Sharmila Sen’s
“The Beautiful Infidel”

September 28th, 2010 by EVENTS

What do they know who only know English? Ask this question in certain circles in North America and Europe today and the answer will be: very little. What do they know who know no English? About 175 years ago, when that question was asked in certain public halls and private rooms in Britain and India, the answer was the same: very little. In fact, if the British historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay did not make that point quite successfully in the British parliament in 1835, I probably would not be writing this in English today. In “The Minute on Indian Education,” Macaulay made the case for English-medium instruction for the natives of India, the select few who would become the famous interpreter class—English in outlook and Indian in blood. When I was taught Macaulay’s famous speech at university, all students were expected to have the  same reaction. What a terrible colonial villain! That utilitarian brute forcing his European language on the natives of India! A racist who said all the learning of India and Arabia were inferior to one good shelf of European books! We made the right noises in class and wrote long, passionate essays on language and colonialism.

The papers were written in English.

Some years went by. I was hired to teach at an elite American university and repeated more or less what I had learned in school myself. My students were impassioned by Macaulay’s dastardly deeds. Then, almost 10 years ago, I received an invitation to give a series of lectures in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I eagerly accepted because it would be my first opportunity to teach university students in my native tongue, Bangla. When discussing Macaulay with some academics in Dhaka, someone asked me if I had read the Bangla responses to Macaulay? Imagine my embarrassment at being caught off-guard like that. I had never even heard of these responses. But, of course, they existed. Nineteenth-century Bengalis (and I assume other Indians) had spent significant amount of time debating the same questions about language and education. What was happening in the British parliament in London was not entirely unknown to the natives of Calcutta. Yet, translations of their responses were not easily available and so my American university professors did not include them on our syllabi.

And I, too, never included any such responses in the classes I taught.

Macaulay, I realized, always won the day in parliament. From 1835 until today, he keeps winning. As much as we denounced his outlandish rhetoric about the superiority of the English language, his speech remained a monologue, unchecked by differing views offered in any other language. Even as we smugly wrote off the Anglicists, we were on their team.

What do they know who know no English? Perhaps a little bit more than we Anglophones realize. What do they know who only know English? Perhaps a little bit less than we Anglophones realize. I, who learned English as my third language, and still identify myself as an Anglophone in my professional life, try very hard not to forget this simple lesson. As a publisher, I know only too well that translations cause a lot of headaches. The many extra layers of work, additional costs, managing the delicate relationship between authors and translators, negotiating with foreign-language publishers, being cognizant of different copyright laws—these are just some of the reasons why every few months I tell myself I will never even glance at another translation project.

But then I think of the beautiful infidel. I confess that I am vulnerable to her charms. In case you haven’t heard about her, the story goes like this: In the seventeenth-century, a Frenchman by the name of Gilles Ménage memorably described a work of translation by Nicolas Perrot d’Ablancourt as a woman he had known in Tours. She was beautiful, but unfaithful. Translations, apparently, are either beautiful or faithful, but never both. A translation is the original text’s wife. If too pretty, the translation must be cheating on her husband, the text. If faithful, the translation must not be very pretty.

Leaving questions of beauty aside for a moment, the question of fidelity presupposes a text to which the translation can remain true. It presupposes a stable, immutable original. In college, I worked part-time as a translator and interpreter for an agency to make a little extra cash. I did not need to read sophisticated theories of translation to grasp the real complexities and ethical questions faced by those who are required to ferry meaning between two languages professionally. My part-time job involved translating non-literary material and interpreting in the courtroom. Unlike those who translate poetry or fiction, I rarely had to grapple with the finer shades of literary language. Yet, even then I had a profound sense of the nomadism of the original language.

The word translation, as we know, comes to us from Latin and brings with it the idea of being carried across. What is carried across? Meaning from the source text into the target language; literature from one language into another; an author from one group of readers to another. But this movement need not be in one direction only. Translation is, at the very least, a two-way traffic. When I read a book translated from a language I do not know, I am transported into another realm, just as that language is transported into my realm. Reading a translated text may change me, my language, my universe. Similarly, my reading could change the original text, its language, its universe. Translation as two-way traffic can lead languages to mutually transform each other; it can cause ideas to move across time and space; it can change the past, present, and the future. If fidelity represents a certain kind of stasis, then the beauty of a translation lies in the very promise of infidelities it can inspire.

Saint Jerome, I recently learned, is the patron saint of translators. It is fitting that the Vulgate Bible which is largely accredited to him is one of the first books in an ambitious new series of facing-page translations we are proud to be publishing this fall at Harvard—the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. These new books aim to bridge the 1000 year-old gap between the illustrious Loeb Classical Library and The I Tatti Renaissance Library. I imagine this new series of dual language texts—the Latin, Greek, or Old English facing the English across the gutter of book—as kissing-page translations. When the books are closed, the pages kiss each other. Languages, scripts, ideas, worlds mingle. Our notions about the Middle Ages might change. Our notions about our own times might change. We might be forced to give up ideas to which we have faithfully clung for years.

There is great beauty in such infidelity.

Sharmila Sen is General Editor for the Humanities at Harvard University Press. The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library will be launched this fall with the following inaugural volumes: The Vulgate Bible, The Beowulf Manuscript, and The Arundel Lyrics and the Poems of Hugh Primas.

Posted in Editors Speak


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