From one script to another …

by Michelle

I have been so preoccupied with finalising my gorgeous new book, Vishvarūpa that I’ve not blogged for almost a month. My use of Sanskrit words in the collection led to considerations as to whether, when and how I should assign a notion of difference to the romanisation of these words. How should one language be represented in the script of another? Should the phonetic complexities of Devanāgarī, with its voiced and unvoiced consonants, its aspirated and unaspirated ones, which are so carefully distinguished in Sanskrit, be transliterated in the roman alphabet? This is made complicated when vernacular translations of the oral form differ from the standardised written form and share semantic value with the written form of the translator’s language. So Śiva becomes Shiva, so pūjā is commonly written as puja, or even pooja.

How authentic are the transliterations when they ignore the Devanāgarī ligatures; those beautiful horizontal lines from which the consonants are hung?

The earliest surviving script in India is Brahmī which is found on rock inscriptions. Devanāgarī emerged in the first century AD, but Indian phonetics was highly elaborate and well differentiated several hundred years before the Christian era.

What authority do I, for whom Devanāgarī has been erased by the coloniser’s language, (exoticised by a forced conversion, if you like), exercise in using Sanskrit? With what authenticity could I lay claim to it? And what of limitations in the printer’s font, the typeset? Should I domesticise the script afterall, or would that simplification remove all trace of its difference? In considering these questions I am not unlike the ethnographer, with my insider/outsider perspective. Is the exotic positioned in a foreign locale or can it be reconstructed or reconstituted to recover its losses? Can the exotic invade the ordinary?

As you can see these were and are complex considerations, and sometimes I’m not sure how well I have responded to them. I think perhaps mine has been an intuitive response. But in the end, I am glad that the title of my book contests both mine and the coloniser’s language.

Only when we cross a boundary are we truly conscious, sentient, vital, as we break down our own categories and definitions. All art must at some point be radical in order to engage. I am an ardent fan of the Russian novelist, Nabokov, a writer who lived in exile from the language of his first dreams. He spent years revising his prototype novella, crossing the boundaries of genres: the erotic with the literary, the poetic with the mystery. And not-so-parenthetically, I note, a friend and fellow poet-novelist, Roberta Lowing, has done something similarly spell-binding with her poetic thriller, Notorious.

But I should direct you now to You Tube, where you’ll come across a video of the master linguist, and entomologist/etymologist himself, in conversation with the literary critic, Lionel Trilling, circa 1950. Go, check it out…