What will we study and how?

Over the next two years, we hope to highlight the distinctive nature of translation in its ability to constitute and transform religious cultures and identities. The team will explore links between the translation of values and concepts across languages and the nature of religious conversion. Questions relating to translation, religions and the literary converge to raise some central questions, but will hopefully also take us in new directions and exciting ways to read overlaps.

‘Translation’ and ‘conversion’ are after all closely linked conceptually since both refer to processes of change and transformation, whether change from one language culture to another or change from one religious culture to another. Although change is fundamental to both, it is not always clear how we can study why and how transformation occurs. However, since both cases of transformation are available to us largely through language, one way forward is to study shifts in language choice that accompany movement from one religious position to another.

There are some terms that we may commonly associate with the ‘religious’ or sacred sphere: ‘God’, ‘soul’, ‘salvation’, ‘scripture’ or ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ and so on. But each one of these terms may mean different things in different religious and cultural contexts, and indeed to different branches within one religion. It is during acts of translation, when agreements or disagreements over meanings become most visible, that conceptual incommensurability between religions traditions becomes most obvious. So what does it mean when we use terms as universal categories, as if each has an essential meaning that can be transferred from one religious context to another? How does an individual who has self-consciously converted from one religious system to another indicate their ‘translation,’ so to speak, from one linguistic perceptual universe to another? What is lost or gained in translation?

We will investigate whether religious conversion and identities are articulated differently in different Indian language and literary traditions and how these differences may be maintained or erased when re-composed in English and German. This will give us an opportunity to analyze to what extent differences in autobiographical traditions between the Indian literary traditions on the one hand and the German and English traditions on the other, imposed constraints on the translation process. We plan to study these autobiographical narratives in conjunction with at least one other set of narratives on conversion: the missionary narrative that continues to offer the ‘official perspective’ accompanied by statistics of conversion in their areas.

Marathi, Tamil, Latin, English and German texts

We will also explore whether western translation concepts and practices introduced in South Asia from the eighteenth century onwards fundamentally changed the way Indians understood the relationship between religious faith, language and identity. We plan to apply a new set of translation questions on the transfer of religious concepts and identities in South Asia: how did translations of sacred texts into and out of Indian languages undertaken by European scholars from the early eighteenth century introduce new ways of constructing, defining and framing religious concepts in South Asia?

We argue that this conceptual aspect of translation is intrinsic to the way religions began to be viewed, compared and categorized in the Indian context: whether core concepts could or could not be translated into other languages often determined whether a religion was considered a religion at all by European scholars.

Comparing translation practices across the four languages will allow us to explore the construction of religious boundaries and thresholds through the selection, publication and circulation of translated conversion narratives, impacted by new technologies and practices of print history in India. Shantivanam-Brahma-ChristWe will also take into account new translation practices introduced in colonial India, which significantly changed existing relationships between Indian languages (for instance, between the ‘classical’ Sanskrit and modern Indian languages) and altered traditional patterns in the flow of religious knowledge through translation.

If we start with the premise that language systems create conceptual worlds, to what extent do religious concepts evolve differently within different languages? And to what extent is it possible to translate these concepts from one language system to another? Since the sacred is expressed and experienced through language, sharing a faith demands consenting to a shared language. But what happens when as in the case of conversion, an individual uses the one language to refer to two different systems of faith? Does this merely require an adjustment in language register? The question is whether when a faith has been experienced in one language register, using a different language register alters the way one experiences the faith or the very nature of that faith?