Siting Translation, Displacing Original

(मूलतः अंग्रेज़ी में ही लिखा गया यह पाठ अनुवाद और मूल के समस्यात्रस्त संबंधों और उत्तर-संरचनावाद पर बात करने के लिये तेजस्विनी निरंजना की एक पुस्तक का पठन करता है. प्रतिलिपि में यह अनुवाद पर कई अन्य पाठों की संगति में प्रकाशित हुआ था.  यहाँ इसका प्रकाशन भारतभूषण तिवारी के नाम. चित्र मोमिता शॉ का है)

 The “common sense” [1] about the act of translation as underwritten in the traditional theories and practice of translation in West indulged in a self-conception based on a notion of language as a function of representation (which was not problematized before Saussure), and it deployed translation as a liberal-humanistic enterprise. This self-conception of translative act involved certain ontological fixation regarding the “author”, the “meaning” and the notion of art as representation. This is broadly the framework with which Tejaswini Niranjana begins her investigation into Western translation theory and practice in Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism and the Colonial Context. She quotes George Chapman’s poem “Tears of Peace” that prefaced his translation of Homer in 1611.

……………thou didst inherit
My true sense, for the time then, in my spirit;
And I, invisibly, went prompting thee
To those fair greens where thou didst English me.

The ghost of Homer complains that Chapman has anglicized him. Niranjana reads it alongside T. R. Steiner’s evaluation of Chapman, who called him the “first self-conscious poetic translator in English” (10):

Chapman’s particular achievement (was) that he turned from the words themselves………to the entire artistic world, of the original author…….translation attempts to inhabit the consciousness capable of this particular work. (11)

Niranjana derives that Chapman, his contemporaries and the translation theorists upto seventeenth century strengthened the translator’s “obsession” with “fidelity” (53). Even those who advocated artistic liberty for the translator, addressed the act only in terms of fidelity/infidelity, faithfulness/licentiousness. Niranjana points out that fidelity and betrayal in Chapman, in his thou didst English me “foreshadow” the “nature of translative act done by Charles Wilkins, William Jones and others a hundred years later” (53). She also points out that “translation/ethnography’s humanistic enterprise was based on a naively representational theory of language” (51) though she, like most theorists, does not try to problematize the representational role that not only ethnography, historiography, empiricist-idealism and philosophy, Marxism most certainly, take on when they read/interpret/analyze the “literary text”. Niranjana in her “Introduction”, states that her concern is “to explore the place of translation in contemporary Euro-American literary theory” (13) and further, “my main concern in examining the texts of Jones is not necessarily to compare his translation of Śakuntalā or Manu’s Dharamśastrā with the so-called originals” (13). Instead what she does examine is the “outwork” of Jones’s translations – the prefaces, the annual discourse to the Asiatic society, his letters, and his “Oriental” poems. In the entire discourse “the so-called originals” are never addressed, never quoted and never mentioned again. Niranjana doubts the very notion of “origin”/ “original” and she accepts Derrida’s critique of origin and representation. Derrida allows her to accept that “the “origin” is itself dispersed, its “identity” undecidable” (9). A representation thus does not re-present an “original”; rather, it re-presents that which is always already represented (9). Most of her investigation (i.e. her “book”) and the interrelations she makes between post-colonial and post-structuralist fields of inquiry are an exciting enterprise in theorizing translations in a colonial context and attempt providing some strategic directions for translative act in a post-colonial scene though the only “example” of the strategy she presents is a “re-translation” of a piece by a twelfth century Tamil poet Allama Prabhu. She places the original (in transliteration), two existing translations by other translators and a “re-translation” that she does to “initiate” a “practice of translation that is speculative, provisional and interventionist” (174). It could be argued that a re-translation also, does not re-translate because it re-translates that which is always, already re-translated. A re-translation, therefore, does not translate the translated; it reverts to the “original”. The interconnection can be showed as below.

Original: Always already represented → Translation: Re-presentation of that which is always already represented → Re-translation: Translation (re-representation) of that which is always, already translated (re-presented)?

