Threefold translation of the body of Christ: concepts of the Eucharist and the body translated in the early modern missionary context


As was shown, inside Latin Christianity different strategies to translate and explain the Eucharist were necessary. It was even more difficult to translate it in a global missionary context. The missionary context was a multilingual zone where disparate cultures met, different meanings clashed, and the semantic fields overlapped less than in the context of Latin Christianity. Therefore, teaching the Eucharist was embedded in very broad and multidimensional inter-lingual translation processes. The missionary context can also be seen as a glocal space, where missionary-translators as well as Catholic Dogma with its claim of global relevance encountered local referents and intercepted global historical dynamics.

The context and our sources

A central tool to teach Catholic doctrine in general, and the Eucharist in particular, were catechisms (cf. about this genre: Wandel, 2014b). Catechetical books and other pastoral texts in the local languages are our main sources to test our toolbox. Whereas translation studies often analysed (Protestant) biblical translation (cf. e.g. the compilation in Weissbort and Eysteinsson, 2006), the translation of catechisms and other pastoral texts were rather neglected (cf. Durston, 2007, pp. 11–12). In the early modern period, most of all after the Council of Trent, the catechism became the crucial manual for teaching and explaining Catholicism in the European, denominational as well as in the missionary context. Unlike holy texts like the Bible, translators were freer to translate the catechism. Therefore, this is a promising genre to investigate, in which textual and conceptual grids of the local contexts were chosen by the translators, and also to trace power structures influencing the translation processes (cf. Flüchter, 2017). There is a broad spectrum on how to compose a catechism. Mostly the catechisms for the missionary contexts were translations from European ones (very popular were the catechisms written by Petrus Canisius, Roberto Bellarmino and Marcos Jorges); sometimes, but rarely, catechisms were also especially written for a specific context. Nevertheless, even if catechisms could be translated more freely than the Bible, there were still certain traditional textual and conceptual grids. For example, in the 16th century and after the Reformation, the question–answer structure became the dominant structure (cf. Strauss, 1978, pp. 156–158). Even more so after the council of Trent, Ana Hosne assumed that the Roman Catechism (1566) ‘managed to unify the contents and to consolidate a genre that had so far not been directly recognized as “catechism”’ (Hosne, 2013, p. 100). The translated catechisms usually respected and imitated a narrative structure with recurrent topics and vocabulary, most of all the four central Catholic themes of catechesis: the sign of the cross, prayers, articles of the creed, the Ten Commandments, the sacraments, the five commandments of the church, the deadly sins, the works of mercy (cf. Marthaler, 1995).

The focus of our following analysis of catechisms is on the Jesuit missions in South India (cf. about the context: Županov, 1999). In relation with the distance and the connection to the institutional centre of Goa and the autonomy from cultural hegemonies there represented, we analyse different examples of Jesuit translations. In the centre is Roberto Nobili’s (1577–1654) final work (Rajamanickam, 1972a), the result of his 50 long years of missionary work in the Tamil missionary area, that is the Ñāna Upadēsam (, The Teaching of [Religious] Knowledge).Footnote 2 The Ñāna Upadēsam is a fascinating refraction of Catholic doctrine, the distinctive ethos and rhetoric of Madurai Nāyaka kingship, and the dynamics of a South Indian context. We want to embed his work in the network of other translations in South India (for example by the Jesuits Thomas Stephens (1549–1619) or Henrique Henriques (1520–1600)), as well as from other parts of the world. Many (important) books about Jesuits, their missionary endeavour and translation work concentrate on specific world regions (e.g. Amaladass and Županov, 2014; Zwartjes, 2014), with integrating points of reference from other world regions, the specifics as well as the more overarching mechanisms can be refined. After some more general remarks about the historical context, we will, first, look into the textual grids, then how the authors translated central terms from the semantic field of the Eucharist, as well as the conceptual grids they used. The results of these questions will be examined again with the pair, ‘domestication’ and ‘foreignization’.

The missionary context generally attracted the missionary fervour of many Jesuits as the threshold zone of Christianity, a liminal space where ambiguity, disorientation, suspension and peril evoked fascination and desire for chances to become a martyr (Prosperi and Villari, 1995; Roscioni, 2001, p. 204). The Jesuit Order is often painted as a very centralized structure; the required obedience of the patres to their superior as well as to the Pope is often mentioned (cf. Mostaccio, 2019: most of all 78). However, the distance between the missionaries and their superiors also gave them agency. Despite the organized framework of the Society of Jesus, their ‘lettered governance,’ their efforts to achieve institutional unity and procedural uniformity, as ‘one nation and one province,’ the Jesuits had to accommodate and negotiate the desired administrative homogeneity in a fragmented global space (Friedrich, 2017, p. 2; Harris, 1999). The geographical distance, the absence of infrastructure, the limits of epistolary communication, the diverse peculiarities and needs of every mission made missionaries pragmatically undertake autonomous, local decisions (cf. Clossey, 2008, pp. 45–58; Ferroli, 1939, p. 272; Županov, 2007). Jesuits were trained as decision-makers in order to make the right decision in conformity with the institution of the Society of Jesus and the Church. At the core of Jesuit discipline and their education was the capacity of discernment (Friedrich, 2017), the daily practise of Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, and the endeavour to imitate the Vita Christi. Moreover, Ratio Studiorum, the specific Jesuit training which included the study of rhetoric, dialectics, and theology in the Thomistic heritage (cf. Hinz et al., 2004; Casalini, 2019) is important for our analysis, because this was the reservoir from which most of the Jesuit translators got their expertise in conceptual and textual grids.

