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From the Colonial to the Anti-Colonial: Marathi Reception of American Literature


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Dr. Sunil Sawant photoThe first phase of American literature in Marathi translation begins with the entry of American Missionaries establishing the American Marathi Mission in Bombay in 1813, starting the first press in Maharashtra, running English and Marathi schools and producing and publishing Marathi tracts and textbooks through translation. American literature took some time to emerge, but when it did at the turn of the century, it appeared in various forms such as faithful translations, free renderings, adaptations and abridgements during the second phase from 1901 to 1950.

Translation contributed to the Independence movement by importing revolutionary political ideas from America.
The colonial encounter developed a new literary polysystem in Marathi, the language of the native people of Maharashtra (one of the states of India) comprising three new models of translation during the nineteenth century: 1) the missionary (objective: proselytising); 2) the pedagogical (objective: enlightenment) and 3) the adaptive (objective: entertainment). From 1805 when the first Marathi translation of one of the four Gospels from the New Testament entitled Matthewche Shubvartaman was published to 1898, the year of publication of Dhanurdhari’s translation of Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield as Waikar Bhatji, the Marathi literary polysystem thus developed a heterogeneous, hierarchical subsystem of translation culture (Sawant 2008).

The emergence of a new literary polysystem during the nineteenth century in Maharashtra also saw the emergence of a new type of Marathi readership. The new English-educated readership was a product of Macaulay’s imperialist educational policy which aimed at creating anglicized natives who would work as "interpreters between us and the millions we govern..." (Macaulay in Clive and Pinney 1972: 249). This new class of readers, devitalized by the colonial rule, had limited interests by way of literary taste. This newly educated middle class comprised readers who demanded a literature that would take it away from the harsh world of colonial exploitation and oppression of its time. As Bhalchandra Nemade points out, the British ’official’ literary attitudes permeated the Marathi literary taste (1990: 58). The colonial horizon of expectations under the influence of British culture preferred writers like Hall Caine, Alexander Dumas, Charles Garvis, Mrs. Henry Wood, Raider Haggard, G. W. M. Reynolds, Maria Edgeworth, Bulwar Litton, Mari Corelli and the like. This explains why a large number of translations of novels of morbid romance and suspense novels were published during this period. Such translators of the time as K. R. Mitra, V. G. Apte, V. S. Gurjar, Prabhakar Bhase, G. N. Datar and others chose to read and translate novels which would cater to the literary taste of the anglicized reading class, which formed part of the newly emergent literary polysystem. The novels that this class read in translation were romantic mystery novels full of the images of caves, secret passages, the image of the Goddess Kalika, human sacrifice, masked men, skeletons, etc. The translations of Reynolds made by G. N. Datar and other similarly written novels are examples of this. Translations of popular English fiction did in many ways contribute to the subsystem of the Marathi literary polysystem at the turn of the century. Obviously, this contribution included introduction of elements of entertainment, light humor, elements of suspense and mystery, romantic love, as well as social didacticism (Sawant 2010: 200).

Mahadevshastri Kolatkar was the first to introduce American Literature through Marathi translations. In 1860-61, he published Prakrit Kaviteche Pahile Pustak (Prakrit Poetry Vol. I) and Marathi Kaviteche Dusre Pustak (Marathi Poetry Vol. II), but both were anthologies of translated poems produced in conformity with the colonial policy of education implemented by the Director of Public Instruction, and so these books had pedagogical importance. The translated volumes contained, along with the verses by such English poets as Mrs. Clemens, Wordsworth, Cowper, Scots, and others, two poems written by Longfellow: “The Slave’s Dream”, and “The Psalm of Life.” Kolatkar, the translator, aimed not at ‘word for word’, but at ‘sense for sense’ translation. He writes: “This translation is not a ‘word for word’ translation; it has been done without losing sight of the original collection, by adding or omitting according to the particular context” (Kolatkar quoted by Pandit in Jog 1965: 236; my translation).

When published, many mocked these English and American translated poems, since they expressed themes which were largely different from the themes widely used in Marathi sant (religious), pant (pedantic) and tant (rhetorical) poetic traditions (in Mule 1981: 81). Rather than the conventional themes, these volumes introduced such themes as love for family, longing for freedom, revolt against injustice, universal brotherhood, human equality, love for nature, etc. Though ill-received initially, it was these translated poems, introduced through text books, that later shaped the sensibility of the emerging generation of modern Marathi poets such as Keshavsut, Tilak, Balkavi, and others. Thus, it was Kolatkar’s translations which paved the way for the Marathi reception of American literature.

