In the introduction to her translation of Sangati by Bama, Lakshmi Holmström attempts to address the issue of the language use within a context of writings by Dalit women in Tamil. Citing Raj Gauthaman’s exmaple, she states that Dalit literature not only presents a different view of the world, but also functions to outrage the guardians of class and caste. Tamil linguistic sensibility makes an active distinction between the “high” and “low” forms or registers of the language. Sen Tamil – the refined form of the language, had, for the longest time, Holmström states, been considered the appropriate language register for literary composition, while Kodun Tamil or colloquial Tamil was seen as exclusively limited to the everyday speech.

Caste and language

Added to such distinctions of “high” and “low” or scriptural, literary, and colloquial, there are nuances of caste that constitute dimensions of linguistic register, in that the lower castes, especially the untouchables or Dalits, are associated with inferior or contaminated speech forms. Linguistic structures and structurings that form around caste identities have been long extant across the language cultures of the subcontinent. Scriptural language, for example, was considered to be the exclusive domain of the priestly caste, despite its status as revelation.

Vedic scripture, for example, is described as being apaurusyeya, indicating that it comes from realms beyond those of the human cognition and consciousness. Revelation in such a context is slightly different from the way it is perceived in Judeo-Christian or Islamic traditions. The hymns in the Vedas are ascribed to seers, and one might conjecture that these seers achieved a higher order of perception (pratyaksha), through their practices of penances and austerities.

Such heightened forms of perception allowed them to apprehend truths that lay beyond the phenomenal world of human cognition. It was in this sense that scripture was considered a form of revealed knowledge and therefore sacred. Conversely, one could also make the case that, by virtue of being apaurusyeya, such forms of revealed knowledge are equally without authorial claim.

Presenting a history of the constructions of caste from ancient times to present day India is beyond our present scope. However, in the interests of clarity, it is important to point out that exclusion from writing and language function on the same premises of contamination that inform practices of untouchability. Such conceptualisations of a contamination as explained through a Durkheimian consolidation of the “sacred” in opposition to and through an exclusion of the “profane” are often used to explain practices of untouchability in general.

Similar arguments have been made in contextualising exclusionary caste codes in India that have served to disallow lower caste individuals from entering temple grounds and shrines, the houses of upper caste peoples, drinking from common water sources, and sometimes even from establishing habitation with boundaries of the town. The logic being that their very presence was contaminating and especially so in the context of sacred spaces.

The use of the word Dalit, which translates to crushed, broken or trampled on, was brought into currency by the caste reformist and thinker Jyotirao Phule and is now used to refer to all those communities defined as untouchables. The exclusion from language and scripture, as stated earlier, functioned on the same principle of contamination.

A succinct example this exclusion from language can be found in the story of Shambuka in the Ramayana. As the story goes, a priest brings news of the untimely death of his son to Rama, the ruler of the kingdom of Ayodhya. The reason for his death is explained as a direct outcome of the violation of dharma by Shambuka.

Shambuka was a Shudra, the lowest of the four principal castes in ancient India, who despite his caste had become an ascetic and was reading the sacred scriptures. As king, Rama was an upholder of dharma and was implored by the priest to punish Shambuka. Rama performs his duty as king and slays Shambuka, it may be argued, for contaminating the sanctity of the scripture.

Given the extent to which the lower castes were excluded and marginalised from language and culture, it comes as no surprise that Gauthaman views language use as a core subversive tactic in Dalit writing. The use of the so-called “inferior language register” in the writing of literary works, therefore, becomes a vehicle of resistance against the hegemony of the caste system.

It is important to understand in this context that the very act of writing may be considered a means of resistance against oppressive structures. In the context of Tamil specifically, until the emergence of authors like Puthumaipithan, Sen Tamil was, as Holmström explains, the medium of both literary and even journalistic writing. Puthumaipithan – often hailed as the progenitor of the modern Tamil short story, was the first writer in the history of Tamil literature to make extensive use of the “colloquial registers” in his writings.

How Dalit writings changed the notions of ‘linguistic propriety’

The emergence of Dalit writings in Tamil only pushed the envelope on the notions of “linguistic propriety” and literary style even further. Reflecting upon the process of translating Bama’s work and its significance in relation Tamil literary sensibilities, Holmström states that nothing of the kind had ever been published in the Tamil language. Her work is emblematic of the shock-value that Gauthaman ascribes to Dalit writing. Not only does it abound in colloquialisms, but also cusswords and slurs one would not usually hear in “civilised conversation”.