The South Indian Catholic sphere had its administrative and spiritual centre in the Portuguese colonial port town of Goa, India, conquered by the Portuguese in 1510. Indeed, the presence of the Catholic missionaries in India in the 16th and 17th centuries was guaranteed and protected by the Portuguese Estado da Índia, as the set of territories dominated and administrated by the king of Portugal. Estado da Índia was equipped with a body of missionaries for the spiritual care of the Portuguese people and the evangelization of the local territories. Governed by an agreement between the King and the Pope regarding control over ecclesiastical institutions and the appointment of those responsible, this constituted the so-called Padroado. The Catholic diocese of Goa was founded in 1533 and became known as the ‘Golden Goa’ or the ‘Rome of the Orient’—even if the latter might be rather a modern self-ascription by Indian Christians (cf. Henn, 2001, p. 336). It was the institutional capital of Indian Catholicism and the centre of its spiritual ambitions. In 1558, Pope Paul IV (1555–1559) elevated Goa to the status of an archdiocese and erected the dioceses of Cochin in India and Malacca in Malaysia as suffragan seats. Already in Goa Catholic orders, rules and dogma were transferred into the Indian context by the Catholic institution, that is, in an institutional and juridical way, and therefore quite different from the translations done by missionaries. Moreover, the Goan institutions, most of all the Provincial Councils, set rules for the translation work done in their Archdioceses. Peter Burke describes outright a translation policy in the context of Counter-Reformation doctrine (Burke, 2007, pp. 16–17). A similar, and even more thorough translation policy observed by scholars in the Latin American Provincial Councils, most of all the 3rd Council of Lima. This council had many consequences for the language development in Latin America (cf. Henkel and Saranyana, 2010, pp. 33–36) and also tried to canonize the translation of certain central Catholic concepts by an authorized translation of a catechism (Zwartjes, 2014, pp. 10–11, p. 29; Hosne, 2013, pp. 20–23) Also at the five Provincial Councils, held in Goa in the 16th century, missionary methods and strategies were discussed in depth. Many of the decrees of these councils encouraged the missionaries to learn the local languages; nevertheless, the translation of Catholic doctrine into the local languages was still highly characterized by Latin and Portuguese terminology. Moreover, the third Provincial Council of Goa in 1585 (acção 2, decreto 25) decreed to compose a Portuguese catechism as a model for translation into various local languages. But it could never be implemented or enforced beyond the direct influence of Portuguese power. Even if the council of Goa did not have the same impact on translation processes as the mentioned one in Lima, its provincial councils as well as other church institutions also tried to regulate translation processes. This has to be considered if assessing the translations done by Jesuit missionaries.

Initially, the Jesuit missionaries in India were dedicated to the spiritual care of the Portuguese in Asia, thus mostly established their missions in coastal areas, in the Portuguese ports and domains, such as Salcete in the Southern part of Goa, Calicut, Cranganore, Cochin in the Malabar area (South-west coast), and Tuticorin in the Fishery Coast (South-east coast). Whereas the Madurai mission is located inland (nowadays Tamil Nadu), Madurai city was a religious centre for Hindu pilgrims. It was not ruled by the Portuguese, but by local kings from the Nayāka warrior dynasty. Therefore, even if the missionaries and the missions depended on the religious authority of the Roman Church and the political administration of the Portuguese Empire, Madurai itself and all the interior sites near Madurai where Nobili preached (such as Sandamangdalam, Moramangdalam) had a different status of autonomy than the missions near Goa.

The textual grids

In South India there is quite a tradition of catechisms, starting during the second half of the 16th century. Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the first Jesuit in India, highlighted the necessity of having a catechism as a compendium with which to teach and explain dogma to local audiences in local languages. He wrote the Doctrina Christiana, the short catechism (about four pages) in Portuguese in 1542, addressed to the evangelization of the Malabar people. It closely resembles the catechism published in Lisbon in 1539 by João de Barros (1496–1570) (Costelloe, 1992, pp. 41–45). This text is written in a European language and resembles in every respect a text from the European Catholic context. It does not yet have the later classic question–answer structure, but its structure presents the main topics and prayers of Catholic doctrine without any further explanation; also the Eucharist is not translated or described in this text. It was a book to help the Portuguese missionaries teach the Catholic doctrine. Regarding this intended audience, we do not need to ask for foreignization or domestication, because it is an intracultural text, belonging to the South European Catholic culture. However, it can be assumed that the changes Francis Xavier made, by referring to the João de Barros catechisms—for example, Xavier does not translate the Seven Sacraments but he added some other topics: the Five commandments of the Church, the Confiteor, Mortal sins, Mortal virtues, and so on—are due to the nature of the regions in which he and his companion were working (João de Barros’ Cartinha com preceitos e Mandamentos da Santa Madre Igreja, is printed together with Xavier’s catechism in Schurhammer and Wicki, 1996, vol I, pp. 106–116; cf. also to the closeness of both texts: Županov, 2005, p. 244).

Another Jesuit, Henrique Henriques (1520–1600), a Portuguese fellow with New Christian origins, who had devoted himself to learning South Indian languages, who became the first Jesuit to learn the Tamil language. He spent 53 years in Tuticorin, a Portuguese colony at the Pearl Fishery coast, a fishing area mostly inhabited by the Parava (Southest India coastal inhabitants). Even if the Fisher Coast was rather far from Goa, Henriques’ translation process was close to Catholic orthodoxy. He translated Francis Xavier’s Doctrina Christiana into Tamil, that is the Tampirāṉ Vaṇakkam () published in 1578. In 1579 the second catechism by Henriques was published, that is, the Kirīcittiyānṉi Vaṇakkam (). The 12 chapters of Kirīcittiyānṉi Vaṇakkam were merely a literary translation of a Portuguese catechism (Doctrina Christã by Marcos Jorges (1524–1571)) into Tamil. Many of the Jesuit catechisms were based on Jorge’s catechism (cf. Dos Santos, 2016, p. 157). Henriques’s texts were very successful, and at the beginning of the 17th century, Kirīcittiyānṉi Vaṇakkam was the common text used for teaching Christianity to Tamil speakers.

