Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Little Languages, Big Futures

Presidency University Bicentennial Global Education Summit, ‘200 years ahead’, 17 January 2017 Lecture

Little Languages, Big Futures

Probal Dasgupta

Today is the 17th of January. Exactly one year ago, Rohith Vemula committed suicide on the campus of the University of Hyderabad, a campus with which I am still in contact, as I worked there for seventeen critical years, from 1989 to 2006. My son, who from 2012 to 2014 was a contemporary of his in the science wing of the university, knew Rohith personally and was devastated when he took his life. Please permit me to dedicate this talk to Rohith’s memory, and to the concerns of Dalits, Adivasis and other Bahujans in our society, focusing on education.
As Gayatridi noted yesterday, success in higher education depends on transforming the dismal scene of rural Indian schooling (especially dismal in Bahujan-majority regions) into an area of new hope, and this is an extremely steep mountain to climb. Unless many participants in our processes of higher education devote some of their theoretical attention and practical energy to the task of transforming school education, the obstacle will remain intractable, and we need to understand, on the anniversary of Rohith’s death, that for us to bow before this intractability is unacceptable behaviour. Before I start reading my paper, permit me to present one piece of concrete evidence that the perpetuation of social injustice makes the content of higher education, as it now stands, in its socially neutral garb, unteachable in contemporary India.
            In the year 1990, the year that the Mandal debate split Indian society into two, I was teaching an M.Phil. course in linguistics at the University of Hyderabad. One student in that batch was a particularly stellar Dalit student of mine, Rekha Abel. I had been teaching her since the mid-eighties, in Pune, and she moved to Hyderabad to do research with me. She was a gold medallist and I had always assumed that she was a living embodiment of the fact that caste didn’t matter, that formal linguistics was socially neutral and had to be taught uniformly to all social categories. But I sat up and paid attention when I read Rekha’s answer script. She turned a routine question about speech acts like promising and threatening into an opportunity to place social injustice on the intellectual agenda of linguistics. In her answer, Rekha spoke of ‘those who are in a position to carry out their promises or threats’ and distinguished them from ‘those who are at the receiving end of whatever they choose to promise or to threaten’. I had always thought that speech acts were neutral and symmetric. After reading Rekha’s comments I realized that I would have to think again. One of the overwhelming social facts, writ large, so large on the map that I had failed to notice it as I belong to the privileged echelons, is the actual asymmetry between those endowed with the power to promise or to threaten and those who have to suffer the consequences of the way these dominant individuals choose to use their power.
            I realize that some of my colleagues who believe in classical class analysis and who think it is a mistake to take caste seriously in socio-political theory and strategy are going to retort that a similar observation could just as easily have come from a class-conscious member of a lower social class. Indeed, nothing in Rekha’s text directly referred to caste per se. However, it is of some empirical importance that students from lower classes have in my experience never come up with such insights – and I have taught students from socio-economically deprived strata for many years; there was no reason why my Greek students in Australia, for instance, should not have produced such insights in their conversations with me in 1979. My point is that Rekha did, and that this owes a great deal to her self-articulation specifically as a Dalit student. Furthermore, while doing her Ph.D., a few years after that M.Phil. answer script of hers, it was she who spotted David Bleich’s 1988 book in the library. After one has read Bleich’s book, there is no turning back: one’s older default ‘neutral’ take on the study of language, literature, discourse and education irreversibly gives way to an approach that takes social injustice on board and insistently asks, at every step, what counts as most important from the standpoint of the most severely disadvantaged participants in the processes one is trying to conceptualize and implement.
            My paper, which I am about to start reading, articulates this focus on social justice goals in the slightly ironic style that has been mandatory for some time in certain demographically indexed regions of the humanities. This choice of style is meant to be in keeping with the festive mood in which we are quite naturally conducting most of these sessions, and I do wish to take part in the celebrations. I too was part of the Presidency College community from 1970 to 73, albeit as a student of Sanskrit College who would cross the street for my Bangla and my English, whereas my immediate junior Arindam Chakrabarti, for instance, used to cross the street in other direction for his Sanskrit, which is how he ran into me when he joined our ranks in 1971. That was a time when I did not realize the importance of taking the difficulties of Dalits and Adivasis on board, not to speak of Bahujans: we were all concentrating on questions framed in socialist terms. But some of us were Naxalites and thus did have a take on certain Adivasis. It is fitting, then, that my paper today focuses specifically on Adivasi languages, if only as a metonym for the larger question of the future of our languages, of all our languages in this part of the world. I am going to look at some linguistic and cultural presuppositions of educational systems. If our languages wither and perish, then our education – higher, lower or otherwise – will die a painful and protracted death. This important fact has not yet engaged the attention of those who have the power to promise an abundance of resources, who therefore also have the power to threaten to dismantle the few resources that we have precariously put in place, and who don’t know which of their powers they should use and why.


