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Translation in History Lecture Series: Bible translation and South Asian Christianity

By ucyow3c, on 10 March 2015

pencil-icon Written by Marta Crickmar, Translation Studies PhD student

Image from Religious Transactions in Colonial South India, authored by Dr Hephzibah Israel

Image from Religious Transactions in Colonial South
, authored by Dr Hephzibah Israel (Credit: Palgrave)

A fast-paced tale of faraway lands, impossible choices and political intrigues might bring to mind the plot of an enthralling TV drama but, in fact, one could find it all (and more) in a lecture given by Dr Hephzibah Israel from University of Edinburgh as a part of the UCL Translation in History Lecture Series.

As a specialist in literary and sacred translations within the South Asian context, Dr Israel was just the person for the job of introducing us to the captivating history of Bible translation in 19th century India. It must be said that the topic of the lecture, as interesting as it was in itself, was made all the more compelling by the speaker’s engaging and energetic presentation.

The talk started with a brief historical overview of the Protestant Bible’s translation in India. We learned that the first two translations of the New Testament into Tamil were produced in the 18th century by German missionaries – Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg and Johannes Fabricius. However, it was not until the 19th century that the Bible was translated into other Indian languages and that Indian translators started to be included more formally in the translation process.

The British and Foreign Bible Society (or the Bible Society), formed in 1804 to ensure ‘proper’ translation and wide circulation of the Bible, played a very important role in the history of Bible translation in India. All attempts to translate the Bible had to be authorised by this powerful organisation whose political actions and editorial decisions were often controversial both in India and 19th century Britain.

The Bible Society’s strategy was to publish the “unmediated word of God,” which meant that their editions of the Bible had no commentary whatsoever. Footnotes, forewords and other notes were not allowed so that all human interference with the scripture was made as inconspicuous as possible. Crucially, and questionably, they also promoted using the King James Version of the Bible as the best reliable ‘original’ for Indian language translations.

What I found especially interesting in Dr Israel’s talk is how the colonial contexts brought to the fore once again the paradoxical nature of translation. To put it succinctly, the Protestant missionaries (not unlike many other translators throughout history) wanted to have their cake and eat it. On the one hand, they wanted each Indian language to have its own standard version of the Bible. But at the same time, they preferred that the core sacred terms be uniform in all such versions. Unsurprisingly, the missionaries’ plan soon proved to be a ‘mission impossible.’

The Protestant translators’ main dilemma was whether to create new words as equivalents for sacred terms or borrow from already existing sacred terminology. While by creating new words they risked alienating their new congregations, adopting terms already existing in India meant equalising different and distinct religions. The former outcome was undesirable, but the latter was also unacceptable, because Protestantism was supposed to be viewed as the one and only religion, dissimilar to any other belief system in India, including Catholicism.

This is, in fact, a recurring problem in translation. How to communicate the difference inscribed in the source text without making it too strange and too alienating? How to be different without being too different? What makes the case study from the Tamil Bible described by Dr Israel especially poignant, however, is of course the ideological motivation behind the missionaries’ conundrum.

Translation is often said to be the art of compromise, and so it proved for the Protestant translators of the Bible in India. Their two most common strategies were to borrow sacred terms from Indian languages but introduce some minor changes to the words to ward off unwanted connotations, as well as introducing complex etymologies for their chosen terms, often originating in Sanskrit and with purported links made with Latin.

The latter strategy, however, created its own problems, as was illustrated in the lecture by a fascinating example of two terms from the history of the Tamil Bible in translation, chosen as equivalents for the Protestant concept of ‘God’. One of the terms (‘Tevan’) had Sanskrit roots and, despite its somewhat problematic connotations, was favoured by an upwardly mobile caste of Tamil Nadars who viewed it as prestigious.

Whereas a term used in an alternative version in the 20th century (‘Katavul’) had Tamil origins and has been supported more widely by a lower caste of Dalits who reacted against the history of oppression they associated with the Sanskrit term. Thus the two terms together with the two competing versions of the Bible have become socially divisive symbols.

This shows that the history of Bible translation cannot be studied in isolation from its social and political context. Again, the message applies to the whole of translation studies and most likely many other areas of the humanities. For me, this is exactly the strength of Translation in History Lectures: their expert focus should not deter anyone from attending since there is always a more universal message for specialists and non-specialists alike.

Find out more about the UCL Translation in History Lecture Series.

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