Library of India

Can translations save India’s endangered ‘mother tongues’?

Political and historical pressures continue to suppress the use of local languages and impose a universal one.

In “Translation as Culture, an article which theorises her work with Mahasweta Devi’s fiction, Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes of the irreducible emotional and ethical charge of translating from the mother tongue:

 “...translation in the narrow sense...is also a peculiar act of reparation – toward the language of the inside, a language in which we are ‘responsible’, the guilt of seeing it as one language among many...I translate from my mother tongue.” 

Spivak’s words touch on the slippery affective terrain that opens up when we call a language “mother”, and seek to transcribe this “intimate” tongue in an “alien” sign-system: a site that is both personal and political, fraught with identity and difference, love and loss, guilt and responsibility, ridden with the angst of separation and the anxiety of reparation.

Always already strained, these filial relations are further fractured by the dysfunctional contexts in which literary translators operate today – multicultural yet hegemonic, globalised yet often segregated or displaced. What it generates is at best a complicated sense of linguistic belonging – to an enormous, broken family of languages, with multiple mothers, one’s own and those of others, in which degrees of kinship, equations of power, loyalties and alliances, the rules of engagement and the stakes of representation are forever shifting.

Inner language

In this chaotic, contested space, what we deem most intimately our own is often othered, recedes into near-silence, and becomes a language of the inside that must be sated and compensated by being voiced on the “outside”. Then there is, of course, the collateral irony of translation-as-representation to consider – the loss of “self”, always presumably inscribed in the source language or “language of origin”, in the very process of its recuperation.

Hence inevitably, today, the idea of the mother tongue in translation approaches the aporia of subaltern speech. Perhaps this – the increasing proximity in distress of our mothers and those of others less fortunate – is why the two are often strategically (and sometimes with clumsy haste) clubbed together in the public discourse on translation.

At a recent translation-centred literary festival in Bangalore, conversations around mother tongues and subalternity alternated between the usual romantic definitions and grim status reports, pragmatic critiques of education policy and moving personal narratives. The definitions, predictably, ranged from the sweeping or shockingly insipid to the more or less delicately nuanced.

A misty-eyed poet rather vapidly characterised the mother tongue as the language of lullabies, literally infused into our lifeblood by breastmilk, only to be rapped on the knuckles by an irate feminist for “essentialising” from the naively gendered imagery of mothers and suckling infants. A septuagenarian scholar declared that India had no mother tongues: her bhashas had always been mutually intelligible and conversed freely amongst themselves before the British came along, divided and consigned us to Babel.

For sociologist, writer and translator Chandan Gowda, the mother tongue is not perforce linked to biological ancestry; rather, it is the language in which you find “the greatest existential ease and pleasure in encountering meaning”. Gowda spoke of the advantages of having been able to learn his native Kannada at the English medium school he went to, not least because he believes reading history, journalism and critical nonfiction in the vernacular gives one a richer sense of immediate contexts and specific pasts, and the literatures (poetry, in particular) one encounters growing up, form the core of one’s ethical and affective self.

Education, technology and mother tongues

Gowda’s formulation of the mother tongue primarily as a source of intellectual pleasure and a multi-pronged way of knowing (inclusive of aesthetic, emotional and moral sense-making) had direct bearing on the discussions that followed, around language and education. And yet, definitions – nebulous or nuanced – were probably the last thing on the minds of speakers who hailed from contexts where realpolitiks is altering vibrant linguistic economies, with devastating consequences.

Feminist writer Volga reported that in her native Andhra Pradesh, where language was a pivotal factor in the recent bifurcation of the state, the regional language is, ironically, in a fragile position today. Earlier this year in Volga’s home state, the Chandrababu Naidu government initiated the process of moving municipal schools from Telugu to English medium. Surprisingly, there is little protest against the move – either from the families of students, or schoolteachers’ unions.

Educational reforms in AP, which reportedly plan to phase Telugu out as the medium of instruction in government schools, reflect the ruling party’s feeling that English is the language of global capital and technology. It is strange, moreover, Volga observed, that the devotees of technology at the helm of the government cannot conceive of “technology in the mother tongue”.

Where government policy actively restricts or rules out language choices, access to education in the mother tongue needs urgently to be reinstated as a “human right”. For when the “democratic” state nullifies the right of citizens to teach and learn in the vernacular, it assaults the very foundations of knowledge-as-identity, paralysing the ability to feel, think, act, create, choose, dissent and resist, effectively crippling the political and cultural agency of its subjects.

Rohini Nilekani, founder of Pratham Books, concurred that the monolingual culture of technology in India can be diversified and used to preserve, rather than destroy, mother tongues and multilingualism. Pratham has set an example with their initiative Story Weaver, which has created a virtual platform in the creative commons for sharing, exchanging and retelling children’s stories, enabling readers to translate, reinvent and circulate them in many tongues – including tribal languages, although common or dominant scripts are used in the case of stories drawn from exclusively oral cultures.

Nilekani stressed that while the question of the primary language a child should be taught in remains a fraught one, children are by nature multilingual, and this mental faculty of shifting from one linguistic resource to another, depending on the need of the context, must be recognised as a cognitive and cultural advantage. Yet, how does one access this wealth of tongues when colonisation and modernity have severed or frayed the connection, in some cases permanently?

Dominant scripts and subaltern codes

Often, endangered tongues are those whose speech “endangers” the linguistic edifices of dominant groups, with its potential to unravel and re-weave the state’s master-narratives. For Ganesh Devy, writer, critic and activist, the origin myths and narrative frames of the subcontinent’s greatest stories are embedded with codes of subaltern authorship, testifying to the radical formative power of these submerged vernaculars.

