The afterlives of panditry

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This paper investigates the emphasis on a single common original that underwrites late eighteenth-century English renderings of Hindu legal texts in order to address the larger issue of translational fidelity. Pointing to examples such as Nathaniel Halhed’s A Code of Gentoo Laws and William Jones’s Institutes of Hindu Law: or, the Ordinances of Menu, I question the ongoing implicit reliance on Fall-of-the-Tower-of-Babel Christian narratives that regard a multilingual environment as backwards and chaotic. Drawing particularly on recent debates over the role of the Sanskrit pandit-as-translator in late eighteenth-century Bengal advising British colonists on sacred texts to become British law, I suggest that the British sought in the Sanskritic tradition a divine, singular origin analogous to the Christian authority underwriting their own conceptualizations of justice on earth, rather than reading the multiple afterlives of these traditions so vital in their own present moment with the complexity they require. In the colonial view translational fidelity assumes a linear (hierarchical) sequencing before and after the Fall and is unable to account for these translations’ complex temporalities in the plural. I ask how we as translation scholars today might define the temporal terms underlying our understanding of fidelity in a way that is not based on concepts of an impossible pre-lapsarian origin.


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