Sunday, June 20, 2010


The Government of India has started a very welcome initiative called ‘National Translation Mission (NTM, for short)”, entrusted with the task of translating knowledge-based (or just “knowledge-“) literature on subjects ranging from sciences to human sciences and humanities, from (the source language) English to the Indian languages, prioritizing the ones on the Eighth Schedule. This is indeed an interventionist step since it does not seem to be in response to any well-articulated demand from any quarters for translated material in the subjects mentioned above; not many have been terribly upset by the fact that the language of the scientific and other technical work (including in the legal domain) used in India is English. The same is true of the quality literature in social sciences and even humanities as well. One would therefore think that one main objective of the government in starting this initiative may have to do with doing some groundwork for making higher education in all subjects available in the Indian languages, which would consequently lead to the real modernization of these languages - going beyond the preparation of bilingual dictionaries and of glossaries of technical terms in the Indian languages on various subjects.

It seems that the translation of some select college and university level text books in science and social science subjects has been prioritized by NTM, probably under the belief that colleges and universities will use them, if not immediately. Translation of higher level text books is not a new project; there are institutions (the text book bureau, for example, in Odisha) supported by various state governments which have been entrusted precisely with this task. So does NTM aim to supplement the effort of these institutions, wherever they exist, by adding to the repertoire of translated text books? Does NTM propose to work in competition with them or in cooperation with them, and if the latter, in what specific ways, and also whether it intends to be informed about their experience and benefit from that knowledge. For instance, who are the buyers of the books published by these institutions apart from the state-funded libraries, and what has been the impact of these publications in specific and general terms both?

Now, are the books to be published by NTM going to be used as text books at the universities? In other words, as a result of the NTM initiative, is there going to be a rethink on higher education leading to the use of Indian language text books (either exclusively or primarily) at this level? Whatever be the merits of such a proposal, it is by no means problem-free. If one wants to be (there is, in fact, no real choice) part of the global or even the Indian knowledge community, one has got to use the language of that knowledge community, i.e., the language in which knowledge is created, discussed and disseminated. For various reasons (including the one of historical accident), that language happens to be English. A novel or a poem written in a certain language does not need attestation of its quality from a readership speaking a different language. It is very different in the case of knowledge or scholarship, be it in physics or biology or economics or linguistics or philosophy or even literary criticism, because knowledge today, be it in the sciences or the humanities, is indeed global.

In the existing educational scenario, there is of course a certain use for the proposed translated texts. If these are of good quality – written in elegant, readable language - they could turn out to be useful learning aids, performing the function of the so-called “key books”. “Key books” are learning aids, which students who need such aid, always found useful, but which the education establishment condemned as cheap “bazaar notes”. This attitude has completely failed to wean the students away from these books. Time has come to recognize the usefulness of these books, and provide to the students quality key books or “supplementary books”, if someone has an objection to the term “key books”. This is where the proposed NTM publications might make a contribution. As for the modernization of the target languages, experience has shown that preparation of glossaries of technical terms, text books, etc. have not really resulted in the emergence of discourses in the relevant knowledge domains. It is by no means obvious that the proposed NTM publications would bring about a change in this respect.

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