As a translator of hidden stories, a critic of literature, an editor of anthologies of Indian literature and collections of translational theory, and an author of translational theory himself, Harish Trivedi has worked hard to lead Indian literature to a place of pride for the peoples it represents. By bringing awareness to the dangers of “cultural translation” in his most popular essay “Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation” (2007), Trivedi exposes the Euro-centric methods of translation in an effort to deny the audience the ability to dictate the expression and authenticity of a story.
While a significant figure in the fields of Postcolonial and Translation Study, Harish Trivedi has not made public much information about his personal life. Even his LinkedIn profile shows nothing more than what the public already knows: he was a professor and advisor at the University of Delhi. A Google search shows that he was born on April 17th, 1947 and any concrete information comes from random anecdotes in essays and interviews, the sum of which does not amount to a comprehensive narrative of Trivedi’s developmental years. Though his family history remains unknown, a university faculty form reveals that Harish Trivedi was born in India and obtained his BA and his MA in English at Allahabad University (University of Wales) in India in 1965 and 1967, respectively. In the 70s, he studied at the University of Wales in the UK and received his Ph.D. in 1975. Since completing his formal education, Trivedi has lived all around the world as an honorary scholar and fellow for many universities, but his home base is in Delhi, India, where he taught English at St. Stephen’s College from 1969-1984 and at the University of Delhi from 1984 to around 2011.
After working on his doctoral thesis on Virginia Woolf, Trivedi “returned to India with the belated epiphany that English literature was not, and never could be, my literature” (South Asia Institute). Eventually, Trivedi accepted the appointment to the Head of the Department of English at the University of Delhi, where he revised the curriculum to make space for English literature from around the globe and for literature translated into English, especially Indian literature. This dive into matters of translation brought Trivedi into the realm of postcolonial literature and translation studies, where he developed theories around modern translation and its relation to postcolonial societies with their own, oft-neglected literary traditions. In an effort to bring more Indian authors into the public sphere, Trivedi has translated theoretical and artistic works from authors like Namvar Singh and Amrit Rai, effectively diversifying a largely Western-based literary dialogue. Trivedi’s recent scholarship involves compiling anthologies of postcolonial and Indian literature, contributing critical work to periodicals and academic journals, and writing extensively on the history of translation as well as modern dilemmas in pursuing faithful translations of diverse works from authors of all nations and tongues.
In 2007, Trivedi published an essay on the dangers of letting Western interest dictate the process and outcome of translation titled, “Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation.” This essay highlights movements from the history of modern translation, starting with the “Russian Fever” of the early twentieth century that ignited a European obsession with foreign literature. In the 1970s and 1980s, this obsession moved to works from Latin American and Eastern European countries beyond the Iron Curtain, which “[transformed] globally our very expectations of what literature looks like or should look like.” This process ended with the unfortunate result of “Orientalism” that laid the foundation for “the discipline of comparative philology, and. . .further and more effective colonization.” As the need for translation increases in direct correlation to the rate of postcolonial globalization, Trivedi notes that the study of translation and its methods have historically been subject to the field of linguistics—which limits translational work to its ability to convey the material in a grammatically-correct manner—or the field of comparative literature—which draws from diverse literary backgrounds to foster intertextual dialogue.
