Beautiful Infidels: Romance, Internationalism, and Mistranslation

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2010

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This dissertation explores the particular significance of South Asia to international literary and political spheres, beginning with the formative moments of modernist internationalism. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, W. E. B. Du Bois interrupted his work with the NAACP and the pan-African congresses to write Dark Princess: a Romance. Du Bois's turn to the romance and to India forms the point of departure for my dissertation, for India, both real and imagined, offered modernist intellectuals a space of creative possibility and representative impossibility. The fiction of Cornelia Sorabji, for instance, obfuscates and allegorizes practices of women's seclusion, both to refute imperial feminist solutions and to support her legal activism. From the imperial romance to the anti-racist one, the misrepresentation endemic to the romance genre enables the figuration of a discrepant globe. This modernist practice of transfiguring India, usually in the service of a global political vision, is undertaken both within India as well as outside of it. Rabindranath Tagore, for example, interrupted his leading role in the anti-colonial movement to write Gora, a novel of mistaken identity and inappropriate love, and to mistranslate his own poetry, particularly his Nobel-Prize-winning collection Gitanjali. If realism aims to translate cultural difference, to faithfully carry meaning across boundaries, the romances I consider in my dissertation work instead to mistranslate those differences, to produce a longed-for object beyond cultural specificity. In conversation with postcolonial theorists of Anglophone literary practice, as well as debates around translation in comparative literature, I suggest that we should think about intercultural texts in terms of transfiguration: not the carrying across of meaning from one sign system to another, but the reshaping of culturally specific materials, however instrumentally and inaccurately, in the service of internationalist goals.

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Lahiri, Madhumita (2010). Beautiful Infidels: Romance, Internationalism, and Mistranslation. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/2289.

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