You begin with a problem that is hiding in plain sight, pretending to be a solution. This solution is a two-part package. Part one is a translation programme. It involves mega-translating texts of literature or orature from neglected ‘minority’ languages into ‘major’ languages like Kannada or English. The point of this programme is to reverse the pattern of neglect that has culturally disenfranchised members of those minorities. Part two of the package is a celebration programme. It involves turning such translated texts into an object of business as usual in literary studies, the business of rigorous celebration usually called criticism. Since the core of the project involves mega-scale textual translation from mini-languages, you propose to call this package the mega-mini programme.
Staging as you are a circumspect form of resistance, you carefully avoid directly confronting the mega-mini programme. You duly express agreement with other stakeholders that, as far as it goes, mega-mini is truly wonderful. Its implementers are unsung heroes whose praises you happily agree to sing. At the same time, you try to help these stakeholders to outgrow the belief that this assimilationist mega-mini package can reverse marginalization. The package has in fact been giving the old marginalization dangerously benign-looking new clothes to wear.
You need to be gentle with your interlocutors, for otherwise you will be perceived as shrill and fail to make headway. But you need to nurture uncompromising ideas in your own thinking. If you don’t, you leave yourself at the mercy of your improvised tactics, buffeted by the winds of this or that random conversation. Your best bet is to develop your core proposals first, and only later to ask how best to convince a particular audience, with the parameters of that audience in mind.