Longfellow’s poem “The Psalm of Life” became so popular that immediately after Kolatkar, Vishnu Moreshwar Mahajani, famous for his Marathi poem on Chhatrapati Shivaji, chose Longfellow’s poem for translation once again. He included his translation of the poem titled “Jeevitsaar” in the series of translations made from English literature and published under the column Kusumanjali (A Bunch of Flowers) in the periodical Vividhdnyanvistar during 1983-85. In his introduction written to Kusumanjali, Mahajani writes: “These flowers are different from those of ours. Their form is different, their colors are different, and their beauty is also different. So I wonder whether they will be liked by our bees or not. Is it possible to find the original beauty and fragrance among the flowers blooming on the plants when we pick them up? If the bees fail to find the drops of nectar in them they must satisfy themselves with only the fragrance of these alien flowers” (in Mule 1981: 84; my translation). This introduction makes it clear that Mahajani was well aware of the fact that original poems were bound to lose their beauty in translation; yet he was keen on making available some ‘alien flowers’ to Marathi readers.

Although credit to introduce English and American poetry in Marathi goes to Mahadev Govind Kolatkar, his was a commissioned translation made under the supervision of the British Director of Public Instruction. Credit for the first native initiative, therefore, goes to Vishnu Moreshwar Mahajani who made the first conscious and spontaneous attempt to introduce select English and American poems. In his critical book Adhunik Marathi Kavyache Antarang (Trends in Modern Marathi Poetry) Vaman Bhargav Pathak mentions the following characteristics of Mahajani’s Kusumanjali.

  1. While reading the poems in Kusumanjali, we see the poet’s ability to empathize with the original poet’s sensibility;

  2. The linguistic style in translation is simple and fluent.

  3. Attention has been paid to the common subject and its interesting content. Keshavsut later developed a revolutionary practice of expressing his personal ideas through the selection of simple subjects, in the same way Mahajani had initially done by translating small poems.
  4. Didactic poems were being written during V.M. Mahajani’s times, and there is no doubt that imparting a moral message was the principal purpose behind his selection of poems for translation. It is obvious that H.W. Longfellow’s ideology in his poem “A Psalm of life”…was found useful to the translator-poet for revealing the secret of life (in Pathak 1964: 226).

Due to the prevalent didacticism, V.M. Mahajani’s translated poem loses Longfellow’s original spontaneity and liveliness.

“A Psalm of Life” was once again translated by Vinayak as ‘Jeevitmahima” on 19th May 1893. The occasion was the establishment of Satkaryottejak Sabha in Dhule. To inspire his followers, he, too, highlights the moral import of the poem and replaces the original ‘let us’ construction by the use of an imperative clause. Vinayak’s poem is a kind of transcreation. He not only takes the poet’s liberty with the meter of the poem but inserts his own lines, appropriate to the occasion, in his translation:

Enrich the Prakrit language—dedicate your poetry

Encourage the interests of India and good work at all the times.

(My translation)

This type of graceful construction leads B.S. Pandit to appreciate Vinayak’s translational skills in these words: “He had extraordinary power to understand the essence of the English language. . . . Keshavsut’s poems smack of English. It cannot lie hidden. But what is wonderful about Vinayak’s poems is that we hardly believe that his poems have English origin” (Pandit, 1971: 254-55; my translation). In this article on Vinayak, Pandit draws our attention to one detail mentioned in Vinayak’s letter about Vinayak publishing his translation titled “Teer va Gane” of Longfellow’s poem “Arrow and Song” in one of the issues of Karmanuk (Ibid: 254).

Later, taking an inspiration from Longfellow’s “The old Clock on the Stairs”, Krishnaji Keshav Damale (Keshavsut), the father of the modern Marathi Poetry, composed his own poem “Ghadyal” (A Clock) in 1895. Unlike Longfellow, Keshavsut’s poem cannot free itself from the prevalent didacticism. In his article on Rendhalkar, another Marathi poet and Keshavsut’s contemporary, B.S. Pandit points out that Rendhalkar transcreated many English poems written by Shelley, Byron, Blake, Moore, Lander, Tennyson, Longfellow, Emerson and others (Pandit: 1971). Thus, along with the major English Romantic poets, it was Longfellow who influenced the first generation of modern Marathi poets.

