Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sexy in Translation?: Burtonics, Politics, and The Kama Sutra


 This semester I am taking a class in which we are creating a postcolonial anthology of the late 19th Century, specifically focused on the English Empire. I say "English" but this of course brings up all sorts of geographical/political/national issues of "boundary", so I defer to the above helpful video to answer any questions such a term might raise. I would like my section to examine issues of translation and adaptation,  thinking specifically about how Indian texts are "mined" as a resource, with the intention of enriching the English body as well as the English "body" of literature. The first that I chose (i.e. forced) my seminar mates to read was The Kama Sutra, as translated (term used very loosely here. no VERY loosely) by Sir Richard Francis Burton (translation available for free via Kindle store) . The Kama Sutra is, according to its "presenter", an ancient "hindoo" text. So, what is it doing in a proposed anthology of the late 19th -century English literature?  Lawrence Venuti, a scholar of translation, suggests a pedagogy for reading translated texts that acknowledges the context of their translation. The Kama Sutra may be an ancient Indian text, but, considering the "paratext" of Burton's introduction and concluding remarks, his rendering of it is very firmly rooted in the 19th-Century. Ben Grant (of the University of Kent) has written a very accessible and concise article on Burton's framing of the text available here, in which he discusses this very practice. The Kama Sutra is described by Burton as a foundational text, of a kind which many cultures produce, a text describing a "philosophy" of love. It is directly compared to Victorian texts a la Foucauldian scientific sexualis , and also differentiated from them. Grant points out that the Kama Sutra is introduced as a text appropriate "only for students" in Burton's preface, but by the time the reader reaches the "concluding remarks", the text is changes into one from which "men and women", presumably English men and women, could learn much. The text is thus presented as a union of contradictions; it is both too illicit for anyone but the mature student, and yet should be read and learned from by all English men and women, it is both "foreign" and "quaint", and yet also akin to "cutting-edge" English scientific manuals on sexuality, and lastly, the text is both an ancient Hindu guide to love and living, as well as a 19th-century political vehicle through which Burton and his "Clubland" (Clubland?) buddies could critique English censorship and sexual austerity. In fact, I might even argue that the popular allure of the Kama Sutra that remains to this day is a direct result of Burton's framing of the text. As my seminar mates discovered with me this semester, the Kama Sutra is a text that seems to exist in almost direct opposition to the popular "idea" of itself. Forgive my interpretive judgement here, but what is supposed to be the most titillating part of the text, the description of, let's call them "acts" (Foucault again, right?), is probably its most "unsexy". There are no "illustrations", and absolutely no "affected" romantic language at all. The text reads more like a "how-to-assemble" manual than the "taboo" text it is "set-up" as.This is undoubtedly where the "scientific" part of Burton's dual-description comes from.
(I will of course acknowledge that as a 21st -Century individual that's lived through things like The Matrix and Dangerous Liasons:The Movie, my reading experience might be very different from a 19th-Century reader, but, come on, 120 Days of Sodom and The Monk were published/translated almost a century before this "translation".)
What might engage our interest instead of the "acts" are passages like those concerned with the Padmini, or "feminine ideal". We read that the ideal woman should not only be beautiful and well- versed (double-meaning intended) in the "Arts/acts" of the Kama Sutra, but also skilled in many areas  that transcend traditional gendered occupational roles. As we find that the Padmini should possess skill in music, carpentry, and even archery, we are not only surprised by the "progressive" assertions that the text makes ("a woman should possess these skills so that she can achieve independence without a husband/male support"), we are also forced to encounter the reality of the text's translation in words like "longsword" and "architecture". Moments like this seem to imply that the Kama Sutra, though marketed as a bit of scholarly "exotirotica", is perhaps, dare I say it, a "political" text for its "introducers" (for lack of a better word). When the translation mentions "fencing", a reader familiar with Burton cannot help but remember Burton's treatises on the sword, and his wife Isabel's "New Woman" position as her husband's fencing partner and amanuensis, in addition to Burton's own opposition to the Obscene publications act. What is at stake in such textual connections/observations? We  come to realize that Burton's rendering of the Kama Sutra might offer just as much "wisdom" about 19th-Century England (if not more) as it claims to offer about ancient India.

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