The core proposals

When you ask what kind of future our languages face, it is natural to think about the fact that many languages and their associated literary and cultural traditions are dying out. This phenomenon prompts many of us to focus our attention on ‘little’ languages. Suppose you make this choice, either because you speak such a language or because your pursuit of justice has turned you into an advocate for some particular language of this kind. From that viewpoint, you soon realize that the dangers of assimilationism loom especially large if ‘your little tradition’ – the one that you belong to or have become an advocate for – is locked into an exclusive dyadic relation with one and only one adjacent major language such as Kannada, Bangla, Odia, Hindi or Marathi. Through and around such a major language, of course, the impact of English makes itself felt, slightly complicating the geometry of the assimilationist pressure; but virtually no indigenous people of India ever faces English directly; at least one major Indian language, often several languages, come into play and mediate their geometry with English.
To leave the toxic relationship with this mediating middle-sized language undisturbed is to accept the status quo.
Your first core proposal is to unsettle the intercultural geometry. Introduce a wild card. Find suitable partner communities to hook your indigenous people up with. Push the possibility, say, of the Khasi community forging a cultural-political triadic bond with the Zulus in South Africa and with the Navajo nation in the United States. Such a long-distance partnership will reconfigure the local games that the Navajo, Khasi and Zulu peoples have been forced to play with their geographical neighbours. You insist on the three-way partnership model because only this version of the idea features both the horizontal south-south element – as in Khasis making friends with Zulus – and the vertical dynamics between the Navajo nation and its white American neighbours.
Of course you will face questions. Why this long-distance model? Surely natural coalitions must be with immediate neighbours? But neighbours have a history of conflict. Distance helps. There is no history of Khasi-Zulu conflicts, or of Zulu-Navajo antagonisms.
What can this have to do with the business of language and literature studies? The exact answer will depend on the distance your implementation manages to traverse. Perhaps all you can do is juxtapose English translations from Zulu, from Khasi, from Navajo, enabling elite members of the three communities to at least savour each other’s culturally significant stories and chants in English. If you get that far, that will certainly be an improvement on the status quo, and a certain genre of discursive and literary reflection will take off. However, suppose you are able to go beyond that minimum and pull off a few token translations from one indigenous language into another. If, through these texts, some non-elite readers in each community are able to gain direct cultural exposure to people they are beginning to view as long-distance soul-mates, then a much bigger breakthrough becomes possible, both in the academic study of language and literature and in cultural politics.
How do you stop such a project from lapsing into personality-driven, careeristic opportunism for a few? You offer a minimalist conceptualization that takes a few broad-brush strokes as your point of departure. Culture hero narratives and sacred grove narratives – with some mutatis mutandis about the groves – are crucial to every indigenous culture. Disseminating their iconization is not a task that members of majority cultures have proved good at. Surely inter-indigenous cultural exchange will help celebrate the iconization of specific places and persons as a generalizable practice. Inter-community exchange has the advantage of freeing the primary stakeholders from the condescending gaze of tyrannical majority populations.
You find yourself unable, however, to believe fully in such a conceptualization. You are worried that such a starting point runs the risk of romanticizing the ‘primitive’, of reinforcing asymmetries, of freezing irrationality perceptions at their current level. These worries of yours, you will notice, are based on the western mainstream’s social evolutionism. Once you begin to take seriously the intrinsic value of the natural surround that frames human culture – once you take on board the perennial beliefs in the capacity of rivers to renew human purity, for instance – those misconceived worries recede. The question that remains is how to integrate your project for the indigenous peoples with your project in translation studies, to which you then turn. You cannot make core proposals in the theory of language or of literature if you have nothing to offer in translation studies.
Your bicontextual enterprise in translation studies, which you have been proposing and reproposing for decades, pits the perennial logic of the classical hieratic context – which stresses the intrinsic value of classics worthy of translation and dissemination – against the logic of the foundationist context. This modern logic enjoins all knowledge workers to pool their resources and build the universal foundation for the brave new city. The point is not to connect knowledge texts to each other by translation. There are no permanently valuable originals or renderings. Every set of texts and translations accepted as provisionally valid is an imperfect, continually revisable version of the brave new city’s intellectual foundation. The ‘real’ foundation keeps retreating into the future as one revises these successive drafts.
The hieratic and foundationist logics pull translation in contradictory directions. The hieratic emphasis on numinous source languages associated with religion and the arts generates one type of asymmetry. The foundationist telos of a perfectly enlightened future – universal in principle, led of course by upper-class Caucasian hetero-normative males in practice – stresses science, mathematics and the species of business that has come to be called ‘development’; this emphasis gives rise to a different set of asymmetries. The two sets of asymmetries do not cancel out as a matter of course if both the logics are allowed free play; these are not equal and opposite forces in physics; desired outcomes have to be brought about by appropriate strategic preparation. If one wants foundationist forces to undermine hieratic asymmetries, and vice versa, one will have to astutely play them off against each other – a point you have been making for quite some time now, whenever you repeat this litany about the interplay of the hieratic logic with the foundationist logic in our intercultural configuration.
How exactly does this package that you have been proposing in translation studies align with your suggestion that inter-indigenous partnerships of the Khasi-Zulu-Navajo type should redirect some of the translation traffic?
Obviously, you are hitching a ride on the international community’s development bus – your strategy is to tweak their foundationist logic in a hieratic direction. You are appealing, of course, to the standard arguments in favour of preserving local knowledge encoded in indigenous languages (urgently but not exclusively the ones that are endangered). You are also making the additional point that your inter-indigenous partnership proposal, if implemented, will increase the number and diversity of the stakeholders investing in each particular body of indigenous knowledge, and will thus reinforce the survival chances of indigenous knowledge in general. On this basis, you are pushing an apparatus of modern rationality into a decision to invest in hieratic translation priorities. Whether you can pull this off will depend on your public relations skills. But before you face your actual interlocutors and test these skills, you have to unpack the logic of your package with full clarity in the privacy of your own thinking, as utopian as you need it to be.