On the one hand, we see in Henrique’s translation the typical early modern flexibility in the process of translation. Francis Xavier had changed parts of João de Barros’ text and Henriques left out some of the prayers, but added the articles of faith and the sacraments. However, despite all of this flexibility, the textual grids were strictly chosen from the European tradition. In the Kirīcittiyānṉi Vaṇakkam (1579) Henrique used the question–answer scheme as Borges had done—a structure that became the quasi-canonical structure of an early modern catechism in Europe. In the general structure and the order of topics, both catechisms followed the structure that was pre-set by the Roman Catechism or the one by Roberto Bellarmino. With these texts we have kind of a pure translation of European grids; the language is the only accommodation to the Indian context. The textual structure and form stayed strictly European, there was no domestication on the textual level, that is, no adaptation to any local textual grids.

A few years later, the Jesuit Thomas Stephens (1549–1619) introduced a new pattern for teaching Catholicism to the South Indian people. Stephens, who had reached India in 1579, was multilingual; he knew Marathi, Konkani, Sanskrit, English and Portuguese. He spent his missionary life and work in Salcete, a peninsula South of Goa, and famous for the Jesuit martyr João de Brito. Even though Christianity was already implemented there, the area was also tormented by acts of violence and repression, both by Portuguese Christians and Hindu locals. Stephens had the task of mediating a dialogue with the local people, and that gave him more space for creative independence in translating than Henriques had. It can be assumed that Henriques, even though he was geographically further away from Goa, was much closer to the orthodoxy. Stephen’s catechism, Doutrina Christam em lingoa Bramana Canarim (Stephens, [1622] 1945), is the first book printed in Konkani, however printed posthumously, in Roman script, because there was a problem with making Konkani moulds for printing. According to Cyril Veliath, the Doutrina Christam is again a translation from Marcos Jorge’s Portuguese catechism (Veliath, 2011, p. 164). It is a small catechism in question-and-answer form, apparently meant for the instruction of children, as Stephens wrote to General Aquaviva in Rome (6th December 1601, cf. Falcao, 2009, pp. 1678–1682).

Whereas Stephens kept the European textual grids with his catechism, with his second book Kristapurāṇa (cf. Falcao, 2003, 2009), he created a landmark in the cultural translation process of Christian literature. Written in Marathi, it opened the way for a new religious genre, accommodated to the local textual and conceptual grids, a starting point for a transcultural book. This book is not a catechism, but rather a pastoral text, an attempt to explain and translate the Bible, by retelling the Life of Jesus. Stephens did not translate an existing text, but the Kristapurāṇa is rather a translation without an original, where writing and translating overlap. The accommodation started with the textual grids, because already in the choice of the structure Stephens left strict European tradition. The text does not have the structure of Catholic didactical text, but Stephens used the textual grid of a Purāṇa, a Hindu religious book (about this genre: Rocher, 1986; about its role in social communication: O’Hanlon, 2013). As a Purāṇa, the Kristapurāṇa is written in verses. With this textual structure, Stephens brought his Kristapurāna to the local audience. Before his readers or listeners related to the content, they could understand the text as a sacred one, or at least as a book about sacred themes. Thus, Stephens domesticated his book to the Indian context.

It needs to be asked what the difference is between Stephens’ two texts, as the first stays strictly European in his textual grids, whereas the second one is domesticated to the Marathi culture. Many factors have to be considered: The context in which the text was written; the fact that Stephens was maybe more familiar with Marathi than with Konkani; and also to domesticate something into a culture, the author needed more expertise than if the text kept it foreignized character. All these factors have their relevance, however what we consider most important is that the catechism was an established genre with a clear structure, since Trent, and moreover there was no catechism in the Tamil culture. Therefore, there was no textual grid to which Stephens could adapt.

The influence and heritage of Stephens’ translation is crucial for Roberto Nobili’s work. The Italian Jesuit is considered the pioneer of the accommodation method in South India (Rajamanickam, 1972a; Cronin, 1959; Dahmen, 1931; Clooney, 1990). When Nobili reached Goa in 1605, he met Stephens who was the minister at the professed house of the Jesuits. One year later he moved from Goa to settle his missionary work in the peripheral areas, as he was assigned to the Madurai Mission, far from the centres of power, both the colonial Portuguese and the Catholic institutions in Goa. Madurai was a not only the name of a Jesuit mission, but also an autonomous kingdom ruled by local Telugu kings, the Nāyaka, immersed in a contended region, between the influence of the empire of Vijayanagar (a Hindu kingdom) and the Portuguese Padroado (Aiyar, 1991; Nārāyana Rao et al., 1992). It was a very multicultural and multilingual area.

Until recently, most work about Nobili relied on his texts in Latin in which he translated and explained his accommodation strategy for his superiors in Goa and Rome (for example, Rajamanickam, 1972a). It is only in recent years that texts written in the regional languages are more often analysed (e.g. Amaladass, 2017; Nardini, 2017). In the centre of our article is such a text written in Tamil, Nobili’s Ñāna Upadēsam, his last and magna opera. The text, three books in the Tamil language, is the result of 50 long years of his missionary work in Madurai.

