The encounters between local languages and English the world over have generally given rise to two kinds of stories. One, spawned under colonialism, has been elegiac. It has mourned the encounter, in which English has come out a winner at the expense of the native tongue. The Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o represents this first type, having written extensively about how his native Gikuyu wilted under the onslaught of English. The linguistic battle, he warns, is a reflection of the wider struggle between traditional communities and the powerful colonial social engine.
The second kind of story also has a melancholy beginning, thanks to its colonial origin, but it also attempts to move further by recognising the interactions that take place between languages. The Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe falls in this category. In his novel No Longer at Ease (1960), for instance, the linguistic battle (in this case between English and his native Ibo) is projected onto the domestic sphere in the form of a division between an instinctual, oral space and a rational, practical space – which Achebe further distinguishes as maternal and paternal, respectively:
Mother’s room was the most distinctive in the whole house, except perhaps for Father’s. … Mr. Okonkwo believed utterly and completely in the things of the white man. And the symbol of the white man’s power was the written word, or better still, the printed word. … The result of Okonkwo’s mystic regard for the written word was that his room was full of old books and papers. … Mother’s room, on the other hand, was full of mundane things.
This is undoubtedly an unsustainable division, socially and psychologically. In its gendered form, it is a particularly solid bulwark for patriarchy; yet transferred to the verbal plane, it is a strong enabler of linguistic change. As such, all eyes were on Achebe as he tried to rewrite the rules of the game by choosing to wield his pen in the language of the ‘father’, while Thiong’o returned to writing in the ‘mother’ tongue. Thus, the arena in which the two languages collide comes to look quite a bit more complex than the elegiac model would make it out to be. Wherever and whenever languages collide, there are bound to be casualties – thus providing the motivations for the laments in the first place. But words also seep into one another, leading to the new coinages and neologisms without which no language can thrive. Certainly this can be said of the situation in India, where English has been an important site of struggle from the colonial times to the present.
There have always been votaries in India for both the mother and father tongue; interestingly, these two positions are more interlocked than separate. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Michael Madhusudan Dutt, the two influential architects of bhasa writing in 19th-century Bengal, both began by producing their first works in English. Chattopadhyay’s Rajmohan’s Wife (1864) is considered the first novel in English by an Indian. He did not, however, write a second novel in English, as his first experiment with the language was seen as having backfired. To start with, there was a perceptible lack of audience for his English-language writing. Second, his own self-appraisal alerted him to the enormity of bridging the gap that he was trying to tackle. The opening scene of the novel, for instance, described a village woman going to a neighbour’s house after a nap in order to fetch water from a well. Chattopadhyay’s use of the Spanish word siesta gave the game away by distancing the reader from the experience. So he switched to Bengali and wrote Durgeshnandini (1865), considered a masterpiece, in what proved to be the beginning of a long line of great works by arguably the greatest Bengali novelist.
Dutt’s career, meanwhile, unfolded in a similar manner. In 1861, he too produced his poetic masterpiece, Meghanad Badha (the Killing of Meghanad), after first unsuccessfully flirting with English. It is not that the English works of these two writers were unpromising or without merit. Rather, these lacked the seed from which a ‘national literature’ could flower. Writing in English could be a matter of self-expression, even of self-assertion, but it could not at that point participate in the project of cultural self-determination that is at the root of any national literature. It is this seed of collectivity, of community, that was missing in their English-language works. Clearly, their bhasa writings had just this kernel.
At least in the initial days of the encounter, contact between local languages and English does not seem to have proved uniformly debilitating across India. In Kerala, for instance, such a collision enabled the birth of the modern novel. The first Malayalam novel, Indulekha (1889) by Oyyarath Chandu Menon, is manifestly a result of an attempt to translate from English. Indeed, it is said that this work came out of the desire to imitate Henrietta Temple, by Benjamin Disraeli, coupled with a wish to impress and entertain his wife with a native retelling of the same. Scholars have long noted that the growth of the novel in other Indian languages likewise followed similar trajectories. In her book The Perishable Empire (2000), Meenakshi Mukherjee writes (tellingly, though in jest) that the Watt who is crucial to an understanding of the birth of the Indian novel is not Ian Watt, the author of The Rise of the Novel (1957), but James Watt, credited for making radical improvements towards the development of the steam engine. It was, after all, the railway that allowed for a circulating library of English novels across colonial India, which in turn induced aspiring Indian writers to “speak after” them.