Before this literary contact with Longfellow, however, Maharashtra witnessed a process of religious contact with America through the American Marathi Mission. Gordon Hall and Samuel Nott established the American Marathi Mission first in Mumbai in 1813. Both these missionaries believed in using the native language for proselytizing. The credit for spreading print culture in Maharashtra also goes to the American Marathi Mission. The Mission established a single wooden press in 1816, developed its own bindery and started producing all types at its own foundry. Because of its strategic position, the press of the Mission, through its regular supply of books, exerted a very wide Christian influence in Western India (Priolkar 1958: 83). American missionaries produced a large number of school texts, testaments and tracts, hymns and journals in Marathi. Also, Gordon Hall, Samuel Newell, Horatio Bardwell, John Nicolls, Allen Graves—five together—went on translating the New Testament from 1817 and finally published it in 1826. Unlike these American missionaries who did the work of spreading Christianity through translations, Justine E. Abbot did the pioneering work of translating poetry of almost all major Marathi saints into English. He wrote eleven books in the series entitled The Poet-Saints of Maharashtra. Bhanudas (1926), Eknath (1927), Bhikshugeet Athva Anutaptakadarya (1927), Dasopant Digambar (1927), Bahinabai (1929), Stotramala (1929), Tukaram (1930), Ramdas (1932), Stories of Indian Saints, Vol. I (1933), Stories of Indian Saints, Vol. II (1934), and Nectar from Indian Saints (1935)—aim at letting "the Marathi Poet-Saints speak for themselves as far as possible through the medium of translation" (Edwards quoted in Pinge 1960: 361). What is important is to note that his enormous commitment to the cause of Marathi Saint Literature clearly differentiates him from other American missionaries of the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, who, in their evangelical zeal, published Marathi translations of the Bible, castigated Hinduism for its strange customs and social evils and aimed at proselytization. In contrast, Justine Abbot became almost an insider to Marathi culture and tried to absorb the best in the medieval Saint poetry tradition of Maharashtra. Abbot’s lifelong translation work of Marathi Saint-Poets thus marked a significant shift in the cultural and literary contacts between America and Maharashtra during the missionary period. Needless to say, these contacts which are an important part of the Marathi literary polysystem of the period prefigure the development of a receptive attitude towards American culture and society during the later period.

With the happy exception of Justine Abbot, American missionaries as well as other missionaries, in their evangelical zeal to convert the natives, were unappreciative of the philosophical essence of Hinduism as opposed to its apparent evils and superstitions. They were obsessively concerned with what they regarded as the superstitious ignorance and moral degradation of the Hindus (Gupta 1986: 20). They exposed weak spots in the Hindu way of life such as a rigid caste system, inequality of wealth, subjugation of women, religious superstitious practices like sati, irrevocable widowhood, forcible hair tonsure of young widows, etc. (Jogalekar in Banhatii and Jogalekar 1998: 21). This Missionary onslaught on the Hindus triggered two contradictory responses. Orthodox Hindus developed a scornful attitude towards Christianity and western culture. Some of the Hindu intellectuals and social reformers, however, developed a sense of introspection and a desire for improvement. It was the penchant for modernization and social reformation that led them to seek and appreciate an alternative model of democratic state then in practice in America. In one of his letters dated 24 December 1848, Lokahitawadi claims: "In our times, a perfect and good state exists in the United States in America" (in Priolkar 1966: 110; translated). Mahatma Jotiba Phule, too, was highly influenced by the writings of Thomas Paine as well as by the life of George Washington. He sought inspiration for his fight against social injustice in the efforts made by the Americans to abolish slavery. In dedicating Gulamgiri (Slavery, 1873) to the abolitionists of slavery in the United States, as Gail Omvedt points out, Phule was one of the few Indians of his time to identify with Black Americans (1976: 116).

Pandita Ramabai played a historical role in building a bridge between Maharashtra and America. In contrast to Lokahitawadi and Phule who wrote sympathetically about American from a great distance, Pandita Ramabai’s account of her American experience is crucial because it is based on her visit to the U.S.A. in 1886. Her book United Stateschi Lokahitawadi va Pravasvritta was published in two big volumes in 1889. Pandita Ramabai’s account of her journey to the U.S.A. and of the American society and culture of the late nineteenth century invites an interesting comparison with Alexis de Tocqueville’s well-known book Democracy in America (1835-40). Tocqueville visited America in 1831 and wrote extensively about American society and culture. As inheritor of the legacy of French Revolution and Enlightenment, Tocqueville writes mainly about the political structure of the American state, its democracy, and religion. In contrast, Pandita Ramabai’s perception, coming as it does from a colonial perspective, constantly draws a sustained comparison between the level of material, moral development that American society has reached and what, according to her, is the degenerate condition of society in India. As an enlightened woman involved actively with ideology of social reformism, Pandita Ramabai feels pity for the miserable situation of Indian women when she observes American women’s freedom in matters of education, marriage, and public office. Of course, by way of extended comparison, she also describes American social and family life, fashions, racial prejudice, seasons, festivals, academic institutions, religious trends, legal rights of the people, trade and industry. But underlying throughout this description is a comparative perspective which chastises Indians for their orthodoxy and traditionalism in comparison with the modern and progressive outlook which she says, characterizes the American culture. As a concrete actual extention of Lakhitwadi’s and Phule’s involvement in America from a distance, Pandita Ramabai’s close-up view of the American cultural scene went a long way toward creating space for literary contacts between America and Maharashtra.