Looking for the textual grids Nobili used in his Ñāna Upadēsam, it becomes obvious that he did not use one single textual grid, be it European or South Indian, but created almost a new genre, combining many different textual grids. In most of the archival catalogues, the Ñana Upadesam is conceived of as a catechism, as ‘Catechismus Romanus’ (e.g. in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris or in the Goa State Central Library). There are some parts which are closer to a catechism in content, and they follow the traditional question–answer structure. For example, the 2nd book (lesson no. 14) of the Ñana Upadesam Nobili is closer to the textual grids of a catechism than other parts of the text. Here Nobili listed and explained the five precepts of the Catholic Church and the Ten Commandments, mostly in a question–answer structure. These sections are neither a translation of any known catechism, nor do they present the topical structure officialized by the Council of Trent, which was adopted in the previous catechisms used in South India. For example, the explanation of the creed is absent, the Decalogue and some prayers are mixed in with other topics, and do not follow a catechisms’ textual grid.

Moreover, the text is much more than a catechism. In the Ñana Upadesam, Nobili translated religious and Catholic concepts for a large Tamil audience. It is a kind of compendium or manual of Catholicism in the Tamil language, in three books. Texts for teaching theological and spiritual contents have specific textual grids in Latin Christianity as well as in the Indian context. Because of the analysis of the textual grids, the different sources and genres embedded in Ñana Upadesam could be uncovered. The division into lessons as teaching units follows the textual grid of Upadeśa, a book with spiritual guidance as provided by a guru, for example the Upadeśasāhasrī by Śańkara (cf. Zilberman, 2006; Mayeda, 2012). The Ñāna Upadēsam is divided into lessons of teachings, as a collection of religious teaching, to be read out loud for teaching. An obvious example of this structure is the first lesson in the first book. For the explanation of the theological points, Nobili used the formula sententiarum, the scholastic argumentation of quoting authoritative books and authors, as it is in Lombard’s Libri Sententiarum (cf. about the development of the scholastic method and Lombard’s relevance: Colish, 2006). Moreover, the difficult and dogmatic points are explained by a dialectic structure, posing the problem and the solution, as it is in Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae. Nobili followed, with his division into three books, the pyramid of knowledge as developed by Thomas Aquinas in his text Summa Contra Gentiles. In the first book he reported the arguments as they can be grasped by the rational mind; the second book is about the topics which have to be explained by the support of religious doctrine; the third one concerns the dogma and can be understood only by faith. In addition, the text followed the textual grammar rules of sandhi as old Tamil poems and the Tamil grammatical honorific forms. Other important textual markers are the elements of the rhetorical apparatus; in this case the whole structure is based on a thick structure of metaphors, that make the register of the narration demotic, and draw from the Tamil-Nāyaka and Christian folk narrative (cf. Nardini, 2017). Like Stephens, Nobili retold the life of Christ and other Bible stories, thus parts of his text resemble a Purāṇa related to the content, but he did not use their textual grids like Stephens, since he wrote in prose.

Both Stephens and Nobili were very creative regarding the textual grids they used. Stephens domesticated his second book for the local or regional audience; Nobili mixed different grids, therefore assumingly his audience recognized some parts, whereas others remained foreign to them, but still the textual framing of a book of spiritual teaching was clear. We use Venuti’s concept of ‘domestication’, but does it really fit? Whereas Venuti understood domestication as an adaptation to a Western audience, the kind of Westernization in this case brought the translation of the text to a South Indian audience; on the textual level, the texts were domesticated into an Indian cultural background. Consequently, foreignization means, that the text kept their foreign nature, that is, in this case European or Catholic characteristics. But is the Catholic or Christian context forced into the literal context of the target culture—as Venuti characterized domestication? This formulation is certainly too strong. (Modern) Translation theory mostly assumes that the translator translated into their own language or culture. This is not the case for most missionaries, and therefore the critical, postcolonial target course is not a perfect fit.

Stephens and Nobili were not directly or explicitly forced to use the Indian textual grids, nevertheless, the adaptation of ‘foreign’ textual grids is an indicator for the cultural power structures in which their translation work was embedded—Catholic or Portuguese forces were not dominant or hegemonic here. Moreover, the choice of textual grids is quite a clear indicator of who the intended audience was. The analysis of the different textual audiences of Nobilis Ñāna Upadēsam might help us to re-evaluate the idea, if he really only and mostly wrote for Brahmins, or if also other audiences; mostly the non-Brahman Tamil elite were the main target groups. Textual grids are even more relevant in a multicultural context, like the Madurai mission.

The adaptation to textual grids is informative; however, it has to be stressed that most of the analysed catechetical texts stuck to European grids. That is obvious for Xavier and Henriques, but also for Stephens and Nobili (in the catechetical parts of his text). It seems that after the council of Trent, the textual grid of a translated or written catechism was stricter than the one for other pastoral texts. There are examples from catechisms written for a Japanese audience, that reversed the question–answer order, that is, that the student asked and the teacher/priest answered and explained (Higashiba, 2001, p. 63). The quoted Japanese catechisms followed the structure of the Buddhist catechism. It can be assumed that such a change of the textual grid depended on the existence of didactical tradition and a well installed textual grid for a certain genre, in our case a catechism. More generally there needed to be compatible textual grids and genres, that the adaptation on this level was possible. Something like this is rare, and not amongst the texts analysed here. For other genres, didactical story books (Stephens) and, interesting enough, manuals, collecting theological topics for teaching (Nobili), were more open for foreign textual grids. Here the textual form could be more domesticated to the local audience than the catechetical texts. But even with a strong cultural hegemony, as in Madurai, this was not enough to change the Catholic textual grid of a catechism; the catechisms or catechetic elements in pastoral texts kept the Catholic form.

Therefore, it can be assumed that the Tamil audience recognized the foreign cultural or religious origin of the catechetic texts. But can we define this form as foreignized, or at least as ‘foreignization’ as Venuti defined it? For Venuti, foreignization is not only that the texts keep a foreign appearance, but that the translator chooses and thus decides which foreign character will become part of the receiving culture. The keeping of a Catholic textual grid in the analysed text here is obviously a different form of foreignization. Thus the conformity with the (Catholic) orthodoxy is maintained, the text stays foreign but is not foreignized. The foreign grid does not structure or even determine how the foreignness is integrated into the target culture. This is much more determined by the way the audience translated the texts for themselves.

