This is surely one of the most original, and potentially influential, books in translation studies to have appeared in many years. Written with spirit, it shares the verbal virtuosity and playfulness of writers like Doris Sommer (Bilingual Aesthetics) and Suzanne Jill Levine (The Subversive Scribe). These are books that venture into heavyweight issues with a light touch, and all the more effectively leave their imprint. Riddles of Belonging takes on issues of historical inequality, human rights and global justice through a series of interlocking stories. In this highly inventive book, concepts spiral through the narrative, acquiring new meanings as they are approached from different angles.
Christi Merrill combines a range of qualities and aptitudes unusual to find in one individual. She is a scholar at ease with the most recent developments in postcolonial theory and translation studies. She is also an accomplished translator from Hindi and Rajasthani, and she is a gifted writer. That she uses these overlapping skills to great effect is evident from the engaging tone and inventive form of the book. By commenting on oral-based stories, Christi Merrill’s work engages with a series of questions regarding source, transformation and authority (what she calls the “comical confusion of originals and derivatives”) in the transmission of traditional tales – from spoken narrative, to transcription, to creative reworking, to translation and then to new readings. This rich apparatus of inquiry easily defeats any simple idea of equivalence. At the same time, she is attempting to illustrate a particularly Indian concept of translation as rewriting, as writing in turn, as multiple versions. Though these ideas have been present as concepts within theoretical writing in India for at least a decade now, I believe that Christi Merrill’s Riddles of Belonging is the first thorough investigation of these questions based on specific field research – and her own practice as a translator. I am sure that this book will become an important reference point.
The volume combines personal narrative, theoretical discussions and literary analysis. Each chapter discusses a separate issue of transmission – showing, in the manner of David Damrosch (What is World Literature?) how translation works to enhance and complexify the meaning-systems of the work. One chapter compares twelve translations of a story that itself plays with “the divisions between common ground and alien ground, common sense and nonsense” (p. 14). The thread of argumentation in the book is kept open, highlighting through its own textual performance (its many questions and overlapping riddles) many of the issues being discussed. These involve questions of textual ownership, of ethical enunciation, and of the broader moral issues of ethnography and scholarship. The book also addresses important questions related to the historically devalued languages of community as they circulate in the nation and in the world. Merrill’s involvement with Rajasthani, a language which has only recently achieved legitimacy – through the literary prestige of the very writer she is translating – gives her an unusual perspective on language competition, and the way that translation can enhance linguistic prestige. The use of disparate and revealing sources from South Asian literary sources and postcolonial theory, from thinkers as diverse as Marx and Freud, Roland Barthes and Sheldon Pollock, give a richly textured backdrop to the study. The book brings together the concerns of South Asian studies, comparative literature, translation studies and postcolonial theory, and each disciplinary area would be happy to claim it. Translation, however, is at the core of the study, both as a practice and an angle of analysis. The book confirms the progress of translation studies – and the huge potential for illumination which it has acquired.
Merrill’s personal voice is attractive, in its candour and ability for self-criticism, in its attention to the power imbalances sustained by colonialism and by gender. By making herself a player in the book, by relentlessly creating triangles and even more complicated figures of communication, she cuts across the rhetoric of incommensurability at the same time as she recalls the “unexamined grammar of colonialism.” “It is in this way we see that a text’s ‘continued life’ is not to be found in the single lost original of the past but in an uncanny present necessarily temporary and plural, one whose to and from we rely on to make commonsense both individually and collectively” (p. 295). Her descriptions of some of her own field encounters are sometimes hilarious. At the same time, there is nothing complacent about this study which is –overall – intensely interrogative. Its questions open out in ever wider rings, suggesting that the riddles of translation have no easy answer and will continue to resonate in encounters between translation studies and postcolonial theory.