Histories of the Self, Histories of Others: Questions of Translation and Historiography
Coordinators: Corinne Lefèvre and Inès G. Županov
This research group aims to pursue and reorient two concurrent intellectual interests and research goals that were already crucial during the preceding four-year plan for the team working on “Constructions of South Asia’s Past: Historical Cultures of South Asia, Orientalist Knowledge, Social Sciences (16th-21st Centuries)” (coord. C. Lefèvre and I. G. Županov).
The first concerns the encounter and interactions between different epistemic traditions in the context of our overarching goal of understanding the construction of knowledge and communities of scholars in South Asia during the early modern period. In order to do so, we took as our point of departure the analysis of dialogical forms of cultural mediation considered as having both literary value and practical purposes, before asking ourselves additional questions about one of the key concepts brought to the foreground by these reflections, namely cosmopolitanism. But neither the work done on cultural dialogue, nor the examination of South Asian cosmopolitanisms had seemed to us able to provide a definitive answer to the fundamental question which had emerged in the meantime: that of the relation to the Other and the contribution of others in the construction of knowledge on and in South Asia.
As for our second interest and research goal, it was historiographical in nature and had to do, to speak more precisely, with the dispositions and modalities by way of which such knowledge was transmitted. Within the context of this long-term process, we came to believe that the dialogical character of the construction of historiography on South Asia was one of the most productive lines of inquiry for making sense of the rifts, captations and erasures that serve as milestones along this path of construction. History, identity and alterity therefore quite naturally came to stand out as three “keywords” around which a new research group should be formed. In doing so, we also wanted to branch out from the notion of “communities of scholars” to include lesser-known actors, who are invested in producing knowledge that is more technical than “scholarly,” or even that has to do with ordinary, day-to-day knowledge. The research we aim to conduct within this framework will be articulated around two main areas.
1) Translation and geographical distribution of knowledge about the Other
The issues of translation and translatability will be two of our main concerns in this research workshop, which will primarily federate historians and anyone whose object of study has to do with the production of knowledge on and in the South Asian world over the longue durée. We understand translation in a very broad sense. What is at stake is not merely to think translation between languages, resulting in the constitution of texts, but also translation as transfer, “transcoding” of texts, discourses and cultural imaginaries.
Within this field of translation broadly understood, our interest as practitioners and users of translations—which are our primary sources and privileged objects of study—would be to initiate a critique and analysis of these practices in a reflexive and historicist manner. What is at stake is to think simultaneously about our own practices as well as about the modalities of translation that our historical actors themselves took part in: when and how do theories and practices of translation explicitly aim at producing certain kinds of knowledge? For whom and for what purpose? What is the relationship between theories and practices of translation? How is the field of power and translatability structured with regard to source languages and receptor languages?
We are particularly interested in the way multilinguistic and multicultural South Asian context inflects, at some times more strongly than others, its social, political and epistemic formations, and in how learned languages, “cosmopolitan” languages and vernacular languages are inscribed within or exceed the political and intellectual landscape of South Asia.
Furthermore, reflection on translation is directly related to the question of political and cultural/religious encounters, of which there can be various types, ranging from superficial and brief to profound and lasting. Several members of this research group already study—with a parallel focus on other problematics as well—the encounters that are important for the South Asian landscape today: between Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal court, between Portuguese and scholarly and vernacular languages, between Dravidian languages and Sanskrit, between the languages that are instrumental in importing new religions and liturgies (Syriac, Arabic, Latin) and the vernacular languages of converts and believers, etc.
Lastly, we plan to study translation as text, which is a particular kind of object in the scholarly and religious literatures of South Asia. From this perspective, our aims are 1) to work philologically on manuscripts and printed materials in order to understand the various different ways of translating and the resulting relationship with (or distance from) the original: adaptation, recreation, falsification, re-translation; 2) to reconstruct networks of circulation, dissemination and preservation, especially with regard to manuscripts; 3) to understand the power (or lack thereof) and the role played by translation in the construction of literary canons and various other forms of knowledge.
2) Intersecting perspectives on South Asian historiographies
We are also especially concerned with the historiography of our research field. In this respect, it is imperative to study history writing as a particular kind of political, social and cultural practice by addressing different scales of inquiry and a variety of chronological layers. On the scale of the sub-continent, to begin with, we will undertake a preliminary exploration of the question prior to the advent of the British Raj, and from at least three perspectives:
Writing the history of the (religiously, ethnically, socially) Other: what sociopolitical moments are particularly conducive to the writing of these histories? What are the (oral, written) sources of such historiography? What are the sociological contours and ideological motivations of the actors involved (sponsors, authors, translators, transcribers, etc.)?
What are the relationships between the various discourses on the past produced by the different groups that make up South Asian society before the period of British domination? How are these various discourses articulated? What discursive interactions are operative in contemporary historiographic productions? Is the past of the Other present in these constructions, and if so, in what ways?
How is the writing of history instrumentalized for identity politics during this period?
It is our goal to re-inscribe the historiographic traditions produced in the sub-continent into a broader context—both chronologically and geographically. What is at stake is to connect historiographies about South Asia with those concerned with other areas of the world (some nearby, like South-East Asia, some farther away, like Europe or the United States). From this perspective, we will work on establishing a cartography of these historiographic circulations, highlighting both the main approaches used as well as any dead ends.
We will also be particularly interested in the impact these interactions and entanglements have on a global scale, in terms of primary sources, objects of study and also methodology.
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