A Linguistic Turn

  • Dorothy M. Figueria (Editor) and Chandra Mohan (Editor)
    Literary Culture and Translation: New Aspects of Comparative Literature. Primus Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Sneja Gunew
    Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-cosmopolitan Mediators. Anthem Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Shao-Pin Luo

There have been many intense and sophisticated debates about cosmopolitanism and the related concept of world literature in literary and cultural studies. In countering what is perceived as elitist and Eurocentric versions in contemporary cosmopolitan discourse, a plethora of alternative forms has emerged, such as rooted, situated, materialist, discrepant, visceral, and vernacular cosmopolitanism, or in Sneja Gunew’s term, neo-cosmopolitanism (peripheral cosmopolitanism or cosmopolitanism from below). What the two books under review contribute to these discussions, besides broad and significant considerations on questions of the human and the modern, of the nation-state and the planetary, and of Indigeneity, is a remarkable linguistic turn, brought about from comparative (transcultural) and multilingual (translational) perspectives.

Gunew explains that the guiding principle of her book, Post-Multicultural Writers as Neo-Cosmopolitan Mediators, is the “need to move beyond the (often unacknowledged) monolingual paradigm (an assumed model) that dominates Anglophone literary studies.” She argues that what has been forgotten in the contemporary denigration of multiculturalism is the crucial element of multilingualism. Her book, in six chapters, examines the intersections of a wonderfully eclectic array of literary works across the boundaries not only of geography—writers from Australia are juxtaposed with those from Canada, and connected to diasporic writers from Eastern Europe and Asia—but also of genre (film, graphic novel, visual art, and other forms of multimedia). Further, it concerns itself with “deep or geological time (often associated with Indigeneity)” and with the “acoustic ‘noise’ of multilingualism (accents within writing).”

Gunew argues that post-multicultural writers (the “post” via Lyotard’s concept of the future anterior) “offer a cosmopolitan mediation and translation between the nation-state and the planetary.” This enabling, “mediating” function is fruitfully analyzed through Gunew’s method of an overarching “stammering pedagogy,” a form of defamiliarization and denaturalization that emphasizes what Paul Gilroy has described as a “cultivation of a degree of estrangement from one’s own culture and history.” Amongst her frequently insightful readings of a vast repertoire of theoretical as well as creative works, of particular note is Gunew’s interesting engagement with texts by Jacques Derrida (Monolingualism and the Prosthesis of Origins) and Rey Chow (Not Like a Native Speaker), which are reflections on autobiographical multilingual experiences that connect to Gunew’s own diasporic trajectory.

Multilingualism is also the emphasis in Literary Culture and Translation: New Aspects of Comparative Literature, edited by Dorothy M. Figueira and Chandra Mohan. This is a follow-up to Mohan’s 1989 edition, Aspects of Comparative Literature; indeed, three seminal essays from the original volume are re-issued here. An important and valuable volume, most of its twenty-one essays focus on tracing the development of comparative literature and translation studies in India in the context of its astonishing linguistic diversities and intricate cultural complexities. It also contains essays on the evolution of comparative studies in the US, France, and Estonia, as well as on epistemology and methodology, orature and performance, and interdisciplinarity, among other topics in the field.

In the collection’s overview of comparative literature in India, Sayantan Dasgupta notes that the historical perspective of Sisir Kumar Das’ reprinted essay remains a poignant reminder that while the history of comparative literature in India may have started formally with the establishment of the Jadavpur University Department of Comparative Literature in 1956, there was a long and sustained “pre-history,” which included Rabindranath Tagore’s lecture on Visva-Sahitya (or “world literature”) in 1906, as well as Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s essay on “Shakuntala, Miranda, and Desdemona” (1873), the activities of the Fort William College (established in 1800), and even the literary contact situations that existed in medieval India. Commenting on the formation of modern Indian languages, Ipshita Chanda astutely points out that it is a story of borrowing, lending, adaptation, and transformation of linguistic and literary sources occasioned by contact between diverse language cultures, and that the shape of comparative literature in India has been influenced by its relationship not only to the various Indian-language literatures, but also to the literatures of the world in translation and to English literature.

In “Towards an Indian Theory of Transla-tion,” Indra Nath Choudhuri explains that the Indian translator always has the freedom to interpret the text, and that to an Indian society steeped in an oral and performative literary tradition, differing versions become the norm rather than an exception. Writers writing in English, as well as in the various Indian bhashas, are challenging and redefining conventions in translation theory: “We can no longer merely limit ourselves to the conventional notion of linguistic equivalence or ideas of loss and gain, which have long been a staple of translation theory,” writes Choudhuri, “because of the extensive use of different upabhashas by Indian writers . . . ; the creation of a new language by Dalit writers; and the use of tribal languages in multilingual contexts.” A highlight in this section on translation is E. V. Ramakrishnan’s essay, which traces the history of regional translations of great Indian classical epics while also critiquing Sheldon Pollock’s work on vernacularization in India—the decline of Sanskrit and its replacement by regional languages—as an Orientalist project that refuses to engage with the multilingual ethos and cosmopolitan traditions of regional languages. In examining the complex relationship between Sanskrit and Indian regional languages, Ramakrishnan brings up the influence of Persian and Arabic, which “provided a powerful impetus for the bhashas to question and subvert the hegemony of the Sanskrit cosmopolis”:

It means that before the arrival of English, India had already been in dialogue with the West and had contributed to the rise of modernity in the West through its own dialogic traditions. . . . This also means a shift from the multilingualism of medieval India to the bilingualism of the nineteenth century, where English became the intellectual language and the Indian languages their inferior other.

Malayalam serves in this context as a particularly illuminating example of a heteroglossia that incorporates Persian, Arabic, and many European languages, as well as everyday speech of the living community.

In dismantling the facile dichotomies between centre and periphery, between English and other languages, or indeed between the cosmopolitan and the local, both of these books challenge us to recognize transcultural and multilingual histories and realities as well as the limits of monolingualism, advocating the necessity of cross-cultural engagements across national and linguistic boundaries.

This review “A Linguistic Turn” originally appeared in Lost and Found Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 236 (2018): 140-142.

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