Here, it would be helpful to remember that traditional Indian poetics, that articulates a siddhant or theory on almost everything that is based on shabda and dhvani and, which has also been a decisive influence on Saussure, on Derrida, and other post-structuralists, does not offer any “translation theory”. Not only is there a complete “absence” of a translation theory or notion, the traditional Sanskrit writers avoid “authority”. They keep repeating that their “work” does not say anything “new”, that theirs is an interpretation, a study, a bhaya: a commentary, a version, an edition of that which is already said in some previous work(s). As Wagish Shukla observes, “Rsi Bharadwāj percieves a Gāyatrī in which Rsi Gautama perceives a sām called Parkva and the mantra is no longer called ‘Gāyatri of Bharadwāz’, but ‘Parkva of Gautama’ in which Ṛsi Kasyap perceives another sām Bahirṣya and now it comes to be known as ‘Bahirṣya of Kasyap’”. Traditional Sanskrit authors never claimed to be “original” which makes their re-presentation even more problematic. Even Kālidāsa’s works have come down to us in “virtual anonymity” (Rajan 22). It should be emphasized that Niranjana nowhere counterpoints the critique of the notion of “original” as prevalent in Sanskrit tradition.


History has remained a teasingly uneasy site for post-structuralism. Niranjana reads into History, post-structuralism and the notion of ‘History as writing’ as connected fields. Her contention is that: (as Derrida’s critique of origin informs), “origin is not some pure, unified source of meaning or history” (39), postcolonial attention to history should carefully note that “it is the concept of representation that suppresses the difference that is already there in the so-called origin” (39). Therefore, it is imperative that an “effective” postcolonial historical reading should “formulate a narrativizing strategy in addition to a deconstructive one” (38) and that “we need to translate (that is disturb or displace) history rather than to interpret it (hermeneutically) or “read” it (in a textualizing move)” (38-39). This strategic scheme does not assure however that the “always already” present heterogeneity of the original can be re-translated, by “translating” or “disturbing” or “displacing” history. If heterogeneity is always, already there in the origin, translations, detranslations and retranslations will produce/avail not the heterogeneity but a constantly deferred derivative of that. Hence, it may disturb or even displace history or the representation, which I fear will not be an effective strategy, for a postcolonial project of retranslation as Niranjana suggests:

Derrida’s critique of representation is important for postcolonial theory because it suggests a critique of the traditional notion of translation as well. (41)

And that,

It would be a mistake for historiographers (literally or otherwise) to challenge colonial representations as “false” or “inadequate”; the striving for adequacy based on such a challenge would trap post-colonial writing in a metaphysics of presence… (39)

The post-colonial writing/historiographing should not make this mistake also because,

Historiography in such a situation must provide ways of recovering occluded images from the past to deconstruct colonial and neocolonial histories. (41-42)


… one should attempt to show the complicity of the representations with colonial rule and their part in maintaining the asymmetries of imperialism. (41)

The scheme equates “showing the complicity” with “deconstruction” and “articulation” that the postcolonial subject who lives always already “in translation”, requires to get “some notion of what history is” (41). As suggested it is grounded in Derrida’s critique of Western metaphysics of presence which is characterized by privileging voice and speech over “writing”. Writing as mimesis, as copy of a copy, is signified by an origin but “the point of origin becomes ungraspable” (40). Niranjana wonders “what impact this notion of a dispersed origin might have on deep-rooted European histories on the cradle of civilization (Asia or Africa) and on postcolonial people’s images of themselves” (40). She, though, does not get into this speculation and returns to Derrida for the tool required in the scheme,

To deconstruct logocentric metaphysics, Derrida proposes we use the notion of writing as he has reinscribed it. Derrida’s “writing” is another name for difference at the origin; it signifies “the most formidable difference……The sign of origin, for Derrida, is a writing of a writing that can only state that the origin is originary translation. Metaphysics tries to reappropriate presence, says Derrida, through notions of adequacy of…..history. (40)

Niranjana, again, does not try to read the notion of history as prevalent in the indigenous tradition(s). Absence of History, as constructed by the Orientalists/colonialists, needs to be read with and against the absence of historicist enterprise in the native tradition(s). The “Hindoo psyche” that Jones, Wilkins and others constructed need to be read as reflected in indigenous myths and oral traditions. Niranjana, instead, now turns to the Subaltern group of Indian historians who are using myths, memory and oral narratives to rewrite the heterogeneity of the “original”. But Niranjana turns to them, not by reading the always, already present critique of historicism in the myths and oral narratives; but via Derrida and Gayatri Spivak:

