Deliberate Mistranslations?

Kum. B. Nivedita


An article written for the Hindi magazine Kendra Bharati. The author is vice-president of the Vivekananda Kendra, Kanyakumari.


The Vivekananda Kendra Institute of Culture (VKIC), Guwahati, was established as envisaged by Eknathji to study the traditions and customs of various communities in the Northeast from the Indian point of view, and also to discover and focus on commonalities among all communities. It is a fact that foreign missionaries were pioneers in documenting the traditions and customs of various communities and mainly the Vanavasis in India. The British established universities in India after deliberately destroying the prevalent higher education. Subjects like Indology, anthropology etc. in these universities are taught from the Western point of view. As Shri Dharampal said in his book Bharatiya Chitta, Manas and Kala,The work of the indologists is in fact akin to anthropology. Anthropology, as recognized by its practitioners, is a peculiar science of the West. The defeated, subjugated and fragmented societies of the non-Western world form the subject of this science. Anthropology thus is a science of the study of the conquered by the conquerors. Claude Lévi-Strauss, an authentic spokesman and a major scholar of anthropology, defines his discipline more or less in these terms.”

Therefore the scholars in these disciplines naturally get trained in the Western mindset and Western paradigm. Even the books they refer to are books written by the earlier missionaries while documenting the traditions in India. Thus by their training and by the material available, Indian scholars are handicapped in their understanding of Indian communities: when they write books, they often happen to perpetuate the missionaries’ thinking, instead of looking at the material from an Indian point of view.

When VKIC undertook the study of communities in the Northeast, it turned out to be a study of ourselves — a daunting task as all of us are Westernized in our thinking and are used to looking at ourselves from the Western point of view. But gradually, as an interaction with the communities started through seminars, many beautiful points came to the front. Till then, most of the knowledge of these communities was based on books written by missionaries. The Christian study of these communities is, to put it very mildly, totally misleading. Whether it was an actual inability of the Western mind to comprehend a vastly different way of life or a deliberate attempt to portray the traditions so as to create a feeling of loathing in their inheritors is an aspect which will forever be debated. The fact remains that the documentation process, particularly the translations, was far from faithful to the traditions inherited by these simple communities of the Northeast. It is these Indian concepts expressed in English — a foreign tongue — that have managed to undermine the confidence of the communities in the wisdom of their forefathers.

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Shri Lalthangfala Sailo’s paper on the Bawi system of Mizoram was a revelation to many. The common understanding of the system is that it was a form of exploitation quite akin to the despicable form of slavery as existed in the West. Foreign missionaries, used as they were to slavery as practised back home, translated “Bawi” — the indigenous system taking care of the destitute, orphans and disadvantaged — as “slavery.” Only when Shri Lalthangfala Sailo explained the Bawi system in his paper did we realize that it was a welfare system for orphans and the destitute. They were given a place in the house of the Chief of the community. They were taken care of just as the children of the Chief were taken care of. They had to work in the fields and houses of the Chief, just as of course his own children used to work. After their marriage they were able to set up their separate household and work on the land given to them by the community. This system was called “Bawi.” How can it be translated into “slavery”? But it was. We can only imagine the shame and embarrassment that this “slight” translation error has caused to so many for so long!

In almost all Vanavasi communities, the bridegroom gives gifts and articles to the bride’s parents before marriage. This was translated as “bride price,” and it is now a term commonly used by all. It was in a seminar in Mizoram that a voice was raised against the term “bride price.” Dr. Laltluangliana Khiangte protested against this wholly absurd notion and said that this “translation” attributed a low status to women in the traditional Mizo society, though the evidence in the folk literature is exactly contrary to this notion.

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The missionaries called the Gods and Goddesses of these communities “spirits.” It is also possible that such translation sprung from a mind unable to appreciate a reality where many Gods and Goddesses are just the expression of one Reality. But seeing how this term “spirit” was used by the missionaries in undermining the confidence of the people in their own Gods and Goddesses, one feels that the word was deliberate. First introducing and then popularizing the use of “spirits” for the Devi Devata of these communities, the missionaries started their campaign for conversion. The people were told, “You do not have God. You worship only spirits. What you have is only primitive ideas of religion and a bundle of superstitions. If you want to be saved then follow the Only True God.” It is a very common experience to listen to a misinformed or a convent-educated Arunachali saying, “Hamara dharam to hai nahi na” — “There is no religion for us.” Gods and Goddesses are our deepest identity and that very identity is put in doubt and then gradually lost because of such a mistranslation. Those Arunachalis who have realized this mischief of missionaries have now started using the words Devi Devata.

