Translation and Diaspora: Journeying from ‘Homeland’ to ‘Hostland’

To get himself out of a crowded New Delhi bus, he cries out, “thoda sabzi dedo!” Come home to the language play of the migrant

From a civilisational perspective, a human migration ends up as diaspora because of the many push-and-pull factors it encounters. Diaspora, ‘cast like a seed’, distinguishes itself as it sprouts in alien nations across natural boundaries marked by rivers, forests, deserts, and mountains. Translation (from Latin translationem, ‘carry across’) acts as a good metaphor for diaspora. When people, cultures and literary works cross geographical, historical and social boundaries, they get transformed, or “translated”, as Peter Quince said after seeing Bottom with the head of an ass in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (3.1.). As long as a diaspora or a literary work remains alien to the field it is sown in, it invites the threat of being perceived and marked as alien. Subjected to a shibboleth[1] test of belongingness, the diaspora would never cross it, but remain marooned in the River Jordan that marks the boundary. How it balances the ferry against the push-and-pull of water and wind, determines its success.

In a primary sense, humanity has only one language, the gradient of which progresses imperceptibly, and thus enables actual users to never or rarely feel the transformation. For example, if one divides the whole of India with a one-kilometre by one-kilometre grid, the people living in any one grid can easily communicate with the people living in the eight grids close to them, naturally and effortlessly in their mother tongue. The farther the grid extends, the greater the linguistic barrier between communities. And so are cultural barriers. It is nationalism – based on imposed notions of language, religion, ethnicity, civilisation, and economy – that creates ruptures within the gradient of humanity’s one language. As nationalist ideologies amplify these ruptures, differences get magnified and divide human beings arbitrarily, replacing the natural boundaries of seas, rivers, forests, deserts, and mountains with pencil lines drawn by bureaucrats and politicians.

Diaspora is a movement across natural boundaries which nurture and solidify differences. However, the artificial boundaries imposed in the era of globalisation have made many people feel ‘at home’ in ‘foreign’ languages, religions, ethnicities, civilisations, and economies. This transnational mode makes modern diasporas difficult to define. Many people find themselves in diaspora within their own nations, due to ethnic and racial differences that mark communities as separate and non-integrated with the majority/mainstream. Mixed race communities like the Mulattos and Anglo Indians are permanent reminders of the attempts of the diaspora to integrate with the local community. However, they themselves end up being marginalised and powerless as they often end up in a diaspora among both their parental races, and are circumscribed to third spaces within both nations.

After the barrier of ethnicity and race, the most obvious difficulty one faces as a migrant is that of language. The epiphany that one does not have the right language to communicate with is useful but also debilitating. It could happen even within a multilingual nation. My friend who didn’t know Hindi but wanted to make way for himself to get out of a crowded New Delhi bus cried out: “thoda sabzi dedo!” (Give me some vegetables!). Living as a freshman in a university hostel, it was the only phrase he had mastered, and that too incorrectly. Passengers in the bus understood what he wanted, nevertheless!

I also remember being unable to find the right words in order to ask a Dzhogka-speaking Bhutanese for stamps; and reading from a pre-written piece of paper while ordering in Arabic-speaking restaurants in Saudi Arabia. In both places my confidence that I could get by in English was misplaced. They didn’t know English; didn’t need English and didn’t use English; I was the one who wanted them to know, need and use English. Some 35 years ago, I was eagerly returning to Kerala by train after a long stay in Delhi. To my own great surprise, as soon as I disembarked the first words I blurted out to a Malayali standing on the platform were in Hindi: “time kya hai, bhaisaab?” (What time is it, brother?). Even before I reacted in shock to my own reflexive usage of the ‘non-native’ language, he answered in idiomatic Hindi: “paune gyarah” (quarter to eleven), each word turned a stone pelted at my earthen pot brimming with nostalgia for my home state and mother tongue.