Translating terms by choosing conceptual grids

How do these first results regarding the textual grids match the actual literal translation in the analysed texts? And how were the conceptual grids chosen? Although the Eucharist was pivotal in the Catholic liturgy, and a highly disputed term in the confessional age, it does not surface as a prominent topic in most of the analysed texts; it is not a topic that is explained in its theology and details. In Francis Xavier’s short text, the sacraments are not mentioned at all, only Henriques added them in his translation. In many catechisms, the Eucharist is only mentioned in the list of the seven sacraments, with neither explanation nor any mention of transubstantiation.

Transliteration as translation

But even if in a catechism the Eucharist is only mentioned, the question is how to translate the term ‘Eucharist’. When Henriques translated Francis Xavier’s catechism into Tamil, parallel to keeping the Christian textual grids, he also did not dive too deep into South Indian semantic or conceptual grids. Despite Henrique’s efforts to adopt and translate the catechism into local languages, his works were still highly Portuguese and Latinized. In these catechisms ‘Eucharist’ is not translated, but only transliterated as Santu Sacrammentu, that is holy sacrament (Tambiran Vanakkam—Henriques, [1578] 1963b, p. 8) or Santissimo Sakkiramentu, that is most holy sacrament (Kiristtiyani Vanakkam—Henriques, [1579] 1963a, p. 53). Henriques even did not use the many alternatives in the semantic field’Eucharist’”. Franz Xavier as well as Henriques did not go into any detail regarding the Eucharist, therefore they also did not need to refer to local conceptual grids or body concepts. Stephens used more variants of its semantic field than Henriques, but still the Eucharist remained a term belonging to a foreign semantic community and with his transliteration he did not domesticate any of the mentioned terms into the local context. In his text ‘Eucharist’ is rendered as Comunhaõ (communion) (chapter 10, p. 49), Santo sacramento (holy sacrament) (chapter 8, p. 40), and there is the Hosti (host) (chapter 8, p. 41), the Calix (calyx) (chapter 8, p. 41), oração (oration) (chapter 8, p. 41) and consagracãu (consecration) (chapter 8, p. 41), and Iesu Christachea amolicā ragtā (the priceless blood of Jesus Christ) (chapter 8, p.41) (Stephens, [1622] 1945).

Only to transliterate the term, as Henriques and Stephens also partly did, helped to maintain Catholic orthodoxy. Translating this sacrament gave so much room for misunderstanding, and translators could easily find themselves accused of being a heretic (cf. for the Latin American context: Balleriaux, 2012, p. 146; Ricard, 1974, p. 257). But there were also problems involved with a sole transliteration. Thus the Eucharist remained a term or concept belonging to a foreign semantic community. The transliterated terms did not explain anything for the South Indian audience. Therefore it is significant that the first provincial council in Goa in 1567 complained that slaves and proselytes did not understand the meaning of the Eucharist. Most of all, they were hardly able to differentiate between the Eucharist bread as a special spiritual nourishment and ordinary bread, according to these missionaries (Wicki, 1981, p. 216).

Maybe one consequence of this problem was that Stephens, and later on Nobili, did not only transliterate, but created new terms in the local languages, and thus related the sacrament Eucharist to local conceptual grids. Therefore, it seems that the Jesuit translators in India followed a different chronology than in other world regions. For example, in Latin America the use of emic terms to translate ‘God’ was often part of the first attempts to translate Christianity; however, later on, missionaries or church authorities often noticed, that the connection to conceptual grids by the choice of foreign words implied or even led to heresy and heterodox beliefs (Instead they used the Latin word or another European language the missionaries came from). Mostly scholars described this phenomenon regarding the term God (e.g. Kishino, 2009; Ricard, 1974, pp. 55–58; Amaladass, 2017; Zwartjes, 2014, pp. 31–33). But whereas most languages and cultural systems had some concept of God or some kinds of deities, for the Eucharist that was different. This concept is so specifically Christian, and Transubstantiation specifically Catholic, that there are no easily fitting equivalents for it.

The question of how to translate concepts like the Eucharist best were also discussed by the missionaries themselves. Nobili noticed that in the previous attempts by Henriques to translate Catholic doctrine into Tamil language, many terms were directly transliterated from Portuguese, and thus conveyed a wrong meaning: ‘the Catechism contains expressions in a very uncultured dialect which is very different from the one used in Madurai and among Brahmins. There is nothing surprising therefore if the difference of dialects made me substitute certain words with others’ (Dahmen, 1931, p. 157). The problems of how to translate terms central to the Catholic belief were not only described by modern scholars (cf. Dürr, 2017), but also omnipresent in the missionary context. Missionaries sometimes even complained explicitly in their letters about the problems of translating the Christian doctrine. In the Jesuit Relations, written in what is now Canada and published by Reuben Thwaites, we read: ‘They know not what is salt, leaven, stronghold, pearl, prison, mustard seed, casks of wine, lamp, candlestick, torch; they have no idea of Kingdoms, Kings, and their majesty; not even of shepherds, flocks, and a sheepfold—in a word, their ignorance of the things of the earth seems to close for them the way to heaven. The grounds for credence, taken from the fulfilment of the prophecies; from miracles, Martyrs, Councils, holy Doctors, histories both sacred and profane; from the holiness of the Church, and from the external splendour which renders it venerable to the greatest Monarchs of the world—all that has no place here; where can the Faith enter their minds?’ (Thwaites, 1898, vol. 20, pp. 70–71).

