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Translation, Mediation, Borders: English and Other Worlds

Rita Kothari

Shoili Kanungo, ‘Chairs’


Is there a particular kind of thinking that accompanies translation? In asking this, we will, for now, assume that there is a stable meaning of translation and that we share the ‘same’ meaning. To make things easier, for the profit of simplification, let us say translation refers to the act of carrying meaning across from one text to another. This has been the blandest but most undisputed definition of translation, at least in the Anglophone academy. Implicit in this definition is the notion of a fixed text, a well-defined and bounded language, i.e. the source language and another, the language of target. The text is assumed to be a physical entity, not a glimpse of conversation or vignette of memory, but an entity that can be touched and felt. This also assumes the meaning that, as such, the text is under control and the translator knows exactly what that is which she must do the best job of carrying across, making her own presence felt as scarcely as possible. Some of the assumptions spelt out here have been interrogated, and some are swiftly on their way to being so.

(I am thinking here of Niranjan 1992;
and of Spivak 1993 and the anthropological
interventions in Clifford and Marcus 2010, among others.)

The consequences of asking certain questions may be dire, for they may shake the very foundations of language and translation. However, such self-reflexivity of the discipline is also timely, for it is pulling out translation from a perspective that reduced it to a mechanical, secondary, and instrumentalist activity. We gravitate now to the view that translation is a metaphor imbuing all cross-cultural exchanges, and in that sense it is ‘the metaphor of the metaphor’ (Sakai 2009). Another question is whether the myriad acts that sometimes go in the name of ‘making sense’ are indeed acts of translation, and similarly if ‘translation’ is an apt expression for the many endeavours of texts and people to become something and someone else (see Kothari 2014).

Questions such as these are unsettling for they reveal the lack of universality in translation, making some ask whether scholars from non-Anglophone parts of the world are arguing for cultural essentialism. However, these are for now internal battles of a ‘discipline,’ if you will, and evidence of the intense and hectic intellectual arena Translation Studies has become. For the purposes of this discussion, we will stay away from what might seem ‘nitpicking’ within the discipline. All the same, we can come back to the question raised at the very beginning of this essay: Is there a particular kind of thinking that accompanies translation? In different words: are there theoretical antecedents to the act of translation, or reflection following the act?

For the longest time, and oftentimes even now, such questions would have met with overwhelmingly empirical and autobiographical accounts of ‘how difficult it is to translate’, or ‘how do you find equivalence in such and such’. This may well have its value. When ‘viraha’ could not be substituted with ‘separation’, at least in an ideal world, the memory of Kalidasa and many similar literary conventions served to remind us that texts came with cultural residue. This knowledge introduced to us un-translatability not merely as a resignation, but as a productive site in which to study the incommensurability of concepts. That said, we must call to mind the fact that most ‘difficulties’ of translation, at least in the Indian context, relate to the difficulty of translating from a home-grown language into English. It is rare to find such troubling observations in intra-Indian languages. The challenges there are of a different order, but let us not digress.

If we spend time thinking about translation between an Indian language and English, what kind of thinking takes place there? My account below is a journey, the travelogue of a translator who translates from a couple of Indian languages into English. The attempt is to throw light on processes of subjectivity, mediation and the politics of translation, known and sometimes unknown or unacknowledged by translators. It is hoped that this will provide a view of the underside of a tapestry, and in the process hint at some of the ontological questions flagged at the beginning of this essay.


Location and Genesis:

I began my engagement with translation as a translator from Gujarati, though unreflective of the underbelly of language and identity politics in Gujarat. It was in my engagement with a post-partition and trans-border language like Sindhi that I realised translation was not something I was doing, but a space I inhabited, a space unmarked by fixed textuality; or rather a textuality ambivalent about itself. My arrival in this space constitutes the crux of this paper. In the process, I argue for making translation practices self-reflexive and theoretical, thereby accounting for the evolution of divergent translation practices at different times. The personal narrative aims to provide an insight into the dynamics of linguistic economy in India, and helps situate our translation practices in substantive contexts. Given the complexity of India’s linguistic politics, it is important to speak from specific locations, so as not to make broad generalisations which may not apply to all linguistic situations in this country.

