Academic Books

Siting Translation by Tejaswini Niranjana

How translation enriches our understanding of culture and depicts the problematics of representation

Tejaswini Niranjana’s Siting Translation, though indebted to deconstructivist revisions of language and subjectivity, aims to have the idea of translation redeemed only by a particular postcolonial project. It poses translation as a mode of representation that embodies the critique of hegemonic approaches, offering alternative solutions to the study of culture. The idea is to demonstrate how the poststructuralist critique of representation seize colonized subjects just like an illness, develop gradually, and eventually takes hold of them––it becomes the basis for the articulation of a postcolonial position, though unintentionally and almost unexpectedly.

This book concerns rethinking translation as an ideological and political issue, which draws attention to the irreducible complicity between colonial domination and traditional notions of representation. Thus, it situates translation not within the humanist tradition, as a transparent tool in cross-cultural exchange, but within a neo-historicist tradition to interpret colonial translation in the postcolonial context.

Niranjana argues that both ethnography and the field of translation embrace a teleological understanding of history, where notions of “truth” and “origin” only perpetuates the asymmetrical power relations between the purportedly superior West and its primitive mirror image of the East. In other words, translation, practised during the imperial era, bolsters a “conceptual economy” and operates more or less as a “philosopheme” in the discourse of Western philosophy, thereby producing “strategies of containment”. It Others colonized cultures, successfully interpellates them, and, consequently, deprives them of any freedom of thought and willpower. In so doing, translation constructs the exotic other as unchanging and outside history…it therefore becomes easier to appropriate, it becomes easier to control.

Drawing on the works of Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, and Walter Benjamin, Niranjana solemnly demonstrates how revisions of representation crucially undermine assumptions of “authenticity”, “fidelity”, and “repetition”, assumptions which feed into the traditional notion of translation. However, she remains critical of poststructuralist tendencies to exclude the notion of historicity from the debate, a notion she recuperated from Benjamin’s works and considered ancillary to the articulation of her postcolonial position.

Niranjana (1992, p. 42) proposes a model of translation as “transactional reading”, a concept borrowed from the work of Gayatri Spivak, and makes use of Benjamin’s notion of “translatability” and Nietzsche’s notion of “effective history”. These concepts enable the constellation of past and present in the act of reading; thus, they are central to the book’s master thesis––see the last chapter. She shows how two canonical translations of a twelfth-century poem from South India “unwittingly” participate in the imperial project of exoticizing the “Other”. She adds that the more we embrace this teleological understanding of translation, the more powerful it remains, then the firmer its foundations and the more will be accomplished for the colonial mind. Consequently, in using translation as interventionalist and open-ended––borrowing the representational tools from hegemonic powers––we could certainly produce a postcolonial subject aware of its position. The idea is simple, and not too long in the coming––it is just to reconceive translation as a site of resistance and transformation.  


Niranjana wanted to raise something, to do something…to conceptualize a postcolonial consciousness. At the same time, this project was all so complicated, incomprehensible, controversial, it seemed so impossible, that it was really hard to do so. She tried––tried well, in the full sense of the word, and if she still preserved the power of conceptualizing, the project could have been forcibly developed through Homi Bhabha’s (1994) notion of “hybridity”, to which at last she made scant references (Niranjana, 1992, p. 45). This notion deconstructs the whole idea of origin via an anti-essentialist critique of language and writing. It would undoubtedly form part of the conceptualization of the postcolonial consciousness, it would undoubtedly have a favourable effect on the conceptualization of the postcolonial consciousness (see also Yue, 1993).

But to use such a complex notion, a notion undeniably useful in its own way, a notion which yields valuable insights, to talk of the “hybrid”, we should make sure it is capable of passing judgments on lofty subject. We should make sure it does not only oscillate between established boundaries of “self” and “other” but also addresses the asymmetrical power relations that lay beneath representation. In other words, we should not unify or totalize a vastly heterogeneous body that inhabits the colonialized space.

Furthermore, why was Spivak’s notion of “transactional reading” (Niranjana, 1992, p. 42)  able to exert a decisive influence on the whole work? Throughout the book, its use is vulnerable to criticism, as the question about its theoretical implications for the book’s master thesis, Niranjana did not fully address. 

Siting Translation deserves wide recognition, for it brings into attention the long-forgotten, then undebated, question of postcolonial subjectivity and the relevance of Benjamin’s work in poststructuralist debates. Despite its singular and tendentious historicist approach, Niranjana’s book makes exceedingly deep and weighty observations––observations of the first importance, pertinent and exceptionally valuable to critical theory and the field of translation.


Bhabha, H. (1994). The location of culture. Routledge.

Niranjana, T. (1992). Siting translation: History, post-structuralism, and the colonial context. University of California Press.

Yue, M.-B. (1993). Review of History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context: Siting Translation. [Review of Review of History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context: Siting Translation., by T. Niranjana]. The Journal of Asian Studies52(1), 122–123.

[Sunday 10th January 2021, Durham]

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