Hephzibah Israel, Competing Genres of the Sacred in South India

Genre became a contentious issue in the history of Protestant translations in the Tamil-speaking South Indian context when Protestant missionary translators repeatedly chose prose genres over the poetic despite being well aware that Tamil religious culture was almost exclusively expressed in verse. In the lecture, I will examine the strategic intentions of Protestant translations presented in prose genres rather than the poetic as an exercise of power. The Protestant deployment of an inflexible, strident and supposedly 'transparent prose' was represented as the opposite of the 'wild extravagances' of the 'flowery style' of Catholic and Hindu Tamil verse. Specifically, I will analyse the Protestant equation of prose with 'truth' which is apparent in their criticism of Constantin Guiseppe Beschi's (1680-1747) Catholic verse Tempāvaṇi composed in the Tamil epic style. I will show how the choice of genre in the translation of sacred texts plays a considerable part in invoking, producing or reinscribing 'sacred' meanings in target cultures in specific ways. I take such contradictory attitudes to genre as the starting point to explore how and why networks between literary genres, religion, and collective identities are constructed, and argue that they offer a new perspective on the 'dialogue' and 'assimilation' between religions that has been the dominant interpretative framework of scholarship on South Asian Christianity hitherto.

Hephzibah Israel is Lecturer in Translation Studies at the University of Edinburgh. She has researched literary and sacred translations in the South Asian context, with a particular focus on Protestant religious, language and identity politics. Her book entitled Religious Transactions in Colonial South India: Language, Translation, and the Making of Protestant Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) is based on her doctoral thesis on the subject at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. She earlier taught English Literature at Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi, where she also translated Tamil short stories into English.