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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Lost in translation

Update : 10 Dec 2022, 01:14 AM

Whenever we talk about the art/ act/ practice of translation, we think of a transference of a text between two languages. Keeping in mind the etymological meaning of 'translation,' originating from the Latin, meaning 'carrying over,' such transference is seldom neutral and free from violent politics. But one must always be attuned to the fact that a translation doesn't only necessarily involve two languages, but two cultures and sometimes across two different historical epochs. Recent studies seem to go beyond the limitations of transference or translations across two languages, but involves an engagement across literary/ artistic genres and tries to uncover the process/ politics behind such an interaction. 

    Our focus should not merely be on how texts are interpreted and translated across two different cultures, but how, in the globalized world of today, we are looking at the translational nature of the human settlement and livelihood. With borders simultaneously becoming fluid and rigid, and an increase in migrancy as well as indentured/ unpaid labour in countries like the Middle East and even in Europe, we are left with staring at what Rushdie cheekily terms 'translated men.' In a world that is obsessed with etching borders to cement the 'Us/ Them' binary, it is imperative to realize the translatedness of human condition, something that Bhabha calls in The Location of Culture as the " translational Transnational."

    With globalization bringing people together like never before, the erasure of borders and boundaries and the proliferation of information, the world is constantly becoming a shrinking space. That space has now come to problematize and subvert essentialist notions of national identity and belonging. We must also keep in mind, the recent influx of migrants and political refugees seeking asylum from war ravaged countries and the almost perennial presence of labourers without proper paperwork, marginalized and restricted to the dark underbellies of the societal ladder, hailing from the Third World, and affecting the singularly monolithic racial presence and profiling of a particular metropolis, especially in cities like London. 

    This movement of the population not only brought about changes in the mosaic of a nation, but also entails a challenge regarding the construction of the 'self' for the people who suddenly find themselves in an apparent alien land. In a world where boundaries are simultaneously vanishing and entrenching themselves, it is the duty of the artist to trace the migrant's conflict between identity crisis (nowhere) and new cultural hybridity (everywhere). Applying a sartorial metaphor, the new identity now needs to be stitched and sewn to meet the demands of a culture that is now staring at their face. If 'translation' is the literal carrying over, then by extension, this is identity being borne across, something that Rushdie so intensely advocates. 

    The driving question for the immigrant is whether this would mean that the newly charted route would mean a dissociation from the roots or whether the new environment and culture would be responsible for a bricolage kind of identity. Rushdie states that, 'It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained.' Immigrants live a double problem: Their own blending with other people in the new culture and their keeping the family connected to their own heritage culture. Problems arise when the young generation adopts the new culture's behaviours and beliefs. The struggle is keeping a balance between the enculturation process, which links developing individuals to their primary cultural contexts and the acculturation process, which individuals undergo in response to a changing cultural context.

       The post-colonial impact on oriental countries has promoted immigration crossing national and cultural boundaries. The immigrants are encountering colonial hangover, cultural shock, and cultural assimilation or refutation. In a novel like Zadie Smith's debut White Teeth, what we find is like languages are always in flux. During the 1970's and 1980's, whenever England played India or the West Indies (the Caribbean cricket team), loyalties were divided so much so, that there would be a sizable non-English crowd turning up every game to voice their support for their native countries. This continued through to the 90's and the new millennium causing a great deal of consternation to the English hard liners for whom it was a blatant show of disloyalty towards the country that these people of colour have chosen to live in. 

    The urban centres of the globalized world are nothing but melting pots and salad bowls in terms of the hybridity and cosmopolitan nature of the demographic arrangement. This melting pot is the new world order, a result of people finding their identities multiple and fluid. Identities and the notion of belonging get crafted with each new association, so that people who now belong to no straightjacket box of identity, can actually claim to belong everywhere. Such acts of cultural translation throw off balance, the idea that individuals could be labelled on the basis of their national identity and affiliation, their skin colour, their history of belonging, and even the languages they have chosen to speak. This is a world which sees people of different colour and nationalities jostle with each other, trying to carve out a niche for themselves, holding on to their native culture and at the same time trying to be cosmopolitan citizens of the world.

    The  "translated" men and women are forever in flux, never knowing where they belong and not knowing where they will end up. But such a ceaseless motion resists the more dangerous attempts at turning the entire world into a recognisable homogenized monolithic one. Harish Trivedi brilliantly sums up when he says, 'There is an urgent need to protect and preserve some little space in this postcolonial-postmodernist world, where newness constantly enters through cultural translations, for some old- and old-fashioned literary translation. For if such bilingual bicultural ground is eroded away, we shall sooner than later end up with a wholly translated, monolingual, monocultural monolithic world.'


Sayan Aich Bhowmik is Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Shirakole College, West Bengal. He is the co-editor of Plato's Caves Online, a semi- academic space on literature, politics and art. He has recently published his debut collection of poems, I Will Come With A Lighthouse.

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