The Place of Translation in a Literary Habitat and other Lectures
The Place of Translation in a Literary Habitat

"The great pest of speech is frequency of translation."
- Samuel Johnson

"The writer who is content to destroy is on a plane with the writer who is content to translate. Both are parasites."
- Wallace Stevens

* * * * *

Every time I am invited to a seminar on translation studies, I am both tempted and panic-stricken. I recall the long days spent in reading theories of translation and find myself facing, once again, blank intellectual spaces caused by my own incomprehension of theory and lack of sophistication. Each theorist of translation, I remember, brought his/her own "horizon of expectation" to a translated text, and everyone wanted to give a "call to action" against this or that practice of translators in order to save the original from a variety of violations'. The translator, I thought, was always the object of jehadi rage of the theorists who insisted that there must be some fundamental rules for translation. And they all believed that the translator was nearly always a guilty thing who had to be surprised as he either did or did not reveal, deform, explain, improve, expand, rationalise, eroticise, clarify, infect, simplify, defer, ennoble, rewrite, nativise, destroy, exoticise, feminise, domesticate, minoritise, foreignise, impoverish, colonise, subvert or misrepresent the meaning of the original text. And to confuse things further, one theorist even argued that every time one writes critically about another text one is doing nothing but translating. We are told, for instance, that Helen Vendler was actually translating, not interpreting, Keats's "Ode to Autumn" in her analysis of the poem, just as Keats himself was translating scenes from his own earlier poems into the images of his ode, and, in turn, the season of autumn was translating the earth into "mellow fruitfulness."


At the end of all my theoretical reading, I often wondered if under the vast network of words spun-out with impressive complexity and skill, there was only emptiness; that theories of translation, especially the more post-modern ones, were another way of thinking about the absurdity and the futility of being in the world. Should a translator, I remember asking myself, be made to carry such a heavy ontological burden? Should he not protest, and cry out, "No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was I meant to be?" Is he not, like Wordsworth's poet, merely a common and an ordinary man, wrestling with words and meanings, and speaking to other common and ordinary human beings? I must, however, confess that my despondency after reading theorists of translation has always been accompanied by a sense of guilt both about my own lack of theoretical erudition and the absence of any "dogma driven" (Tagore's phrase) convictions as a translator. And I have found myself making yet another effort -- always against my better instincts -- to reread the theoretical texts I had already struggled with earlier or read the ones I know I should read for my own salvation as an intellectual. But, invariably, at the end of all my academic effort, and contrary to what Yeats meant by an intellectual quest, my mind, like "a long-legged fly upon a stream," merely hovers over misty nothingness. And overcome by despair, I begin to wonder if the act of translation is really not about imagining another language and hence imagining other forms of living and being; and if a translator is no better than a ventriloquist's dummy who has no language of his own and whose truth is his silence.

Initially, theories of translation seem make sense. They are even exciting to read for, instead of information, they offer sophisticated wit. I even find myself gracefully acknowledging that, even if my own practice as translator might have been naïve or simple-minded, I have been troubled by the similar questions and have sometimes even been tempted to offer similar solutions. There is pleasure in the acknowledgement and recognition of agreement with others who have thought about the necessity of translation and its difficulties. After all, my own claim to intellectual cosmopolitanism depends upon the labour of a community of translators, as does my claim that in order to recognize our selfhood we need to understand the ways in which all of us belong to the human plurality. But soon after, I realise that theoretical reading inevitably becomes contentious and factitious. I find myself in a nightmare of words, prescriptions and the ruins of logic. I am bewildered. First by the stern lawgivers who lay down scientific rules for translation which tell me, a bit tautologically, that I must notice every shadow and trace of every word and, then, by the narcissism of the deconstructionists who assert that words only reflect other words in a sad and endless regression into nothingness. Translation, thereby, becomes a descent into a labyrinth of dictionaries -- not the enchanted labyrinth of stories Jorge Luis Borges leads us into -- and every syllable ever recorded in time carries within it an echo of some other syllable from another time. Finally, irritated, bewildered and depressed, I reach out for a line from one of the letters Robert Frost wrote in his old age and use it as a talisman: "I am weary of all these considerations."


