Conversion, Translation and the Language of Autobiography

This project is generously supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council until May 2017.

Re-inventing the Self in Transitions to Christianity in India (1700 - 1947)

Principal Investigator
Hephzibah Israel
UK Co-Investigator
John Zavos
International Co-Investigator
Milind Wakankar
German Research Consultant
Matthias Frenz

This is a two-year interdisciplinary project that investigates the role of translation in the movement of religious ideas and beliefs across cultures and historical periods. The project explores to what extent translation theory and methods can offer conceptual and linguistic frameworks to study the way religions travel; and to what extent linguistic and conceptual elements of translation are linked to the articulation of religious identity?

The project led by Dr. Hephzibah Israel of the University of Edinburgh brings together an international team of academics from the UK, India and Germany: Dr. John Zavos (University of Manchester), Dr. Milind Wakankar (Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi) and Dr. Matthias Frenz (German research consultant). Focusing on narratives of religious conversion written by South Asians, the team explore links between the translation of Protestant values across languages and how religious conversions to Protestant Christianity were represented through a range of narratives. Conversions to Protestant Christianity in India began soon after the arrival of German Lutheran missionaries in 1706 and continued through the period of British colonialism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This often led to Protestant converts writing autobiographical narratives describing and/or justifying their conversion experience for both Indian and European audiences. Many of them were translated for wider circulation, with extracts appearing in a range of other secondary sources, such as missionary reports, journals, personal letters and sometimes even legal documents.

The project team will identify and study conversion accounts written in and translated into one of the four languages of the project: English, German, Marathi and Tamil. They will study how conversion to Christianity was signalled through the choice of words, narrative structures and ‘paratextual’ materials that accompanied the accounts. How does an individual who has self-consciously converted from one religious system to another indicate their ‘translation,’ so to speak, from one linguistic perceptual universe to another? What is lost or gained in translation?

The team plans conference presentations, publications and an online searchable database of primary source materials with information on their locations in archives.

Project Website

More details can be found on the project website:

CTLA website