The Autobiography of a Thousand Languages

Mini Krishnan


Portable World

“…without the bliss of English, my glorious foster- mother, I would not have learnt the spirit of my Tamil language.

(T P Meenakshisundaram Kudimakkal Kappiyam The People’s Epic)

Can this be true? Some Indians think English is a foreign language. Some people don’t agree. Some Indians don’t use any other language! The point is that there are geographies of remembrance in every language.

I’d like to describe three events: one was more than a hundred years ago (1915) when in a grand and somewhat morbid gesture, Edmond Laforest, a writer in Haiti took his own life by tying a heavy French dictionary around his neck and jumping off a bridge. He wanted to demonstrate how the French language, imposed upon him by colonists, had killed him artistically.

Edmond Laforest,
Edmond Laforest

He dramatized, fatally, the artistic drowning of the Haitian language and culture in a powerful and hegemonic tradition. The second was in January 1965 when a young man named Chinnasami walked into the Tiruchi railway station, poured kerosene on himself, lit a match, and burned to death shouting “Tamizh vazhga,” (long live Tamil) over and over again. He too was protesting against an imposition: Hindi in Tamil Nadu.

Why? Why take such extreme steps for a language?

Both persons thought that language was life itself.

Indeed more important than life.

Translations in Rural India

In this article about language, that most private and yet most public of things, the third incident I wish to share is about something that happened in Ponnur---a small town in Andhra Pradesh. A very conscientious publisher in Telugu named Gita Ramaswamy who runs the Hyderabad Book Trust was selling her low-cost books all translated into Telugu. The publisher who travels with her books, into the interior parts of Andhra Pradesh was watching a peasant who had arrived on a bicycle. He had been turning the pages of David Werner’s Where There is no Doctor translated into Telugu (Vaidyudu Lenichota). The price, Rs 120/- was clearly beyond him. After half an hour he returned with three others. They each paid Rs 30 and said that they planned to share the book on a rotation basis.

I put it to my readers that the translation of Indian literary and socially important documents for Indians who have either lost their languages or who need to know about writing in languages other than theirs is exactly like this. It isn’t an affluent market, but it is a needy one.

The Literary Laboratory of Translation

The vital role of translation both between Indian languages as well into English is what makes possible the study of different literatures. Without translation we are deaf to each other. If we do not study English through our literatures, we are doing ourselves a disfavour. And yet, remember that this borrowed language which has no maternal link to our land needs to be viewed with some caution. It has tremendous cultural and commercial power to drive us into a sort of forgetfulness.

What are we doing with it?

By the 1920s departments of English were set up all over India but not by Indians. Fifty years later, in this subject, our best students could match any graduate of any stellar university anywhere in the world. My worry is that we stopped with mastering English. Since 1947 our country has gone round the Sun 74 times but we have still not designed a literary programme for ourselves which uses English to draw on our incredibly rich linguistic heritage to enhance our understanding of ourselves and through it to get a unique grip on the power-language of the world. Arriving as the language of administration and being certainly not of the land the way Marathi or Assamiya or Telugu are, English is paradoxically the only language Indians everywhere can lay equal claim to. Therefore, equally paradoxically, writings in our regional languages, become ‘national’ only via English language translations.

Why then, are we neglecting bilinguality and translation?

Just one more point to set the background: India’s complex response to the impact of Western culture on it, (via English) represents one of the most important and neglected intellectual developments in the modern world. And we can see this extraordinary outcome in the regional languages of the country be it Marathi, Urdu, Kannada, Konkani, Assamiya, Hindi or Bengali because the modern histories of these languages in turn are intimately and profoundly linked with the way English was once so well taught even in remote villages and small towns, and not just in the big cities of today’s India. The spread of printing, the rise of the leisured middle classes, particularly women readers,and the demand for education all powered the proliferation of writers and journals in our regional languages.

Several studies have proved that because language proficiency is neglected in schools, students in higher education are suffering. They hardly have any language at all through which they might express themselves or deal with the subtle ideas and learning they are expected to absorb in their undergraduate courses. This is a strange situation in a country which has some of the oldest most developed languages in the world.

We all know that we have a problem. In my view it is the fault of the knowledge industry: curriculum framers, teacher trainers and publishers. Together we have formed a triangle which has persuaded students to believe that the goal of education is to pass an examination and not to refine the mind assisted by language and the tools it provides to understand and process the world around and to contribute to improving it.

william jones
Sir William Jones

If we could design a reading programme based on the rich and diverse social history that lies in our fiction, poetry and memoirs, it would stimulate the minds and intellects of students, and researchers obliging them to find the words to strengthen their grip on English and their own languages. New goals are being set in this translation-turn in cultural studies and in academia and we must be prepared to meet them.

In closing I would like to remind readers (and myself) that it was on 15th January, 1784, that William Jones established and inaugurated the Asiatic Society of Bengal which became the first centre and repository of research into the classical languages and texts of the subcontinent.

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