Bama’s work has been the subject of controversy for other reasons as well. After the publication of her autobiographical novel, Karakku, she was ostracised from both her village and religious communities. Karakku was a largely autobiographical work that, like Sangati, focused on life within rural Tamil Dalit Christian communities.

Born into a Dalit Roman Catholic family in rural Tamil Nadu, Bama served as a nun for seven years before leaving her convent life. She joined the seminary in hopes of escaping the violence of everyday life as a Dalit woman in a small rural town. She hoped to be able to work towards the rehabilitation of Dalit girls and young women like herself in the capacity as a nun.

However, she soon realised that life in the seminary was not very much different. It was equally patriarchal and oppressive. In Karakku, she wrote about the corruption, hypocrisy, and the abuse within her church and community. In both Sangati and Karakku, we are presented the processes through which the violence of caste marginality is compounded by the marginality of gender.

Prompted by these experiences Bama, often states that she is not just a Dalit feminist, but a militant Dalit feminist. She believes militancy is necessary in the face of systemic oppression and violence. When asked in an interview why her work abounded in cusswords and harsh language, Bama responded by saying that sometimes a foul tongue is the only weapon a woman has at her disposal against an abusive male-dominated reality.

The issue of language use, at least in Bama’s case, goes beyond mere shock value. It becomes an articulation of feminine agency in the face of gendered caste oppression. It is perhaps for this precise reason that Holmström does not attempt to sanitise Bama’s text while rendering it into English. She points to this trend of sanitising, particularly in the context of translating Dalit writing. This according to her is a disservice to not only authorial intention, but also the strong political motivations of the Dalit text.

Starting her translating career with texts from the Classical Tamil tradition – Sillaipadhikaram, Manimekalai, selections from Sangam poetry, Holmström makes a huge shift in her practices as a translator when she starts working with Tamil Dalit authors. The movement, it is possible to argue, starts with her translations of Puthumaipithan’s short stories and the works of Ambai.

Holmström’s translation of Bama’s first novel Karakku (2000) won her renewed critical acclaim. Shortly after, she published her translation of Bama’s second novel Sangati (2005), which was received with equal praise. Holmström’s facility as a translator really shines through in a work like Sangati.

Karakku was a semi-fictional autobiography and followed a certain conformity to the narrative demands of the form. Sangati on the other hand is a collection of events in the lives of individuals belonging to a Dalit Christian community living in rural Tamil Nadu. One observes a greater diversity and richness in character construction and narrative texture.

The text abounds in colloquialisms and cultural practices unique to the community being depicted. The focus is exclusively on the lives of the characters we encounter. Forces like the church or upper caste people are by and large only external factors that intermittently enter the narrative.

One of the characters in Sangati, Marriamma, is accosted by an upper caste landlord as she walks home through a field. He tried to pull her into a shed and force himself upon her. She somehow manages to escape. When she speaks to her friends about the incident, they warn her not to say a word about it, because nobody would believe her.

The upper caste man, now paranoid about saving his own reputation, spreads lies about Mariamma, saying that he found her in a compromising condition with one of the boys of her community as he was walking past the fields. The men of the community call a meeting to chastise Mariamma and threaten her with dire consequences if she didn’t mend her ways. Mariamma tries to explain, but the men choose to believe the authority of the upper caste man’s account. The pernicious and implicit insinuation being that as an upper caste man he possibly could not lust after a Dalit woman.

After standing trial, Mariamma admonishes her grandmother who knew the truth and believed her. The world-weary grandmother responds by saying that Marriama should not think that because she had learnt the alphabet things will be any different, she is still a woman inhabiting the lowest rungs of society.

The entire incident is presented to the reader in the form of conversations. Mariamma’s conversation with her friends, her trial at the hands of the council of men and finally her conversation with her world-weary grandmother. Bama chooses to have her characters speak to the reader directly, without any narratorial mediation, lending a sense of immediacy to the living structures of oppression that define life for characters like Mariamma.