It is heartening to note that of late, even amongst the theorists of translation, there are some who are as tired as I am of theoretical wars which take place more often amongst theorists of language than amongst translators They are trying to assert once again that the act of translation is a kind of imaginative and existentially serious dialogue which happens because, as the philosopher Jurgen Habermas says, we assume that "linguistically-articulated worldviews are interwoven with everyday forms of life." A translator lives amongst words which have a human voice and a social purpose; a translator is a person who invites us to establish a relationship with a culture and a community, a life of the mind and a society of deeds, which are markedly different from the civilizational history to which one belongs.

I had always assumed, with the assuredness of the innocent, that translation enabled one to make the difficult effort to know the other. It was with the help of translation, I was sure; that one fell into conversation with the other and so reaffirmed one's existence in the world beside the other. Still influenced by the concerns of the humanists -- concerns which, in our times, seem like phantom shadows in a fragile glass -- I believed that translation was a way of renewing the old dream of communitas where the self could behold itself in the other's eyes (or in "one's brother's eyes" as Blake would have said), and so be reassured of its similarity to and difference from the other. I should add here that I understood communitas as that condition where human beings, unbounded by conventions or sanctions or prejudices of social structures, succeeded in establishing a basic or a primal 'I and Thou' relationship with each other, and confronted each other, not as players in melodramas of confrontation, but as 'human totals', as integral beings who recognizably shared the same humanity. The act of translation, then, was a way of creating a habitat where other samskaras -- other myths and longings -- different from those of the isolated self could also resonate with meaning.

Now, however, I have to contend with recent trends in European and American criticism, which argue (renewing, perhaps, Dr Johnson's suspicion about translations in a different idiom and within an angst-ridden metaphysics) that translation, far from being a knowledge-making activity, is a threat to meaning and knowledge. Taking its cue, perhaps, from Arthur Rimbaud's sad declaration, "I am always the other," recent scholarship has surrounded the word 'translation' with anxious and brooding scepticism. Critics like Walter Benjamin, Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Lawrence Venuti and others, writing in varying shades of grey foreboding and differing registers of irony, declare that translation is an impossibility (a 'necessary impossibility,' as Derrida would have it), and that, if critically undertaken, translation makes the self aware of the blank spaces which separate it from the other; that translation is only a charade of meaning-making by the self and always an act of betrayal of the other.


Thus, Patrick Mahoney, moving across multilingual etymologies, wittily hears in the word 'translation' echoes of words like 'transport', 'transference', 'entrance' and, finally, 'traduttor' and 'traitor.' If this cross-border tracking of verbal movement, which spies a relation between translation and treason, is right then translation is a dangerous James Bondish game of contraband cultural goods and betrayal, and the ignorant translator of words deserves, as Maurice Blanchot, in another place insists, a "death-sentence" which would release him quite mercifully from "the fatal solitude of writing" (The Space of Literature). Of course, the only other options for a translator-turned-traitor, who does not want to die a sudden death, is either to adopt the strategy of the master spy and remain stubbornly silent or to imitate the master strategist Odysseus and, refusing to divulge his real name, call himself Nemo - Nobody.

In a brilliant series of essays on translation, often punningly entitled as The Ear of the Other, "Des Tours de Babel," or Dissemination, Jacques Derrida thinks that since humanity is 'condemned' to a multiplicity languages each one of which is a fragment of the original, it is difficult to believe that translation can contribute something which is meaningfully communicable in the literary or social habitat, or clarify the ways in which the self can establish a unity with the world outside. He makes a series of shifting analogies between the act of translation and the Biblical story about the tower of Babel, Plato's 'Pharmakos', and Freud's theories of hysteria and phobic disorders. In an attempt to show why translation is both impossible and necessary, Derrida says that a translator is like Plato's apothecary who knows that in his pharmacy he can not, with any certainty, label any potion so as to "distinguish the medicine from the poison, the good from the evil, the true from the false…the vital from the mortal…"

Each of these analogies is used to suggest that human beings are tragically fated to enact forever the hopeless task of remembering and forgetting a pure kernel of language, a primal intactness of being, a pre-historic feeling of belonging to a place called home to which they once belonged -- the "terrible necessity," as he puts it, "to forget that there is nothing to forget, that there has been nothing to forget". Unfortunately, we can think about a pure of language only after it has been shattered into a multiplicity of languages; we can remember that we once had an integrated self only after we have become aware of its disintegration; and, we can being to dream of communitas only after we have been exiled from the original habitat.

