Translation in an Uneven World

By: Anushiya Ramaswamy

There is a familiar trope in classic African American realist novels, when the protagonist remembers that primal moment in childhood when the recognition of racial identity took place. It is never a pleasant recollection. It is an encounter with a stone-faced alterity that teaches the subject about difference, an abstract notion at other times but in that moment, a material fact of living in an uneven world. For me, it happened in the schoolyard in Colombo in the early 1980’s. A group of us were playing a boisterous game of our own devising on the netball court when about four girls from the Sinhala medium class came by and demanded the ball. Since I knew one of the girls in that group – we travelled on the school bus together – I smiled and said quite casually in Sinhala that we were not done with the ball yet. Between one sentence and the next, one of them called out, “Hey, Go to India!” In shocked silence, we dropped the ball and moved away. Thrilled with the articulation, a short burst of invective that must have offered the enunciator a heady feeling of power, all of them chanted “Palayang” and fell over laughing.

The next day, we met across the Principal’s desk, where we all listened in silence as the official school policy against fighting was made in English, in the name of the class, gender and religious credentials of our parochial private school system. We were told to not let misunderstandings to lead us into low-class behavior of street fighting. For those of us standing on this side of the divide, there had been no mistranslation or ambiguity in the expressed order of our schoolmates. Our mother tongue was Tamil but the language of the master – from the shopkeeper to the signage everywhere – was the dominant language of Sinhala, with English hovering in the vicinity as a class signifier. The master’s voice is powerful as it is filled with imperatives that are immediately translatable: you hear it in your head, standardized units of unambiguous performatives.

The principal, significantly enough, did not touch on the ratio or rationality of the statement flung at us, what I would call the racial etymon of the statement, “Go to India.” To minorities everywhere, this is hate speech when a person identifying herself with the dominant culture, tells another to leave not just their home or town but the national borders. In that historical moment, to us, the imperative was precise, a summation of an ideological world view. To the speaker, it is rational speech, a unitary truth; it is only to the addressee that it is profoundly fertile: who recognizes in those words, the past (European colonization), the present (the becoming of a national problem), and the future (the death knell of a coming homelessness). The speaker occupies a comfort zone of national language, the language of governmentality, of demarcations and imperatives. The missing pronoun, “You” is never missed or mistaken in this “Indiavatta Palayang,” a perverse reversal of the earlier Gandhian “Quit India” slogan addressed to the colonial powers. As the subjects who had been interpellated, we found that we could not repeat that statement back, as in, “You go to India,” for we recognized that the speakers were in fact ordering the space both of us occupied – the schoolyard that was a common space to all – into a place, a locus that made us as ethnic minorities, into outsiders with no standing. This to me was the beginning, in my own psychobiography, of my struggle since then of living in a global culture that quickly forgot to translate the word Tamil as a noun – a language, a geolinguistic space, a people -- and has now come to use it as an adjective, a catastrophic one at that, (Tamil T) where the two T’s are somehow collapsed into each other.

A few days later, I see her in the bus and broke into a sweat. What if she bursts out in a racist rant? She had been undeniably angry in the principal’s office. To my amazement, the girl simply nodded at me and made the usual comment about the bus being so crowded. The tightness in my breath slowly released as I realized with a shock that she had not recognized me as one of the Tamil girls from the incident. I was just someone she desultorily converses with on the ride into the endless suburbs of Colombo, the one who did not pour out of the bus at the stops in Wellawatte with the other Tamils. Our conversations were the inanities that shored up our shared sense of a psychogeographic territory. Her indifference was an act of anti-memory. As I was trying to wrap my mind around the realization that in all our encounters, she had not really cared to look at me in any meaningful way, that to her I simply occupied a position labeled “Tamil,” as opposed to her own ontological certainty of being the opposite and therefore the real, she leaned over and pointed out the window at a young man of clearly African origin standing on the sidewalk and exclaimed, “Look, he is so black, so very black!” and laughed.

I have often wondered about that moment. The nature of her indifference to me and to the young black man too, could be explained by what Deleuze describes as both an “undifferentiated abyss,” an indetermination, as well as a disconnection between signifiers, where the “head is without a neck, an arm without shoulders, eyes without brows.” In pointing at the black man as an other, she was unable to see that she and I, both dark-skinned, were closer in color to that young man waiting at the top of Moor Road than to say, our own lighter skinned brethren in that great continuum of fairness to darkness in South Asian occular skin politics. It is racist speech that locates itself in ontic reason – the truth of those who insist that they are only calling people what they are – “But you are black, so why are you offended?” How does one answer such massive indifference?

Our translation work is a refusal to our own postcolonial existential situation – the politics of statelessness, of a thousand indignities incurred in the wake of our loss of basic rights, the painful narrowing of ethnic identities where dialects and regional memories are collapsed into a single, generic category of minority. I am echoing Edward Said who exhorted us to the ethics of living as a minority in a modern world. Translation is co-existence. It is hopefulness that in our fragile bodies we carry the possibilities of learning to exist with others. We may have been worlded, transported against our will, crossing borders in a dizzying journey to somewhere, anywhere else, holding onto the secular humanism of the ancient Tamil imperative – “All towns are home towns, every one kin.” Translation demands of us a particular attention, the logic of extension, to be “extra-territorial critics.” Let me end with the first poem I translated. It is Cheran’s. I am moved immensely by the dialogic nature of the poem, its refusal to stop its iterations, its relentless insistence, ancient mariner-like on demanding its reader to open up, to listen, to speak, just like a friend jostling you. It too functions on imperatives, but what a difference in its style, its intentions, in its plaintive call to the addressee.


    The snakes how to fornicate.
    The morning how to dawn. The trees about patience.
    The sleepwalkers whether dreams have colors.
    The refugees about the transformation of their tears into prison.
    What is fear, from the dark skinned men and women
    who happen to walk the nights in this city.
    The nose-ring wearing lovers,
    does lust last only for a month?
    The winter, when in the full moon light
    beneath the bridge, in the frozen milky sea
    where have all the singing fish gone?
    The migrants who flee from the four directions
    about that which was birthed from the loneliness of language.
    The woman who threw fire’s life print
    into the heart of my ice float
    about the sorrow squeezed from loneliness.
    This woman and that. After the last train
    for the night has also left.
    When even the rail tracks have split with the cold,
    Ask me how to wait with a lonely quill, a single flower in hand.

ANUSHIYA RAMASWAMY is an Indian Origin Sri Lankan Tamil who grew up in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She did her MA at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India followed by PhD. in Rhetoric and Composition from the University of Nevada, Reno. Anushiya is currently a Professor of English at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. Her work has appeared in World Literature Today, Callaloo, and her translation of Gorilla, a novel by the Sri Lankan Tamil writer Shobasakthi was followed by the translation of a second novel, Traitor by the same author. She has also translated a collection of poetry by N.D. Rajkumar, Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh. A translation of a selection of Shobasakthi’s short stories is forthcoming from Penguin, India in 2014.

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