Translation and Teaching of English Literature in India
edited: Friday, November 23, 2007
By Sachin Ketkar
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Friday, November 23, 2007
Become a Fan
The paper that I read at the Oxford
Conference, 2000 on Translation as a pedagogical tool to teach English language and literature
Teaching in itself is an act of translation. Teaching of Western literature in non-Western cultures involves translation of not just the words on page but also the whole culture, literary tradition, and aesthetics.
Indian society is multilingual and hierarchic society with colonial history and facing grave problems like poverty, illiteracy and population explosion to name a few. As no classroom is an island, the teaching of English literature in such a context obviously cannot be innocent and unproblematic.
It should be kept in mind an obvious and yet much overlooked fact that it is a country with more than twenty-five `major' languages whose history go back to almost thousand years and having tens of million speakers. These languages have quite old and vigorous literary traditions of their own. Not to forget hundreds of smaller but equally rich languages that confer a distinct identities to the speakers. When considered from this perspective the activity of teaching of English literature is at once tangled in the linguistic and social politics of the society. The `Eng.Lit' department in India unlike other literary studies is still rather unclear about its role, function, and the purpose in such a context.
The departments teaching of literature in other Indian languages are alienated from the `Eng. Lit.' dept and their attitude is largely of suspicion and that of distaste though not without reason. There does exists a strange attitude of rather Brahminical-Babu snobbishness and arrogance in the departments of English in India. Critics like Devy (1998) think that `Eng.Lit.' departments are sects which have outlived their utility and which keep on importing more and more Western totems in form of Anglo-American literary trends so as to replenish their faith. He says, ` We are the dangling people; ascending to English literary culture being impossible, and return to Indian literary culture being perceived as undesirable. We must stay put, a sect unto itself.' As these sects, Devy continues in his typical style, use the Anglo-American cultural critical texts as `empty forms' used in self-hypnosis as all sects develop their own methods of self hypnosis. This continuous self-hypnosis, he says, though it gives a sort of ecstasy erodes literary sensibility and aesthetic sensitivity.
The `Eng.Lit' classroom makes a sorry picture due to the social conditions like poverty, casteism, illiteracy, and colonial history. A typical `Eng.Lit.' class in India is an overcrowded room with inadequate siting and lighting facilities, and students come to the class with mistaken hope of improving English language than hoard information of the canonical English writers. For many Indians even today, English is a `kalpavriksha' a tree from Indian mythology with magical power to bestow anything imaginable on the fortunate one-glamour, power, prestige, social status, money etc. The language vs. literature debate is very much alive and kicking in India.
Due to faulty teaching methodology and not very competent teachers at the school level, the students come the literature class with inadequate linguistic abilities and feeling of awe and fear of the language. The curriculum is inelastic and allows no space of innovation for the motivated teachers. It teams up with examination system that seems to have replaced the educational system along the problem of overcrowded classroom in stifling the desire to change the situation. The students can clear the examination without reading the prescribed texts as it easily possible in the present examination system. It tests only the writing speed and the memory of the victim. The prevalent methodology in the classroom is the very old fashioned `chalk and talk' method that involves delivering very undramatic monologues to the huge and silent classroom.
The dismal condition can also be attributed to the massive bureaucratization of education system in India and insidious neglect of the system by its politicians, the decision-makers, and the dominant middle class, which is extremely self-centered and callous. The remedies may lie in the macro level of State planning and some violent and fundamental changes are urgently needed.
So, what role can an activity like translation play in such a gloomy scenario? Dingwaney and Maier (1996) have discussed the possibility that translation itself might offer a method for making students aware of the organizing principles at work in their readings of "Third World" texts, thereby enabling them to read the "other". Indeed, translation is not a cure for all the ills of the Indian situation. Yet, it can play a very important strategic role in the effort to contextualize English Literary studies in India. Dr. Devy in his remarkable essay, `Translation Theory: An Indian Perspective' (1993) has pointed out that unlike Western culture which thinks that translation is a sort of Fall from the Paradise, Indian literary traditions do not show the anxiety or reservations about recycled texts and some of the most sacred texts in Indian cultures are rewritings of Sanskrit texts. The Indian consciousness, according to Devy, is `translating consciousness' which find code switching, dialect switching and language switching extremely common. Hence, translation is typical to multilingual and multiethnic societies like India and already occupies a crucial place in the culture. It will be extremely interesting to think about the nature of such an activity for pedagogical purpose.