Of course, both imitating and retelling are forms of ‘speaking after’ or translating. Thus, the way in which Indulekha is a form of new writing (The word indulekha also means a new script, as well as the crescent moon) is already inextricably tied up in the lure of English. What this means is that Indian writers have been dubhasi, or bilingual, from the very start, specifically looking to migrate between languages. For example, even as Chattopadhyay and Dutta were turning inward, the Reverend Lal Behari Day, another Bengali writer, was looking away from home. Faced with the choice between writing a story of peasant life in English or in the vernacular, he boldly chose the former, and produced an impressive fictional work in English in 1874. Titled Bengal Peasant Life or Govinda Samanta (1874), this work far exceeded Chattopadhyay’s ragtag attempt in scope, design and style. This is evident from Day’s humourous dig at the ornate prose style that was then in vogue: “The use of English words two or three feet long is now the reigning fashion in Calcutta. Young Bengal is a literary bombastes furioso; and young Bengalese is Johnsonese run mad.”
The use of English by these early practitioners to portray Indian reality laid the foundations for the influential trio of fiction writers of the 1930s and 1940s – R K Narayan, Raja Rao and Mulk Raj Anand. These three are important in shaping what Rao dubbed the idiom of “Indian English”. All that remained to complete the story of the Indianisation of English was to translate bhasa works into English. No wonder that modern, and especially postcolonial, India has witnessed a flurry of translations from local-language works into English. Such transfers, however, are fraught with problems, due to the fact that many languages of the Subcontinent happen to be ‘minority’ languages – not in the strictly numerical sense, but in a sociolinguistic sense in which a language, lacking a social power base, gets reduced to an orphaned status. The ‘altered’ status of English is itself a critical factor in this, having mutated from a simple coloniser’s language into a global language. But insofar as this has accelerated its integration into metropolitan consumption, it has meant a strengthening of its colonial agenda.
It is true that the English of today is not freighted with imperial baggage to the same extent as the English of yesteryear. Today’s English is the neutral language of international commerce and communication, and is often prized for this exact reason. There is no way now for Indian fiction, in any language, not to succumb to the seductive charm of English translation, even if it is anti-colonial in intent. The Oriya fiction classic Chha Mana Atha Guntha (1902) by Fakir Mohan Senapati is a case in point. It is a novel deeply imbued with an anti-colonial social ideology, based largely on the linguistic authenticity of a colloquial form of Oriya that was evolving out of the colonial cauldron of the late 19th century. On both of these counts, the novel cries out against the possible ‘absorption’ into the language of the coloniser. But with four English translations of the novel already out and one more lined up for publication, the novel may well be poised to accept the inevitable.
There is, of course, the changed context to consider. This makes the translation of the Oriya novel in question more acceptable. And, although, it cannot be denied that English is the only ticket that Chha Mana Atha Guntha has to a global readership, anxieties exist for good reason of the ‘flattening’ of its anti-English content. After all, in the context of this novel, translation means translating from English into Oriya, as the following comment of the narrator in an important chapter succinctly illustrates: “It was as if everything in the court today was Englished. But we are Oriyas, and so are our readers, and the printing presses here have only Oriya type. Thus, we have translated everything into Oriya.” With the novel clearly telling us that the problem lies with ‘Englishing’, the act of actually translating the work into English quickly becomes extremely complicated. It is no surprise then that the first three English translations of Senapati’s novel – all produced in the 1960s – felt obligated to omit not only the passage quoted above, but also similar passages. It is true that the latest English translation of Chhamana Athaguntha (a product of multiple translators, and lastly published by the University of California Press in 2005 under the title Six Acres and a Third) has retained these markers of ‘Oriyanising’. On the other hand, it is hard to ignore that the subversive content has been somewhat tamed because of the very smoothness of the English rendering.
