Putting foreignness to the test: Rabindranath Tagore's Babu English

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This article contributes to the forum on original languages by examining debates about reading in translation in comparative literature studies. Traditionally comparative literature has eschewed the study of works in translation, but new interventions in world literature challenge this long held piety. I argue that reading in translation can be a valuable practice for scholars of English and comparative literature alike because it demands that we reconsider the link between the commitment to original languages and the promotion of theories of culture that prize alterity and difference over encounter and intersection. I further suggest that the preference for foreignness and defamiliarization as critical strategies of translation and reading limits the kinds of literary works that constitute postcolonial and world literature canons, particularly in the English language. To illustrate these claims, this essay turns to the career of Rabindranath Tagore, whose auto-translations of many works, including Gitanjali and The Home and the World, render him a bilingual writer of Bengali and English literature. By close reading Tagore's translations and their receptions among early Orientalist and late-twentieth-century critics, I show that his under-appreciated translations are key to understanding the development of his style across both languages. Even more importantly, the reception of his translations as awkward and old-fashioned, or what I call "Babu English," reveals continuities between Orientalist and postcolonial approaches to the elevation of cultural difference. Tagore's Babu English refers to his uncanny English translations, which are neither fully assimilated to the target language nor assertively foreignized. Their partial domestication shows up the exoticism desired by Orientalist readers and equally challenges the notion of complicity assigned to domesticated translations by contemporary critics. © 2013 by University of Oregon.






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Vadde, A (2013). Putting foreignness to the test: Rabindranath Tagore's Babu English. Comparative Literature, 65(1). pp. 15–25. 10.1215/00104124-2019257 Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/18116.

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Aarthi Vadde

Associate Professor of English

Aarthi Vadde works in the field of 20th-21st century Global Anglophone literature, and is broadly interested in the relationship of literary history to computational technologies and internet culture.  She is the co-editor of The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol F: The Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries and the co-founder of Novel Dialogue a podcast about how novels are made - and what to make of them. 

Her book in progress is called “We the Platform: Contemporary Literature after Web 2.0.”  In it, she considers how technical and rhetorical shifts in the formulation of the World Wide Web (from network to platform) are shaping contemporary literary culture and popular literacy practices.  The book’s archive features print-based writers of fiction alongside social media upstarts, guerilla writer-publishers, fans, data artists, and engineers. Communications platforms are never neutral, and this book will show how literary works and humanistic criticism can play key roles in the dialogue on responsible computing.

Her book Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism beyond Europe, 1914-2016 was published by Columbia UP in 2016 and won the ACLA's 2018 Harry Levin Prize for outstanding first book in the field of comparative literature.  A forum on the book was convened by The Cambridge Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry.  Chimeras illustrates how modernist and contemporary writers from Rabindranath Tagore to Zadie Smith reimagine the nation and internationalism in a period defined by globalization. An interview related to the book is available here.

In addition to her monograph projects, Vadde is co-editor of a volume on the history of literary criticism entitled The Critic as Amateur (Bloomsbury Academic 2019).  Read the intro here. She is also the co-editor of an open-access cluster of essays entitled Web 2.0 and Literary Criticism (Post45 Contemporaries) and the Palgrave Handbook of 20th and 21st Century Literature and Science.

Vadde joined Duke in 2011 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship in the English Department at Harvard University.

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