ABD Vol.29 No.4
Translation and Multilingualism in Post-Colonial Context: Indian Situation

Indra Nath Choudhuri


Multilingualism in India

I need not emphasise that multi-lingualism is an all-pervading element in the Indian atmosphere, affecting every aspect of the country's life. In fact, the developed countries are perceived as monolingual states because they tend to become dominantly monolingual in view of their acceptance of a model of developmental culture which is effective only in a situation of monolingualism. Thus the multilingualism of the entire third world is envisaged as problematic particularly when developmental culture is viewed from the perspective of the developed world. For example, the multiplicity of languages, religions and races is regarded as leading to fragmentation from the western point of view but it is, in fact, giving importance to every part of the whole and prevending the elimination of human beings on a personal level(i). Rather, any monolithic structure may lead to fragmentation of life, of man, and of knowledge undermining the unity of living. Any attempt to discuss the growth of Indian literature in terms of Sanskritization or Westernization smacks of cultural blindness. One simply cannot ignore the impact of the "Bhasas" (wrongly defined as regional languages) on each other, for they have been important in the historical perspective. The Atharva Veda, a very ancient book, explains that even in the ancient past there were many languages, many religions and many peoples co-existing in India.
The affirmation of the positive value of cultural pluralism is the cornerstone of India's thinking and model of developmental culture. Pandit Nehru was, therefore, very keen to redraw the political map of India on the basis of linguistic states and critically replied to those who thought that because of linguistic states the inter-linguistic and inter-regional movements would become impossible and the political boundaries would virtually seal off the linguistic-cultural boundaries between the various regions in the country.
The far-reaching effect was the emergence of the new regional, mass based leadership who pressed for the use of Bhasas of different regions.
Nehru took a dig at those who thought that it is a sign of disunity for a country to have too many languages. He termed it as the cry of the ignorant who thought that India was a babble of languages with hundreds and hundreds of languages. He said, India, as anyone who looks around him can see, has singularly few languages, considering its vast size, and these are intimately allied to each other. In his Autobiography he says, "if the Census tells us that India has two or three hundred languages it also tells us, I believe, that Germany has about fifty or sixty languages. I do not remember any one pointing out this fact in proof of the disunity or disparity of Germany"(ii).
Nehru was extremely sure in his assertion that languages by themselves are not a destructive factor. In fact, Nehru always encouraged a multilingual situation as an expression of Indian culture. He was of the firm opinion that the growth of Bhasas did not tend at all towards disunity(iii). But to predict that as the Bhasas gain in power, the Centre-State conflict will become intense, only indicates a wrong notion of the multilingualism of India. The unity of literary expressions, despite their linguistic varieties, like Kalidasa's famous play Shakuntala, which is written in Sanskrit, Saurasheni, Maharastri and Magadhi, indicates that a literary text like Shakuntala could be produced in a complex multilingual environment where different languages did not divide people into exclusive groups but could encourage people to interact with one another and to transcend linguistic barriers(iv). Nehru felt that the renaissance of our Bhasas that has taken place is a thing which helps towards unification, and can never be a destructive factor in India.
But the big problem is when the language policy of the country does not even take cognizance of all the 1652 spoken languages and thereby empowers certain languages and marginalises others, in the process unleashing disruptive and divisive forces and turning language from a socio-cultural reservoir and a communicative force into a political issue(v). Similarly the three language formula ignores the minority languages. In every state, 30 to 40 percent of its population speak minority languages, which can be divided into three categories:
- Tribal dialects
- Minor languages like Bundelkhandi, Bojpuri, Maghai etc. within the States
- Major languages of India which happen to be minority languages in a particular state like Marathi or Tamil in Karnataka or Urdu in Uttar Pradesh.

The State Governments are generally reluctant to give instruction through the multiplicity of media to meet the needs of various linguistic groups among students. It is often feared that recoginsing the existence of dialects and many small languages may lead to disintegration. Experience shows that it is not recognition, but non-recognition of languages that has led to divisive movements(vi). In a multilingual community like ours linkage is the age-old tradition and must be emphasised. The diverse languages and varieties of languages can be linked in various ways and one of the most effective ways is translation.

