, the advent of the new media, the digitization of text and of course the spread of economic modernization to every part of the globe and these need to be seen these different things which are happening in different segments and different sectors, they need to be seen together to be able to understand the change which has come up and about in literary cultures. (Refer Slide Time: 23:25) I read out this excerpt from Kathleen Shields’ essay: “What is a current function of centres of literary production and reception such as Paris, Frankfurt or London? What is happening in these key centres of literary production? While literature is becoming more and more delocalized, it is probably the case that it is the ‘constellations’ with ‘temporary sub-centres’, constantly shifting and changing between world literature and minor literature, which play an important part. In the circulation of more or less prestigious texts, translation as well as non-translation plays an increasing but invisible role in the power relations between languages and literature.” She is bringing about a significant difference between languages and literature and the availability of these different words in different spaces and she is also questioning the role played by the centres of literary production in the contemporary. While there is an increasing move towards delocalization there is an increasing move towards conceiving the literature as one as a world canon, we also realize that there is a power relation, there is a hierarchy at work there is a certain kind of a privileging of certain works, particularly in this context the ones available in the English language which we can see.