It is the tether of nostalgia that keeps diaspora tied to its homeland. Unmindful of this, homeland machinery keeps exploiting this fragile relationship to its advantage. The bond is strong in the first-generation diaspora, and gradually fades away over the generations, unless they become convinced that it is their ‘duty’ to contribute to the homeland. The Indian diaspora is often connected to their idea of ‘ideal’ homeland through religious and cultural practices. Gujaratis in the US perform more perfect dandiya than those at home, and Malayalis in the Gulf celebrate Onam feast better than any Malayali in Kerala. It is this obsession with the idea of the ideal motherland that gets exploited by political powers to spread their reach among the diaspora. The High-Level Committee on the Indian Diaspora, set up by the Indian Government in September 2000 under the Chairmanship of Dr. L M Singhvi with the mandate to make a comprehensive study of the global Indian Diaspora and to recommend measures for a constructive relationship with them, highlighted the ‘Indianness’ of the Indian diaspora abroad and recommended a mechanism to foster nostalgia in the Indian diaspora through policies which “extent of their interaction with their countries of origin.”

The primary nostalgic factor for a diaspora is mother tongue. S.K. Pottekkad, who could be called the father of Indian Diaspora Studies, had described more than fifty years ago how diasporic Malayalis kept inviting him to their homes in the countries where they had settled, just to talk to him in Malayalam. The Union government’s unidirectional promotion of Hindi in the diaspora fails to promote nostalgia in the non-Hindi-speaking Indian diaspora. Only those who manage to inherit the collective memories embedded within their own languages retain and reinforce a primary connection to the homeland. Literary works in native languages are vehicles for diasporic communities to inherit their collective memories. A language is more than the sum of the words in the vocabulary, and every permutation and combination of words changes in meaning because of collocation and context. In literature, language fuses with meaning and emanates the living scent of the homeland. The diaspora loses connection with mother tongues as later generations move farther away from the direct experience of homeland and fail to recognise/respond to its elusive, seductive fragrance. Translations can play a major role in addressing this.

I remember reading a Penguin report on its translations of Malayalam works into English, around two decades ago. It said that it is mostly Malayalis themselves who read the English translations of Malayalam works. The reason may be that Kerala, the most literate state in India, is one of the the world’s foremost regions of diasporic momentum, with huge numbers of the local population leaving to work abroad. Kerala is well into the second and even third generations of full diaspora; they prefer reading English translations as they cannot read Malayalam, and form a large and ready market.

Translation is the diaspora of a literary work. It struggles in alien literary polysystemswhich condescendingly exoticise or accept it first for a space in the margins, and then jostling its way towards the centre of that literary polysystem. How central a translated work becomes within diasporic consciousness depends on a host of factors, as Itamar Even-Zohar’s polyssytem theory, which explores the socio-cultural contexts out of which a literary work or its translation is produced, reminds us. Made primarily to explain the revival of the old but defunct Hebrew literary system, Even-Zohar’s theory was largely influenced by the return of the Hebrew Bible in diaspora from its Greek versions like the Septuagint to become the centre of Jewish literary system. When a literary work written in the language of a diaspora is translated into the language of the ‘hostland’, it prepares the hostland community to better appreciate the diaspora.

As more people cross borders but continue to live in homes that reflect the marks of native cultures and conventions, the ‘cultural turn’ helps translation studies focus on the complexities of textual transfer and the patterns of cultural interaction. Translators’ cultural in-betweenness helps them appreciate cultural interactions and enables them to help readers tide over supra-linguistic cultural difficulties in translation through heterogeneous reconstructions in intercultural communication. It is the worldview of a culture that gets expressed through its literature, and translations play a part in familiarising the community’s internal ‘others’ as well as outsiders about that worldview. Translations should lead one to read the original. As Goethe[2] had suggested, translations begin as prosaic renderings and progress as paraphrastic ones and end up as near interlinear works prompting the reader of the translation to read the original.