In India, for example, the Subaltern Studies Group, which has initiated such a project of rewriting, is grappling with the conceptual problems of essentialism and representation. ……Gayatri Spivak argues that their practice is akin to “deconstruction”. (42)

She concludes that:

History and translation function, perhaps, under the same order of representation, truth and presence, creating coherent and transparent texts through the repression of difference, and participating there by in the process of colonial domination. (42)

The question is not of agreement or disagreement with this equation of translation and history, it is of “a counterpointing suggestion”, “always there” in the work of the Subaltern Studies Group that “subaltern consciousness is subject to the cathexis of the elite, that it is never fully recoverable, that it is always askew from its received signifiers” as Spivak remarks (43). Niranjana concludes that “the subaltern, too, exists”, only “in translation” (43).

Sadly, that is true, as Nirajana accepts, of the postcolonial poststructuralists also. They too, exist only ‘in translation’.


Debating “naive” apolitical nature of translation studies, Niranjana points out that,

Translations form an intertextual web: Orientalist translations from the Sanskrit – Charles Wilkins’s Bhagvada-Gitā, William Jones’s Śakuntalā , Jones and Wilkins’s Manu’s Institutes, H.H. Wilson’s Kālidāsa – form a canon, interpellate a colonial subject, construct a Hindu character, a Hindu psyche, a Hindu way of life. The ‘empirical science’ of translations comes into being through the power that informs the relation between languages. (60)

What is/was the relation between the two languages in question, Sanskrit and English?

Sanskrit and English, when sited against or before each other construct an illusion, an illusion that seems to be almost inescapably obvious and natural in a postcolonial context – of being terminal opposites. Sanskrit as a language and a symbol alludes to the past – the “golden past”, the Orient and the absence of history that inheres in spite of the presence of a past which is made so conclusively a detached and ineffective past. Sanskrit is a given signifier of nostalgia and also of revivalism. English, on the other terminus, speaks of the future – a promised land (?) and of the making of history. Sanskrit is a dead language, an expression of the dead, detached past. English is a living language- a promise of a perceptible, perpetual, almost “living” future. Sanskrit can not speak, English has a voice. If we still call this obvious, natural and terminal opposition an illusion, it is to suggest that there are agreements between the two, which are allowed or forced, to concealment. In India, both have been languages of the educated/elite, have a hierarchical superiority, are signified by episteme and so by the inherent violence imposed by the authority of knowledge. But the agreements do not cancel the oppositions. Instead they make them more striking and indicate that by posing as opposites both can conceal the agreements more effectively.

However, both the opposites and the agreements make translation across the two languages an interesting and problematic notion, especially during the colonial period. We come to the question we asked earlier: what is translated when a Sanskrit text is brought into English? Is it a dead, detached past translated into a living, perpetual future? Is it a presence of history displacing a presence of past? Is it filling up of the gap, the interval, the distance between past and future or is it a walkover, a leap from past to future? If the source language or culture is considered dead, then the translation carries no voice of the original and the target language, which in this case is also the dominant language, can always take control over, can always substitute, the original. The translated version presents itself as the Authorized Version though it only shadows the original. The translator, as said earlier, becomes the author.


In his near-canonical essay “Structure, Sign and Play in the Discourse of Human Sciences”, Derrida tells the story of the “origin” of ethnography, of its birth, its genesis.

One can assume that ethnology could have been born as a science only at the moment when European culture – and in consequence, the history of metaphysics and of its concepts – had been dislocated, driven from its locus, forced to stop considering itself as the culture of reference.

He also stresses that “this moment” of birth is not “first and foremost a moment of philosophical or Scientific discourse” but that it is also a moment “political, economic, technical, and so forth.” He adds that,

“… the ethnologist accepts into his discourse the premises of ethnocentricism at the very moment when he denounces them. This necessity is irreducible.”