Growing Awareness of the Importance of Translation

Translation is accepted as one of the ways of reconciling the interests of various groups. In fact, the programme of action of the new education policy of 1986, has for the first time, included translation in its programme. It emphasises that a serious effort at translation of books from one language to an other should be made and the 1992 Perspective Paper on Education also reiterates it. It is true that in the name of multilingualism and equality we cannot develop a system where all the 1652 mothertongues are recognised and supported by the State and used for all functions. But at the same time it should not lead us to favour English and theorise that choice of Bhasas is a highly divisive activity politically. This kind of attitude goes against the character of multilingualism in India. The present impediments in India can be reduced not by replacing a language of power like English by another language of power and by developing just one national language but through an elaborate pattern of inter-regional, inter-ethnic communication. In fact, the natural development of bilingualism in FM radio programmes and Zee television news is a step towards evolving a strategy for the promotion of a language of wide circulation (LWC) and providing opportunities to subvert hierarchies and contest all forms of domination in a multilingual society, creating mutual interdependence and intersignification of languages. This kind of bilingualism can serve a double purpose: it can be the arena for confrontation, for resistance to the Other(vii). By 'Other' I mean the language of the ex-colonizer but it can also be a means of self-liberation by continuously reworking and rewriting the two languages together and create a bilingual text. In a multilingual society, the total range of modern sensibility, the whole cultural milieu and the total range of human experience can be expressed neither through English alone nor through any single Indian language, but by all the people's languages. The use of English as a 'metanarrative' (only English can solve the complex language problems) is false. Now the time has come to 'reconstruct' the metanarrative and justify the other narratives for political and social justice. Already because of the greater mobility among the castes and sub-castes in different parts of the country, the expansion of the Bhasa of that area has become a reality leading to the displacement of the English language elites by the Bhasa elites mostly representing the caste aspirations of the non-Brahmins, and displacing also the hegemonic role of English which is a barrier to civilisational creativity for the vast majority of Indians.
It is generally said that India is a translation area. We go on using two-three languages at a time. In our multilingual situation it is very natural that we shall be knowing more than one Indian language and therefore, while speaking in the link languages English and Hindi, it is obvious that one will constantly be using a translated language. Moreover, if we want to establish the concept of Indian literature as one literature it is only possible through translation. It is both for the understanding of the basic unity and wonderful diversities of Indian literature. In the Indian situation translation is ineluctable.
Despite the growing awareness of the importance of translation, Dr. Shantha Ramakrishna says that there is no well defined policy for it(viii). One may question whether the absence of such a policy is creating rifts between languages, giving rise to artificially created 'major' and 'minor' languages. We have already noticed that the government policy of scheduling languages or 'three-language formula' has created a division and muted the multilingual speakers in the country. Furthermore the politics of link language has allowed English to gain in strength more than Hindi as a job-select language and the language of power and control; and other languages including the second link language, Hindi, are institutionally constrained and negatively treated in the public domains. This has created a crisis of preservation of multilinguality in a system of neocolonialism in this post-colonial era, because colonialism still survives in a new avatara, in an altered form(ix).
One will always like to point out that while the Nation-States, national ideologies, or governmental policies may require the use of a single, common language, English or Hindi, for administrative and political reasons, the centralizing language can neither be representative of the multilingual ethos and mosaic of cultures and ethnicities, nor expressive of people's creativity and vitality. It is, therefore, necessary to evolve more variegated but internally connected forms of unity based on mutual bilinguality and exchange among languages commensurate with cultural complexity and diverse world views.
This cannot be achieved simply by cultivating bilinguality of the central language with other Indian languages, but more significantly by developing a mutually enriching relationship between all the languages. After all, the linguistic diversity in multilingual developing nations is not only inherently valuable but also creatively functional in relation to the civilizational and cultural complexity characteristic of the multilingual ethos(x).
One can accuse Sahitya Akademi for perpetuating the hegemony of English or Hindi by using them as filter languages for translation from one Indian language to other. In defence of the Akademi, I shall like to point out that because of the displacement of language from the centre of education and use of the three-language formula more as a goal and not just a strategy, the language competency has gone down so much so that the new education policy shows concern. As a result the language learning which was natural before 1947 is now restricted to two or three languages, thereby creating a gap in translating directly in a multilingual setting; hence Sahitya Akademi is forced to use English or Hindi as filter languages for translation in its 22-language programme. This policy has surreptitiously created a division among languages. This is the tragedy of the post-colonial period taking place because of our faulty language policy, therefore it will be proper not to create a policy of translation in haste to bring division among languages. What is necessary for a society does get translated. It is not an innocent act. Social and cultural forces act to create translation. In 1994 Sahitya Akademi extended its activities beyond the conventionally set parameter of 22 recognised languages under its Language Development Programme. This extension ipso facto took the Akademi to the hills of the North-East to start inter-lingual translation in tribal languages including Chakma, Kok-Borok, Mong, Bodo, Khasi, Garo, Mising, Rabha or Reang to fulfil the tradition of multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism.