For instance, in the linguistic world that informs the discussion below, Gujarati and Sindhi, the two ‘sources’, share an unequal relationship. The ‘Gujarati’ language is the nucleus around which the linguistic state of Gujarat was formed, on which much of its cultural and nationalist discourses rest. Sindhi, on the other hand, has been a de-territorialised language since the Partition of 1947, and it remains marginal to linguistic-cultural imagination of India. In their interrelation Gujarati clearly has the hegemonic role, although it remains dominated by English, as is the case with all Indian languages. Such hierarchies should be an important part of thinking about translation, and they beg examination in diverse contexts for a nuanced understanding of translation politics. Moreover, translators emerge out of specific historic circumstances, and the texts they choose to translate, or are thrust upon, may have surrounding circumstances which when articulated bring fibre to discussions on the cultural politics of translation. It is with this in mind that I turn to the period of the early nineties, when my generation was first encountering a shift in English studies, and the impact this had on translation practices in India.

My career as a translator began when English studies in India had undergone a period of fundamental questioning. Occasionally referred to as ‘the crisis in English studies’, the period was a response to postcolonial debates in English academia in both global and local contexts. A large number of translations in India today typically emerge from departments of English. English studies have always been a colonial legacy, but this fact began to be expressed (or felt?) much more acutely after the eighties. By then, many teachers of English in India had begun to articulate a sense of alienation and anger at having to teach a language and literature imposed upon them. The divorce between a subject interpellated by English studies, and the lived-in realities of India found expression through studies like Rethinking English (ed. Swati Joshi 1991), Lie of the Land (ed. Rajeshwari Sundar Rajan 1992) and Subject to Change: Teaching in the Nineties (ed. Susie Tharu 1998). Various alternatives to Anglo-American texts also emerged as a result of this debate, and the crumbling of the English canon made room for texts from ex-colonies, black and Dalit narratives. New paradigms were sought, dissolved and refined, facilitating reformulations in literary studies. One of the alternatives that began to satisfy many quarters, at least in English studies in India, was Indian texts in English translation. According to Meenakshi Mukherjee (1992) these were one of the ways of investing the teaching of English with relevance and meaning. I was a Masters’ student in the early nineties, and we were witnessing the beginning of the Indianisation of the curriculum. It made far more sense than the unrelenting British canon which had gone into my undergraduate studies. Typically, a literature student in the eighties lived through a schism between what she was studying in class and what constituted her reality outside. The Bollywood films and songs that formed our identities in profound ways had to be locked away and relegated to a background when we attended an English literature class. Therefore, when I encountered the Indianisation of the curriculum during my Masters and studied literature written by Indians in Indian languages (but made available in translation) and also written directly in English, things began to fall in place (see more in Kothari 2005a).


Translating (Sub)Nations:

Like me, many translators who translate into English have emerged from English literary studies. ‘Translation studies’ in the early nineties was still a fledgling discipline. However, the consciousness that not every region was represented in ‘national’ literature, and that therefore the regions we came from must be represented through English (which we as English teachers were best suited to do, or so we thought) animated many of us to take to translation. Some such motive governed my involvement in my first book project on translation, an English translation of fifty-six poems by Gujarat’s best-known poets of the twentieth century. My collaborator and I mentioned in the introduction that:

The sheer quantity of poetry written in Gujarati, published and read, is astonishingly large. Little or none of it has crossed linguistic boundaries, and been made available in English translation… By contrast, poetry in Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Malayalam, to name just a few, has been widely translated and is therefore more visible. This may be attributed at least in part to the fact that the above-mentioned languages have produced poets who are also teachers of English, and sufficiently bilingual to engage in translating from the mother-tongue into English. [Also,] Gujarat has been perceived as a state producing business people rather than poets. The result has been the marginalization of Gujarati literature in the national consciousness. The present anthology is an attempt to modify that perception. (Ramanathan and Kothari 1998, xvii)