Choosing an equivalent conceptual grid

This sentiment is of course also an attempt to explain why the conversions in Northern America were not as numerous as hoped. But it also shows quite clearly the problem for a translator, when the target language did not have equivalent conceptual grids. Quite often discussed is the problem of translating transubstantiation in a community that practices ritual cannibalism. The formal closeness of cannibalism and transubstantiation was often discussed in the context of the conquest of South America, but in text written in the polemic context of the confessional struggle between the Catholics and Protestants (cf. about Brazil: Lestringant, 1997). However, these difficult grids also had consequences for translation processes. John Steckley, who translated Jesuit texts into Wendat, explained that the Jesuit Jean de Brébeuf (1593–1649) translated the word ‘Eucharist’ into atonesta, meaning ‘one gives recognition, thanks by such a means’ (Steckley, 1978, p. 113). He hypothesizes that Brébeuf chose this translation ‘to avoid being seen promoting the Huron practice of ritual cannibalism of captured enemies (a custom shared with the Iroquois) by literal reference to eating the body of Christ’ (Steckley, 2004, pp. 12–13). A comparable and at the same time quite different problem was how to translate transubstantiation for vegetarians, like in South India.

If one looks into the pastoral texts, there are several conceptual grids tested and used. First of all there are rather open conceptual grids, quite like the just mentioned atonesta for thanks. In many cases missionaries opted to translate ‘Eucharist’ as a miracle in order to avoid theological disquisition. Certainly also the concept ‘miracle’ has different semantic fields in many language systems, but it seems to have worked as an equivalent in many contexts. It was chosen in texts written by Henriques ([1579] 1963a, p. 57). Also Stephens wrote in his Kristapurāṇa about the ‘holy mystery of the excellent prasāda’ (pavitra gupta saparsādāṁcā, see Eliasson, 2015, p. 82). Miracle is a simple and not very concrete concept; it can even work as a reason not to explain a sacrament rationally. It might be an interesting subject for comparative research, where the missionary work tried to argue in a more philosophical or rational way (cf. regarding Jesuits in China: Meynard, 2013) and where they avoided such discussions.

The strategy to translate the Eucharist as a miracle was also known from the context of the Latin or Catholic church in Europe as mentioned. Therefore, this translation was re-translatable for a European audience, whereas the many problems of how to find a dynamic equivalent that also kept the orthodox meaning was rather rarely told in letters and reports published for a broader European audience. In Jesuit letters from Canada, for example, the missionaries referred to the problems translating in terms of a mystery: For example, a new proselyte who was prepared for his first communion was urged ‘not to declare this doctrine to his compatriots, who do not possess the Faith.’ And he answered, that he knows that ‘they are not all capable of understanding what you teach me’ (Thwaites, 1898, vol. 16, p. 123).

Another choice of a conceptual grid to translate the Eucharist into an Indian context referred to the dimension of food and nourishment in the semantic field of the sacrament. In Stephens’s second book, the Kristapurāna, ‘Eucharist’ is not just transliterated, but translated as pavitra gupta saparsādāṁcā (the holy mystery of ‘food offering’, cf. Eliasson, 2015, p. 82). That is, Stephens chose from the semantic field of the Eucharist the part that overlapped with holy food in the local context: Prasāda, in Sanskrit refers to a ‘gracious gift’ (Pinkney, 2013, p. 734). Prasāda refers to the food offered to a deity during the worship; this consecrated food was shared by the community in the temples. Here we can see the mechanism of translation in progress: the translator chose an equivalent in the overlapping semantic fields; Stephens de-constructed the semantics of the sacrament and selected some of the meanings.

With this translation and choice of an Indian conceptual grid it becomes obvious, why Stephens’s work marks an important step in the process of translating Christianity into South Indian languages: his use of the concept Prasāda for the Eucharist opened a way to domesticate this concept, which was adopted by later missionaries such as Nobili. Thus Stephens’ translation of the Eucharist into the concept Prasāda opened an important connection to local culture, a means of contextualizing the concept of the Eucharist in the local conceptual grids and expressing its religious dimensions. But his text still eludes the translation of the theology of transubstantiation, the real presence of God and the materiality of the body.

Nobili inherited and capitalized on Stephens’ use of local concept, and he reinforced the process of domestication explaining the Eucharist. Comparable to his discussed choice of textual grids, he drew from many different conceptual grids: His Ñāna Upadēsam contains conceptual grids from Catholic theology (such as Aquinas and Lombardo), mixed with ones from Sanskrit and Tamil literature (such as Upadeśam, Purāṇa Mahabharata and Ramayana—cf. Nardini, 2017). Nobili domesticated his translation by evoking local conceptual grids such as metaphors and images:

‘This ritual of Eucharist is like drinking the pure water in a pure spring which never dries and all those people who will drink from that source will receive good benefits from God (Karter) himself, who is the main reason for all the good things and he is present in it. Therefore; when someone receives the divine water, [he] will get rid of all the sins, because only those who have pure mind, great devotion and humility will receive the divine nectar (amrita)’ (Ñāna Upadēesam (3rd book lesson no. 19—translation by Giulia Nardini)).

Some lessons later he elaborates on the semantic dimension of food, and also extended this process of domestication to further concepts from the local grids as Karter for God or Amrita as the divine nectar for wine.