The narrators of the Mahabharata’s Adi Parva – the bards Ugrasrava, Shuka and Sanjaya – were avowedly half-castes. The frame story of the Kathasaritasagara, originally composed in Paisachi, an obscure and now extinct Prakrit tongue, sources the epic text from the memory of two (fictional?) forest-dwellers. Both Shudraka, author of the Mrichhakatika, and Bharata, who wrote the Natyasastra, were believed to be men of “low” birth.

Dalit scholar and intellectual Stalin Rajangam pointed out there is a similar encoding of the Dalit voice in “classical” Tamil literature. It is a little-known fact that Thiruvalluvar, the philosopher-poet who composed Thirukkural, the monumental Tamil treatise on ethics, was a weaver by profession and a Dalit. So were Avvaiyar, the great woman poet of the Sangam period, and Sekkizhar, the Shaiva saint-poet. Rajangam delved into a fascinating history of subaltern Tamil which goes by the poetic epithet of mozhikkullu mozhi (“language within language”).

It is a history inscribed in the age-old differentiation of spoken and literary Tamil – seri thamizh and senthamizh. The distinction is casteist, rooted in etymologies of purity and pollution: “seri” refers to the slums where Dalit communities live (another early adjective for Dalit speech, kotun, meant “bent, crooked, or twisted”), while the suffix “sen” comes from “cemmai” denoting proportion, elegance and excellence (in other words, a tongue that is straight, clean and beautiful). Rajangam recounted how this binary of the colloquial and the classical was cast in iron by colonial lexicographers in the context of the emergent print culture of Tamil Nadu in the 18th and 19th centuries.

A decisive battle in this regard was the dictionary debate between two missionaries, the Jesuit scholar Joseph Beschi and Lutheran linguist Bartholomaus Ziegenbalg, in the 1700s. With Beschi’s victory, the “High” Tamil he championed became the standard and the Dalit idiom, along with its distinctive lexemes, orthography, rhythms and aesthetic, was excluded from print. The binary persists to this day, Rajangam avers, in forms both obvious and subtle.

In 20th century mainstream literature and cinema, Cheri Tamil and its pidgin counterpart “Butler English” (a term that references the speech of Dalit cooks and servants employed in the British homes of the Raj, where beef was cooked and served regularly) were consistently ridiculed.

A change was perceptible in the 1990s, with popular Dalit authors like Bama and Perumal Murugan using this submerged tongue in their writings. The titles of Murugan’s anthologies, such as Shit Stories and Talk Back Verse, boldly bespeak this phenomenon of the subaltern writing back. And in a film industry where Dalit roles and voices are serially stereotyped or camouflaged, the 2016 Rajnikanth movie Kabali moved the slapstick subaltern character of mainstream Tamil movies to the centre of the narrative as protagonist, with dialogue and gestures that openly delineate his political position vis-a-vis the prevailing caste hierarchy. Rajangam’s references provoked reflection on how new Dalit idioms in print and cinema “translate” and reclaim subaltern experiences from ‘standard’ Savarna narratives.

On the same panel, author and journalist Sudeep Chakravarti reported on subaltern tongues from the tumultuous margins and molten centre of the Indian “nation” – the North-East and Chhattisgarh – where translation as resistance often finds unlikely allies. There is a view that colonial language initiatives have, paradoxically, empowered the people of the North-East in the present context of “Indian Imperialism”. The Roman script introduced by American missionaries brought writing into these predominantly oral cultures, and today their Romanised languages have become an essential mode of communication and tool of resistance in the digital media.

Similarly, Assamese and Bangla, arguably representing yet another wave of cultural imperialism in some North-Eastern states, brought scripts that consequently played a central role in archiving the cultural history of these regions. Chakravarti cited the Meitei king who embraced Hinduism under the tutelage of a Bengali Brahmin priest, and the extensive use of the Bengali script thereafter to record Meitei history and culture. The writer characterised as an irreparable loss the recent destruction of the Central Library in Imphal, containing Manipuri texts compiled over three centuries in Bengali script, by arsonists demanding that Manipur’s ancient Mayek script be reintroduced.

Multilingualism, hegemony and language death

And yet, the question must arise: does the subaltern have the right to refuse indigenous knowledge that has been coopted and othered by alien orthographies? The burning of books aside, the story of Mayek and Bengali in Manipur suggests that altruistic narratives of dominant Indian languages “scripting unwritten tongues” could be taken with a pinch of salt, for every archive conceals a structure of power mortared by silences which may someday erupt in speech.

Perhaps literacy projects are best initiated from the inside, as in the case of Santali in eastern India: the Ol Chiki script was invented in 1925 by Pandit Raghunath Murmu to approximate an alphabet which more adequately represented the sounds of the language than the Roman or Devanagari scripts. One thing at least is amply clear, from the incessant return at literary festivals to the subject of scripting subaltern speech and mother tongues: despite our paeans to orality, we seek eternally to validate it by means of the written word. For living tongues to partake of the literary proceedings of the establishment today, “literacy” seems an absolute requirement.

Is this a practical need for preservation in the face of widespread language death? Is it a symptom of the worldwide transitioning of literary cultures from the aural to the visual domain, where linguistic capital and currency is synonymous with the visibility of the language in question?

Whatever the reasons, translation is at the complex, dynamic centre of this scripting project. And perhaps, despite its many “dysfunctions”, it carves out a space to question and dismantle iron-clad binaries – of mother and other, inside and outside, original and derivative, elite and subaltern, speech and writing – and forges fresh economies of expression athwart a politics of identity and advocacy which increasingly dictates who can speak and who cannot, and who can speak for whom, and in what ways.


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