project . 2014 - 2017 . Closed

Conversion, Translation and the Language of Autobiography: Re-inventing the Self in Transitions to Christianity in India (1700-1947)

UK Research and Innovation
Funder: UK Research and InnovationProject code: AH/M003957/1
Funded under: AHRC Funder Contribution: 159,408 GBP
Status: Closed
14 Nov 2014 (Started) 12 May 2017 (Ended)

The project addresses the question of how translation serves to transform ideas between geographical locations, historical moments and cultural contexts. This project is innovative on two counts: first, it argues that translation plays a key transformative role when religions travel from one culture to another; second, it analyses parallels between translation processes and religious conversion. These two issues will be investigated in the context of how western translation concepts and practices introduced in South Asia from the eighteenth century onwards fundamentally changed the way South Asians understood religious faith and identity. The collaborators will 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? The project team bring a fresh approach to the study of South Asian religions by arguing 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. The team will explore conceptual links between the translation of values and concepts across languages and the nature of conversion, in particular religious conversion. 'Translation' and 'conversion' are closely linked conceptually since both refer to processes of change and transformation. Although change is a fundamental aspect of both, it is not always clear how we understand why and how transformation occurs and what purpose it serves. Since the cognitive processes involved in both cases of transformation are available to us only through language, an analysis of shifts in linguistic terms reveal fundamental conceptual shifts. This project is innovative in the application of both conceptual and linguistic frameworks of translation in order to understand how the process of religious conversion can best be understood by an examination of changes in language choice. The investigators will examine parallel concerns regarding authenticity that vexes both translation and religious conversion where doubts regarding the sincerity of conversion are for the first time conceptually linked to translation anxieties regarding successfully "carrying across". The collaborators will examine twenty conversion autobiographies written by South Asian converts to Protestant Christianity from the eighteenth to the early twentieth century in Tamil and Marathi and their translation into German and English. Social, political and intellectual reorientations in South Asia from the eighteenth century onwards meant that individuals experienced changes in many areas including the spiritual, which often required developing new vocabularies with which to describe these changes. The team will study shifts in how eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth-century South Asians represented their changed religious identities in their autobiographies, 'translating' or 'converting' lived experience into text and expressing their change in faith with a newly acquired religious terminology. They will investigate the selection of particular religious terminology when these conversion accounts were translated into German and/or English. They will also examine how the writing and translation of conversion accounts advanced Christian concepts to an Indian audience and to what extent conversion to Christianity was articulated differently across the three centuries. Through their analyses, the team aim to highlight the distinctive nature of translation in its ability to constitute and transform religious cultures.

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