Salman Rushdie’s novel, The Enchantress of Florence (2008), set in sixteenth century Florence and India, is a tour de force of cross-cultural encounter between the West and the East around the time of the European Renaissance. The novel traverses between the West and the East highlighting the inter-connectedness of people in different continents much before colonialism could formalize such encounters into rigid hierarchical grids in which the West became the normative self.
The imaginative scope of Rushdie’s novel offers us an interesting possibility of ‘cultural translation,’ a term denoting cross-cultural interaction in an increasingly globalized world. The act of translation has traditionally been theorized as an exercise in finding linguistic equivalence and, also, in terms of the inadequacy of linguistic translation in finding formal and dynamic equivalence between two or more different sets of languages. In the late 1970s, a rigid word-to-word and word-to-text translation was rejected in favor of an interaction between translation and culture. This new approach theorized how culture conditions translation within the larger issues of context, history, and authority. The problem of locating lexical equivalence could be addressed by a process of supplementation of cultural knowledge. The practice of linguistic translation has always essentially been a problem of understanding different cultural contexts.
While the flow of ‘cultural translation’ has always been from the East to the West because of the asymmetrical power relation between these two and often practiced in Western metropolitan centers, Rushdie’s novel makes us ask: How would cultural translation look like if it got produced outside the frame of colonial encounter and the dominant gaze of the West?
Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence offers interesting possibilities of ‘cultural translation’ in the pre-colonial times, a time-frame roughly contemporaneous with the Renaissance in Europe. Published exactly ten years after the publication of The Satanic Verses (1988), which explored the negotiation of cultural difference through the process of ‘cultural translation’ within the western discursive regime, Rushdie’s 2008 novel revisits the theme of mobility, displacement, and ‘cultural translation’ in the pre-colonial times outside the dominant gaze of Western modernity.
One of Emperor Akbar’s major preoccupations in the novel is the search for a just, humanistic society which transcends the constrictions of theocracy and religious dogmatism. Having been apprised of the humanistic worldview of the Renaissance Europe through the Italian visitor to his court, Mogor dell’Amore, towards the end of the novel, Akbar meditates on some of the tenets of the Renaissance:
“To elevate a man to near-divine status and to allow him absolute power, while arguing that human beings and not gods were the masters of human destinies contained a contradiction that would not survive much examination. Besides, the evidence of the interference of faith in human affairs was scattered all around him.”
Akbar ponders over the contradictions inherent in the Renaissance European conceptions of the world in which God is ascribed human attributes:
“Their philosophers too portrayed the human being standing at the center of his time, his city, his life, his church. But foolishly they ascribed man’s humanity to God, they required divine sanction to support their case in this matter, the higher matter of Man, even though they dispensed with the need for such a sanction in the lower matter of power…Mogor had been right. The curse of the human race is not that we are so different from one another, but that we are so alike.”
The search for likeness among the human beings leads both a Akbar and Mogor to draw a conclusion that human beings are more alike than different. Akbar himself becomes a site for cultural translation in the East as he struggles to resolve the crisis arising out of the limits of a theocratic state. This compels him to ponder over the practices of an alien Western culture and understand their merits and demerits for his own project. Throughout the novel, Akbar is preoccupied with issues of individualism in a society prone to communitarian identity evolving out of religious convictions.
Echoing an idiom of linguistic translation, Akbar asks, “Was foreignness itself a thing to be embraced as a revitalizing force bestowing bounty and success upon its adherents, or did it adulterate something essential in the individual and the society as a whole, did it initiate a process of decay which would end in an alienated, inauthentic death?”
By locating the process of cultural translation away from the dominant gaze of the West, The Enchantress of Florence revives interesting possibilities about the purpose of such cultural exchanges and what this process might entail when conducted outside the pale of colonial/neocolonial and western metropolitan spaces. A new cross-cultural ethical possibility, perhaps!