Niranjana, after indicating that ethnography remains “within the orbit of logocentricism” (65) and that it shows its “complicity with the vocabulary of liberal humanism or imperialist idealism” (65) which “ultimately” serves “the idiom of domination that is colonial discourse” (65), tries to equate ethnography and translation.

“Implicitly or explicitly, ethnography, always (emphasis mine) conceived of its project as one of translation” (66), she writes. To show how it does so “implicitly”, she quotes Claude Levi -Strauss:

“When we consider some system of belief… the question which we ask ourselves is indeed. ‘what does all this mean or signify? and to answer it, we force ourselves to translate into our language rules originally stated in a different code.” (68)

And to show how ethnography does the same “explicitly”, she quotes Godfrey Lienhardt:

“The problem of describing to others how members of a remote tribe think… begins to appear largely as one of translation, of making the coherence primitive thought has in the language it really lives in, as clear as possible in our own.” (69)

The equations that Niranjana makes can be put as follows:

The (colonial) historian sees his function as that of translation=representation → The ethnologist sees his problem as that of translation=representation → The (colonial) translator sees his function as that of historiography=representation, ethnography=representation → All of them i.e. the historian, the ethnographer, the translator see their function as representation=metaphysics of presence = colonial domination → The postcolonial, the former (?) ‘subject’ i.e. (subaltern) historian, the (cultural) anthropologist, and the translator sees his act(ion) as that of deconstruction and retranslation=re-representation?

Speaking of the present-day critics of ethnography she underscores that they

… while commending……that the anthropologists need to speak her/his “own thought and language,” suggest at the same time that this is something which the ethnographer is not equipped, or is unwilling to do. (70)

The same, again sadly, is true of the postcolonial poststructuralist theorists, “literary critics” and so forth, who are either “not equipped” or “unwilling” to speak their “own thought and language”. Like the ethnologist of Derrida, they also accept the same premises at the very moment they denounce them. The adverbial finality/extremity – “always”, “already”, “never”, “forever” – that signifies Niranjana’s “own” discourse and the poststructuralist discourses is also a signification of taking control over the “subject” they “speak of”. Niranjana “never” refers to, “never” quotes an indigenous, premodern, precolonial counterpoint. The past and the present, of the “subjects” are transfixed “forever” in colonial and postcolonial situations, the latter “always, already” within the orbit of the colonial. Translation, in its “afterlife”, “ultimately”, not just replaces but “erases” the original “absolutely.”


Niranjana pleads for the ‘need’ of accepting “theory in a postcolonial setting” (171) and takes a note of its possible critiques.

The problematic of translation exists uneasily on the interface between the post-colonial context and post-structuralist theory. For some, this is also a version of the decolonization debate, and to use a “Western” theory in deconstructing colonial texts is to reproduce the conditions of neocolonialism. This attitude which can be seen to be part of a nativist discourse seems to me deny history in at least two ways: first it not only employs a discredited realist epistemology but also ignores the pervasiveness of a colonial violence that renders impossible even the positing of a mythical uncontaminated space; second, in denouncing post-structuralism as “Western,” the nativist does not realize the extent to which anti-colonial struggles have intervened in changing the trajectory of ‘Western’ thought by demanding non-exploitative recognition of difference. (170)

After a brief performance, re-translation of a fragment of a vacana[2] by Allama Prabhu, she ends her inquiry with these words:

…the issue of representation, which is crucial in a context where national myths of identity and unity are collapsing. It seems more urgent than ever to be aware of the instability of the ‘original.’


…..since post-colonials already exist ‘in translation,’ our search should not be for origins or essences but for a richer complexity, a complication of our notions of the “self,” a more densely textured understanding of who “we” are……The deconstruction initiated by re-translation opens up a post-colonial space as it brings “history” to legibility. (186)

