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Module 1: Marriages, Tragedies and Questioning

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A Postcolonial Theorist

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Hello and welcome to today’s session of NPTEL course entitled introduction to World Literature. Today we are looking at one of the important essays on the translation by Gayatri Chakravarty Spivak. It’s titled, “The Politics of Translation”. The significance of looking at this essay as part of a course on world literature also lies in the multiple layers of politics and the translations which are the part of the process of framing something we now term as the world literature. As we begin to notice most of the text that we deal with they are texts which have been translated and which are getting circulated in different parts of the world outside the original place where it was published, the original location where it began to get circulated the original culture which received it. This translation and this circulation could be within the same timeframe, it could be across decades, it could be across centuries and in certain cases, it could date back to even the earlier periods such as the first century AD. So given that when Spivak is talking about the politics of translation it also places into context the many things that we need to engage with and the many things that one needs to factor in while one is talking about the act of translation especially within a postcolonial context. In this sense, I also want to draw your attention to some of the observations in the contemporary where postcolonial literature is seen as always already world literature because there is a way in which postcolonial writings they begin to get translated and they begin to get visibility once they are translated to English once they get more visibility across their countries and places of origin. And post-colonialism also has been seen as one of how the literary world begins to have dialogues with each other, how there is more and better communication across cultures and more importantly post-colonialism and the literature produced from the postcolonial worlds it has been seen as a very powerful non-Eurocentric production of the literature of culture. It has been seen as the kind of output which is coming out from developing countries, which is coming out from non-Western perspectives. Coming out from nonwhite perspective and that is something that contemporary world literature the canonization of contemporary world literature the framing of contemporary world literature that is something that the theorists are also looking forward to. While talking about Spivak, she is a postcolonial theorist and she is also best known for her work which translated Of Grammatology by Derrida from French into English. And in this work, “The Politics of Translation” she is looking at the personal experience of having translated 2 important works, one Derrida’s Of Grammatology from French to English and the other one Mahashweta Devi’s works from an Indian language, Bengali into English. So she is looking at both of these processes and trying to look at the politics inherent in it and trying to analyze the frameworks within which she operates and the position that she adopts as that of a postcolonial feminist critic. The politics of translation is an essay which was written in 1993, there she considers translation as an important approach pursuing the feminist agenda as well. And she is talking about translation and it is not entirely about the technical aspects of translation, she is also addressing the subject position that she is inhabiting, she is also taking into account the various political positions the various ideological belief systems within which her work is also situated in. So apart from being a postcolonial theorist, there are certain very pertinent belief systems within which rather the ideological systems within which Spivak tries to position her feminist work as well as Marxist. And there is also a very prominent post-structuralist approach which one can begin to see and having mentioned the association that she had with Derrida’s work it is also very very deconstructive in nature. And in this work politics of translation, she is largely pursuing this grand agenda of achieving women’s solidarity and she is trying to bring into question, issues related to gender, issues related to feminist politics and she’s trying to position it in the larger context of translation which is also an important factor when one begins to talk about world literature. So there are 3 approaches which we find coming together in this particular essay. First one feminist, then post-colonialist, and post-structuralist and there is of course language and how texts move across languages which also could be seen as the heart of this entire work. (Refer Slide Time: 5:20) So this is how she positions herself in this particular work as a feminist translator and this is very important for us to keep in mind that translation here is not seen as an apolitical event. The translation is not seen as an event which could be presame regardless of who engages with it, it’s not really about language and she is bringing into discussion various things which are not directly associated with language but things which would frame how ideas and particularly language gets articulated particularly within literary and cultural contexts. And she is also pursuing and pushing this argument that ultimately it is about the politics that defines the act of translation. Translation when it is undertaken by people with various subject positions with different ideologies it is going to have a different outcome altogether. There is no single linear way in which one text can be translated into the other. There are the underlying politics of race, ethnicity, caste, gender all of this comes into play when one text is translated from a certain language to the other. And this Spivak argues