This moment provides an opportunity to visit the grandiose and unexamined claims made in our introduction, now (given my vantage point) asking why we thought a poem’s visibility was a matter of its being available in English. Or, why did we not see the institutional politics governing the ‘official’ Gujarati poetry scene? Did the neat design of the first anthology translated by two teachers of English literature not reflect the exclusions of this ‘representation’? We were happy to have worked with a state establishment which helped us gain access to poetry; however, why did we not reflect versions of ‘Gujarati poetry’ outside the state institution, producing a version that may have included oral and written literature, or literature written by tribals, Dalits and other marginalised sections? What relationship did my collaborator and I, both non-Gujaratis, have with the language, choosing to serve the dominant language of the state rather than our mother tongues, respectively Tamil and Sindhi?

As the years wore on, we also asked ourselves if Gujarat would consider us its own people, given its increasing parochialism and exclusivist definitions of who is an insider and who is not. Were we in small ways conforming to a version of the nation – the Hindu pride and identity, the asmita of Gujarat? By wanting to make Gujarati one of those ‘nationally visible’ languages, were we creating a new set of imbalances even as we claimed to address some? While I still subscribe to the view that ‘Gujarati’ literature (imaginative articulations in Gujarati and/ or its ‘dialects’ by both men and women, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Dalits) is relatively marginalised, I now perceive translation as a perspective that complicates the common-sense understanding of ‘nations’ and ‘sub-nations’.

From the upper-caste and upper-class bias of Modern Gujarati Poetry, I moved to translating a text by a marginalised Dalit (who were formerly called untouchables) author, Joseph Macwan (Kothari 2003). Meanwhile, my academic writing on translation questioned the hegemony of English, which as a target language brought the claim of ‘visibility’ to articulations that would otherwise languish in oblivion. That being said, I was also complicit in the enterprise of reinforcing the prestige of English as the only language of dissemination. To come back to the text The Stepchild: Angaliyat, it was a story of the Vankar community (weavers) who remained marginalised and oppressed by the landowning Patels in Gujarat. Social and political anger interspersed with my literary desire to translate this novel into English. All in all, my relationship with translation became a sociological one. Angaliyat became an entry point to understanding caste hierarchies in Gujarat, and I was enriched intellectually and emotionally by this new relationship with translation. In the process of working on this translation, it also became clearer why writing itself was a privilege that could not be taken for granted. As I delved deeper into the phenomenon of writing by Dalits, and how it could be emancipating, I realized that the vexed issues of representation and privilege surrounding the project of Modern Gujarati Poetry continued to obtain, even with respect to this text by an underprivileged group. Joseph Macwan who represented the Vankar community was relatively privileged compared to other Dalits from scavenger castes, or to night-soil carriers. Through Christianity the Vankars had had some access to education, but what about the thousands whom they look down upon? My romanticisation of the act of translating an underprivileged voice received a jolt, and translation became yet more complex as a socio-political act. I gained insight into the many subaltern histories that rupture the seamless narrative of the nation.

The understanding I derived from both canonised and Dalit texts sharpened my interaction with women’s narratives in the course of selecting them for the anthology Speech and Silence: Literary Journeys by Gujarati Women (2006). A sociological and ethnographic bias governed the selection of stories, which I identified not only for their literary value but also, or perhaps more so, for the light they threw on women in Gujarat. Gujarat is known for being a state where it is possible for women to go out at any time of day or night without worrying too much about their ‘safety’. The Gujarati middle class perceives this as a happy consequence of the fact that there has always been a prohibition on the consumption of alcohol in Gujarat. It’s a different matter that the state earns a large share of its revenue from the illegal circulation of alcohol. Similar discrepancies characterise gender issues in Gujarat, so that rising cases of violence against women and female infanticide remain unacknowledged even as repetitive claims about the safety of women continue to be made. I wanted the real and imagined worlds of Gujarat’s women to be juxtaposed in my collection, so as to foreground polysemic readings of the nation: what women were talking about, or more significantly what they were not talking about. These were often muffled voices that did not always negotiate with the unpleasant. Despite not being radical, they needed to be heard. As a ‘modern’, ‘radical’, ‘feminist’ translator I did not want to quell voices of conservatism, which need greater attention than the showcasing of only politically correct material. The selection of stories in Speech and Silence was subjective – as would be the case with any anthology or translation – mediated in this case by my subjectivity as a woman writer. This time I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t mind it.


