Imperial Babel: Translation, Exoticism, and the Long Nineteenth Century

Imperial Babel: Translation, Exoticism, and the Long Nineteenth Century

Imperial Babel: Translation, Exoticism, and the Long Nineteenth Century

Imperial Babel: Translation, Exoticism, and the Long Nineteenth Century

Synopsis

At the heart of every colonial encounter lies an act of translation. Once dismissed as a derivative process, the new cultural turn in translation studies has opened the field to dynamic considerations of the contexts that shape translations and that, in turn, reveal translation's truerfunction as a locus of power. In Imperial Babel, Padma Rangarajan explores translation's complex role in shaping literary and political relationships between India and Britain.Unlike other readings that cast colonial translation as primarily a tool for oppression, Rangarajan's argues that translation changed both colonizer and colonized and undermined colonial hegemony as much as it abetted it. Imperial Babel explores the diverse political and cultural consequences of avariety of texts, from eighteenth-century oriental tales to mystic poetry of the fin de siecle and from translation proper to its ethnological, mythographic, and religious variants.Searching for translation's trace enables a broader, more complex understanding of intellectual exchange in imperial culture as well as a more nuanced awareness of the dialectical relationship between colonial policy and nineteenth-century literature. Rangarajan argues that while bearing witness tothe violence that underwrites translation in colonial spaces, we should also remain open to the irresolution of translation, its unfixed nature, and its ability to transform both languages in which it works.

Excerpt

On a spring morning in 1816, a Malay unexpectedly wanders into the Lake District and Thomas de Quincey’s Grasmere cottage. It is a delicate moment for the author, who fears that the exotic stranger’s presence might alert the neighbors to his “Eastern” vice of opium eating. Baffled, and initially unable to communicate with his mysterious visitor, de Quincey finally hits on a solution: “my knowledge of the Oriental tongues is not remarkably extensive … [a]nd, as I had n[o] Malay dictionary … I addressed him in some lines from the Iliad; considering that, of such languages as I possessed, Greek, in point of longitude, came geographically nearest to an Oriental one. He worshipped me in a most devout manner, and replied in what I suppose was Malay.” Choosing as his communicative medium a text that recounts the domination of a powerful Eastern empire by its Western counterpart, de Quincey records the Malay’s response as one of immediate, appropriate submission: in other words, as an excellent translation.

Several years before de Quincey’s fateful encounter in the Lake District, Asiatic Researches, the publication of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, published An Account of the Jains, the first translated oral history of Jain practices. Its translator was one “Cavelly Boria,” now recognized as Kaveli Venkata Borriah, one of three brothers working for Colonel Colin Mackenzie, a British surveyor and orientalist in Madras. Although Mackenzie referred to the brothers somewhat dismissively as his “assistants,” the Kavelis had a tremendous influence on Madras orientalists—Venkata’s brother Lakshmaiah became the first Indian to be admitted to the Madras Literary Society—and An Account of the Jains is considered to be one of the earliest extant examples of Indian writing in English. But Kaveli’s role as translator . . .

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