is all the more pertinent in the postcolonial context and that’s a kind of comparison and the foil that she tries to bring in when she is positioning Derrida’s of grammatology on the one and Mahashweta Devi's works on the other (Refer Slide Time: 0 6:56) And something that she continued to emphasize throughout this work right from the beginning is the aspect of identity. And here I read out to you and it’s from one of Spivak’s own work which she also quotes in this particular essay where she is talking about the certain kind of risks that she takes while she engages in translation and this she refers particularly concerning the translation that she undertook from 18th century Bengali poetry to English. And this is a quote that she quotes from her own work from translator’s prefix. “I must overcome what I was taught in school the highest mark for the most accurate collection of synonyms strung together in the most proximate syntax I must resist both the solemnity of chaste Victorian poetic prose and the forced simplicity of plain English that have imposed themselves as the norm. Translations are the most intimate act of reading. I surrender to the text when I translate. These songs, sung day after day in the family chorus before clear memory began, have a peculiar intimacy for me. Reading and surrendering take on new meanings in such a case. The translator earns permission to transgress from the trace of the other before memory in the closest places of the self.” So here translation is seen as a vital act, a political act where one engages with self with questions of identity and it is also an act of reading and this is how she positions translation – it is not the technical superimposition from one language to the other. On the other hand, it itself is an act of reading that translated text thus becomes a different text altogether. It becomes a text which is read differently and which is again presented to another set of audience in an entirely different way. So when language changes this essay and the many discussions around it, it also draws attention to this fact that when language changes there are multiple things which change along with it. It becomes a different text and it is being received by a different set of audience who have a different cultural ethos who have a different literary tradition. So it is not the same text which gets translated. It is a different text which gets received and circulated and this probably is one thing that we need to keep in mind even when we are engaging with the text which is in circulation, the text which has been translated. And even when the text is not translated for instance if we are looking at Shakespeare, if you’re looking at one of the English iconic texts which come to us in form of circulation travelling across centuries, travelling across spaces one needs to keep in mind that the text undergoes a radical change the moment the sense of audience changes. The text underwent a radical change the moment the location and the structures within which the text gets received undergoes a change and that is something that Spivak also tries to perceive further within a post-colonialist, feminist and poststructuralist framework. (Refer Slide Time: 10:13) And very soon into the essay, she draws our attention to the act of translation as it happens within the postcolonial situation. The Third World text and what happens when those texts are translated into English in her own words “It is more just to give access to the largest number of feminists, therefore, these texts must be made to speak English. It is more just to speak the language of the majority when through hospitality a large number of feminists give the foreign feminist their right to speak in English. In the case of the Third World foreigner is a law of the majority that has decorum the credible law of democracy or the law of the strongest” and further down she says “in the act of wholesale translation into English there can be a betrayal of the Democratic ideal into the law of the strongest and this happens when all the literature of the gets translated into a sort of with it translatese. So that the literature by a woman in Palestine begins to resemble in the feel of its prose something by a man in Taiwan, the rhetoricity of Chinese and Arabic the cultural politics of high-growth, capitalist Asia-Pacific and the devastated West Asia gender difference inscribed and inscribing in these differences.” And she goes on to give a very real pertinent example of translating Mahashweta Devi's short stories Stanadayini. There are 2 different titles and translations which are available she says ‘the one version which is title “Breast Giver” the alternative title which have which gives the title The Wet Nurse” the first one, of course, she also points out that “breast giver” is the title approved by the original author herself. And in the 2nd one what happens is, when Stanadayini is translated into “the wet nurse” it neutralizes the author’s irony in constructing an uncanny word enough like “the wet nurse” to make that sense and enough unlike to shock. (Refer Slide Time: 12:16) And what are the implications here? When the same text is translated as “the wet nurse” and the “breast giver” what difference does it bring in? Towards the end of that section she says “if the 2 translations are read side-by-side the laws of the rhetorical silences of the original can be felt from one to the other”. So what are the things that she is trying to tell us from this point of time onwards about translation about identity and about certain things which are retained and more importantly about certain things which are entirely lost in this certain forms of translation”. It’s then when she begins to argue, she begins to position her arguments in place. “First then the translator must surrender to the text. She must solicit the text to show the limits of its language because that rhetorical aspect will point at the silence of the absolute fraying of