What Pandita Ramabai did for Maharashtra in relation to America was done by Swami Vivekanand for India. Although Transcendentalists such as Emerson, Thoreau, Bronson Alcott, and some of their contemporaries such as Hawthorne, Melville and Whitman were deeply influenced by the loftier reaches of Hindu philosophy which they came to explore through the English translations of Sanskrit classics by William Jones, Charles Wilkins and others, the mass of misinformation and the negative stereotypes about contemporary India were widely current in the United States. The exaggerated and one-sided accounts of India by Fundamentalist missionaries and writers of travelogues such as Caleb Wright had led to a perpetuation in the American mind of popular misconceptions about India. Swami Vivekanand’s ardent and eloquent defence of India at the Parliament of Religions held in Chicago in 1893 succeeded in combatting to a large extent the facile generalizations about Indian society and culture then popular among Americans.

When we see how from Lokhitawadi to Pandita Ramabai and Swami Vivekanand, the Maharashtrians as well as other Indians were showing their familiarity with American way of life, Mark Twain’s comment on India’s ignorance of America based on his two-month visit to the country in 1896 and described in Following the Equator can hardly be described as valid. Mark Twain says:

Formerly the mention, to a Hindu, of America suggested a name—George Washington—with that his familiarity with our country was exhausted. Latterly his familiarity with it has doubled in bulk; so that when America is mentioned now, two torches flare up in the dark caverns of his mind and he says, ’Ah, the country of the great man—Washington; and of the Holy City—Chicago’. For he knows about the Congress of Religions, and this has enabled him to get an erroneous impression of Chicago (Twain in Gupta: 126).

We thus see that, contrary to what Twain says, many Indian intellectuals had come to perceive America as a distinctive nation and culture on the world map. Dr. S.V. Ketkar, a great Marathi novelist, social scientist, historian, thinker and editor of Maharashtriya Dnyankosha (Maharashtra’s Encyclopaedia, Vol. 1-13, 1921-29), who did his Ph. D. at Cornell University and who was the first Marathi novelist to use America as a locale in his novel Paraganda (1926), had this to say about American literature in his article ’American Vangmayavar Kanhi Teepa’ (Some Notes on American Literature) published in the November 1926 issue of Vidhyasevak:

American literature is very great. No other nation publishes as many books as America does. Nowhere else do we come across as many dailies as we do in America. Nobody scribbles elaborate editorials to attract the reader, but the skill is shown in making the news as entertaining as possible. Editorials are written in short and simple sentences to make them easily understandable. Whether the article is impressive or not is not the business of the writer. On the contrary, he is mainly concerned with such questions as: Will the article increase the sale of his daily? Will it draw the support of many? etc.

The democratic type of government is responsible for this situation. People have no time to read anything in detail. So the writer has to consider how he will be able to put forth important things in a few but bold words.

The example of a daily is cited here first to ascertain the purpose that marks American literature. And the guiding purpose is to make people aware of their rights. The entire literature is characterized by this purpose and it has developed a kind of literature which is quite unknown elsewhere in the world.

The democratic setup in the USA has developed the following characteristics of American literature: 1. The importance given to clarity over excesses; 2. The lack of literature on the themes of intrigues of the royal families and of illicit love relationships; 3. The description of the lives of all people belonging to all classes in the society; and 4. The author’s self is made an object of humor (e.g. Mark Twain)—simple, humorous, and less mystical writing is preferred—The newness of the nation has left it free from historical trappings (Ketkar in Khanolkar 1974: 50-52; my translation).

This kind of perception about American culture developed by Lokahitawadi, Jotirao Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Dr. Ketkar and others provided a counterpoint to the colonial consciousness. In a sense, it was this counterpoint to the colonial discourse which set the stage for the emergence of American literature in Marathi translation.

