Sunday, 29 April 2012

The post-colonial banyan tree

One of the most interesting things I’ve found while doing the various readings for our Theory course this term is the range of metaphors that are used to describe the process of translation and the final text produced. One such, derived from an Indian context, is that of the banyan tree. Trivedi and Bassnett in their introduction to Post-colonial translation write that the process of translation as undertaken by Sanskrit/Hindi scholars like Tulsi Das can be compared to the “process by which an ancient banyan tree sends down branches which then in turn take root all around it and comprise an intertwined family of trees” (Bassnett & Trivedi 1999:10). When I saw this the first thing I wondered was to what extent this metaphor was India-specific. A quick google search later, I found that while the banyan tree is found in other countries too, it seems to be most prevalent, or most renowned at any rate in India. I even found out – or perhaps rediscovered is a better verb – that it is the national tree of India, something that I was probably taught at some point in a history class at school. I also clicked on a link to a Government of India website which told me that “the roots ... give rise to more trunks and branches. Because of this characteristic and its longevity, this tree is considered immortal and is an integral part of the myths and legends of India. Even today, the banyan tree is the focal point of village life and the village council meets under the shade of this tree.”

One of the interesting aspects of this image is the use of the word “ancient” in the first quote and “longevity” and “immortal” in the second. In a post-colonial context I suppose these are important because they refer to a long and resilient pre-colonial past. But, in the context of translation they seem to suggest that works that are (or perhaps should?) translated are classical and canonical texts. Given the context of the specific example, in which Trivedi makes this remark, the metaphor works.

In general terms it seems to be used as a foil to the metaphor of translation as a form of cannibalism that emerges from Latin America. But, this metaphor, of a Banyan tree, becomes problematic when used as a general metaphor for translation. Should only classical texts be translated? What is the role of the translator, if it is the source text (the main tree) that produces the roots (the translations)? And despite notions of immortality, the tree does die, so how does death factor in? In the end thinking about this metaphor left me with as many questions as it did answers, and I think that is what makes it an interesting metaphor of translation.

Anandi Rao translates from Hindi and Arabic to English. She is doing her MA in Literary Translation and is interested in theatre and women’s writing. She can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. Both these metaphors are new to me and quite fascinating: translation as cannibalism and translation as banyan tree. This is a really thought provoking post, so thanks.