Dalit writers – Savarna translators

Yogesh Maitreya opens up questions of caste, representation, and translation in the publishing sphere.

In 1936, Babasaheb Ambedkar was invited by Jat-Pat Todak Mandal from Lahore to deliver a speech. A draft of the speech was sent to the secretary of the Mandal. The secretary, after reading it, felt uncomfortable and requested Ambedkar to make some changes as he felt it would upset the caste Hindus. Ambedkar, however, was resolute that he would not change a single comma and refused to deliver the speech.

Later, in the same year, he self-published this speech and titled it Annihilation of Caste (hereafter AoC). The reason Dr. Ambedkar was so determined not to make any changes in his speech was his approach to dealing with caste, which was revolutionary rather than reformist, and his epistemological position as an ‘untouchable’ from which he understood the entire system of caste(s) in order to completely annihilate it, even in his written words.

To perceive AoC differently, it was the English translation of the first discursive Marathi-Dalit-Untouchable experience, which was to surely upset caste Hindu eyes and ears, hence it was rejected; but produced as a book, entirely with Dalit empiricism. Being a voracious reader throughout his life, Ambedkar was well aware of the power and repercussions of the written word in literature.

Though all the books he wrote were non-fictional, his love and affinity for fiction, stories of people, was not a secret. Dedicating his book What Congress and Gandhi Have Done to Untouchables to one of his friends from England, he had lamented that he could not spare time for his literary pursuits due to his relentless involvement in politics and social movements. Yet, he was a visionary in the literary domain as well.

During the late 1940s, Shankarrao Kharat – one of the pioneers of Dalit literature from Maharashtra – was working with Ambedkar, editing journals on the one hand and on the other, fighting legal battles for Dalits. Ambedkar said to him, ‘We have doctors, engineers, lawyers, and many educated people in our community but we don’t have writers. Our community’s literature needs to be established all over India. You must take on this responsibility.’ That moment led to the birth of a writer in Shankarrao Kharat. Since then, Kharat was unstoppable, writing six novels, eight short story collections, an autobiography, and several non-fiction books – all focused on the issues important to the Dalits’ struggle.

In the last 60 years, a plethora of Dalit writers has emerged from Maharashtra. Most notable among them being Shankarrao Kharat, Anna Bhau Sathe, Baburao Bagul, Daya Pawar, Namdeo Dhasal, Raja Dhale, Waman Ovhal, Urmila Pawar, Shantabai Kamble, Jyoti Lanjewar, Baby Kamble, Sharankumar Limbale, Arun Kale, Lokanath Yashwant, Yashwant Manohar, Pradnya Daya Pawar, J.V. Pawar, Nagraj Manjule, Sunil Abhiman Awachar to name a few. However, few of these writers have been translated into English. But the literature that these writers have produced share a common phenomenon from which literary principles and the theory of their narratives have been developed.

‘The Buddhist conversions of 1956 signaled the need to break the oppressive caste system to attain enlightenment; the beginning of rationality and logic, and wisdom and compassion in society. These seem to have been the essential guiding principles in the evolution of Dalit literature. In this sense, Dalit literature helps people understand human society with rationality, logic, love, compassion, and more importantly, wisdom, not mere knowledge. Subsequently, Dalit literature helps build the imagination for an equal, just, and fraternal society.’

Therefore, the contexts in which Dalit literature has emerged are many, but the most significant among them are: (i) Buddhist conversion changed the epistemological position of these writers and their narratives; (ii) Their narratives are focused on the creation of literary imaginations for the anti-caste world whose eventual aim is to establish an equal, liberal, just and fraternal society; and (iii) To be a creator, storyteller and producer, and a representative of their own story.

Since the birth of Dalit literature in Maharashtra, it has resisted the Brahminical depiction of the lives of the Dalit community and began writing and telling their own stories. They have introduced an anti-caste language in the Brahminical literary world. The language of Dalit literature disseminates the cultural values which support and advocate the idea of India based on equal, liberal, and fraternal principles. In this sense, the language of Dalit literature does not create a fecundity of literary imagination; it is an evolutionary, transformative literary imagination aiming at justice. It is a language that does not entertain – it interrogates discriminatory social values which readers uphold in caste(s) society. Consequently, the English translations need to be closely examined to understand the politics of translation since the Dalit literature in English translation which became popular and hence saleable was undertaken by upper caste translators and publishers.

The epistemological positions of Dalit writers and their Savarna translators are not only different but opposed to each other, given the privilege Savarna translators inherit and the rejection that Dalit writers face in their lives for their outright, explicit narratives against caste(s). Therefore, at this juncture, the translation of Dalit literature by Savarna writers not only remains a mere literary practice, but it also acquires connotations of representation, power, and privilege because ‘translation as a practice shapes, and takes shape within the asymmetrical relation of power that operate under colonialism. What is at stake here is the representation of the colonized, who need to be produced in a manner to justify colonial domination…’

Dalits being colonized subjects under Brahminical cultural values for centuries have recently broken this chain of oppression, especially through and in their literature. Therefore the translation in English by their Savarna translators indicates the intention of the Savarna-English literary world in which only certain Dalit narratives are demanded, translated, and consumed by an urban English readership.

I have mentioned that only a handful of Dalit writers have been translated in English. The reason is the literature they, as a collective of the same consciousness, have written challenges the cultural values of the Savarna English readership; the other reason being the popularity of these Dalit writers, already established in the Marathi world, that promises huge profits if translated into English.

Another factor in this exercise is the provision of token representation of Dalit literature in the domain of English literature, imagined by its Savarna masters in India. Hence, I argue that the English translation of Marathi Dalit literature has some unexplored claims, which are an antithesis to the very idea of Dalit literature. Let us explore and examine these claims by English translations of Marathi Dalit literature.

Claims: ‘Blockade by J.V. Pawar was translated into English in 1978 by Professor V.D. Chandanshive, and published by J.V. Pawar himself, only in 1992. What makes Blockade a significant work is not just the fact that it is one of the first anthologies by a Dalit writer to be translated into English, but also that it presented the thinking of the Dalit Panthers in a poetic form, which gave rise to a more radical anti-caste movement in India.’

However, Blockade, as one of the first Marathi Dalit poetry collections, translated into English, hasn’t made much news nor did it find a place in the national imagination and among the English readership. The reason for this is the era and time in which it was translated and published. The ’90s was a time when the world was opened for Dalits via English, and that world became visible to the world due to liberalization, privatization, globalization (LPG) and with web technologies.

Prior to this period, ‘Dalit literature from Maharashtra had been used in bits and pieces in translation – a poem here or a paragraph there – or there were translations of relatively smaller texts for reference by upper-caste translators. Despite Dalit literature forming a large part of writings in Marathi, it has never been translated as a substantial body of literature, a process that is necessary to introduce and create the egalitarian “sensible” that is missing in Brahminical literature. It is only recently that Dalit literature has grown into a large, saleable commodity because, if translated for the vast English readership, it promises not only revenue but also recognition for upper-caste translators of Dalit literature. The fact that most translators of Dalit literature belong to the upper castes has largely gone unexamined.’(read more)

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