But for Plato, the assumption that there was a changeless and eternal realm was a "moral need," and the main purpose of knowledge, including that of the apothecary's, was to direct all intellectual energies towards its discovery. All the Platonic dialogues in the market square about language and truth are conducted not to reveal the abyss beneath the feet, but to show everyone that it is always possible to take small steps in the ordinary realm towards truth. Derrida's translator, in contrast, is doomed to stand eternally with suspended step, in a sort of 'paralysed motion', at the liminal border that separates the original, the pure language -- what Derrida calls "the being-language of language" -- from its infinite fragments. He asserts that the plurality of languages have a kinship with each other which makes translation possible. But, simultaneously, he argues that, since before or beyond these languages there is a 'pure' language, it is the "messianic" task of the translator to push each linguistic fragment towards reconstituting the original wholeness, a task which is simultaneously necessary and hopelessly impossible.


Through a process, which Derrida calls "associative confusion" (a phrase which is at once clear and mystifying), he slides away from the sacred to the terrible necessity of earthly law and finally to the self's inner labyrinths, and calls upon the works of Freud to suggest that in the relation between the original text and its translation there is always a slippage, which is similar to the failure of the analysand to make a complete 'transference' of all his psychological associations to the analyst. The best the analysand can hope for in the process of the 'transportation' of all the images in his psyche is a tranche-fert, a series of "false connections," and he is condemned to live in a semiotically blind space that separates him from the analyst. All translations, he says, are "interminable" approximations of the original idiom. One could, perhaps, imitating the punning manoeuvres of Derrida, say that for him there is no erotic charge between the original and its translation, no copula, no copulation, and, hence, to use a word Frank Kermode used to describe the desire of all readers, there is no pleroma, no sense of fulfilment. A translator, in this account, may be in love with the original, but to misuse T.S Eliot, his "love is always the love of the wrong thing." No matter what strategies a translator employs, language always betrays him, and the translated work slips and falls into the 'rift' or the 'fault-line' that exists between the original language and the language into which it is translated. Shifting his metaphor, Derrida thinks of the translated text and the original as antagonists lost in the infinite endgame of chess, where any move that a translator may make is simultaneously wrong and futile, possible and impossible. Since Samuel Beckett has been invoked here, one could, perhaps, carry the invocation further and say that for Derrida, in the final analysis (the psychoanalytic pun is intended) both the original and its translation turn out to be Texts for Nothing (the title of a major collection of writings by Beckett). And to carry on with Beckett, all a translator can do is to say to himself: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."


While Derrida still thinks of translation as a ludic play of difference, différance and deferral, in which despite the inevitable tragedy there is still the possibility of wit as a sort of saving grace, De Man deploys the metaphor of chess (i.e. endgame) and asserts that translation is yet another move in a game whose meaning is always annihilated, and where, as one moves across the graveyard of words, one discovers that there never was any meaning to start with. He begins by quoting Derrida's argument that a translation is a game with "Being" on a "bottomless chessboards." As if this were not dreadful enough, De Man, with his usual nihilistic grimness, argues that translation, like all other human gestures, "kills the original, by discovering that the original was already dead." Unlike the humanists, who think that language is the product of human beings who use it to make meaning, de Man believes that language is "not human, it is God-given: it is the logos, as that which God gives to man. Not specifically to man, but God gives, as such." Pushing the argument further, he asserts that the relation between the original language that God gives and the languages that human beings speak is "inhuman." In order to speak about the Being of things, including language, and its relation to the shattered and contaminated world ordinary human beings inhabit, he invokes Walter Benjamin's famous metaphor of the 'amphora' - the Kabbalistic vessel, which in its unbroken form, represents the plenitude of the original. For Benjamin, our historical world is formed when the vessel breaks and the oneness of Being is scattered. A writer, any writer in any language, can only speak about the fragments of the amphora for he cannot ever have the knowledge of the whole unbroken vessel. And if he ever succeeds in putting together all the fragments, he cannot restore the vessel to its original unbroken shape, but can only recreate something resembling the original out of all the broken parts. It follows, then, that the translator, who, by definition, can only have a fragmentary understanding of the original work which is in itself constructed out of the fragments of language, is always engaged in the task of translating "the fragment of a fragment," and, hence, in "breaking the fragment" further. If this is right, then de Man's translator is a tomb-raider who is perpetually busy dismembering the 'corpus' of texts so that he can satisfy his necrophilic desires in some literary night of the living dead.

