Volume 13, No. 4 
October 2009


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Sunil Sawant

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Interdisciplinariedad y ubicación macrotextual en traducción jurídica
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  Translation and Politics
Revolutionary Struggle as a Counterpoint to Colonial Domination: Marathi Translations of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck
by Sunil Sawant

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Translation & Politics \

Revolutionary Struggle as a Counterpoint to Colonial Domination:

Marathi Translations of Upton Sinclair and John Steinbeck

by Sunil Sawant, Ph.D.


n "The Name and Nature of Translation Studies" (1972), James Holmes claimed that theoretical and descriptive studies of translation products, functions, and processes have two main objectives: (1) to describe the phenomena of translating and translation(s) as they manifest themselves in the world of our experience, and (2) to establish general principles by means of which these phenomena can be explained and predicted (Holmes in Venuti 2000: 184). Sharing Holmes's vision, Itamar Even-Zohar, a Scholar from Tel Aviv, established a new paradigm for the study of literary translation during the 1970s. Adopting the notion of system from the Russian Formalists, he came to formulate what he termed the polysystem theory.

The translations of Sinclair's No Pasarán and Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down were designed to aid the freedom struggle in the service of a nationalist agenda.
Even-Zohar theorizes literature as a 'polysystem' characterized by internal oppositions and continual shifts. This polysystem is part of a larger socio-cultural polysystem which itself comprises other polysystems besides the literary, such as for example the artistic, the religious or the political polysystems. The Polysystem theory, as elaborated by Even-Zohar and, by extension Gideon Toury's theoretical and methodological model based on the concept of norms, assumes that translations never function in isolation from the dominant and/or peripheral literary and cultural environment.

After this 'cultural turn' in Translation Studies, translation is no longer seen as a mere transformation of a text from one language to another, but rather the production of a target text that can function within a different context for recipients from a different culture.

Lefevere (1997) makes a distinction between translation 'praxis' and translation 'practice' in which the former involves the process of taking into account what actually happens (or happened in various moments of history) in the translation process and the reasons why. Hermans (1999: 5) further states that the questions that DTS (Descriptive Translation Studies) scholars ask themselves are

geared no so much to gauging the quality of individual translations, upholding particular principles as to what constitutes a good translation, or guaranteeing the quality of new translations to be made. Rather, the aim is to delve into translation as a cultural and historical phenomenon, to explore its context and conditioning factors, to search for grounds that can explain why there is what there is.

The descriptive methodology adopts a diachronic rather than purely synchronic perspective to study translational behaviour in terms of the cultural, historical and ideological constraints prevailing in specific socio-cultural contexts. The primary objective of DTS is, therefore, the systematic observation of actually existing translations within particular historical and cultural context without any evaluative or pragmatic aims. As Bassnett (1997: 1) has stated:

Translation is about wanting to cross boundaries and enter into new territory, whilst the study of translation involves mapping the journeys texts undertake.

The aim of DTS is thus 'to arrive at a better understanding of languages, cultures and translation phenomena and behavior' (Ulrych in Riccardi, 2002: 200). This paper is a modest attempt to examine the processes of textual transfer across the cultural boundaries between America and the Indian state of Maharashtra in terms of the polysystem model.


The history of translation culture in Maharashtra is characterized by a large number of translations of American novels into Marathi, the state's official language. It was Damodar who first made a Marathi translation entitled Rank Ani Rao of Mark Twain's novel, The Prince and the Pauper (1882), in 1908. Since then, more than two hundred American novels have been translated into Marathi. The colonial phase includes in all nineteen translated novels from the American tradition in various forms such as faithful translations, free renderings, adaptations, and abridgements. This initial phase includes American writers as diverse as Maria Susanna Cummins, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mark Twain, Lew Wallace, Pearl S. Buck, William Saroyan, Upton Sinclair, John Steinbeck and others. Damodar, Krishnaji Keshav Gokhale, R. N. Harshe, Sadashiv, Vyankatesh Shankar Vakil, N. S. Phadke, B. D. Satoskar, G. K. Ganeshjoshi, Dinanath Mhatre, Sadashiv Anant Shukla, Sadanand Rege, Sane Guruji are some of the prominent Marathi translators. The present paper seeks to examine the complex relationship between Marathi translations of Upton Sinclair's No Pasarán as well as three translations of John Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down (1942) done during this initial phase and the changing dynamics of the Marathi literary polysystem.


