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Recognizing foreign expressions

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes is my all time favourite. I have read it umpteen times and still go to it as my past time reading. Normally, the Holmes story revolves around a mystery and how Sherlock uses his special skills of observations and deductions to uncover hidden clues that brings the whole affair into a fresh bright light. The chain of events is then crystal clear and the culprit is easily caught. After reading them again and again, now I know the main plot by heart. Naturally, my attention was drawn this time to minor details of the stories, the descriptions of various people, places, weather etc. as presented by the author from the mouth of Dr. Watson.

However, this time I had also got a new lens, decolonization. So I was acutely aware of the cultural characteristics that naturally occur in literature and that are extremely difficult to translate. That be the case, I was not expecting to stumble upon an example in the Holmes stories because I believed that this is the most logical way someone can construct a story that can be easily followed without any cultural backdrop. And I came across the following passage from a famous story ‘The Five Orange Pips’, not really a part of the main story but more like an opening to it.

… we were forced … to recognise the presence of those great elemental forces which shriek at mankind through the bars of his civilisation, like untamed beasts in a cage“. As a way of understanding, I attempted to translate this expression in my mother tongue which is Marathi. A loose translation in Marathi will be “निसर्गाच्या रौद्र रूपाकडे पाहून आम्हाला मानवी क्षुद्रतेची जाणीव झाली.” Now, if I translate back this expression to English, it translates somewhat as “Divinely fierce elemental forces made us realize the insignificance of human life in cosmic scheme”. One can immediately see the difference in the expression I used to describe same natural phenomenon from that used by Sir Doyle. Incidentally, the story is also translated in Marathi, along with many other Holmes stories by the famous author B. R. Bhagwat. He attempts an exact translation as follows. “आम्हालासुद्धा पंचमहाभूतांचा हा क्रोध भेडसावत होता. पिंजऱ्यात कोंडलेले जंगली पशू माणसांवर उलटावेत, तशी त्यांनी आमची स्थिती केली होती.” I must apologize here to non-Marathi speaking readers, but an essential trouble of demonstrating the difference between foreign and local expressions is that it must be demonstrated through local language which is an essential aspect of the expression itself. I believe however, that the speakers of Indian languages would be able to find resonating expressions in their own mother tongues for the case I am making here.

When we see the two expressions juxtaposed in the same paragraph, we see the difference is not just the expression. It is in the way we understand the world around us and ascribe meaning to it. Our perception of ourselves, the world around and the interrelations is what we use our language and expressions to describe. This is why the elemental forces are like untamed beasts for someone in England, but divinely fierce for someone like me sitting in India. Nature is like a wild beast. The man is the lord of it, of all the flora and fauna on this earth. All of this is made for his use and hence must be tamed to make the best use of it. Since we are not fully successful at it, we raise the bars of civilization that separates the human society from this wilderness. And on that difficult evening in the story, the wild beast of the nature was hurling itself on those bars, shrieking at mankind.

For someone in India, the entire creation is divine, man being no special. Atman, or the self dwells inside every living being. So it is very natural to call the elemental forces divine even in their fiercest form. In fact, I am not sure if the phrase ‘divinely fierce’ could make any sense to people non-native of India. Those who know the divine only as loving, would find it hard to understand that the divine can also be fierce. But for us, even the cosmic dance of destruction, Tandav of Shiva is divine.

It can easily be accepted that the western civilization can be termed as anthropocentric. We can see the examples of it at multiple places, such as their approach towards pets, towards the conservation of rare species, towards the global warming problem etc. They want to provide solutions to each of these problems considering themselves as an exterior consumer and enjoyer of the system. Whether the roots of this anthropocentric thinking are in the Christianity or the philosophical development that ensued upon the renaissance is a matter of debate. But one thing cannot be denied is that this worldview is at 180 degrees with what some other civilizations such as the Indians hold. The convoluted, integral worldview of Indians sees the problem as the loss of harmony. The root of the imbalance is then sought, which is usually in one or the other behaviour of humans, other forms of creation being unable to exert the will in the most cases.

This approach towards the creation also changes the expression that is used to describe the natural forces in literature. Therefore the nature is not the beast anymore, but a mother who will feed us with her milk. And we are mere infants and toddlers playing in her lap. We are not stood against each other in a war, but in a loving togetherness, where might arise a playful banter occasionally. We are taught that this togetherness eventually dissolves into oneness at the highest state of realization. This diametrically opposite worldview makes the phrases and expressions incomprehensible to each other.

Does this mean that there can never be any dialogue between two civilizations, talking two entirely different languages? That need not be the case. In fact, as the above example shows, there is always a possibility of a very wordy translation of a foreign concept. It makes the reader understand the expression, however unfamiliar and hence outlandish it might sound. The trouble is when the two languages are not treated on equal footing. A long history of political dominance and cultural colonization has led us believe that there is no such difference of expression. Standard expressions in English are also capable of expressing our thoughts and views that convey certain meanings incomprehensible without the cultural backdrop. We are easily beguiled into inviting people for housewarming parties, saying ‘may God bless you’ on birthdays and posting RIP when someone dies. The trouble is that we are not even looking at the connotations of the expressions we use, before using them. We have achieved the political freedom, but that of mind is far from today. We are still living in the same colonial era, where we are the new brown sahibs.

The need at first step is not difficult. All we must do is just to recognize these signs of colonized mindset. The foreign expressions that we should keep at bay. The problem is simple. To quote Holmes again, we see but we don’t observe. We must learn to observe. That will pave the way.

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