The problem of translating from Oriya into English has been transposed to a new key in the context of the new neutralised global avatar of English. Oriya, even in this late day and age, has remained a minority language – having the character of an artefact, it is resistant to trade and the metropolitan idiom of English. This is said to be true even of Hindi, one of the fastest-spreading languages in the world. In a paper delivered at the “Chutnefying English” conference, held in Bombay in January, an eminent Hindi translator named Rupert Snell regretted the fact that the “supreme articulacy of Hindi is being eroded by the glib proficiency of a new-look English”. It was not just the surface glut of English loan words in Hindi, many in their twisted avatars, (as in ‘child bear’ for ‘chilled beer’) that he was referring to; he was also expressing his concern about the ‘Englishing’ of the Hindi syntactical structures as exemplified in expressions such as prashna puchna (asking questions) and dusre sabdon men (in other words). These expressions seem arrived at through a back-translation from English into Hindi. If such fears exist with regards to Hindi, the situation for Oriya and the host of similar local languages – Konkani, Maithili, the languages of the Indian Northeast, not to mention the countless tribal languages and dialects – must be greater by far.
One way or another, the collision of languages in India looks to be a minefield of contradictions. So what of the nature and dynamics of linguistic crossover? What is lost and gained in contact between languages? If we think of Achebe’s Indian counterparts (Indian writers in English), especially the contemporary ones, we may get the impression that they have finally been weaned from a fixation on the mother tongue. We may even want to conclude that they have found a new pleasure and confidence in handling the father tongue. But then we must not forget that many of the examples that first pop to mind are actually part of the many Southasian diasporas, nurtured in monolingual situations. If they are the “translated men” of Salman Rushdie’s description, then they have favoured being translated in a unidirectional, upwardly mobile way. To call them “Third World cosmopolitans”, in the words of the scholar Timothy Brennan, is to specifically acknowledge their rootlessness. Thus they are at an opposite pole to Achebe: harping on their gains, flaunting the story of their transfer from rags to riches, as much in language as in life.
For an account of language transfer that is fixated neither on loss nor gain, much can be gleaned from Eva Hoffman’s autobiographical narrative, Lost in Translation (1989), which offers a paradigm of how to move between languages, thus providing a corrective to the elegiac model. An exhilarating story of a crossover from one culture (Poland) to another (Canada/the US), it offers a much-needed dual perspective – of the agonies and ecstasies, prospects and problems, triumphs and defeats of being ‘twice born’ linguistically. There is something lost in the process, Hoffman says, but there is also an unexpected gain. Balancing the negativity of the title is the forward-looking thrust of the subtitle, “A Life in a New Language”.
Hoffman’s model does not encourage the telling of the oft-repeated story of the fall from paradise, the loss of the golden world that translation has been commonly held to exemplify. The author goes on to script a new ending to her tale by trying to rebuild her life after hitting rock bottom, involving a deliberate break with the Polish language as a point of reference for English, which now has to be negotiated on its own terms: “Polish is no longer the one, true language against which others live their secondary life,” she writes. “[T]here’s something I know in English too.” But then this is only the middle stage in the new linguistic alchemy being formed by the process of translation. What finally emerges is neither Polish nor English, but a mixture of both, a hybrid language that balances and contextualises both: “Each language modifies the other, crossbreeds with it, fertilizes it. Each language makes the other relative.” There is thus a breakthrough by Hoffman to a sort of ‘third space’.
This translational trajectory has the power to illuminate the hybrid linguistic transactions increasingly in evidence in a postcolonial world. In the end, what is perhaps most important to note is this: the practices of writing and translating are already engaged in creating a third space in which a hybrid language and a hybrid identity can flourish. In India, the century of negotiations with English have already started to show this. In the words of the distinguished translator and publisher Mini Krishnan, “I am thinking India, once captured by the British, captured English, and opened up a parallel universe for its writers and translators to travel.”
~ Himansu S Mohapatra is a professor of English at Utkal University, Bhubaneswar.