The present discussion does not aim taking any of these two ways in which a “nativist discourse” denies history. However, the “pervasiveness of a colonial violence” that has “rendered impossible even the positing of a mythical uncontaminated space,” has been able to do so, if not completely, i.e. “living in translation” and being “always, already translated” are possible not only because of the ‘pervasiveness’ of colonial violence but also because “theory” too, even while deconstructing the hegemonial constructs, addresses only the “translated” version, making the “translated” situation/version its “transcendental signified.” Without seeking the text that is translated, transcribed and hence “lost”, theory tries to make it a subject of its inquiry. Because, the adverbial finality disconnects it from the original; it tries to “re-translate”, which is “urgent than ever” in “context where national myths of identity and unity are collapsing” and when ‘we’ should search more for a richer complexity.” What this “urgent”, strategic political activism avoids acknowledging is that the myths of nation-(state) and unity are not “original”/native, that homogenization is not “original”/native, that rather the instability of the origin has “always, already,” been “original”/native! Sanskrit poetics is poetics of the derivatives, there is “no” stability of the original. In a culture where there are no standard commonly accepted versions of neither the “so-called classical, elite” texts nor of the “so-called popular, folk” texts, where deferring the authority of a text has a long, pervasive tradition, where ‘nation’ came into existence as a response to, and in compliance with, the colonial demands of homogeneity and unity; it is but a colonial legacy, the legacy of the “translated” that shuts even the possibility of a discourse that lets the original speak without falling prey to a revivalist, nationalist counter-narrative. Also, the “discredited realist epistemology” was contemporaneous to the emergence of a nationalistic rhetoric and that the Sanskrit poetics is perhaps the “desired” kind of field in which the realist epistemology did not have much place. There are other ways, discourses and strategies possible to have a complicated notion of “our” self, ways that offer a lot more than an “urgent” political correctness.


In his preface to Ashis Nandy’s Exiled at Home, D.R. Nagraj, identifies “three streams in the existing theories of colonialism”. First, the schools “that are defined by the idea of total conquest”, second, “the ones that are organized around the idea of a cultural soul” and third, “the ones that stress mutual transformation”. Nagraj places Franz Fanon and Edward Said in the first stream, Ananda Coomarswamy and Seyyed Hossein Nasr in the second and Nandy in the third (xiii). Niranjana’s study mostly belongs to the first stream; it unwillingly participates in the notion of “total conquest” and this informs her critique of the “event” that translation is. The present discussion aims at deploying the material provided by the likes of Said but does not accept the notion of “total conquest”. Instead, the contemporaneousness of “the project of colonialism” with that of “modernity” that Nandy has simultaneously problematized by showing their mutual correspondence in India makes a reference point for us. Nandy does not posit the “pre-modern”, he tries to “create modes of resistance and fighting from within” that is from “within the modernity” (Nagraj viii). As Nagraj observes, “Nandy is too committed to historical times of modernity and colonialism to look beyond their horizons” (ix). This is true of most postcolonial theorizations and “strategy”-making. The present study seeks to posit the “original” and the “premodern” not just as a sign of resistance from a postcolonial reading; but also as a sign of the resistance of the “literary” or “poetic” text, from being taken for granted as a raw for various discourses that do not necessarily care to listen to its voice.


1. Belsey writes that “common sense proposes humanism based on empiricist-idealist interpretation of the word”. Tejaswini Niranjana discusses “common sense” as used by Gramsci.

2. Niranjana discusses translations by S.C. Nandimath et al and A.K. Ramanujam, and then offers her own ‘re-translation’ (174). All three in the same order are:


As I stepped back and looked
To see Thy Light
It seemed a hundred million suns
Came into sight;
A cluster of creeping lightnings I
With wonder saw.
O Guhesvara, if Thou become
The effluent Linga, there be none
Thy glory to match


Looking for your light,
I went out:
It was like the sudden dawn
of a million, million suns,
a ganglion of lightnings
for my wonder.
O Lord of Caves,
If you are light
There can be no metaphor.


Drawing back
To look at your radiance
I saw
The drawing of hundred million suns.

I gazed in wonder
at the lightning’s creepers playing.
Guhesvara, if you are become the linga of light
Who can find your figuration

Siting Translation, Displacing Original&rdquo पर एक विचार;

  1. ज़र्रानवाज़ी है! इस तरह तो टेक्स्ट पूरा पढ़ने के लिए नैतिक दबाव बना दिया आपने. और बन्धु, आजकल डेडीकेट की जानेवाली चीज़ों से डर लगने लगा है:)

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