Oral literature in Translation

Sunday 26 October 2008, by Chakrapani Ghanta

Oral literature is an excellent quarry for indigenous systems. It gives an in-depth understanding of the life and history of a people. In places where structuralized institutions have been absent people have developed several specialized genres like proverb, joke, game, riddle, omen, or folktale, as well as the more professional oral epics to shape their lives and culture. Such systems are embedded, enacted, transmitted from childhood and they become for them the agencies of socialization and social control.

Unfortunately, oral tradition does not seem to have been accorded the place that it deserves in literature. Until recently, neither literary researchers, including writers and translators, nor social scientists have taken such materials seriously. This may be partly because such a study requires special skills to understand the culture and an intimate knowledge of local dialects.

Worldwide, literature has adapted secular and impartial transformation techniques to convert the word to text. For example, the European Renaissance movement in Native American, Australian Aboriginal and Black African narratives, where writings on a backdrop of oral traditions not only contributed to enrich the languages and literature, but also the cultures, civilizations, sciences, technologies and the images of those conquering nations.

Careful understanding of the history and nature of text-based literature exposes the communal hegemonic nature of the writings in India. A dominant literate section of people have compiled history for their own reasons- mostly to satisfy their patrons or their peers. This minority has denied the majority an opportunity to read and write. The same section is responsible for the construction of the notion of Hindu nationalism, and they have taken proper care not to accommodate or represent alternative voices in the national anthem.

Within the oral tradition they have also selectively recorded and compiled while suppressing the voices of locals and aboriginal Dravidian narratives largely represented by Dalits.

This could be because the oral tradition, both verbal and non-verbal, is the creation of local, illiterate, and marginalized communities. In its form, content, and values it represents the folk (not the royal or court) and the desi (not mainstream, universal or standardized) because it does not fit into the rules of standardized formats.

In fact, the whole Dalit oral tradition has tried its best to create an alternative tradition, belief, and lifestyle, which happened by way of rebellion. There is a whole tradition that seems to be running parallel to the canonical Indian tradition. For instance, Jambapurana quarrels, criticizes, accuses, corners and challenges Brahmin claims to superior knowledge of the universe and the origin of the caste system.

African scholar Russell H. Kaschula emphasises that one should locate the oral narratives from an impartial ethnographic perspective, “ethnographers have long since realised that oral perfor-mances cannot be divorced from the socio-political contexts in which they take place.” Oral historian Isidore Okpewho states that this approach brought a welcome change to oral literary studies, “… because it ultimately aimed at representing social man in a creative capacity within the context of a system of signs recognized by his commu-nity.” Similarly, communicative and performative anthropologist Ruth Finnegan states that, “[w]e are now more sensitised to the importance of looking to the ‘communicative event’ and its inner dynamics as a whole, to the constructive interaction of many participants… and to a whole range of non-verbal as well as verbal stylistics… and of ways in which ‘performance’ may need to be seen not as an ‘extra’ to the poetic genre but as of its essence.”

This kind of parallel and alternative tradition, which is rich in cultural, political, literary and historical sources, gets pushed to the margins when we concentrate solely on the written word for publication, translation and exploration of a particular people. Indeed, in the process of supervising, representing, and publishing, writers and scholars throughout academia seem to be concentrating more and more on mainstream tradition.

The oral literature that forms such a crucial part of Dalit life, if ignored, will make for a glaring absence of some of the most important voices in Indian society. Any such exploration will be- at best- partial.

Dr. Chakrapani Ghanta is Associate Professor and Head, Department of Sociology at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar Open University in Hyderabad.

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