By using the word “spirits” for the Gods and Goddesses of these communities the missionaries achieved one more thing. Indirectly they could impress that the Vanavasi communities are not Hindus. They even devised a word “Adivasi” for these communities. The next step in breaking them away from the Hindus was a move at governmental level. Till 1901 all communities, Nagarvasi, Gramvasi or Vanavasi, were listed as Hindus. But in 1901, the census officers were directed to mention the religion of Adivasis as “Animism.” After the census, many officers complained that it was too difficult for them to decide who was an Animist and who was a Hindu, since whether mountain and forest dwellers or village and town dwellers, all worshipped God in many forms. But under pressure from the missionaries, the British government did not budge from its directives in successive censuses. It happened that in one census a community was Animist and in the next it was Hindu, or vice versa. Ultimately to “solve” this problem, the government directed census officers to enter the name of a community as the name of its religion. Thus the religion of the Santhal community became “Santhal,” that of the Nagas became “Naga,” etc. At one stroke the government further divided even the Vanavasi communities. After that, deriding each “religion” became still easier for missionaries following the policy of “Divide and Convert.”

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Almost all Vanavasi communities follow a practice translated as “youth dormitory.” Whenever we read of “youth dormitories” or “bachelor dormitories,” as they are called in the books of missionaries, the image that comes to mind is one of free mixing of youth as prevalent in the West and implying licentiousness. However, a paper presented by Shri Kabuk Pertin at a seminar in Pasighat, Arunachal Pradesh, and particularly the docudrama on the life from birth to death of an Adi, were to change all our notions forever. As explained, the purpose and nature of the youth dormitories called musup (for boys) and raseng (for girls) amongst the Adis were really those of non-formal schools of these communities, something akin to gurukulas of Vedic times. In these institutions, boys and girls above 12 years were to stay in musup and raseng respectively. In musup the boys were taught to hunt, to observe and then slowly to participate in the village Kebang (panchayat). They were also taught to protect the village from predators and enemy attacks. They were a readily available force for any community service: the youth were at the disposal of the society in all emergencies and exigencies. The girls were taught to weave and to cook, to collect firewood, to tend the cattle and the fields. They were also given training in talking to strangers, elders and youth. A versatile widow used to stay in the raseng and give them all necessary training in home science. There were strict rules about the mixing of musup and raseng. The youth brought up thus till the time of their marriage could live a life useful to the society and also in companionship with their community. In these “youth dormitories,” they were imparted the knowledge required for a happy and contented life in tune with the need of the society of those days. If this is not real education, then what is? It was education for life and not just meaningless diplomas and degrees. Just imagine if only these terms musup and raseng had been translated as “Non-formal schools of Adi community,” how much confidence and pride that would have generated in these people. This applies to all the Vanavasi communities. The moderator of the Pasighat seminar, Shri Katon Borang, rightly remarked in his keynote address, “Though the Adis may have been illiterate, they never were without education!”

Because of such a value-based and community-oriented education, we see in these communities no beggars, no orphans and destitute. There are no locks on the houses or the granaries. The principle of living is “one for all and all for one.” When a young couple wants to build a house, the whole community works together to build it. If any house gets burnt, the whole village works to rebuild it and all houses in the village come together to provide materials. Thus within twenty-four hours a well-furnished house is ready for the family. When a whole village is burnt, nearby villages come together, rebuild the houses and even furnish them. The society is a living society so it responds to the needs of its members immediately. Thus it does not need an orphanage or a destitute home or police force, or even government welfare schemes, as the society itself is a welfare society. And yet the missionaries want to “civilize” them! Wherever conversions take place, these traditional values are lost.

Those are but a few instances of how deliberate mistranslations can undermine the confidence of the people.1 But once the mischief is realized, the community rises and defends its traditions from the debilitating impact of the self-professed experts and specialists. Thus the work of VKIC is very important in giving an Indian perspective to understand ourselves and to surge ahead with confidence.


© Kum. B. Nivedita, Vivekananda Kendra, 2002


Notes & References

1. Such mischievous mislabelling has of course been used in other parts of India too. In Tamil Nadu, for instance, missionaries made it a habit to refer to the Bible as Vedam in literature, popular songs etc., and even got this meaning entered in Tamil dictionaries. In southern Tamil Nadu, Christians call themselves Vedakaran (“the People of the Vedas”) and a Church is Vedakovil (“the temple of the Veda”), while the Hindus are called Ajnanigal (“the Ignorant People”). This has gone so deep into the psyche of the people that Hindu villagers themselves speak of the Church as Vedakovil, of Christians as Vedakaran and of themselves as Ajnanigal. (Back to text)

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