Published in 1943, during the period of the Second World War, Vyankatesh Vakil's translation of Upton Sinclair's No Pasarán found an overwhelming reception in the Marathi literary polysystem. Sinclair's concern with the cause of the marginalized, his critique of American industrial capitalism had already found echoes in the Marathi literary culture. He was the first American novelist to profoundly influence the left-oriented Marathi writers. Anant Kanekar, in his obituary article on Sinclair, writes:

Although Upton was a democrat, he was an extreme Socialist and demanded that his every novel, his every essay, his every book must propagate social justice strongly. Though full of living, burning, sublime feelings, almost all his books are overtly propagandist. He had been a Socialist from beginning to end. So, when there emerged a wave of progressive literature in India around 1935, and when Marathi newspapers were producing editorials on Marxism in Marathi literature, Maxim Gorky from Russia and Upton Sinclair from America had become our gods; and their novels and their short stories had become our Holy Scriptures.

(1972: 47-48; translated)

Progressive Marathi writers of Kanekar's generation sought in Sinclair a model to bring about social change through creative art.

Sinclair was influenced by H. G. Wells. He learned from Wells the device of using "the story continuum to present ideas in action" (quoted in Mookerjee 1988: 26). For him, writing a novel became not an end in itself but a means of exposing the cruelty and injustice of the social system and of rousing the working classes to awareness of their human dignity. Writing novels became part of his fight for a just and equitable social order.

K. Ahmed Abbas's quite a long preface to Vyankatesh Vakil's translation of Sinclair's No Pasarán is a decisive proof of the American novelist's tremendous influence on the minds of the progressive writers. Abbas asserts:

Sinclair is a way ahead of the other writers in the world being representative of true progressive tendencies in literature. Today we Indian writers are trying to reorganize literary values and literary considerations and to develop progressive and purposeful literature. And the study of Sinclair's books is of utmost value to us.

(1943: III; translated)

Abbas even makes a vehement claim that

Nobody equals Sinclair in the art of telling a story. His literature won reputation primarily for arousing social awareness. Sinclair ranks with Voltaire, Zola, Tolstoy and Gorky. Among living authors, he can be compared only with Roman Roland.

(ibid: III; translated)

Sinclair is highly praised for his strong anti-capitalist position. "Sinclair," he further writes, "uses his powerful prose as a weapon to attack all sorts of regressive and oppressive tendencies. He roars continuously in order to express his protest against materialism, exploitation and hypocrisy in the capitalist society" (ibid: III-IV; translated). About the place and significance of Sinclair's work in Indian literature, he states: "A credit for progressive views in Indian literature, especially in fiction, goes to him. Indeed it is Sinclair who made Socialism quite popular in India" (ibid: V; translated). Thus, it was Sinclair's 'idealistic opposition to unjust society' that was responsible for his widespread reputation in India.

Not only K. A. Abbas, but also A. M. Joshi, who reviewed Vakil's translation in Maharashtra Sahitya Patrika, calls No Pasarán 'an elevated and inspiring piece of literary art.' He argues:

Sinclair has written this novel for the noble purpose of doing service to the Spanish Republic. This book is an excellent example of the strength and brightness of a work of art resulting from the author's complete involvement with the subject of his writing. Our famous writers have started an artificial fight between 'propaganda' and 'art' in order to hide the lameness of their experience and to cover the fact of their lack of principles. They have professed the very attractive principle that propaganda causes a loss of quality in art. But the reading of No Pasarán brings out the emptiness and childishness of their claim.

(1944: 131; translated)

The reviewer here makes an indirect attack on N. S. Phadke and others for their immature colonial advocacy of 'art for art's sake.'

Sinclair made a claim that his novel is 'a cry for freedom and for decency in human affairs.' Initially, Rudy Messer, the hero of the novel, is portrayed as a typical American youth of a 'lost generation.' He wants to have good time in life which meant 'being clean, and well-dressed and making himself agreeable' and also meant 'meeting the right people, and being liked by them.' Like other Americans, he also wants to make a lot of money. His meeting with Ezzy, a Jewish socialist, is a turning point in his life. He gives up his dreams of riches and comes to lend whole-hearted support to the socialist cause. What's more, he joins the International Brigade in order to stop the Fascists at the gates of Madrid in Spain. The plot of the novel was thus contrived to inspire readers to take arms and wage a struggle for freedom.

