Translating philosophy: DR Nagaraj's Allamaprabhu

N S Gundur

Professor, Department of Studies and Research in English, Tumkur University (Karnataka, India)

Jul. 3, 2022

The New India Foundation’s idea of translating the scholarship in bhashas into English fascinated me. Because translating creative literature, especially poetry and fiction, has been favourite in the republic of translation, particularly in the Kannada context; it rarely pays attention to the translation of discursive prose—philosophy, criticism etc.

As a teacher who offers a translation course to my postgraduate students, I have found that I am quite at home translating non-fiction, mostly from English to Kannada. As a result, I tried translating some European thinkers including Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault into Kannada. The NIF inspired me to try translating the Kannada scholarship into English.

While I was pursuing my PhD at Karnatak University, Dharwad, I was drawn toward G S Amur’s conviction that translation should happen from other languages to our own language. This, according to Amur, is primarily for two reasons: one, translation is a cultural need and it should be useful for us. Therefore, borrowing from other cultures would be a wise act. If, for example, a Kannadiga translates from the English language, the Kannada culture will be enriched. Secondly, translation is also a matter of linguistic competence. We are better at translating from our second or third languages to our own language, rather than doing it the other way round. After examining some bad translations of Kannada texts into English, I followed this conviction religiously and never tried my hand at translating Kannada texts into English.

But the success story of Vanamala Viswanatha’s translation of a Kannada classic The Life of Harishchandra (Harvard University Press, 2017) changed my perception, and I began to realise the importance of translating our texts into English. Moreover, as someone doing academics in the English language, I now see my English writings as translations, because I think foremostly in Kannada.

Among several factors, I must mention two that made me apply for the fellowship. First, the pride of joining the NIF community and learning from its stakeholders, if selected; second, the NIF understands translating scholarship as more than an act of translation; it is clearly mentioned in the programme description that it is a fellowship for research and translation. The seriousness with which the fellowship looked upon translation as research made me curious. Finally, translating the thought excited me, not to mention the huge amount of translation, which I came across for the first time.

I, indeed, took more time to select the text than to write a proposal for it. Initially, I made a list of 5 to 6 works and took almost two months to decide on it. Thanks to friends and Kannada scholars who tolerated my endless discussions with them, and during one such conversation, my mentor Professor Prithvi Datta Chandra Shobhi, a D. R. Nagaraj's collaborator and translator too, categorically suggested Allamprabhu mattu Shaiva Pratibhe (1999). But my strategic thinking did not allow me to finalize it; I ruminated on which texts would get me the chances of obtaining the coveted fellowship. At times, I found DR’s work difficult to translate, and thought of some easily translatable texts. But my inner voice kept on reminding me of Professor Prithvi’s advice, and finally, I followed it.

D. R. Nagaraj's (henceforth DR) work is an important contribution to the domain of Indian intellectual traditions. His two major books, The Flaming Feet and Other Essays: the Dalit Movement in India (2010) and Listening to the Loom: Essays on Literature, Politics and Violence (2012) are quite known to the non-Kannada reader. Allamaprabhu mattu Shaiva Pratibhe, which belongs to the mature period of his intellectual career, was published posthumously. It is the only monograph of DR that is not available in English. In fact, he wanted to write it in English or he himself could have translated it later, but he seems to have left it for my fortune.

DR Nagaraj's book Allamma Prabhu Mathu Shaiva Prathibe

In this book, DR was up to undertaking several intellectual ambitions, including decolonizing his own modes of inquiry and critiquing the historiography of Indian philosophy. Here, DR enters into a dialogue with contemporary historians of Indian philosophy by showing how Allama Prabhu, a 12th century Shaiva mystic, had conversations with Abhinavagupta, the Kashmiri Shaiva philosopher and Gorakhnatha, the mystic, and also with his contemporaries like Basavanna. While drawing our attention to the intellectual dimensions of the Veerashaiva movement, his close reading of Allama’s vachanas reconstructs the intellectual portrait of Allama as an argumentative Indian. Amartya Sen would have devoted a chapter on this theme in his The Argumentative Indian (2005) if this book were available to him in English.

Further, the translation of this book, I am sure, would fulfill the NIF’s vision of ‘fostering comparative literature about different states and streams of progress’, besides creating ‘an expansive cultural reach for works which have thus far been confined to those who understand the original language of their composition’. As U R Ananthamurthy puts it ‘the classic work of DR has got the capacity to transform us, and DR tries to understand Allama not only in the context of medieval India but also from the viewpoint of our times; it addresses our cultural crisis.’

Those interested in the intellectual history of medieval India and understanding our dialogic traditions would be benefited from DR’s deep reflections and scholarship. If it is useful to maintain a conversation between the modern and the pre-modern, across languages and cultures, we need to engage with this kind of work. And this is how we achieve our country, by translating our thoughts for fellow Indians.