Holmström tries her best to retain in her translation Bama’s style and diction in the portrayal of these events. Her approach to translating is almost reminiscent of RK Narayan’s writing style in English, on whose works she wrote her graduate thesis at Oxford. Narayan was one of the foremost authors in Indian English writing and his style was characterised by the modification of English syntax and diction to bring it closer to his native Tamil and the inclusion of native words in his English writing.

Having grown up in a Tamil speaking household, when I first read Bama’s Sangati in Holmström’s translation, I could certainly almost hear echoes of the original language. Therefore, it is not her facility as a translator that is often called into question, but rather her motivations. Such interrogations of intentionality have had a long history in any interaction of the marginal with the mainstream. The fact that her translations of the works of authors like Bama have won her significant acclaim only exacerbates such considerations.

Who has the right to translate?

The question this raises is simple: Who has the right to translate whom? This question is even more pressing in the context of the translation of “marginal literatures” into “mainstream languages,” especially if the texts in question embody a certain politics of resistance. What is the translator doing in the process of choosing to translate a politically charged work from a so called marginal literature? Which are so called because the position they come to occupy within what is deemed “mainstream” through being translated seems otherwise inconceivable. Can their translations then be seen as culpable of a co-optation? Of assuming spokespersonship within the mainstream for a politics completely unrelated to mainstream realities? How do the factors pertaining to the marketability of marginality in contemporary academic and cultural discourse feed into the processes of selection? Had Karakku not met with the success that it did in English translation, would Oxford University Press have asked Holmström to translate Sangati?

Holmström has on several occasions made her position on the matter very clear. During her visit to the School of Women’s Studies and the Centre for Translation of Indian Literatures (CENTIL) at Jadavpur University in 2012, she repeatedly stated in her lectures that she was not an authority on Dalit literature or a politics of the Dalit identity. She saw herself only in the capacity of a translator, and not a Dalit rights activist.

She did not deny the activist thrust behind Bama’s works, and as a translator she strived to facilitate its expression in the target language. When asked what she thought Dalit literature was or who had the right to lay claim to the Dalit identity, she emphasised that she was not equipped to answer these questions, except for citing Dalit writers like Raj Gauthaman and Bama who have addressed these issues in their writings.

Despite this claim to facilitation, however, in her talk on the roles and responsibilities of the translator at CENTIL, Homlström argued in favor of acknowledging the translator’s shared ownership of the translated work with the author. While this is a problematic notion to begin with, the issue of ownership becomes a lot more protracted in the context of literatures emerging from marginalised and precarious subject positions.

If we follow the logic of contemporary translation theorists like Lawrence Venuti, laying claim to any form of ownership in the aforementioned context would be an act of co-optation amounting to the perpetration of “epistemic violence.” However, in a more general sense, one could also see such claims as assertions for the value of the labor in acts of translation.

In recent years organisations like the New India Foundation have been investing generously in the translation of texts from across Indian languages. Such initiatives of course stand alongside longstanding commitments to translation within the context of Indian languages by bodies like the Sahitya Akademi.

In a 2014 article that addresses a similar context of renewed investment in literary translations through an idea of World Literature by the National Endowment for the Arts in the United States, Rebecca Gross describes translation as literature’s invisible art. What does such an estimation say about, to borrow the enduring Benjaminian phrase, “the task of the translator”?

More importantly, does such a context of renewed investment and marketability for literary translations, be that in India or globally, also necessitate reevaluations and interrogations of translation both as a vocation and avocation? Especially in an Indian context that is marked by vibrant linguistic and cultural pluralities, can one think of translation as a potential site for engaging the alterity in all its vivacious plurality –as a site for an interpersonal ethics in engaging the Other?

Does such a context of renewed marketability for literary translation, especially when it comes to engagements with literary and cultural contexts of marginality and precarity, call upon us to consider more closely the ethical impossibility of spokespersonship and a movement towards envisioning translation in terms of an aesthetics of bearing witness? Borrowing from Paul Ricoeur’s ideas on translation as a praxis of being towards the Other that begins in mourning the Other’s untranslatability, can one then think of the work of translating literatures stemming from marginality and vulnerability along similar ethical lines?

S Satish Kumar is visiting faculty in the Department of English at Ashoka University. He holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and Intercultural Studies from the University of Georgia, and post-graduate and undergraduate degrees in Comparative Literature from Jadavpur University.