Anchoring the Proposals

You know from experience that, having produced translations, you seldom find readers who enthusiastically read the texts or who, if they do read them, actually grow as a result of this exposure. You are aware that all that has been said so far can be dismissed as a couple of project ideas designed to prop up some protégé’s career. If you want people to find an authentic, politically sustainable enterprise here, you need to associate these ideas with a richer background programme.
            Such a programme, as you see it, starts out by construing the cultural environment of each community – not just each indigenous community, but more generally – in terms of intrinsic values. If a grove is sacred for this Bhil community, you read their narratives in order to learn that it is appropriate to be in awe of the fact that they are in awe of the grove. Once you genuinely learn that this attitude is appropriate, you begin to vicariously regard it as sacred as well, even if your non-membership of the relevant community prevents you from taking direct part in worship. When you speak to alienated or former members of the Bhil community, who have been led by a deracinating education to dissociate themselves from the perception that the grove is sacred, you do not deride their derision, but you are able to inform them why you, even without being a Bhil of any sort, take the sacredness of sacred groves or the heroic iconicity of culture heroes seriously. The basic principle is that, when you see serious respect, you respect it, and through those devotees you learn to construe sacred sites as sacred, heroic figures as heroic.
How does this enterprise not collapse into an acceptance of all fundamentalisms? And what about contested territories, which different communities construe in contradictory ways?
Of course you cannot put answers, should not even try to thrust your answers, into every fellow resister’s mouth, but you do need to point out that some moderately satisfying answers are already available, and to encourage everybody to tweak these in their favourite directions. One stops endorsing fundamentalisms when one insists that the dialogue is permanent and that it is not ruled by any referees, any umpires, any adjudicators. Of course fundamentalisms have to be addressed; but fundamentalists who agree, however grudgingly, to participate in a process of dialogue are unlikely to be able to retain their intransigence. The current fierceness is a response to the west having grabbed an orchestra conductor’s role and having managed to propagate the belief that the west is an acceptable referee. It isn’t, not because there is some other more acceptable referee, but because the orchestra is not a viable dialogical format. We need to switch over to the gamelan format, where one instrument segues into another without any conductor telling each player what to do.
In a gamelan format, with no single archilanguage, one faces the challenge of a multisemiotic interplay, whose stakeholders keep trying to find points of least dissonance and create styles of mutuality. If your public needs a fully explicit unpacking of this visualization to understand more clearly what all this is about, you point them to the work on science and language by Sundar Sarukkai that you are borrowing the multisemiotic format from. If even this does not suffice, try appealing to the way the young, or at least young men and women who appear on Page Three, have been moving away from the prestige of massive monolingual identities in any case. This is where the intersection of the ‘future of our languages’ theme with translation studies begins to make sense at last, as you are about to see.

Why Permanent Bicontextuality Matters

            Playing the hieratic and foundationist logics against each other in the theory and practice of translation is all very well as a strategy. However, when you offer bicontextuality with a straight face in the context of projections for the future, the public will inquire whether you are trying to turn the bicontextual strategy into an actual balancing act that you would like all stakeholders to take seriously on a permanent basis. They will be surprised to hear that you are indeed making such a proposal, which you therefore have to unpack.
            The hieratic logic focuses on the intrinsic cultural value of the spaces and events that a community or subcommunity specially cherishes and would like others to respect. The foundationist logic looks to a shared, intercommunal future that will be built together, on shared scientific and moral foundations, keeping panhuman goals in mind (goals that must be compatible also with the interest of other flora and fauna and the long-term sustainability of this planet as a living space). To be bicontextual does not mean that we put in place some third, simultaneously epistemic and axiological scripture that everybody is required to jointly sanctify because some prophet or prophets have propounded it. What you are proposing is that we take seriously both principled pan-human concerns and the situated concerns visible at particular community-to-community interfaces. It is at those encounters – staged by what is sometimes called ‘cultural’ translation, and is perhaps better seen as the cultural dimension of all translation – that it becomes important for each community to persuade other communities to cherish everybody’s sanctities as sacred.
            Now that communities are clearly known to harbour heterogeneities and internal tensions, now that it is clear that the fragments of communities are bound to make common cause across community boundaries on the basis of horizontal affiliations like ‘women’ or ‘queers’ or ‘vegan’, you are obviously not about to allow the orthodox high priests who claim ownership of any community to carve their sanctity lists in stone. For certain specific purposes where historical practices of longue durée make a practical difference – like establishing the antiquity of the medical use of some particular herb, for instance, and thus claiming ownership of that piece of knowledge and that herb by some indigenous community – you find yourself taking seriously the community per se, defined in terms of some ethnonym and setting aside the internal rifts that any community is bound to harbour. The point is not that the literary gaze or the linguistic gaze can tranquilize or ignore all internal disputes within each community. On the contrary, literature frequently thematizes such conflicts. The point is that, when survival is at stake, we have to cut a great deal of red tape, old and new. And translators quickly learn which kind of tape is worth cutting in which context.
            Why bicontextuality, then, rather than deka- or even hectocontextuality? Well, we are obsessed with the knowledge-feeling binary, which looms large over the hundreds of passions that move us. As we improve our multisemiotic translation skills, it is permanently bicontextual thinking that is going to keep us balanced, as we lurch into our futures, partly together, partly at the end of our tether, as messily as in any other human journey.


Bleich, David. 1988. The Double Perspective: Language, Literacy, and Social Relations. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Sarukkai, Sundar. 2002. Translating the world: science and language. New York: University Press of America.


