Translating Every Day: The Importance and Impossibility of Decolonising Translation

Kavita Bhanot writes on mother-tongue shame, translating across generations, and decolonising translation.


Personal Essays, Pen Transmission, 7 October 2020


Last year, I participated in a two-day conference, organised by ‘postcolonial intellectuals’, called ‘Intellectuals without Borders’. I presented on the ‘Whiteness of Postcolonial and Multicultural Literary Criticism’, intending to disrupt the very idea of the ‘borderless intellectual’.

I sensed a discomfort amongst many of the attendees – established academics or ‘intellectuals’ – about recent political conversations, self-assertion through university campaigns and social media platforms. ‘It’s as if anyone can be an intellectual now’, said one of the ‘postcolonial intellectuals’ during the event. Critique of the need for safe spaces, which create boundaries for the apparently free and neutral ‘intellectual’ of the title, was a recurring conversation. There seemed to me nothing post colonial about the frustrated expectation of elite white (or simply elite) academics that they should be able to enter and have access to every conversation and space – in particular non-white spaces that might be source-material for academic careers based on studying the ‘other.’  There was little understanding, in the room, of the importance of lived experience; of the vulnerability that people of colour might feel in exclusionary spaces; of their need to educate, empower and strengthen themselves before crossing ‘borders’ into spaces of power, in order not to be crushed or assimilated.

The idea of borders is often depoliticised – especially in relation to art, music and literature, which are supposed to bring people together. From a position of power, hierarchies are flattened into superficial borders that should be easy to cross.

In this way, reading the literature of the ‘other’ is often seen to allow the normative white reader to cross borders; to enter, access, understand hidden, secret spaces – all the more so in the case of translated literature. When English language literature is seen in terms of its global advantage, as facing and privileging white readers, as the forte of upper classes and castes in non-western countries, translated literature can be seen as a more ‘authentic’ alternative that goes further and deeper – giving access to ‘other’ worlds and voices. It isn’t originally written for a global western audience, but is rather invested in regional and national specificities of non-western societies and takes these for granted. In this formulation, the desire to excavate, to read this literature, can be part of the same colonial desire and curiosity to understand, to encapsulate, to dominate the world. As translator and poet Heriberto Yépez said:

Why do we translate? I think psychohistorically it has to do with trying to dominate the other, trying to absorb the other. […] If writing is, as we know, imperialistic in nature, translation is more clearly imperialistic…Why do dominant cultures translate so much? It is the same as gathering oil.

These words were spoken at an event called ‘Moving Across Languages, Borders, and Cultures’ – again suggesting travel ‘across’ a flat terrain.

But translation across languages, countries, races and classes that have an unequal power relationship to each other – between English and non-western languages, for instance – is not simply a lifted barrier, an innocent bridge, a clear path that allows us to cross artificial lines that separate the human race. From a place of power, the interaction is inevitably colonial – a form of domination. Is the act of translating from Punjabi or Hindi into English, I have often wondered, exploitative and extractive – does it make me a native informant? In other words, is the idea of decolonising translation a contradiction?


However, there is another border or boundary across which translations can be important, also derived from colonialism: generations.

This is not a straightforward power relationship, especially in the case of migrants brought to Britain via a colonial history. All parents, including migrant parents, are assumed to have power over their children; that is how the generation gap is usually presented in films and books. But those who came to Britain without English, or without native proficiency of the language, have often looked to their children, once they’re old enough, for support in navigating the new country – for daily translations.

Not only has this dependency complicated the parent-child relationship, it has also created a generation of those to whom translation has always been a part of life. Although few of us see ourselves as professional, experienced, skilled translators (literary translation still tends to be seen as a white profession) translation has been part of our everyday reality.

While, without English, our parents and grandparents were more vulnerable in their new context, we were led to believe that, despite what we were told at home, only English was important. The wider contexts we grew up in – schools, media, television – taught us that there was no value in our families’ languages and literatures.

