Hephzibah Israel

Staff profile
I am Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. My main area of research interest is in literary and sacred translations in the South Asian context. I have examined evolving attitudes to translation and translation practices in the modern Tamil literary and sacred landscapes. My study of the translation history of the Tamil Bible has focused attention on it as an object of cultural transfer within intersecting religious, literary and social contexts. I am author of Religious Transactions in Colonial South India: Language, Translation and the Making of Protestant Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

The role translation plays in the movement of ideas and concepts across languages and cultures continues to fascinate me. As Principal Investigator of this project, I am excited about the prospect of investigating, together with colleagues, how ideas of religious conversion and writing about the self developed through translation in Indian language literatures from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. I will work with conversion narratives written originally in or translated into Tamil. I hope to bring theoretical approaches and methods from the discipline of translation studies to the project.

Matthias Frenz

In my research, I investigate cultural encounters between Europe and South Asia. I am particularly interested in religious practice, literature and language. My regional main focus is on southern India. In my research, I bring together approaches from Indian philology, social anthropology and religious studies.

In the current project, I explore conversion narratives written, translated, and published in the context of German Protestant missions to southern India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I investigate the unique constellation of an increasingly inward-looking European Protestantism encountering a culturally rich and diverse mission field with its own traditions of debate and reflection. I focus on two mission groups: the Halle Mission that sent its first missionaries to the Danish trading post Tarangambadi/Tranquebar in the early years of the eighteenth century, and the Basel Mission that began to work in southern India in the first half of the nineteenth century. Both groups recruited almost all their missionaries from Germany. At the same time, they entertained strong links with mission societies across Europe.

My published work engages with Protestant and Catholic missions to India from the eighteenth century to the present, including my monograph Gottes-Mutter-Göttin (Würzburg 2004) and several essays: ‘Reflecting Christianity in Depictions of Islam’, in Studies in World Christianity 14/3 (Edinburgh 2008), ‘The Illusion of Conversion’, in Young/Seitz (eds), Asia in the Making of Christianity (Leiden 2013).

John Zavos


Staff profile
I am Senior Lecturer in South Asian Studies at the University of Manchester. My recent publications include Religious Traditions in Modern South Asia (Routledge 2011), co-authored with Jacqueline Suthren Hirst, Public Hinduisms (Sage 2012), co-edited with several colleagues, and a range of articles on Hinduism and Hindu organisations in the UK.

I have worked extensively on the Hindu nationalist movement and am the author of The Emergence of Hindu Nationalism in India (Oxford University Press 2000). As part of both my historical and contemporary research on Hindu nationalism I have explored the issue of conversion and its role in the formulation of modern religious and political identities. I hope to offer this perspective to the current project, which seeks to encourage contemporary engagement over the issue historical accounts of conversion.

I have also in recent years been Principal Investigator on an AHRC-funded research network, the Public Representation of a Religion called Hinduism (www.arts.manchester.ac.uk/hinduism/), and hope to bring this experience to bear in helping the current project to come to fruition.

Milind Wakankar

I have been reading the religious literature of the first half of the Indo-Islamic millennium for some time now, and so questions of conversion would seem apropos. However, I am drawn to conversion more crucially for its insight into the intellectual histories of low caste peoples and communities.

It is often the case (it seems to me) that what comes across as ‘religious conversion’ is in fact a momentous conceptual-historical departure with profound meaning for the future histories of these communities. This is especially true in the era of political society, with caste-based parties in the electoral hustings and broad possibilities for upward mobility in the new liberal capitalist dispensation. I believe our current account of modern Indian intellectual history between, roughly speaking Rammohan Roy and Gandhi must take on board the conceptual work of conversion, and so I have in the past year repeatedly drawn attention to the parallels between Kabir (circa 15C of the Common Era) and Birsa Munda (late 19C), the tribal hero of the Mundas. Those who police religious boundaries and seek to repatriate communities to their supposed origins in mainstream religion find themselves in turns attracted and repelled by conversion as concept.

It is here that autobiography enables us to move beyond issues of personal transformation toward the way in which life can be patterned radically after a thought, in one cataclysmic event (the event of conversion). At that level which is below that of the subject, it is no longer a matter of Hinduism, Christianity or Islam; it is instead a question of finding a place for converts in the democratic future of the nation not merely as petitioners for tolerance but as rightful participants in the task of re-imagining the modern after the decline of the West.

Some of the groundwork for this line of inquiry is already in place in my book, Subalternity and Religion (Routledge, 2010). From within the possibilities of this project and with support from the Indian Institute of Technology (Delhi) in whose Department of Humanities I teach, I hope to work more intensely over next couple of years on the intersections between translation, conversion and the histories of Indian languages and literary traditions.

Academic Advisors

Our project will benefit from the oversight and support of an international advisory board reflecting the international and interdisciplinary scope of our study:

My main interest in the current project concerns missionary translation and the convergence between translation and conversion.

Professor Theo Hermans

University College London, UK
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Professor Philip Holden

National University of Singapore, Singapore
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Professor Udaya Kumar

(University of Delhi, India)
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The transition from soul to self across the cusp of modernity has received significant attention in scholarship, particularly in the work of Michel Foucault. The “technology of the self” that Foucault traces in Western Europe can be perceived in the deployment of the autobiographical form in India. My interest in this innovative project is to see how a technology of the self emerges in autobiography and how questions of agency emerge in this context.

Dr Christian Lee Novetzke

University of Washington, USA
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I am a social historian working on late nineteenth to early twentieth century Tamilnadu, coterminous with the making of modernity in the region. I am also a Tamil writer engaged in writing on social and literary themes spanning the whole range of Tamil literary history. My interest in this project stems from these varied trajectories: as a historian of print culture (The Province of the Book: Scholars, Scribes, and Scribblers in Colonial Tamilnadu, 2012) I have explored the making of print artefacts, the material foundations of publishing and the emergence of new literary forms; and as a historian of Tamil modernity I have researched the making of the modern Tamil self (‘Excising the Self: Writing Autobiography in Colonial Tamilnadu in A.R. Venkatachalapathy, In Those Days There Was No Coffee: Writings in Cultural History, 2006) through autobiographical writing. In addition, I have recovered and edited, in Tamil, various life writings (most recently, Chendrupona Natkal, [The Memoirs of S.G. Ramanujalu Naidu], 2015 and Bharatiyin Suyasarithaikal: Kanavu, Chinna Sankaran Kathai,, [The Autobiographies of Subramania Bharati]). I am also a practising translator translating between Tamil and English. My editions of classical Tamil poetry (with M.L. Thangappa) have been published in Penguin Classics (Love Stands Alone: Selections from Tamil Sangam Poetry (2010) and Red Lilies and Frightened Birds: ‘Muttollayiram’, 2011).

Professor A.R. Venkatachalapathy

Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India
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Madras Institute of Development Studies

Professor Rupa Viswanath

Centre for Modern Indian Studies, University of Göttingen, Germany
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