I hope that by now you will sympathise with me if I confess that by the time I finished reading these phantasmal texts I began to feel sorry for myself. Euro-American criticism, it seemed to me, was now a new Malleus Maleficarum (or, The Witch's Hammer -- a text written in the fifteenth century by Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger in the days of Pope Innocent VII to catch witches) subtly crafted to trap someone like me who had already translated too much. Before I read the post-modern critics, I didn't know that I was so deeply entangled in a strange semiotic crime for which there was no atonement. After I read them, I suddenly realized, like one of the ordinary victims in a Hitchcock film, that, unknowingly, I already knew too much and had been a bit of a simpleton for revealing the secrets of a culture to anyone who had cared to listen to my translated tales. But then, just as I was ready to surrender all that I had known earlier and give in to despair, I recalled a few motley words of the Fool's song in King Lear, and found there a companion -- a fellow fool -- who could teach me a few talismanic lines. "Hey nony, nony," I said to myself, I am but a poor, naïve translator who should follow the Fool's advice and 'let go of my hold of the great wheel of theory that runs down a hill, lest it break my neck with following.' I translate texts and read translations because, for me, both are continuous forms of discovering other modes of knowing; translations are the achievements of the ordinary where the conversation of the self with the other is always possible. And so now like the wise Fool in Lear, I can always say with some confidence:

"The fool will stay,
And let the wise fly.
The knave turns fool that runs away,
The fool no knave, perdy."

- King Lear, II, iv, lines, 79-82.


This leads me to assert that no language is untranslatable. A translator may find that there are some texts for which it is easier to find another language in which they can feel at home - another language, which already has the ideas, words, idioms, or rhythms, which respond to the experiences, however complex, the original texts, seek to convey. Otherwise how can people who speak a different language ever be able to acknowledge the pain of others or their joy, respond to others with magnanimous regard or with mean spiritedness, repose in faith or betray them? The translatability of languages is a part of the comedy of being human. There may, of course, be other texts that are more complexly articulated or more extensively and intricately woven into the texture of a particular culture. Such texts may require, what Kwame Anthony Appiah calls, a "thick translation" - a translation, which enables one to be aware of and explore cultural or historical differences. The argument of untranslatability is sometimes based on the assumption that words are like the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland - they fade the moment the translator's gaze falls upon them leaving behind only the traces of their presence. And, at other times, the suggestion that texts are impossible to translate is based on a tautology. The argument is that eminent works do not record the poverty of the contingent world, but let thought roam in ever-widening circles, searching for ways of making this world into a habitation shared with others; the questing mind makes the infinite seem like an "achievement of the ordinary." But, since no one has ever disputed this -- not even translators -- it is difficult to see why so much of the effort of translation theory is spent on spinning verbal labyrinths out of this assumption. Whenever I find myself being drawn into one these cul-de-sacs, I recall the following commonsensical statement by Plotinus which St. Augustine used to keep by himself to draw comfort from: "He is no great man who thinks it a great thing that sticks and stones should fall, and that man, who must die, should die."