When Postcolonial Studies emerged in the 1970s, scholars began to examine the identity of postcolonial literature but neglected to address the work of translation that made such analysis possible. In effect, the development of translation into a field of its own with a method and scholarship unique to its needs was relegated to become the necessary mud with which one must dirty their hands in order to do the ‘real work’ of comparative literature. Indeed, many schools, like UCSB, only offer a minor in Translational Studies as an optional or supplemental portion within the larger Comparative Literature major. According to Trivedi, this neglect led to the rise of Cultural Studies, which assesses the cultural aspects of literature that Comparative Literature and Linguistics largely ignore and which omits the influence of translation altogether in its monolingual, English-based methodology. With the refusal to work with two or more languages simultaneously, Cultural Studies forced an unwanted “beast” to emerge called “Cultural Translation,” which does not translate culture, according to Trivedi, but brings about “the very extinction and erasure of translation as we have always known and practiced it.” This new definition of translation counters the event of ‘untranslatability’ where a migrant is unable to assimilate to the new culture, or unable to ‘translate’ themselves into something the people around them can understand; essentially, it is a form of survival, not the fruit of thriving. In the process, the ‘author,’ or individual, loses his originality, if he ever had any, and caters to the sensibilities of the broader culture, which proves to be largely white or European. Trivedi abhors such a concept because it not only perpetuates the stereotypes and social boxes erected around subjected cultures during colonialism, it also does not involve any sort of text or language, but simply ideas. Such a practice Trivedi calls “non-substantive translation. . .simply non-translation.”
In history’s effort to undo the effects of colonialism, the demand placed on authors succeeding the colonial era to explain their experience has restored or maintained the deference to European/Western priority and paved the way for “a wholly translated, monolingual, monocultural, monolithic world.” Instead of appreciating and learning from others through a respect for their language and culture, the monopoly of the English language is quickly killing the need for translation in the traditional sense, which may lead to the death of language diversity in the far future. Trivedi pushes for a endeavor to save endangered languages through a robust development of true Translational Studies, which would result in a richer, more whole global society.
Instead of appreciating and learning from others through a respect for their language and culture, the monopoly of the English language is quickly killing the need for translation in the traditional sense, which may lead to the death of language diversity in the far future.
One text that is particularly relevant to Trivedi’s encouragement of national literature in local languages is Leila Abouzeid’s novel Year of the Elephant. Originally published in Arabic in 1983 as a a serial in the Moroccan newspaper Al-Mithaq, Abouzeid’s story of a woman in the midst of Moroccan independence during the 1950s was translated into English by Barbara Parmenter and published in 1989. The publishing of this novel became a historic event, as it marked the first female Moroccan author to have her work translated from Arabic into English. Before its translation, though, Abouzeid’s choice to publish the serial in Arabic is significant because business and professional work was done in French as a result of the decades-long occupation of Morocco by France from 1912-1956. By writing in Arabic, Abouzeid symbolically reclaims her country’s history and clearly highlights that her audience is Morocco, not the whole world. This decision aligns with Trivedi’s call to produce distinctly non-European, authentic literature in the native languages of the author.
Throughout the translation, Barbara Parmenter retains the culture and language-specific words that do not have English equivalents and adds footnotes to inform readers unfamiliar with Moroccan culture, Islam, or the Arabic language. While reading, the reader must engage with the text in order to truly understand Abouzeid’s story and its implications. If Parmenter had domesticated the text, it would have betrayed the uniqueness of Abouzeid’s tale and would have catered to the knowledge and sensibilities of an English-speaking Western audience. By refusing to translate everything according to an English understanding of the world, Parmenter forces the Western, English-speaking reader to step outside their realm of experience and learn to empathize and connect with someone from a different language, culture, and time period. Harish Trivedi would applaud this work because, on the one hand, Abouzeid does not give in to “Cultural Translation” by making her work relevant to the general community and, on the other hand, because Parmenter faithfully retains the cultural integrity of the novel, bringing the whole story into English, not just relegating it to a narrative that happens to be written by a Moroccan author.
While moving him into a potentially political scene, given the painful history of colonialism, Trivedi’s translational theories continue to develop non-European literature in a way that restores the integrity and dignity of works written from the cultures and in the languages of countries and peoples trying to develop their identity after the indelible effects of colonialism.
Cover photo courtesy of Hindustan Times
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Trivedi, Harish. “Translating Culture vs. Cultural Translation.” In Translation — Reflections, Refractions, Transformations,2007. https://iwp.uiowa.edu/91st/vol4-num1/translating-culture-vs-cultural-translation.