Vakil's translation of No Pasarán appeared during the crucial period of Indian struggle for independence. Vakil translated this 'cry for freedom' when the entire nation was charged with the spirit of Gandhiji's 'Quit India' movement. He tried to use his translation as a cultural weapon to resist colonization. Abbas, well aware of the special significance of the novel to the Indian situation, expressed hope that the translation would arouse the reader and give him inspiration. No Pasarán found space in the subsystem of translation culture because of its theme of revolutionary struggle.


Another remarkable event in the history of Marathi translation culture is the appearance of three translations of only one American novel, viz. The Moon is Down by John Steinbeck, within a brief span of four years. Ganeshjoshi's Moon is Down was published in 1946, Dinanath Matre and Sadanand Rege's Chandra Dhalala, in 1947 and Sadashiv Anant Shukla's Navi Rajvat, in 1949. Rather than Steinbeck's concern for the plight of farmers, his attempt to gain first-hand knowledge through living and working with them and his commitment to faithful reporting of their lives as reflected in his strongest and most durable novel of social protest The Grapes of Wrath (1939), what appealed to the Marathi middle-class sensibility of the time was his treatment of free men's resistance to the fact of 'occupation' in The Moon is Down. In terms of the inner compulsions of the literary polysystem we can see how the translations of The Moon is Down establish a retrospective continuity with the translation of Upton Sinclair's No Pasarán.

Steinbeck's novel describes how the aggressive power occupies a town on the coast of a peaceful country and how the people react to its tyranny. The seaside town is obviously a Norwegian town and the enemy is Nazi Germany. But Steinbeck does not specify time and place, meaning this to be "a universalized statement about the outraged response of a free people duped by greedy traitors in their community into leaving themselves too trustingly open to occupation by an enemy force seeking to exploit their resources as part of its plan for world conquest" (French 1994: 88). The value of the book lies, thus, in generalizing the context of occupation and resistance so that any town under occupation would identify itself with Mayor Orden and the people in The Moon is Down.

Steinbeck's novel reflected the Indian situation under the British rule. India had been occupied by the British invaders for more than hundred years. And Indians, like the people in the occupied seaside town in Steinbeck's novel, fought to overthrow the oppressive powers of the invaders. Mahatma Gandhi had suggested and employed his own means of resistance such as satyagraha, non-cooperation, civil disobedience, boycott of foreign goods, etc. Nevertheless, a large section of upper-caste Hindus, under the influence of Lokmanya Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and others, had sympathy for the alternative mode of political struggle. Three translations of The Moon is Down seem to have resulted from admiration for this kind of political struggle involving sabotage and open offensive against the oppressors. The aim was to manipulate the American source text for the purpose of challenging and subverting the British Raj.

American critics have expressed certain reservations about the worth of Steinbeck's Moon is Down. To Robert Murray Davis, the novel is "full of patriotic platitudes, and its characters are flat and pompous" (1972: 3) and to R. W. B. Lewis, it is characterized by "a relatively superficial analysis and a makeshift solution" to Fascist invasion and oppression (Lewis in Davis 1972: 172). Marathi translators, however, employed their own criteria and found the novel valuable for the contribution it would make to the spirit of independence.


To conclude, the changing dynamics of the Marathi literary polysystem at the beginning of the twentieth century triggered off a whole process of translation in terms of its receptivity to a variety of American novelists. Underlying this process of reception, however, is the basic principle of the relationship between the inner compulsions of the Marathi polysystem and its need to adapt the work of American novelists to these compulsions. We can thus see that the translations of Sinclair's No Pasarán and Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down were designed to aid the freedom struggle in the service of a nationalist agenda. In a way, they reflect the need of the Marathi Literary polysystem to celebrate the values of freedom and democracy so characteristic of the nationalist period.


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French, Warren. 1972. "End of a Dream". In Steinbeck. Ed. Robert Davis. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall.

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