If languages were untranslatable, then we would have either been living in a world of cacophonies or have become hopelessly mute in a world of silences. Anything that can be imagined, known or said in one language can be translated into any other language. I take my cue from the Hebraic tradition in which the original plenitude of the Word of Jehovah was 'translated' or transfigured into a variety of things and the "cognate splendour" (the phrase is from a poem by Richard Wilbur) of the languages of men. I need to point out here that this version of God's creative joyousness is quite distinct from Derrida's JHWH who, in anger, creates fragments of languages so as to create confusion among the tribes of men and "annuls the gift of tongues." In the context of my present meditation on the creative act of translation, one can, perhaps, reformulate the Jehovahist tradition and, cleansing it of its brooding narcissism, say that, because God could imagine languages he could imagine forms of life. The original, confident and creative utterance of God ("And God said…") immediately splintered into an infinite variety of alphabets, words, sentences, grammars, languages and cultures. And since, in the beginning, when God spoke the words light, sun, moon, earth, stars, water, birds, beats, fish, man, woman there were no concrete referents for any of them, it was His act of speech which brought them into existence. If, mythically at least, words "call" the world into existence (the Biblical word for this "calling out" is kara and its equivalent in another language is Koran), then it is difficult to believe that a translator cannot find the equivalences for words, tone, rhythms or structures of texts imagined in one language in any other language. Unless, of course, one is willing to assert that it is possible to fabulate some things only in one language and not in any other. This position would be morally and politically difficult to maintain. One will, for the sake of our democratic and ethical selfhood, have to argue, instead, that the possibility of translation is inherent in God's original utterance.

Men may have lost their Edenic confidence, but they fell into the grace of words and so acquired "the creative omnipotence of language." The paradox is that, even as men fell into languages and lost the intuitive sense of being a part of the divine, they acquired a two-fold power. They found the shadow of Jehovah in language, but instead of trying to recover their old and lost paradise, they realized that they could create, through the 'word-honouring' rituals of friendship, knowledge and work, a new world of imagination and culture out of language and work. This means that men could simultaneously remain devoted to the original Word, and yet extend, enrich or supplement it with their memories, experiences, dilemmas and solutions. Their ability to translate their knowledge of things into the languages they spoke may not have enabled them to recover fullness of the original Word, but it made it possible for them to replenish their world with the eloquence of speech. Through translations of what each of them knew, they could draw the original word into their conversations and, at the same time, test their own claims to reason or better political sense or greater moral clarity. Lest this sounds too idealistic to our sceptical ears, let me quickly add that I am quite aware of the fact that in Eden dialogue was the Serpent's gift, and since he spoke with a forked tongue, along with "knowledge and wisdom," he also showed us "the possibility of lies and dissimulation." But, then, without Satan's dialogic intervention, how could our stories and our translations have had a beginning? After all, God had worked hard enough for seven days to create the world, and having declared it to be a goodly place, taken a well-earned sabbatical!

What this means for the practice of translation, I think, is that a good translator of significant texts does not try to imitate the original; he does not offer a mirror reflection of the original which records the likeness of the original but is doomed to remain only a phantom. By 'significant texts' I mean - following Hans-Georg Gadamar -- texts which speak to us tirelessly, which constantly ask questions, offer possible answers, suggest different ways of looking at the world again and again, and so stay with us to become partners in a conversation that we conduct either with ourselves or with others about questions that matter. And questions that matter are questions that we don't fully understand but which insist on being perpetually reformulated for greater clarity. They are questions that we can only answer partially, and that require another effort at posing the question and finding an answer. Instead, a translator crafts a new work which respects the integrity of the original (this is the minimum that all translations must have) and yet exists beside it, on its own terms, and sometimes even challenges the claim to priority of the original (the English Bible is a good case in point). In order to do so, a translator tries to find a language and a rhythm, which will enable the original thought to emerge in the language of the translation, guide the reader to think through the ideas being refined and feel the emotions being described. Only then will the translation acquire a cultural meaning for people who have no access to the language of the original text and so become a part of their realms of aesthetic and moral being.