‘Everyone born in this world needs food to live; the one who is born by the virtuous birth needs to be fed with divine food (prasāda). Therefore, Jesus offers his body as divine nectar (amrita). Although man has all the good qualities, everyone must know that as long as he lives in this world [he] is prone to fall into temptation and sin. It is more proper to say that Jesus has granted the divine medicine which cures diseases.’ (Ñāna Upadēesam, 3rd book lesson no. 30—translation by Giulia Nardini))

In these passages, the materiality and the theophagy of the Eucharist is presented, but translated and reshaped in the local conceptual grids as divine water, divine food (Prasāda), divine nectar (amrita) and divine medicine. The cultural translation of Eucharist as Prasāda, ‘food-offering,’ already adopted by Stephens, and now by Nobili, had an impact on later catechisms. For example, in Sarveśvarācā Gnāna Upadeśa, written in Marathi and Devanagari script by Simão Gomes S.J. in the early eighteenth century (Eliasson, 2019), the word used for ‘Eucharist’ is ‘Miracle of devaprasāda’ (divine food). This can be seen as a trace of how the target culture translated the translation for themselves. The aspect of food in the semantic field of the Eucharist was a successful translation, whereas other chosen conceptual grids were forgotten, or at least not used in the regional Christian language in the long run.

Interestingly, this translation of the Eucharist as Prasāda survived all discursive selection processes from the context zone via letters to the Jesuit superiors until the publication in Europe. Even in the German compilation of Jesuit letters, the Neue Welt-Bott which often translated letters from the French version the Les Lettres édifiantes et curieuses, we find a letter in which the Jesuit Jean-Venant Bouchet wrote, that in the Götzenhäuser, the houses of the false gods, pieces of food named Praschadam were distributed. A Brahmin had explained to him, Bouchet wrote, ‘welches auf Griechisch mit Eucharistia verdollmetscht wird/so eigentlich der Nahm des allerheiligsten Altar-Sakrament’s ist’ (if you translate Praschadam into Greek it means Eucharist, that is, it has the same name as the most holy sacrament) (Stöcklein, 1726, vol. 1, No. 118, pp. 84–90, quotation, p. 90). Bouchet also compared the Pesah lamb with an Indian sacrifice, and Jesus with the incarnation of Vishnu. This transfer from South Indian translation practice into the German discourse shows how acceptable this translation was. There was apparently no need for censorship; it was rather seen as an interesting story and a laudable translation. Moreover, this translation of the events in India was not only for a broader audience, but also an audience that shared the author’s cultural background, and is a good example of Venuti’s concept of foreignization. By using the terms Praschadam, the foreignness of Indian Christianity is integrated into the European discourse, and this is a characteristic that is foreign, but not too foreign, and most of all not dangerous.

Translating the body

Using the concept of prasāda referred to the food dimension of the semantic field ‘Eucharist’, there is also some body reference in it, but it still does not touch the body-related centre of the concept of transubstantiation, in the Thomistic-Aristotelic sense. Already Stephens went deeper into this specific theological matter. In his first book, the Doutrina Christam, he explained transubstantiation as part of the utamu sacramentu (the best sacrament). In the consecrated host (consāgrar zālalie hostintu) is the whole very holy body (maha pauitri cuddi) of our saviour (Tāraca), with divine nature (Deuapanna) and the whole Christ, God and human (sagallo Christu Paramesparu), as in Heaven, so is it there (zaisso suarguĩ assa, tāissochy thaim assa) (Stephens, [1622] 1945, pp. 40–44). The same is true for his blood. With this mixture of transliteration as well as adaptation to local terms and concepts, we can retrace how the missionary-translator chose and selected one of the different aspects in the semantic field of the Eucharist; searching for what fits best within the local context. In these transliterations and translations, we see how Stephens used different terms from the semantic field of the concept Eucharist. It shows the initial and important conflict faced by missionaries regarding how to choose or create religious equivalent terms and concepts in local languages, in accordance with the orthodoxy of the Catholic church. With the intralingual translation of the Eucharist as a Santo sacramento (holy sacrament) and Comunhaõ (communion) he referred to the social community, the corpus mysticum and the idea of the community of all believers who shared the Eucharist. Moreover, he also tried to translate the divine body in the host using the expression ‘divine body’ (maha pauitri cuddi) and ‘divine nature’ (Deuapanna). In order to avoid the sensitive concept of the transubstantiated body, the author applies the concept of ‘divine body’. With this phrasing he could refer to the Sanskrit literature and social Hindu imaginary of divine body as the body of Gods in their divine status, as the body of the primordial creator Purusa, the source of all the embodied forms, the body of the sacrifice and of the ritual (Holdrege, 1998, p. 355). Stephens tried to domesticate his message for the local Konkani speaking people as well as staying within the borders of orthodox doctrine. He tried to avoid terms that were foreign to both of them. It shows the initial important impasse faced by missionaries regarding how to choose equivalent terms or create a Catholic terminology in the local languages, while still in accordance with the orthodoxy of the church.

Nobili, again, built on Stephens’ work when translating the body in his Ñāna Upadēsam, which is a pioneering lexicon of Tamil Christian terminology. Here Nobili did not transliterate Christian concepts in Tamil script—with the exception of the term ‘Holy Spirit’, which he did not translate or domesticate—but used loan words from the local languages, Tamil-Sanskrit. Moreover, he created a new technical vocabulary adopting Sanskrit religious terminology, thus domesticating them in the Catholic religion’s context. In this process of de-codifying terms from a Hindu Sanskrit/Tamil background and re-codifying them in a Catholic Sanskrit/Tamil vocabulary, he coined new terminology.

