material traces for interdisciplinary research
by Hephzibah Israel
I have worked with archives associated with Christian missionary movements in South Asia for nearly twenty years. Each presents its own set of idiosyncrasies, some better organised than others, a few easier to access and more welcoming of the researcher armed with pencils, laptops and digital cameras or smart phones. I have over the years reflected on the collections, speculating on missing items, annoyed many a time with that careless archivist who hadn’t bothered to preserve a document that I think will have been of great importance to my research. But it is only over the past year or so that I have started writing a critical reflection on the missionary archive after working at a few new institutions to pull together information on autobiographical conversion accounts for the research project ‘Conversion, Translation and the Language of Autobiography’.
Missionary archive as a conceptual category
Although I use the term ‘missionary archives’ as if this were a distinct, self-evident category, I should say at the outset that much of the materials associated with mission societies are currently housed alongside various other collections which have little to do with the Christian missionary movement.
I use ‘missionary archive’ as a conceptual category that comprises a motley range of materials: unpublished documents written by missionaries (letters, diaries, reports, translations, photographs etc.); printed materials authored by missionaries; print materials on any topic and not authored by missionaries but published by a mission press. These were initially collected and housed by each mission society but eventually handed over to either national or university libraries in Europe over the course of the twentieth century. (There are a few exceptions: for instance, the Leipzig Mission Society’s Archive is still located, curated and directed by the Leipzig Mission.)
The sheer range and geographical spread of missionary archives globally is impressive. By and large, missionary archives are located in European and American cities as well as in the countries that nineteenth-century Christian missions functioned in. I’ll list those that are associated with South Asia, since my work focuses on South Asia:
Amongst archives of the Protestant missions working in South Asia alone, there are in the UK
- the SOAS Special Collections,
- the British Library,
- University of Birmingham’s Cadbury Research Library: Special Collections,
- Special Collections of the National Library of Scotland and New College Library Archive Collections and Centre for Research Collections,
- University of Edinburgh, Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK)
- Archive at Cambridge University Library,
- the Baptist missionary archive at The Angus Library and Archive,
- Regent’s Park College, Oxford,
- and Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) Archive at the Bodleian Library Oxford.
In Germany, the Evangelische Lutheran Mission’s archives are located mainly at the Franckesche Stiftungen, Halle and Archive of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society Leipzig, Leipzig; in Switzerland the Basel Mission Archives; and in the US, archives at the universities of Columbia, Yale, and California.
In comparison, the mission archives in South Asia are fewer but often contain rare materials: the archive at United Theological College, Bangalore is a good example of a place with a collection of paper and palm leaf manuscripts in several Indian languages that cannot be found elsewhere. I have only named archives with substantial Protestant mission collections so far and this list would be longer by far if I were to include smaller collections located at other institutions. For Catholic archives relating to South Asia, there are archives in France, Portugal, and the Vatican Library in Rome but I am not going to elaborate on these here as it is best other scholars who have worked with these specific archives add to this information, perhaps in a separate blog dedicated to these.
My purpose in writing this blog is partly to draw attention to the mission archives spread globally but also to point out that these materials don’t merely offer information specific to research on ‘Indian Christianity’ or Christian missions in South Asia. The collections have potential to contribute to historical research in a range of areas across the humanities—comparative religions, social and cultural history, caste, gender, tribal societies, languages and literatures, translation, South Asian print and book history, photography, modern systems of education, colonial medical history in South Asia, colonial history and imperial policies, architecture, urban planning and many more. And yet, missionary archives are routinely ignored by researchers working in these areas!
Of course, researchers would need to engage critically with the missionary archive as with any other. There will be the unexplained silences, gaps in materials, haphazard recording, ideological biases and constraints, the exciting and the mundane but again this is no different from other kinds of archives. So why ignore these as the exclusive stamping ground of mission historians? There is much to be exploited at missionary archives by researchers not working on Christianity or Christian history. Equally, missionary archives have much to gain from such an opening up of its materials to the scrutiny of scholars interested in historical perspectives from across a wide spectrum of disciplines.
Attitudes to translation
My own recent interest in the missionary archive focused on attitudes to translation displayed in the missionary archive. Any historian working with archives is well aware of the fragmentary and unreliable nature of collections of past or present objects. The missing pieces frustrate attempts to re-construct stories but also provide clues to the networks that tie the collection of (random?) information to the control of knowledge.
Examining the value placed on translation by missionary archivists and archives allows me to probe one set of mechanisms by which specific forms of knowledge and representation are constructed as “evidence” of past events or experiences despite or through the very act of destroying material evidence of translation.
While some components of translation projects are carefully preserved and interpreted, others are discarded; but importantly, both seemingly contradictory acts work together to control and fix one set of interpretations as valid. Paying attention to translation and engaging it as a tool of critical interpretation is one way to answer Burton’s call (in ‘Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories,’ in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History, 2008: 8) to ‘denaturalize’ the production and boundaries of archives and historicize the production of archival collections.
Drawing on Foucault’s critique of ‘the archive’ and his argument for an ‘archaeological’ engagement with archives, Matthias, my co-author and I examine how to treat what we term ‘translation traces’ in the documents we uncovered: bilingual texts, translated extracts, fragments, and evidence of repeated relay translations.
What role does translation, invisibilized as it is, play in the documentation of lives? Could we think of the archive as a ‘contact zone’ where languages, texts, and collective memory intersect through translation? Focussing on the function of the Protestant missionary archive, we contribute to the discipline of translation studies by suggesting some means of addressing the way missionary archives on and of the past inevitably shape our study and understanding of translation in the present; and how addressing the translation question opens up new ways of working with historical archives. The article, ‘Translation Traces in the Archive: Unfixing Documents, Destabilising Evidence,’ is published in a special issue of The Translator (forthcoming, 2020). To read full article, click here.
Hephzibah Israel is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies, Asian Studies, Centre for South Asian Studies, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures literary and sacred translations in the South Asian context. She has studied translation and translation practices in the modern Tamil literary and sacred landscapes. Her study of the translations of the Tamil Bible focused attention on it as an object of cultural transfer within intersecting religious, literary and social contexts.
Her book, Religious Transactions in Colonial South India: Language, Translation and the Making of Protestant Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) draws attention to three key areas of translation conflict—identifying a sacred lexicon, caste and language registers, and competing literary genres—in the translation history of the Tamil Bible and in the articulation of Protestant identities. Her other publications include: Competing narratives on Bible translation in India : Missionary linguistics, postcolonial criticism and translation studies, Translation and religion : Crafting regimes of identity, and Narratives of transformation : Religious conversion and Indian traditions of ‘Life Writing’