My own research on British Asian literature often reveals this shame around the mother tongue. Sathnam Sanghera writes in his memoir The Boy with the Topknot of his journey from speaking only Punjabi as a small child, to becoming, through a kind of wilful forgetting, incoherent in the language, unable to express his basic thoughts or communicate with his family. ‘You’re in England now, make some kind of effort to learn the language of your country’ is his attitude towards his family and other Punjabis. The narrator of Nirpal Dhaliwal’s Tourism tells us: ‘The temple provided (Punjabi lessons) for free; like other immigrants, Sikhs were desperate to retain their customs in a foreign land. I attended the lessons for years. I had no enthusiasm for my mother tongue and the lessons bored me to death’.

British Asian literature from the 1990s onwards has often been a form of translation of childhood experiences, of parents and communities, into English. However, directed towards the white reader, explaining, simplifying, often mocking, through the voice of a native informant, this translation has been intertwined with the colonial project. These writers, carrying perhaps their own unprocessed trauma in the face of racism, gave publishers what they wanted; they were paid to gather oil.


In recent years, something has changed. Younger people, in Britain and across the world, have been questioning structures that have instilled inferiority and shame in them. Understanding the ways in which the colonial project continues in the diaspora – leading them to dismiss and erase their cultures, languages and literatures – many have been turning to, recovering, reconnecting with these, seeking – with a sense of solace, relief and emotional connect – to learn, understand and value what they were told is worthless.

(Re)turning to the mother tongue has been seen as an act of reclamation, a radical act – which in some ways it is. Translation can be seen in the same way; as a bridge, a connection, a space of communication between generations. This form of translation, whether it is of lived life and histories of families and communities, or of music and literature, oral and written from the mother tongue faces a different direction. It can be read by anyone, but it is intended for fellow diasporics who have lost their language – offering an anchor, a foundation, a history, which colonialism has taken away. Translation into English still privileges the language of power and carries the limitations of the language, but it is all some of us have.

No literature is a mirror, to the present or the past – it is always ideological, always carries a perspective. And translation is the same. Facing away from whiteness means that our engagement with mother-tongue literature doesn’t have be performative, nostalgic, romantic. We don’t have to pretend, in the face of the shame that white supremacy had filled us with, that there is no patriarchy, no misogyny, no homophobia, no casteism, no colourism in our cultures, languages and literatures, our pasts and our presents.  It is true that our mother-tongue literature doesn’t centre the white reader: it takes for granted realities and histories in which whiteness can be irrelevant or marginal, reminding us of the myth of western universalism and neutrality, reminding us that there are other, different ways of being and thinking. But the literature can represent other layers of dominance – regional or national. Hindi literature, for instance, can’t easily be extracted from Hindu Brahminical supremacy. There are writers who challenge this from within, but languages carry biases and structures of thinking. Punjabi literature can carry its own male, upper caste perspective; it can sideline other languages, such as Pahari and Saraiki. In the diaspora, in the name of resisting white supremacy, forgetting or bypassing this can be convenient. Translating makes it harder to do this. Through reading mother-tongue literature, in the process of translating or of reading translations, we can look at what we have inherited in the eye, the good and the bad. We can acknowledge that there’s no utopia, no safe space. We can find ways to engage with, read, discuss and translate this literature critically; so instead of castles in the air, we can build, on this more solid foundation, houses to live in.

Kavita Bhanot is ECR Leverhulme Fellow at Leicester University. She is editor of The Book of Birmingham and Too Asian, Not Asian Enough and co-editor of the Bare Lit Anthology. Her fiction, non-fiction and academic work has been published, performed and broadcast widely, including the landmark essay ‘Decolonise not Diversify’. She initiated and recently co-organised the Literature Must Fall Festival in Birmingham 2019.  She has been a reader and mentor with The Literary Consultancy for ten years. Her first novel won third prize in the 2018 SI Leeds Literary Prize. She was awarded the 2018 Tilted Axis Emerging Translator Mentorship by the National Centre of Writing.

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Translating Every Day: The Importance and Impossibility of Decolonising Translation