Allusion and Translation: Indian texts, Indian theories, and the Prospects of a Global Humanities

Presented by: Whitney Cox

When: 8:00 – 9:00 am Section 2: Regions & Functions of Texts Continued; Panel 4, 4D

Abstract: I begin from two apparent absences in premodern India’s extraordinarily sophisticated literary sciences.  The first of these is what appears to be a lack of any early conceptualization of translation from one Indic language to another.  This has been often noticed by earlier scholars, some of whom have claimed that there was no such thing as translation in premodern India.  A more nuanced claim would be that there was no regnant body of premodern theory of translation, despite the theory-laden nature of early Indian systems of knowledge.  While there were lots of local attempts at adequation between different linguistic codes and some nascent efforts at localized theorization, nothing resembling a consensus – or even awareness that one was needed – was ever attempted.  The second lack is, if anything, even starker: despite its pervasive and generative presence throughout the early Indian literatures I know, the practice of literary allusion – an author’s incorporation of or gesture towards the language of a predecessor text – is something premodern critics and theorists ignore almost completely. 

Despite its greater prominence in recent scholarship, I suggest that the lack of a theory of translation be considered a subset of the lack of a theory of allusion.  In developing a tentative account of such larger theory, I turn to the conceptual resources of a work of literary theory in Sanskrit, Ruyyaka’s Treasure of Ornaments (ca. 1125-1150).  I do so not out of a nativist gesture – that only Indian theories can account for Indian literatures – but in the optimistic spirit of a new, genuinely cosmopolitan global humanities.  By treating Ruyyaka’s theories as theories, and so putting them in conversation with much more recent accounts in European languages (Culler, Conte, Hinds, Saussy), we do more than pay a compliment to the medieval Kashmirian scholar. Ruyyaka’s account in fact provides us with resources to take both literary history and the cognitive event of poetic understanding together in a single gaze, in a way that could benefit interpretation focused on different places and times.  I will try to demonstrate this potential through readings of passages from two works, Bilhana’s Sanskrit The Deeds of King Vikramanka (ca. 1085) and the Tamil Ramayanam of Kampan (ca. 1150).