If no translation is a faithful likeness of the original, it is entirely legitimate for each age to have its own translations of Homer (from Chapman and Pope to Fitzgerald and Lattimore), or of Dante (from Carey to Singleton and Pinsky), or of the Bible and the Gita, and, dare I say, the Koran which is forever wary of satanic verses. For each new translation of a significant or eminent text creates a place for itself in our literary habitat because it reflects the expectations, conventions or propositions of the times. In none of these, or in other similar cases, is one tempted to ask if the translation is faithful to the original, for one acknowledges that the mechanics of faithfulness in the translations of significant texts can turn the loveliest of phrases and the profoundest of ideas into dull prattle. The right test for the translation of any of these eminent texts is whether the new text crafted in another language is counterfeit or no; whether it respects the integrity of the original, and at the same time urges us to think in new ways about the cultural or intellectual resources that lie beyond the boundaries of one's own mental maps. The most important test, however, is whether the presence of the text, in its new incarnation in a different language, seems to be utterly inevitable in the literary habitat of the language into which it has been translated (this point is in part derived from Walter Benjamin) . It is difficult, for example, to imagine a European literary history without the translations of Homer or the Arabian Nights. Indeed one can move backwards and forwards along the chronological history of any literary culture and find examples of an intimate and reciprocal relationship between significant translations and eminent writers.

I am suggesting that one of the preconditions for the formation of any civil, political and literary habitat is the possibility of translation; just as one of the preconditions for translation is the existence of civil, political and literary habitats. Indeed, it is because of the human gift of translation that a respectful civility between different ways of constructing reality and valuing the things of the world by diverse communities can be maintained. I am, of course, not suggesting that because we can translate other languages we can evade conflicts, grudges, deceptions or sorrow. We do not live in transcendental paradises, but "in the midst of life," where action, feeling and beliefs of people can always come into conflict with each other. But, I am suggesting, that because there is a vast 'community of translated texts,' we begin to see others as "social beings" like ourselves "puzzling out, in time of great moral difficulty, what might be, for us, the best way to live…" This goes against the grain of a large body of contemporary translation theory that claims that translation is impossible, hence, that any coherent social formation too is impossible. One can find in Paul de Man, for instance, a radical distrust of language and communicative societies. Given that the original meaning can never be fully recovered, a translation, he says, must concede even before it begins that its desire for communication and understanding must always be defeated. For critics like de Man, no translation can escape from being entrapped in a circle of silence, for its meaning is forever lost in "the bottomless depths of language." Therefore, far from renewing language and extending its meanings, a translation can only conduct a post-mortem of language; and, of course, far from helping men to recreate or renovate a social order, it can only lead them further into distraction and distrust. It is worth noticing that de Man's version is similar to that of Hobbes who, too, thinks that both language and society are dangerously untrustworthy and can only offer a treacherous ground for understanding and community making. After all, Hobbes' famous formulation in Leviathan, that nature has condemned every man to live in fear of every man is, in part, derived from his belief that words are untrustworthy and, unless they are carefully ordered, man "will find himself entangled in words, as a bird in lime-twiggs; the more he struggles, the more belimed."


It has been nobody's brief that languages are so completely transparent that meaning can be transported from one linguistic structure to another or from one civilizational condition to another, without change, or loss, or even enrichment. It does not, however, follow from this that transferral of meaning from one language to another is impossible, or that all languages are totally opaque to each other. Indeed, I suspect that the idea that words are opaque is either platitudinous or merely rhetorical; an empty gesture, which sometimes seems to disguise, beneath its melodramatic excess, an elitist rejection of others as creatures worthy of a conversation, and, at other times, a pessimistic assessment of man's continuing desire to find a common ground to stand on.

It is true that we can never understand each other completely, but it would be a fatal error to assume that we should either do so or entertain the desire to do so. Indeed, it would be tragic for human relationships if we were fully transparent to each other. Not only would our languages then acquire the hard certainty of machines, but also we would become helplessly available to each other for use and coercive manipulation. Such clear visibility, as we know, is the dream of every totalitarian thinker. What saves us as autonomous individuals is precisely the untranslatable residue in each of us, which is inaccessible even to ourselves. At the end of his long investigation into the mysterious selfhood of the main protagonist, the journalist in Orson Wells's film, Citizen Kane, wisely concludes, "I don't think any word can explain a man's life." It is, indeed, a blessing that after the blinding clarity of the first words of God ("Let there be light…"), the rest of our lives with each other have retained some of the enigma of being human. It is this degree of ambiguity that persuades us to both conduct a dialogue with ourselves and engage in a conversation with those who are different.