Shoili Kanungo, ‘From Nowhere’


Is there an Original Text Anywhere?

I have a distinct memory of when the edifice of translation shook for me, and I began to see that the original was a dubious entity. The realisation came to me in ways both profound and anti-climactic, through two very disparate experiences. My collaborator on Modern Gujarati Poetry joined me in a small project of translating the poetry of Niranjan Bhagat. Bhagat is Gujarat’s best-known modernist poet, the first to document urban experiences in Gujarati. Influenced heavily by Eliot, Pound, Yeats and Auden, Bhagat brought a degree of fragmentation and irony to the lyricism of Gujarati poetry. The following is an excerpt from the poem ‘Gayatri’ (trans. Ramanathan and Kothari 2003, 10) an ode to the Sun but, really speaking, the allegorical representation of an entire era, written in the vein of Eliot’s ‘The Wasteland’:


One locks the door, pockets the key, and then
Climbs down and seeks the way (is there
A path to somewhere?) on sandals of the wind
To any, every path. But where to go?
And why? And how? Goals unfixed.
This passage is through hell, a golden
Illusory dream of heaven.
Smoke columns rise from chimney to the sky;
Sighs, momentarily inscribed and then erased,
Wander. Mutterings of sleep find echo
In rattle of cups and saucers in hotels.
Hugely yawning, languorous eyes now rubbed awake,
Limb’s laziness now shaken off, this island city,
Heavenly maiden, dreamland fairy,
Leaves her bed, and turns, how quickly,
Into an animal hunting its prey, wildly dancing.
A song on her lips; death’s surma in her eyes.
For centuries each morning now
The karmic wheel has turned. The world
Is energetic, new and fresh once more.
Only poet and whore now go to rest.


The unmistakable resonances of European modernism in Bhagat’s poetry raised important questions about translation. Translating it we felt as if we were returning something to the English language, something that rightfully belonged there. Or did it? At one level English carried Bhagat’s poetry far more ‘easily’ than it could have carried the lyrics and ghazals of our previous work. At another level, this ease was throwing up a set of difficult questions and making us uncomfortable, as voiced in our introduction below:

How is internalised Western influence to be re-translated into a Western tongue, and what is the result? Translating Pravaldveep has been an intense, exhilarating, and sometimes depressing experience. The dense and packed quality of such a poem as ‘Gayatri’ apart, the difficulty is compounded by the fact that, when translated into English, the shocking newness of the Gujarati simply disappears. Echoes of Eliot in the Gujarati marvelously enhance poetic impact; translated into English, they sound somewhat tired. This made us wonder whether translatability was the issue; or whether it was the English language and its resistance to non-English nuances. While English is acknowledged to be one of the most heterogeneous languages in the world; it appears for some reason not to carry the freight of its cultural encounters. While assimilation occurs in English at the level of lexis, permeation is seldom deep enough to permit sub-registers to be formed. This doubtless has something to do with power relations; linguistic equations are played out in a political space. Gujarati, on the other hand, especially, literary Gujarati, carries a bi-cultural weight with ease: while one layer of its own identity is retained, the residual memory of its encounters with the West constitutes another layer. (Ramanathan and Kothari 2003: Introduction, p.iii)

