Comptes rendus

Hephzibah Israel. Religious Transactions in Colonial South India. Language, Translation, and the Making of Protestant Identity. Palgrave Studies in Cultural and Intellectual History. New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, 286 p.[Record]

  • Paul St-Pierre

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  • Paul St-Pierre
    Université de Montréal

This work, the result of research carried out for a doctoral degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, examines the translation of the Protestant Bible into Tamil in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Tamil, a Dravidian language of South India, is one of the official languages of India, and a language with an especially long and developed literary history. Indeed, the author notes, “Tamil is both the first Indian language and the first non-European language in print [...]” (p. 19). Of particular interest to the author is the way certain choices regarding the translation of the Bible were made with a view to constructing Protestant Tamil identities, as both related to and yet distinct from other—in particular Hindu, but also Roman Catholic and Muslim—Tamil identities. Producers of translations of the Bible into Tamil were faced with the same dilemma missionaries elsewhere had been confronted with, most notably in the famous 17th-century controversy between the Dominicans and the Jesuits over the question of the Chinese rites, i.e., to what extent should they adapt Christian religion to local customs, practices and rituals? In the case of the translation of the Bible into Tamil, the author shows that this question played itself out predominantly in three areas: the choice of appropriate terminology, in particular the terms to be used to refer to the Christian God; the choice of appropriate registers of language, a question of some importance in Indian languages, in which literary language is clearly distinguished from the language of everyday use; and finally, the importance of the selection of an appropriate genre for the translation. In all three cases—a chapter is devoted to each—the challenge was essentially the same: to formulate a text that would be adapted to Tamil linguistic and literary conventions, as well as social practices, at the same time as it would emphasize the novelty and importance of the message being conveyed and of the new Christian community being established. The author sums up her work as follows: “[...] my aim is to study precisely how the Bible has been constructed as ‘scripture’ for Tamils; how translation processes by challenging the power ascribed to textual traditions make visible the nontextual discourses that seek to construct religious power; and finally, examine how Protestant Tamils challenge or appropriate particular translations by mobilizing ‘popular’ forms of Christian devotion and practices” (p. 12). Chapter 1, “The Terms of the Debate,” focuses on the translation of the Bible in the 19th century, since this was when there was “[...] a wider and more systematic debate on translation strategies for Protestant purposes [...]” (p. 37). Bible translation boomed during the period, across many Indian languages, largely due to the Baptist Society in Serampore (Bengal) and the British and Foreign Bible Society, based in Madras, and debates on the issues took place in the public sphere, due in large part to the development of printing. The author’s argument is that the discussion around the translation of the Bible fulfilled a function in defining Protestant literary culture, in forging a Protestant textual community, and in establishing a uniform Protestant reading community (pp. 41-42). Five principal elements of the Protestant missionary discourse on translation are identified: 1) should existing religious terminology be used, or new terms constructed?; 2) should a translation be idiomatic or literal?; 3) should the level of language of the translation be literary, or that of common speech?; 4) in cases of ambiguity or difficulty in interpretation, what should be the text of reference?; and 5) what role should “native” informants …