The colonial period, under the pressure of the ‘civilizing mission’ of British rule, was initially characterized by the didactic and the romantic, but the growing ambience of struggle for freedom and the increasing need to choose the texts that would further the anti-colonial nationalist agenda, made it ideological. The choice of American texts highlights this move by translators. Vyankatesh Vakil translated Upton Sinclair’s No Pasarán, the ‘cry for freedom’, in 1943 to use his translation as a cultural weapon to resist British colonization. Similarly, the aim of producing three translations of John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, the novel recommending political struggle involving sabotage and open offensive against the oppressors, around 1947 was to manipulate the American source text for the purpose of challenging and subverting the British Raj. The translations of Sinclair’s No Pasarán and Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down reflect the need of the Marathi Literary polysystem to celebrate the values of freedom and democracy so characteristic of the nationalist period (Sawant, 2009). Translation contributed to the Independence movement by importing revolutionary political ideas from America to sway public sentiment against England. American literature containing revolutionary ideas made its appearance in Marathi during this transitional phase which was marked by the high tide of nationalism, hectic political activity, rapid social change, and intense cultural conflict.

Thus, the colonial-missionary project of “translation” consisted of early and more or less didactic attempts in the context of an emerging world of printing and publishing among other things tales and parables from European and Biblical sources. As the translations from American literature made into Marathi during the post-1910 period amply demonstrate, they did indeed serve an anti-colonial agenda and display a vital commitment to the nationalist and leftist movements as well as different social-reformist projects.


Works cited:

Banhatti, Rajendra and G. N. Jogalekar (eds) (1998) A History of Modern Marathi Literature: 1800 to 1990. Vol. I., Pune: Maharashtra Sahitya Parishad.

Clive, John and Thomas Pinney (eds) (1972) Thomas Babington Macaulay: Selected Writings, Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Ganeshjoshi, G.K. (1946) Moon Is Down (Translation of Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck), Mumbai: Maharashtra Grantha Bhandar.

Gupta, R.K. (1986) The Great Encounter: A Study of Indo-American Literature and Cultural Relations, New Delhi: Abhinav Publications.

Jog, R.S. (1965) Arvachin Marathi Kavya, Mumbai.

Ketkar, S. V. (1974) ‘American Vangmayavar Kanhi Teepa’ in G. D. Khanolkar (ed.) Dr. Shridhar Vyankatesh Ketkar Hyanche Vangmayavishayak Lekh, Mumbai: Marathi Samshodhan Mandal.

Mhatre, Dinanath and Sadanand Rege (1947) Chandra Dhalala (Translation of Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck), Mumbai: Aditya Prakashan.

Mule, Veena (1981) Marathitil Anuwadit American Sahitya (Translated American Literature in Marathi), unpublished Ph. D. thesis submitted to Nagpur University, Nagpur.

Nemade, Bhalchandra (1990) The Influence of English on Marathi: A Sociolinguistic and Stylistic Study, Panaji: Rajhans.

Omvedt, Gail (1976) Cultural Revolt in a Colonial Society: The Non-Brahman Movement in Western India: 1873 to 1930, Bombay: Scientific Socialist Education Trust.

Pandit, B. S. (1971) Adhunik Kaviteche Pranete, Bhag 2, Nagpur.

Pandita, Ramabai (1889) United Stateschi Loksthithi ani Pravasvritta, Mumbai: Nirnayasagar Press.

Pathak, Vaman Bhargav (1964) Adhunik Marathi Kavyache Antapravaha, Pune.

Pinge, Srinivas Madhusudhan (1960) Europianancha Marathicha Abhyas Va Seva, Aurangabad: S. M. Pinge.

Priolkar, A. K. (1958) Printing Press in India, Bombay: Marathi Samshodhan Mandal.

Priolkar, A. K. (ed.) (1966) Lokhahitawadikrut Nibandasangraha, Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.

Sawant, Sunil (2008) ‘Nineteenth Century Marathi Literary Polysystem’ in Mohit K. Ray (ed.) Studies in Translation, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors.

Sawant, Sunil (2009) ‘Revolutionary Struggle as a Counterpoint to Colonial Domination: Marathi Translations of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck’ in Gabe Bokor (ed.) Translation Journal, Volume 13, No. 4.

Sawant, Sunil (2010) ‘American Novels in Marathi Translation: The Dynamics of Appropriation during the British Period’ in Prof. J Prabhakarrao and Jean Peeters (eds) Socio-Cultural Approaches to Translation: Indian and European Perspectives, New Delhi: Excel India Publishers.

Shukla, Sadashiv Anant (1949) Navi Rajvat (Translation of Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck), Mumbai: Abhinav Prakashan.

Tocqueville, Alexis de (1965) Democracy in America, New York: Washington Square Press Inc.

Vakil, Vyankatesh Shankar (1943) No Pasarán (Translation of No Pasarán by Upton Sinclair), Pune: Loksahitya.



Published - June 2012

 













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