The circularity of the entire process was my first encounter with the hybridity of cultures translation unveils. What constituted the original and the translation? I didn’t know anymore. The author’s cultural mimicry raised the awareness that non-Anglophone experiences of translation are at times qualitatively different from the dominant perspectives of translation articulated in the West. The anxiety about ‘original’ and ‘translation’, for instance, is not universally germane – and there are even cases where the translation is privileged above the original. For example, in the plethora of (sub)versions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata which surround Indians of different caste, class and tribal affiliations, the question of possessing the most authentic version doesn’t ever arise. This is not to say that there are no internal hegemonies among the multiple versions: but that the anxiety of what came first and what followed is absent from the Indian discourse. This can be attributed to a long-standing oral tradition that remained free of notions of the ‘fixity’ of text. Some ‘texts’ start out as oral practices, yet even after being ‘fixed’ as written texts continue, even today, to undergo transformation through oral performance. Hence there is little agonising about original vs translation, or the need to respect the text’s boundaries. Contrary to the iconicity of association between the original and translated texts in Euro-American theories, elsewhere we find examples of multiple renderings of a text that are radically different from each other. Translators in such settings are not talking about the text as a fluid entity, they are just doing it. They implement un-theorised practices, and although these might seem to lend themselves to ‘postmodernist’ labels, regarding them in that light would wrench them out of their local contexts and cultures (more on this in Kothari, 2005b).

If the colonial context of Coral Island was raising questions about the originality of an aesthetic response, I encountered a delightful disregard for the original in translations of pulp fiction. The energy and irreverence of the bestseller market translations brought home to me a fresh perspective on translation studies. I have discussed this elsewhere in a case study of Ashwini Bhatt. What follows is a broad summary of the case: Ashwini Bhatt is even today a brand name in the area of translations of Western potboilers from English into Gujarati. His translations of Alistair MacLean and Sidney Sheldon constituted in the sixties hot little items that sold like one-penny books and satiated the desire for books with half-clad women and macho gun-carrying women. In the spirit of one of the characters of these American bestsellers, Bhatt also wrote novels which he humbly/ proudly claimed as translations, and perfected the art of the invisible translator. The moral, ethical, legal and academic implications of this phenomenon roused my interest but also revised my understanding of translation studies, showing me how limited and limiting its world was for not taking into account the messy, untheorised market of translations. The hierarchy between original, hence superior, and translation, hence inferior, was turned around in this case. I began to see translation in much more localised ways than before.

I wish to conclude this section by stating that in all the translations discussed hitherto, I was functioning as a literary translator comfortably ensconced in notions of what a text is; still speaking as someone ‘within’ translation studies. At this juncture, two important events fashioned a significant shift in my understanding of translation: the riots in Gujarat in 2002, and my own work on the Partition of India and Pakistan in the context of Sindhis. If in contemporary Gujarat I was witnessing the drawing and redrawing of rigid ideological borders of identity, religion and language within the state, in the Sindh of former years I found a blurring of borders. One was arguably India’s most urban, affluent states, raring to become global; the other a neglected, frontier region of undivided India, and now part of Pakistan. I marvelled at the irony of physical borders rendered arbitrary in the case of Sindhi-ness, and differences of religion becoming non-negotiable in a space that was supposed to belong to everyone living in it. It was the simultaneity of both these experiences that spurred me to rethink the relationship between translation and borders.


Shoili Kanungo, ‘Ghost’


Un/bordering Texts and Textualising Identities:

The genocide of Gujarat 2002 has been much written about. My emphasis here is not a sketch of the events, but the processes by which borders have come to be fiercely drawn around identities. The story begins allegedly with the burning of a train on February 27, along with 58 Hindu passengers who were travelling in it. The gruesome event was allegedly perpetrated by a group of Muslims. What followed was the most frightening and unprecedented genocide of Muslims at the hand of Hindus. This event has been much debated and discussed; my focus though is on what that did to me, to my practice and self-perception as a translator.