Nobili, again, built on Stephens’ work when translating the body in his Ñāna Upadēsam. Beside the conceptual grid of food (Prasāda), he coined another word for translating the sacrament and the religious concept of the Eucharist, which is Naṟkaruṇai, literally translatable as ‘great compassion.’ It is interesting to note that the word Kāruṇyam (compassion) is a recurrent element in Sanskrit literature, since it is one of the Rasas (feelings, emotions) described in Nāṭyaśāstra, an ancient Sanskrit treaty about dramatic theory and performing arts. Kāruṇyam (compassion) is represented by a specific mudra, (bodily gesture), colour and deity in art performances, dance, poems and music. Nobili created a dynamic equivalence, transferring, accommodating and domesticating the sense of ‘Eucharist’ onto the conceptual grids of Sanskrit literature. In producing neologism, the translation process shifted from translating individual words to the choosing of conceptual grids. In this case, the author inscribed the sense of the sacrifice, passion and compassion. Nobili specified in the semantic field of ‘Eucharist’:

‘This great act is called Eucharist (naṟkaruṇai, good compassion) since God (Kadavul) decided to be born in the human form, he realized two compassionate aims: (1) by his example and pious life he showed the way to Resurrection; (2) by his human body he underwent poverty, shame, sufferance and death in order to save the human from sin, from sufferance and to open for them the door of Heaven by divine grace’ (Ñāna Upadēsam, 3rd book lesson no. 19 translation by Giulia Nardini).

In this instance, there is a special reference to the body of the Eucharist as a human body (‘God decided to be born in the human form’; ‘by his human body he underwent poverty, shame, sufferance and death’). Nobili evoked with this translation conceptual grids to refer the corruptibility of the human body: poverty, shame, sufferance and death, shared by Catholic and South Indian semantic communities.

The concept of the body is a sensitive matter in South Indian society; it is regulated, represented and portrayed in the traditional literature, devotional movements and religious rituals (Holdrege, 1998, pp. 341–386). Indeed, particularly in Sanskrit religious literature, the body is conceived in different statuses, as human, cosmic, social and divine. The divine body appears in ritual (darśana) as a sacred object of adoration, a beneficiary of food offerings and divination. How can the sacrality of this divine body be translated into the materiality of the sacrificed body, as it is in the Catholic Eucharist, or into something edible as the real blood and body of the divinity?

Furthermore, in the following chapters, Nobili elaborates on the Eucharist. He describes the Eucharist as the greatest miracle, as an everlasting truth to be accepted without the least doubt: But unlike the texts using the concept ‘miracle’ mentioned above, he did not stop with translating the Eucharist as a miracle, but explained, or at least described the sacrament and its ritualized form in more detail:

‘Then Jesus (Sēsunādar) performed the greatest miracle among many others: he broke a piece of bread, thinking on God (Sarveśran) and praying, he uttered these words: “this is my body, this is offered to you to eat.” Having received a vessel with grape juice, Jesus (Sēsunādar) said, “this vessel has my blood, as a new and everlasting agreement, as a secrecy of the faith, this blood is shed for you to drink and for many others as the remedy of the sins, whenever you perform this then you will do so in remembrance of me.” This is an everlasting truth to be accepted without any doubt. Then he ordained his disciples as priests (kuruppattam, the status of gurus) and he ordered that only priests should perform the same ritual and that whenever a priest utters these words then God (Karter) will come into it (Ñāna Upadēsam, 3rd book lesson no. 19 translation by Giulia Nardini).

We can observe the special accuracy of the translation in conformity with the Forth Lateran Council version and the Thomistic teaching of the Eucharist.

Furthermore, Nobili did not preclude the translation of the Eucharist as the remedy for sin and the bond between God and the disciples: ‘Then he ordained his disciples as priests (kuruppattam, the status of gurus) and he ordered that only priests should perform the same ritual and that whenever a priest utters these words then God (Karter) will come into it” (Ñāna Upadēsam 3rd book lesson no. 19). With these words he introduced the value of the Eucharist as corpus mysticum, as a part of the spiritual and social body of the church. As well as this, he translated the meaning of the church as a hierarchized institution, where the priest (guru) has to be ordained and he officiates of the rite for the whole community. The relation of a guru to his disciples is explained in other parts of this text since it is a topic embedded in the local semantics. By this connective concept, the Eucharist is presented as symbol for the community of all believers, as a corpus mysticum in South Indian conceptual grids.

Moreover, the Eucharist is described here as the greatest miracle, which involves the miracle of the change of substance (paṇda māṟṟamum), a divine secret and a divine blessing:

‘When Jesus said: “this is my body and this is my blood”, from that moment he defined bread with its original taste, colour and smell imprinted with the character (guna) of the body of God (Karter). There is no doubt that the soul (atman) and the blood unified with the divinity essence (dēva tattuvam) came into the bread. The miracle of transubstantiation (paṇda māṟṟamum, the change of substance) and the result of this communion (kuttūravu, joined relation) had been performed. This kind of divine secrecy and divine blessing has been created so that we must remember forever that God (Karter) in the human form suffered and died for the sake of humans’ (Ñāna Upadēsam, 3rd book lesson no. 19 translation by Giulia Nardini).

Thus we find in the Ñāna Upadēsam a strategy adopted for transferring the dogma of transubstantiation into the local conceptual grids: The Catholic, Thomistic-Aristotelian core of the transubstantiation of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood (sub speciebus pani et vini) is preserved and re-codified into the local conceptual grids of the gunas: although the bread and grape juice maintain their ‘accidents,’ they acquire the characters (gunas) of the body of God. Gunas are the qualities, features and universal principles that structure every material substance in the cosmos. This theory is at the core of Sanskrit literature, present in the ancient treaties of Sāmkhya philosophy. In hymn VI.2 26 of the Śvetāśvatara Upanishad (cf. Oberlies, 1995), the gunas are listed as divine qualities. By drawing on this tradition, Nobili conveys that the bread and the juice acquire the divine characters of the divinity and its divine essence (dēva tattuvam). Transubstantiation is presented as a miracle which involves many miracles; the miracle of ‘changing the substance’ is tackled through the perspective of transferring the divine qualities of the divinity into the bread and the grape juice. By describing transubstantiation in these terms, Nobili preserves the orthodoxy of Catholic theology, but also transfers and domesticates transubstantiation into local conceptual grids.



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