Contesting the sacred in Tamil: Missionary translations and divided identities in colonial South India
Hephzibah Israel (School of Oriental and African Studies – SOAS, London)
The western concept of translation was introduced to India in the early eighteenth century when European Protestant missionaries first arrived in the subcontinent to preach Protestant Christianity. A prime focus of their proselytising strategy was the translation of the Bible into Indian languages. This meant that a whole range of linguistic and literary changes entered the cultural field in India, which continued to influence India throughout the colonial and, now postcolonial, periods. Although translation had existed in practice before the arrival of missionary translators, the Indian concept of translation had been a creative re-use of subject matter, style and genre in another language, where emphasis was not placed on replicating the original through linguistic equivalence. This fluid relationship between source and target texts was mostly unacceptable to Western translators who sought to control and structure relations between the original text, the translator and the translated text. In doing so, they also took upon themselves the task of shaping and regulating the development of modern Indian languages and thereby, the linguistic identities of those who spoke them.
This paper will take up the particular case of Tamil, a South Indian language that experienced significant changes as a result of missionary translations in the colonial period. The Bible was translated no less than six times in the two hundred and fifty years that Protestant Christianity has existed in South India. The translations and revisions, undertaken mainly by European missionaries within a colonial context, were published amidst controversy and dispute although each effort was justified as an attempt to ‘improve’ the religious language used. Drawing on this long history of Protestant translations of the Bible into Tamil, my paper will examine the politics and aesthetics of language use and translation practice in colonial and postcolonial South India. The paper will examine nineteenth-century debates on translation initiated by the missionaries where they grappled with the anomalies of translating a religious culture through the translation of a written text. On the one hand, Protestant missionaries in nineteenth-century South India sought to arrive at principles of translation and language use whereby Protestant Christianity could assimilate new adherents from all cultural backgrounds to conform to a standardized, universal idea of a Protestant subject. On the other hand, for it to function with any relevance within the new cultures encountered, Protestant Christianity had to find points of similarity with rival indigenous religious systems. Since both assimilative moves had to be made within language and its conceptual framework, attempts by Protestant missionaries to control the shape of language for Protestant use, and their failure in achieving this, are crucial to the analysis of the nature of identity created as a result of Protestant translations. Further, although the Protestant mission in South India attempted to create a Protestant identity specifically through the language adopted by the community, it failed to fix the boundaries of a coherent Protestant Tamil identity.
Although one of the concerns of postcolonial theory is the politics of language use in both colonial and postcolonial contexts and some postcolonial critics (Thiong’o 1986; Niranjana 1992; Dharwadker 1999; Devy 1999) have engaged with the political implications of the way language and translations function in colonial situations, (opening a new area in translation studies) very few have examined the role Bible translation has played in the formation of Christian communities and religio-linguistic identity outside Europe. Scholars engaged in studying translations in the colonial period tend to see the practice of translation as participating mainly in other hegemonic, colonial interventions within colonised societies. Postcolonial critics who have analysed the role of translation in colonial contexts, have argued that translation within the colonial context almost always leads to the cultural transformation of the colonized because of the hierarchy assumed between the cultures and languages of the coloniser and the colonised. Those (Rafael, 1988; Niranjana, 1992) who argue for the ability of the colonized to deconstruct and appropriate translated texts as part of a strategy of resistance, see the radical reception of translated texts as part of wider attempts to destabilize colonial power structures. However liberating the latter position may sound in contrast to the former, it is necessary to keep in mind that societies under colonial domination have not always offered resistance in a homogenous fashion for a collective agenda.
As the history of the Tamil Bible shows, certain hegemonic translations may have enjoyed the support of elite section within colonial societies at some points and may have been targets of resistance at others. For instance, my examination of the Tamil translations of the Bible reveals that it effected many different meanings in the culture it entered, interacted with factors already present in Tamil culture and elicited heterogeneous responses. In particular, my work focuses on the extent to which Protestant Tamils, as an interpretative community of faith, have been responsible in shaping a Protestant Tamil vocabulary and in defining themselves; and how different groups within the community have strategically claimed to represent Protestant Tamil identity at different points in time by using notions of ‘tradition,’ ‘purity,’ and the ‘sacred’ in language. Protestant Tamil responses to the translated Bible reveal that Protestant Tamil identity often included contradictory linguistic and social categories that prevented the articulation of a homogenous identity for the entire community.
My paper analyses a set of related linguistic and cultural questions regarding the translations of the Bible into Tamil: why did some religious terms acquire sacred status and wider acceptability regardless of whether or not linguistic equivalence was reached? Why had the nineteenth-century version of the Tamil Bible, in particular, acquired symbolic power, and perceived by Protestant Tamils as the only translation able to mark boundaries of identity and otherness? What extra-linguistic factors in colonial South India impinged on the developments of the Tamil language? Why do twentieth-century Protestant Tamils, in spite of engaging with secular linguistic issues of a postcolonial society, prefer a colonial translation of the Bible and actively resist a postcolonial revision? And finally, my paper points to inadequacies in current translation theory from a post-colonial perspective and suggests some areas that require critical attention.