I mentioned to you earlier the beginnings of my unease at having glossed over issues of caste and representation in my early translation work. I now faced two suddenly irreconciliable worlds, Gujarati and English, Hinduism and Islam, fundamentalist and secular ideologies. These polarisations, as many social scientists have shown us, were in the making over a long period. However, faced with these polarisations being enacted and performed in everyday Gujarat after 2002, I wondered whether translators could continue with previously held certitudes of source language and target language, nursing illusions about carrying over the best from one literature to another, or of seeing translation abstracted out of an acutely political context. At the most obvious level, I went through disenchantment with the bulk of Gujarat’s literature which maintained a complicit silence about the genocide. Literary figures from Gujarat refused to condemn the state and mass killings, claiming literature was above considerations of who’s right and who’s wrong. The desire to translate lay dead within me, stirred only by Wali Gujarati, the fifteenth-century Muslim poet whose mausoleum was desecrated as part of the annihilation of Muslim identity from Gujarat. I also found myself on one or the other side of a linguistically determined border, because English had been discredited in the state as an anti-establishment (therefore anti-Hindu) language, since the condemnation of the state’s role had taken place in English. Gujarati came to be synonymous with regressive Hindu fundamentalism, the language in which hatred for Muslims continued to be articulated and sustained.

As a translator, what was I supposed to do? With which language, which literature, which affiliation was I expected to side? The situation provided me with the first opportunity to think about the bordered and textualised worlds around me, and how the small, undefined place between certitudes that I occupied was under siege. This small space, which has no legitimacy in Gujarat because it’s too secular, has even less legimitacy among politically correct circles outside Gujarat, because it is not secular enough. My desire to be heard in different, ideologically inimical worlds, to move between them so as to permeate one with the otherness of the other, is my first understanding of translation and borders in this period. I have discussed this elsewhere in greater detail; for now, I wish only to quote from the same piece and say that ‘when languages are ascribed with war motives and used to divide people, I see translation as a stepping out of the zones of (con)texts in order to hear and be heard, as a way to heal wounds and bridge distances. This is not an idealistic notion of translation practices per se, but a conscious willingness to make translation perform certain kinds of roles. It is the willingness to migrate out of self-enclosed zones of languages, texts, and identities at large and to move into the zone of the ‘other’. This is a sophisticated choice translators can, and sometimes do, make’ (Kothari 2007, n.p.).

If I was engaged in creating and sustaining this in-between-ness in a state with ideological borders, I also somewhat paradoxically discovered such a space in existence, in moments of partition. My interaction with partition has been as a member of the witness generation. My parents migrated penniless and homeless from Sindh (now in Pakistan) to a divided India and started a new and difficult life as refugees. This has formed a part of my sociological work; however, I was also interested in bringing the domain of imagination to my understanding of Partition. This desire resulted in a collection of stories about Partition by writers on both sides of the geographical and religious border. In simpler words, the anthology includes stories by writers who by virtue of being Hindu migrated from the Islamic state to India. It also includes Muslim writers who document in their writings how life changed for them after the Hindu migration and the formation of an Islamic state of which Sindh became a part. In the process of this transborder translation project, the intertwining of translation and borders became acute. The contexts of affection, pain and empathy that bound the memories of writers from allegedly ‘enemy’ countries was a painful realisation of the arbitrariness of the borders.


An Excerpt from ‘Holi’ by Amar Jaleel:

To underscore this phenomenon, I narrate below a story called ‘Holi’ by the Sindhi Muslim writer Amar Jaleel (Jaleel 2009, 56-57). Both Jaleel’s personal philosophy of Sufism and his refusal to recognise the tyranny of institutional religion make him mark out a space in his stories which reflects an unease with easy definitions. The story I wish to discuss is imbued by memory that defies borders, even if the physical body is constrained by them. This is done through the metaphor of ‘Holi’, a festival celebrated by people moving around in groups splashing colours on each other.


Chacha, why do you call me holi?’

‘Because you are so lovable.’

But this did not satisfy him. He swallowed a few more morsels and continued,

‘Our new teacher asked me today why everyone calls me Holi?’

‘What did you say?’

‘I told her that my chacha has named me Holi.’ After a few sips of water, he said confidently,

‘The teacher also explained to me what Holi means, chacha.’

I began to wonder how a Christian lady teacher had explained to Holi the meaning of Holi. After all how would someone who never played with colourful water know what Holi means.