Another consequence of the assertion that languages are translatable is that while each language retains its distinctive characteristic and reveals its own unique entanglement with the complex acts of world-making, it also ceases to exist in a pure, enchanted space of its own, free from all the influences of historical change. Instead, each language exists beside another language in a continuum. It is possible, then, to imagine that each language so borrows from, distorts, transforms or slides into any other language that every society is continuously engaged in the transformative process of world making and knowledge-making. One can, for example, think of the way in which Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi/English have existed side by side over a long period and have utterly changed, through their co-mingling, the world-views reflected in each, and opened up spaces of knowledge for each other which they may not have found in their isolation.

Thus, saint-poets of India like Kabir, Nanak or Farid do not exist in the solitude of their own languages. They take, without self-consciousness or apology, words from Urdu, Avadhi, Bhojpuri, Punjabi or Rajasthani to sing about their Gods. They wander freely through languages in the same way as they make their own distinctive pilgrim-paths across the vast territories of the Indian subcontinent. It is, therefore, not surprising that for Nanak the word (or shabd or boli) which stands for God's command is hukum taken from Arabic, and the word for divine grace is prashad from Devnagari. I should like to add that the visual translation of his ministry too arises out of his realization that his own sense of inward holiness is a result of his location within a plurality of languages and traditions. That is why he wears the saffron robes of a Hindu ascetic and the turban of a Sufi fakir.

One major political and literary advantage of thinking about languages as being translatable and hopelessly contaminated is that one can set-up easy defences against the arrogance of linguistic chauvinists and tribal purists, and refuse to take cognizance of the snivelling defensiveness of the 'nativists.' Claude Levi-Strauss may be right in asserting that for every tribal group concerned about its safety in a hostile world the notion of "Mankind stops at the boundaries of the tribe, the linguistic group, sometimes even of the village…" Beyond that boundary there are spaces occupied by barbarians, phantoms and apparitions against whom there are taboos, ritual chants and talismans. Maybe, translators can help us cross those boundaries of suspicion and make the very act of boundary-making more neighbourly.

There are, however, moments when the movement from one linguistic or cultural boundary to another comes up against words and ideas, which do seem to be difficult to translate. I am thinking of culture-specific words like dharma, nirvana or catharsis. These words, nevertheless, do not bring us to the abyss of incomprehension. They only call for a greater degree of "hermeneutic alertness" on the part of the translator. And, inevitably, his absorbedness (a favourite word of Ezra Pound's) with the word or idea enables him to find a kind of solution, however tentative, so that the process of understanding, which seemed to stop, can begin again. This may help us transcend many of the cantankerous literary and critical battles we sometimes get involved in.
To those who say that translation is not possible, who negate the possibility of conversation, and hence the very selfhood of others, I should like to quote the following lines from Emerson's "Self-Reliance": "Well, most men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief and attached themselves to some of these communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, authors of a few lies, but false in all particulars. Their very truth is not quite true. Their two is not the real two; their four is not the real four; so that every word they say chagrins us, and we know not where to begin to set them right."

Finally, let me end with a small piece of advice and prayer for the translator because, in this post-modern world which is now playful and now grim, he is a poor and vulnerable creature on whom we should not place too much faith in leading us to the fullness of meaning and being we may desire. A translator is only a small craftsman who uses the words he knows to give his respect to and reveal, on our behalf and for us, other ways of knowledge-making and other betrayals than our own, other ideas and beliefs, other mansions and fields, pathways and forests, ruins, denials and sexual longings, nostalgias, exiles, cruelties, poems, stories, hopes, pilgrimages, ecstasies, and disenchantments. The advice is from Emerson's aptly-entitled essay, "Self-Help": "Leave your theory, as Joseph his coat in the hand of the harlot, and flee." And the prayer is a variation of a line from one of the Psalms:

So teach us, O Lord,
To translate our texts
That we may apply
Our hearts into wisdom…