The colonised world appreciates the worldview of the English because Britain as an imperial power compelled the colonised elite to know and work in English, thus becoming complicit in disseminating and perpetuating the imperial mandate. English embodies the worldview of the entire English language family. One can talk back to power if one’s translations force the power to read one’s literary works in the original. Translation should be a step towards that. Being better judges of a foreign language in situ, a diaspora has a major role to play in translating home-language literature into the language/s of the hostland. However, while doing this, one has to master hostland language well enough, and know its specific cultural and legal environment. The translator completely domesticating the work for her hostland in her translation will cause an ‘illusion of transparency’. A by-product of this would be translator’s invisibility, as the reader will not recognise the translated work as a foreign work translated. Faithful renditions that keep the ‘foreign’ touch are largely disliked by most publishers and readers who demand immediate intelligibility.

Diaspora studies and missions mainly focus on exploiting diasporas for the benefit of the homeland. These processes subtly prompt diasporas to increase allegiance towards homeland, even as hostlands expect cohesive and untroubled allegiance from its diasporic constituents. The objective of state-promoted diaspora studies is to identify, from the perspective of realpolitik, how and how much a government can utilise the strength of diaspora to its own advantage. The objective of most diaspora missions is to channelise the diaspora’s economic, intellectual and technological expertise, gained in the hostland, for the benefit of the homeland. To do this, it attempts to intensify nostalgia among the diaspora through various means.  However, the truth is that no hostland nation wants its diaspora to return permanently to their homelands, as this would mean the hostland is losing strategic assets forever.

Unlike states, diasporas are not formally organised. However, corporate leaders among the diaspora are in a position, and have the skills, to negotiate with states in the interest of corporate profit and creation of wealth. This diasporic dilemma – whether to be a complicit victim of the systemic state violence on the diaspora or be a collaborator in the epistemic violence on the state perpetrated by the corporate players claiming to be diaspora – complicates state’s approach to its diaspora and the diaspora’s approach to the state. This ‘nowhere-ness’, the complex and often traumatic pathologies of exile, fragmentation, identity crisis, the splitting and/or doubling of the sense of self, the hybridity, alienation and estrangement form part of diaspora experience. Moreover, a realist political approach would not deny the possibility of both the hostland and the homeland turning against the diaspora at any time and branding it a threat, demanding an economic or political shibboleth as a litmus test of nationalism. In the long run it would be mutually beneficial for homelands to find non-exploitative ways to maintain their diaspora as a form of soft power; and for diasporas to find authentic ways to cherish their link with their homelands as a long-term, secure, nourishing ideological asset without getting trapped in either false nostalgia or insular nationalism.  

[1] Shibboleth (‘ear of grain’ or, ‘stream’ in Hebrew) is a sort of linguistic password that helped identifying non-members in a group. It is a Biblical usage where the victorious Gileadites used it to identify fleeing Ephraimite enemies from the crowd of people.  The Gileadites blocked the River Jordan and asked anyone crossing it to pronounce the word ‘shibboleth’. As the Ephraimites did not have ‘sh’ sound in their language, and pronounced it as ‘s’, they were identified and killed. See Judges 12:6.

[2] “The reason why we also call the third epoch the final one can be explained in a few words. A translation that attempts to identify itself with the original ultimately comes close to an interlinear version and greatly facilitates our understanding of the original. We are led, yes, compelled as it were, back to the source text: the circle, within which the approximation of the foreign and the familiar, the known and the unknown constantly move, is finally complete” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “Translations” (1819), trans. Sharon Sloan. in Lawrence Venuti (ed.) The Translation Studies Reader, Third edn., Routledge. 2012. p. 66).

Knowledge is power, and our intention is to bring the power to you. We have initiated a thought movement that aims to strengthen democracy by bringing to you direct voices of important trailblazers and pathmakers, and reclaim deep and patient reflection as an important seed for relevant and sustainable action! Help us take this movement forward. Support Inter-Actions today for as little as Rs. 100.
Donation to LILA is eligible for tax exemption u/s 80 G (5) (VI) of the Income Tax Act 1961 vide order no. NQ CIT (E) 6139 DEL-LE25902-16032015 dated 16/03/2015