language that the text wards off especially.” From this she moves on to the feminist approach from then she moves on to talk about what role gender plays. How her own position as a feminist translator can be employed to engage in a dialogue with these otherwise predominantly post-colonialist as well as poststructuralist frameworks and how language itself becomes entirely different in the hands of a feminist scholar. How language becomes a tool to engage with identity, To engage with the self of the original writer the self of the author when it is being used by a feminist postcolonial scholar like Spivak. She also uses a very predominantly sexual analogy to talk about the act of translation. Arguing for the need to surrender in translation is more erotic than ethical. So there is an emotional element which is brought into it. There is a very abstract thing which happens at the level of gender, at the level of surrender, surrendering the self of the translator and allowing the self of the translator to surrender to the text that is something that Spivak seems to highlight throughout this work. So as a translator, as a feminist postcolonial translator, Spivak is fully aware of the challenges that she is facing while translating and she also, therefore, understands why one tends to play safe. There are certain ways in which one would cite that logic over rhetorical influences but she also says that in doing so one also runs the risk of losing certain vital clues which are hidden in the text. And there would be certain metaphors which would get lost and she wants the translator predominantly the feminist translator against these things and says that it is important to develop love and affinity for the text which is being translated. Unless there is a relation predominantly that of surrender that is established with the text that translation may use certain vital aspects during the process and this is something that she begins to foreground from the beginning of the discussion that there should be a relation between a translator and the text. And this relation as she puts it, it’s more of an erotic nature, it’s of a surrender than being more ethical or technical. And she also says that, that this is something that would hold the audience of the translator and would also keep the audience at bay. One of the key things in this essay is her concern with the politics of translations from our non-European woman’s text and she also quotes Derrida in this context to say: “I must speak in a language that is not my own because that will be more just” then she says I want to claim the right of the same dignified complaint about a woman’s text in Arabic or Vietnamese and here what she is trying to do and its essence is to challenge the English language dominated feminist movements which are across the globe. And she’s also trying to push this argument further and comment that there is a way in which the law of the majority, silences the minority language feminist within the Western world but it is also a certain west centric, a cerin Eurocentric kind of feminism is also being sold to the other developing Third World countries. In her own words in the act of wholesale translation into English as we have already shown that can be a betrayal of the Democratic ideal into the law of the strongest. So I want to now take you to the main discussion that I would also like to foreground in today’s lecture which is her engagement with the non-western, non-European text. (Refer Slide Time 17:14) She gives as one of the examples, The examples from Tony Morrison’s Beloved and this is the excerpt that I read to you. “The scene of violence between mother and daughter reported and passed on by the daughter Sethe to her daughter Denver who carries the name of a white trash girl, in partial acknowledgements of women’s Solidarity in birthing is then the condition of impossibility of Beloved.” So this is the excerpt from the novel. She picked me up and carried me behind the smokehouse back there she opened up her dress front and lifted her breast and pointed under it, right on her rib was a circle and a cross burned right in the skin. She said this is your mam, this and she pointed yes-ma, she said but how will you know me? Mark me too, I said. Did she? Ask Denver. She slapped my face, what for? I didn’t understand it then. Not till I had a mark of my own.” And this scene Spivak argues of claiming the brand of the owner as my own to create in this broken chain of marks owned by separate white male agents of property and unbroken chain of re-memory in enslaved daughters as agents of history not to be passed on is of necessity different from Friday scene of withheld writing from the white woman wanting to create history by giving her own language and the lesson is the impossibility of translation in the general sense.” I want to draw your attention to this point that she is making the impossibility of translation. There are certain context, deep-rooted cultural context and certain feminist ethos which she is particularly referring to over here which cannot be translated only if one relies entirely on the technical knowledge of the language. It demands something more deeply intimate and personal that some of the terms that she uses are a surrender and erotic relation a love relation between the translator and the text. And she argues that Spivak continues to argue that the translated text begins to resemble the original or the translated text begins to gain an identity of its own only when this relationship exists in terms of identity in terms of selfhood between the translator and the translated work. (Refer Slide Time: 19:37) And this being an essay that we shall come back to at the later point at the end of the course again, I want you to pay attention to some of the important aspects that she is drawing attention to. So we shall not be going into the many details of this essay, right now should definitely coming back to take a look at towards the end of this course