The power-focused profiling of communities and their assets, including their linguistic resources, compares all communities with the powerful, especially colonizers, and asks how heavy a particular community’s historical archive is. We have been trained to cheer for heavy archives; to feel compassion for lightweight archives; and to make projections for the future on the basis of these habits.
This method of viewing is collapsing, however, and will soon be obsolete. A community with a little tradition attached to it can easily leverage this transformation in such a way as to come out with a wonderfully lithe, supple, agile self-image, leaving the lumbering, deadwood-laden, slow-moving heavies behind in the new race that is now taking off.
My point is that there is in fact no English archive, or French archive, or German archive. The national archiving systems in those powerful languages are giving way to a yet to be worked out new regime of preservation and circulation that takes into account the impossibility of any possessing institutions like libraries actually owning unique archives of their own and deciding how much to lend these resources to others. In other words, it is becoming clear that there are no national histories, and that only historiographies with a far wider and deeper mode of coverage have any hope of being taken seriously in a future that will find nation-states quaint and meaningless. While the institutions and informalities that root for post-national realities are not yet in place, the Eurozone and other supra-national arrangements have already been eroding the authority of the nation-state from without, while the fragments of the classical nation have been doing so from within.
Thanks to these processes we all begin to see that the heavy archive that the nation-state used to own with pride is going to be associated, not with a particularizable nation-state, but much more fluidly, with a universal history for which alone it makes sense to be weighty and deep the way the ocean is weighty and deep. The actual archive of a particular community is supposed to be light, portable, and easily surveyable. Even if someone belongs to a huge community, e.g. the one known as ‘American’, it will soon stop making sense to identify oneself as an American and take pride in a general American literary archive. Individuals will root for far more textured identities based on the tapestry of their physical or cultural ancestors, leaving nobody willing to claim the ‘American’ identity, a logic that easily extends to the French or English or Russian identity as this process sweeps the larger communities.
Thus, the current belief that orality or a lightweight archive is a disadvantage and that small communities have some catching up to do is at odds with the actual logic of the post-national imaginary, and the actual content of the pride of younger scholars, who long ago stopped emulating the classical book-memorizing scholars, the type that used to show off how they knew hundreds of books by heart. The young are proud of the way they know how to shed that kind of burden from their brains and how to direct their agility in the fast moving new directions in which it makes sense to use an individual brain. And the directions in which this process is moving uncannily resemble the kinds of agility that used to be required in so-called primitive social life. Extremes meet. To think of a little tradition as deserving compassion and assistance is to miss the point of our present, and to misproject the future of our languages.
            These considerations – and other thoughts pertaining to do with social justice not just for indigenous peoples with well-defined separate languages like Khasi, Zulu or Navajo, but also for dalits and other bahujans marginalized in hierarchy-laden India – make it appropriate to try to put in place innovative coalitions of little communities, and to associate this enterprise with relevant initiatives in translation studies.


At January 17, 2017 at 10:04 PM , Blogger Paul Desailly said...

Who's to match Mukur in all the world, even among his professorial colleagues in academe this amateur would venture to guess, vis-a-vis analyses of a world wide failure to communicate? - let alone as regards administering of the cure in a form acceptable to all patients?

Is more than one cure possible, practical...? OMG, the tribes, the nations, the castes and so on - to mention but one huge country. There can be but one cure and this professor Dasgupta possesses the wisdom to direct his students so that they may work it out for themselves with the help of his colleagues - for those with minds to know.

Consider, pray, the advice and guidance of one humanitarian, a recipient of the most glorious order of the British empire in 1920; no mean feat this that English men their titles bestow upon an Asian, I think you will agree:

"In order to facilitate complete understanding between all people, a universal auxiliary language will be adopted and in the schools of the future two languages will be taught — the mother tongue and this international auxiliary tongue which will be either one of the existing languages, or a new language made up of words from all the languages — the matter to be determined by a confederation met for the purpose which shall represent all tribes and nations. This international tongue will be used in the work of the parliament of man — a supreme tribunal of the world which will be permanently established in order to arbitrate international questions. The members of this arbitral court of justice will be representatives of all the countries. It is incumbent upon the nations to obey the commands of this tribunal, for such a tribunal will be under the power of God and for the protection of all men. In all the sacred books where do you find such a statement?"

Sir Abdu'l-Baha Abbas, KBE, knighted in Palestine for services fighting famine during WW1


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