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The political dimension of translation

Last week, I quoted two authors’ divergent perspectives on writing in a language which has been imposed on your culture by a colonising power. Following on from this, today I want to look at a few approaches to the politics of literary translation.

Tejaswini Niranjana’s book Siting Translation, History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context (1995) examines translation theories from the perspective of postcolonialism:

“In a post-colonial context the problematic of translation becomes a significant site for raising questions of representation, power, and historicity. The context is one of contesting and contested stories attempting to account for, to recount, the asymmetry and inequality of relations between peoples, races, languages.”

In other, slightly less academic, words, translation in a postcolonial context is a fundamentally political act, which directly addresses essential political questions of ‘representation, power and historicity’.

Niranjana foregrounds the fact that translation is a mode of representation in another culture. When the relationship between the cultures and languages is that of coloniser and colonised, ‘translation…produces strategies of containment. By employing certain modes of representing the other…translation reinforces hegemonic versions of the colonized’.

An example of this is furnished by Indian theorist Mahasweta Sengupta’s reading of the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali. Gitanjali is a song-cycle originally written in Bengali, which Tagore translated into English himself. Sengupta gives numerous examples of how Rabindranath refashioned his Bengali originals in order to suit an English poetic sensibility, for example by eliminating overtly ‘local’ details. In short, he adopted an ‘orientalist’ mode of self-censorship, surpressing details and ideas which he believed would not sit well with an English-speaking readership – a strategy which worked well, apparently, as W.B. Yeats was to champion the book.

In a similar vein, Harish Trivedi has noted how colonial-era Hindu author Muschi Premchand’s decision to translate Anatole France’s Thais was a distinctly political act, in the sense that he chose a text which was not part of the canon of the colonial power but rather of that of its rival, France.

These examples illustrate how the translation of ‘literary’ texts in a colonial or post-colonial context could be said to represent an implicitly political act, and how the struggles which define a post-colonial society are represented in symbolic form in its literature.

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