and when she is talking about reading as translation and when she’s talking about this particularly towards the end of the essay in terms of its conclusion. I again read the excerpt to you. “I want to show how are the postcolonial as the outside inside a translates white theory as she reads, so that she can discriminate on the terrain of the original. She wants to use, what is useful and again I hope this can pass on a lesson to the translator in the narrowest sense. I like the way this essay is structured - there are certain examples that she uses and she also tries to theorize based on that. And as pointed out at the outset this theorization happens through 3 major frameworks one is post-colonialist, poststructuralist and feminist. One of the things that Spivak tries to do in this essay is to show how translation has been manipulated to disseminate an ideologically motivated image of postcolonial countries and this can be more succinctly observed when we look at some of the other essays by Spivak like “Can the Subaltern Speak?” and her other observations on comparative literature and how that also gets positioned wherein the framework of world literature. And having noticed that Spivak has dismantled the preconceived notion of feminism and the thoughts about postcolonial literature and the society which can get visibility which can get circulation only through English, we also see how critical she is being about this active translation which eventually talks about translation in a very one-sided way in a very lopsided way about everything getting translated into English language and getting circulated across the globe wherever English is spoken, wherever English is a dominated and we also know that more and more it is centrally becoming the language of academia just as much it is also the language of politics and the language of the global economy. And one thing perhaps she hopes to be able to generate is this discussion which will also increase historical, social culture and ideology ical understanding about the society about which predominantly European Western feminists have been showing solidarity mostly from the outer periphery’s through hegemonic English psyche. So this is evidently an attack on the western feminist model where an articulation in favour of the postcolonial societies an articulation in favour of the gender situation in postcolonial is made possible only when that articulation happens in this language English. Though the hegemony that English-language always already had and the kind of politics that it comes into contact with which tries to rescue the women from the postcolonial countries and Spivak began same as a match over here. It’s for the same reason that Spivak mentions this about herself: “my position is generally a reactive one I’m viewed by Marxist as too comic by feminists as too male-identified. By indigenous theorist too committed to the western theory I’m uneasily pleased about this.” So there is something about Spivak’s position which questions the very frameworks through which she engages a lot of text that she talks about like feminist poststructuralist and postcolonialist. So in that sense, I also find it useful to engage with Spivak because she also critiques the very terms on which world literature translation comparative literature and postcolonial literature are being based on. And this is not to say that there is an easy equation between postcolonial literature and world literature but this tool this framework that Spivak is using would be very very handy in analyzing some of the texts and we also get to know that the text that we access, the text that we analyze, the text that lends itself to any kind of academic interpretation is also the text which has been refashioned and reoriented into English-language. So this might be quite removed from the reality that it represents that might be quite removed from the original, our original circulation and the reception that the text had in the first place but what’s important to note is that we’re also dealing with something inevitable over here, this politics of translation which privileges western academies which privilege the the hegemony of English-language that is also something that one should begin to deal with. So the advantage of works such as Spivak’s “Politics of Translation” is not to undermine the efforts being made to translate from different languages across the world into English but the danger lies in seeing this as the only kind of articulation possible. So one of the possible ways in which one can begin to respond to these things is also by taking into account the native scholarship also by taking into account the frameworks which are non-Western. Frameworks which are predominantly nativistic and this is something that Spivak also does not really provide us with an alternative framework and that is also something that we need to be critically aware of that while Spivak, in Spivak’s work we can clearly see what is being undermined. We can clearly see what is being critiqued, the alternative frameworks that she tentatively proposes they do not emerge sufficiently well. So for the same reasons also important to look inward when one is dealing with world literature to know what the local scholarship, local interpretative frameworks deal with, how significantly possible it is to engage with a text without necessarily engaging with it through the lens of Western or predominantly European literary frameworks and literary traditions. With this, I wrap up today’s session and I would also encourage you to take a look at this essay in detail. So that when we come back to look at it at later point of time towards the end of the course there would be larger issues that we can engage with more critically, in a more detailed way by also bringing into discussion the text that we have covered as part of this course. With this, I wrap up today’s lecture, thank you for listening and I look forward to seeing you in the next session.