‘What did the teacher tell you, Holi?’

Holi raised his little soft hand to explain, ‘The teacher said Holi means sacred.’

I thought the teacher was quite right. The water you splash at each other with joyful love and togetherness is indeed holy. But how would this innocent little boy understand what I associate with Holi?

Putta, holi means holy water.’

Holi looked perplexed. The teacher had said that holi meant sacred, now what had that got to do with water?

‘So what kind of water is it?’

‘Very colourful, like a rainbow.’ I explained, ‘You fill it in pichkaaris, and spray it on each other, and that is Holi.’

‘But what is the colour of this water?’ he asked, placing his hand on his left cheek.

‘Red, and green, and pink… and…’ Overcome with emotion, my voice trailed away.

‘Who all play this game?’ Holi asked again.

‘Used to play, Holi putta, used to.’ I tried to control the emotional quaver. ‘I did, Prakash, did, then Purshottam, then Indra… and…’

My eyelashes moistened. Old wounds bristled. How can bygones come back!

Holi was listening to the story of colourful water with great interest.

‘From Sadhbelo to Shishmahal, it seemed Sindhu was filled with colour. Doro, naarishala, chabutra, chausor… everything had more colour than a rainbow.’

Holi was listening to his own story.

‘And you know Holi, Indra would visit my family and splash colours on everyone, including Amma, Baba, Ada and me. She would always come with the sky blue colour, mischievous girl, and her blue was so lovely… so…’

A blazing fire had turned fluid and struggled to break free from my eyes. I avoided looking at him, as I secretly wiped tears from the corners. Holi stood up in a flash, pushing his chair away. He put his soft, little arms around me and said,

Chacha, we shall also play the game of colourful water.’

Wounds became deeper, and pain more intense. Holding my sobs back, I said, ‘We don’t have that water, Holi.’

Holi’s face fell.

I gathered to myself a very dejected Holi and tried to comfort him.


Through the playful semantics of the word ‘Holi’, Jaleel expresses the nostalgia for a composite culture which eroded considerably when the subcontinent was divided into India and Pakistan. The festival ‘Holi’ signifies in the story a pre-lapsarian moment, when relationships were not tarnished by religious consciousness. Such moments may seem idealised, but to the narrator’s memory they are holy and pure, like the little child whom he loves and nurtures. Unfortunately, citizenship in nation-states made people choose one or the other world. Writing as Jaleel does about a trans-border memory makes Jaleel participate in a ‘carrying over’ from one domain of religion to another. By making his participation better known, I extend that participation across some more borders, and together we create a space, of a moment of in-between-ness, a space that is neither Hindu nor Muslim, neither India nor Pakistan.

The re-visits to translation projects in this essay attempt to demonstrate the complexity of questions attendant not merely upon practices of text, but also questions surrounding the text. Translators are far from being innocent and invisible mediators, and while institutional structures and publishing norms may have undermined translators, the practice is not bereft of deep and disturbing questions. Translators inhabit an in-between zone between texts and worlds which may see themselves as being ‘different’. However, the in-between zone has possibilities of interruption and intervention. As Emily Apter puts it, ‘In fastening on the term “zone” as a theoretical mainstay, the intention has been to imagine a broad intellectual topography that is neither the property of a single nation, nor an amorphous condition associated with post-nationalism, but rather a zone of critical engagement that connects the “l” and the “n” of transLation and transNation’ (Apter 2006, 5).


An earlier version of this essay was published in Said Faiq, ed., Cultures in Dialogue: A Translational Perspective (Apeldoorn: Garant Publishers, 2010, 33–46).




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Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty, 1993. ‘The Politics of Translation’, in Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge (179-200).

Tharu, Susie, 1998. Subject to Change: Teaching in the Nineties. Delhi: Orient Longman.


Rita Kothari is a Gujarati- and English-language author and translator. She has written several books on the effect of partition on the Sindhi region and its people, and is actively engaged in theorising the process of translation in the sub-continent. She teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, and lives in Ahmedabad.