Challenges to Conventional Translation Theory

The major difference between translation practice in the West and in India is that in the West translation is considered a complicated linguistic and literary act while in India it is an inevitable part of life. In the West translation has been subjected to scrutiny from a variety of perspectives such as structuralism (Jakobson) Deconstruction (Derrida), Psychoanalysis (Andrew Benjamin) Gender (Lori Chamberlain) and the post-colonial discourse (Lawrence Venuiti). In India, in contrast, the focus has been more on the pragmatic aspects of translation. In colonial context translations of colonizers' works attempted to "enrich" our languages and by translating the classical Indian works certain exotic interest was displayed. These kinds of translation activities display the imbalance of power. Even in the post-colonial history, inequality is the main feature of the relationship between Western and Third World languages and cultures. In the colonial moment even a great writer like Tagore while translating his poetry into English appears to have accepted the hegemonic language-culture of the Edwardian English and corrupted his own translation. Tagore seems to be tied to an ideology associated with colonialism and cultural domination-which has proved to be devastating for his works in translation(xi).
In the post-colonial moment the resistance of the dominated language-culture to neo-colonial linguistic-culture hegemony is, at times, quite vivid. Now one questions the validity of the importation of western intellectual production and appropriates it in such a way in order to naturalise it in the dominated language-culture within the framework of an 'occidentalism'(xii). Now one can find that the interest of Indian translators has been to explore the ways in which the English language can be stretched to contain some 'authentic Indian expressions'. At the same time, there is an attempt to view English as one of the Indian languages. It is for this reason that many Indians writing in English have also taken to translating from Indian languages(xiii). The growing weight of the cultural minorities' intellectual production eventually precipitated the emergence of a critique of the 'universality' of the Western translation theory. Now pluralingual writers, writing in the language of the ex-colonizer or in Bhasas are challenging and redefining many accepted notions in translation theory. We can no longer merely concern ourselves with conventional notions of linguistic equivalence or ideas of loss and gain which have long been a consideration in translation theory. The reason is the extensive use of different upbhasas (wrongly called dialects) by the Indian novelists like Kambar, Debesh Roy, Krishna Sobti and others, or creation of a new language by the Dalit writers, or the use of tribal languages in our multilingual contexts. These are the 'in between' languages which occupy a space 'in between' and challenge the conventional notions of translation, seeking to decolonize themselves from two oppressors: the Western ex-colonizer who naively boasts of their existence and also the traditional 'national' cultures which short-sightedly deny their importance. Because of the 'in between' it is possible now to create new models of translation theory. They are, in fact, subverting hierarchies by bringing together the dominant and the under-developed, by exploding and confounding different symbolic worlds and separate systems of signification in order to create a mutual interdependence and intersignification, not just writing a translated text as an interface of culture-politics between the source language and the target language. In view of the Indian tradition of multi-culturalism and multi-lingualism, translation becomes a very important instrument for us for negotiating social tensions, language conflicts and social transitions; and for identifying a plurality of linguistic expressions and cultural experience and understanding the remarkable unity underlying them.

Notes & References

(i) I.N.Choudhuri, "Dilemma of the Multilingual Society and the Culture of Development: The Indian Scene", Culture and Development: The Indian situation, working document for National Seminar 1995, p.104
(ii) Jawaharlal Nehru Autobiography, p.456, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1985
(iii) Dorothy Norman, Nehru, p.189, Asia Publishing House, Bombay, 1965
(iv) Sisir Kumar Das, A History of Indian Literature 1800-1910 Western Impact: Indian Response, p.5, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi, 1991
(v) R.S.Gupta & Anvita Abbi, The Eighth Schedule: A Critical Introduction, 'Language & the State' (Eds.) R.S.Gupta, Anvita Abbi, K.S.Aggarwal, p.5, Creative Books, 1995
(vi) I.N.Choudhuri, Comparative Indian Literature: Some Perspectives, p.216, Sterling, New Delhi, 1992
(vii) See, Samia Mehrez, "Translation and the Post Colonial Experience", Rethinking Translation (Ed.) Lawrence Venuti, pp.120-137, Routledge, London, 1992
(viii) National Seminar Brochure, School of Languages, Jawaharlal Nehru University on Translation & Multilingualism in Post-Colonial Context: Indian & Canadian Experiences, 1996
(ix) Makarand Paranjape, Decolonization & Development: Hindi Svaraj Revisioned, p.35, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1993
(x) Hans R.Dua, Hegemony of English, Yashoda Publications, Mysore 1994, p.253
(xi) Mahasweta Sengupta, "Translation, Colonialism & Poetics: Rabindranath Tagore in Two Worlds" in Translation, History and Culture, (Eds.) Andre Lefevere and Susan Bassnett, Printer Publishers, London, 1990
(xii) See, Richard Jacquemond, "Translation & Cultural Hegemony: The case of French-Arabic Translation" Rethinking Translation (Ed.) Lawrence Venuti, 1992, pp.139-156
(xiii) G.N.Devy, "Language, Culture, Translation", Presented at the Workshop on 'Language, Culture and Translation at IIC, New Delhi, from 31 October to 1 November 1992.

Indra Nath Choudhuri
He was professor of comparative literature in various universities including Delhi, Hyderabad and Bucharest, and has written many books and also translated in English, Hindi and Bengali. For 13 years he was secretary of the National Academy of Letters popularly known as Sahitya Academy of India. At present Minister (Culture) of The Indian High Commission in London and also Director of 'The Nehru Centre' which is the cultural wing of The Indian High Commission.
Indra Nath Choudhuri
Director, The Nehru Centre, High Commission of India, 8 South Audley Street, London W1Y 5DQ, UK,
e-mail: nehrucentre@culwinghci.telme.com, fax: (44) 171 409 3360