Translation is not merely mechanical transfer of propositional content from a text in one language to another, but is rather a complex combination of interpretative expertise and creative skills. It is not only art of decoding a text which is a critical activity but also an art of encoding a text in another language which requires creative ability. Thus, the translator is not just a laborer as is commonly perceived but is a person with bilingual literary and linguistic competence.
Translation is also a way of making connections. It connects not only two languages and cultures but also across space and time. This capacity of translation to make connections has very significant implications for literary studies in multilingual multiethnic societies like India. It is interesting to examine the potential of translation in such a context.
Vanmala Vishwanath in her essay, `Literary Translation: A Technique for teaching literature in the bilingual countries,' (1998) has drawn attention to the fact that translation can play a significant role in imparting literary competence in a bilingual context. In first place, it provides an attractive alternative to the notorious `chalk and talk' approach to teaching of literature and language ubiquitous in India and facilitates more participative and creative engagement with the literary text. It makes the students focus on the specificities of the text and sharpen their interpretative skills. As Michael Riffaterre (1985) has pointed out the literary translation is an act of finding equivalences for `literariness-inducing presuppositions' or conventions that induce literariness to linguistic activity. This activity helps the students to be aware of conventionality of the text in question and this leads to aquision of what is termed as literary competence. Prof. Widdowson in his well-known essay, `The Teaching, Learning and Study of Literature' has distinguished between the study and the learning of literature. The study is action, which leads to knowledge and extends awareness, and learning is knowledge that leads to action and develops proficiency. For Widdowson, learning literature means acquiring the ability of `creative reading'. Translation is indeed one of the best ways of developing this ability.
Moreover it can also help students to improve their linguistic competence and facilitate acquisition of English especially those who come the classroom with insufficient linguistic skills. Translation was once considered as mechanical and uninteresting activity that does not help much in acquisition of language proficiency. However, after the works of people like Widdowson (1979) the role of translation in language teaching was considered more favorably .It is indeed, a learner centric activity. It is an activity that is mercifully not one of those examination-oriented activities that are carried out in Indian classrooms. What's more, it can make learning literature more enjoyable, which is of crucial importance.
Apart from being an excellent task for studying a literary text, it is also very important as it allows the student to creatively explore the possibilities in ones own language. It allows the student to discover the similarities and differences in `meanings' of the text. It demonstrates how `meaning's are always context specific and yet have a universal dimension. In discovering the other the student gets an opportunity to discover self. It is thus a far more useful and insightful approach to the study of English literary texts in the Indian context than the various versions of the New Criticism with their monolingual text-centric approach to the study of literature.
It can sensitize the students as well as teachers to a very important fact: that the study of English literary text is not carried out in a cultural vacuum. It can confer some sort of continuity with the linguistic and cultural context in which the student is located. This feeling of continuity can help reduce the feeling of alienation that usually haunts the students of English literature in countries like India.
Consequently, it can be seen that translation has not only immediate benefits to the students but also vital significance in the social and cultural context of teaching and learning English Literature in India. Translation is a creative and intimate encounter between two languages and cultures. It allows one to connect and explore. It provides insights and links creativity and critical thinking. It should be seriously introduced at school level as well as at the graduate and post-graduate levels. How to implement it and accommodate in the syllabus and examination system remains to be discussed, but the important question is, is there a willingness to change? Though change is resisted, everywhere it is nowhere resisted as strongly as in India. Though we can accept translation in theory, are we willing to translate it into practice? Translation Theorists have talked about the difficulties while translating, but no difficulty can be compared to that of translating theory into practice especially in India. In such a situation the well known saying tradduttore, traditore assumes ironical connotation.
Devy, G N, `In Another Tongue: Essays on Indian English Literature,' Macmillan India, Chennai, 1995.
--------------, `Some Anthropological Observations on The Study of English Literature Prefaced by the Confessions of an English Teacher' in Tharu, Susie (ed.) `Subject to Change' Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1998.
Dingwaney, A and Carol Maier, (ed.) `Between Languages and Cultures: Translation and Cross-Cultural Texts, Oxford University Press,
Riffaterre, Michael, ` Transporting Presuppositions on the Semiotics of Literary Translation.' In Rainer Shulte and John Biguenet (eds.) `Theories of translation' An anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida, University of Chicago (1992).
*Tharu, Susie, (ed.) `Subject to Change: Teaching of Literature in the Nineties' Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 1998.
* Vishwanatha, Vanmala, `Literary Translation: A Technique for teaching English Literature in a Bilingual context.' In Susie Tharu (ed.).
*Widdowson, H G, ` Explorations in Applied Linguistics' Oxford University Press, Oxford 1979.
*----------------------, `The Teaching, Learning and Study of Literature'.