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Translating Sanjay Subrahmanyam

Updated: Jan 22, 2023

Sanjay Subrahmanyam

A measure of the international stature of historians is the prestige of the university or institutional campus that employs them and the repute of the lecturing circuits that invite them; a second is the standing of the imprints they publish with; a third is the demand for translations of their writings outside the English-speaking world.

History monographs published in India and written for scholars, specialists, teachers, and advanced students are not often translated from English into the European, Middle Eastern, and Chinese languages. Among the scholars whose writings have been sought by publishers in other parts of the world, the most prominent is Sanjay Subrahmanyam – because of the unusually wide scope of his ideas and histories and the number of languages in which he is fluent. The countries that want to translate his work are centrally those where French, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Persian, and Turkish are read.

One reason for the failure of German, Greek, Russian, Filipino, and Scandinavian publishers to be equally desperate for translations of Subrahmanyam into their languages is that he himself has shown remarkable laziness in mastering these tongues and is lamentably reticent about when precisely he will be delivering lectures in them. His admirers are left with the mere certainty that some day he will. However, this has failed to reassure the multitudes and the cry resounding in the halls of academia is currently “Yes okay, but when . . . ?” Activists are considering filing a “tell by” date under the Right to Information Act.

Subrahmanyam needs to pull up his socks and get cracking with the world’s few remaining languages crying out to be lectured in by him. Already, it is apparent that his abysmal lack of success in talking about Vasco da Gama to packed audiences of Inuit speakers in Greenland, and in Swahili to the Bantu-speaking tribes that often spontaneously interrupt their war dances and down spears to hear him in the Democratic Republic of Congo, has greatly dismayed his followers across the globe. They have begun to despair at his seeming desire to restrict himself so drastically to merely a dozen or so of the communication methods at the top end of the European language hierarchy. Increasingly, the woke – i.e. now most of the world’s inhabitants – have started seeing him as a language casteist.

Luckily, Permanent Black has just acquired a reassuringly and radically different view – an assessment of Subrahmanyam by the Harvard professor Cemal Kafadar – which confirms him as one of the world’s great historians. Our readers will be glad to know that this will soon appear as the preface to the Turkish translation of one of Subrahmanyam’s several monumental books published in English by Permanent Black.

(PS: the introductory words are not by Cemal Kafadar, and are not meant entirely in seriousness. In these sensitive times, it is prudent to state that the reader should visualise an ROFL emoji next to the passage above.)

Preface to the Turkish translation of

Sanjay Subrahmanyam




Cemal Kafadar

Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies,

Harvard University

It is very pleasing that Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s works have been translated into Turkish. I don’t think anyone who has followed the developments of the last thirty years in the discipline of history will be surprised if I say that he is one of the most important historians of our time. Let me try to explain within the framework of a short introduction.

The five hundredth anniversary (1992) of Christopher Columbus’ surprise voyage led to a feverish mass of events, particularly in Europe and (both) Americas, but also around the world: exhibitions, films, serials . . . and, of course, publications of books and articles. In my opinion, most of them were just polishing clichés by adding a few new objects or reference works, the palliative revisions of Eurocentric historiography in the light of ongoing criticism, or the ostentatious but shallow “studies” ­– which can be classified as the literature of “European cruelty”– that wanted to make room for themselves in the quincentennial market with an attitude of “political correctness”. Among all these, if some historians have come to the fore with their original and lasting contributions, one of them is definitely Subrahmanyam. Towards replacing the dominance of epic and romantic narratives of Western-centred historiography about this event, he published impressive works recounting, with all its irony, the story of this event that radically transformed world history and of the era of “discoveries” that followed.

And his works had great repercussions. Moreover, he did this while he was still in India, that is, in the “peripheries”. With the books and articles he published one after the other in those years, he revealed with a crisp prose and findings the many weaknesses of the narrative where Europe, with its unique dynamics and characteristics, transformed an entire world that was asleep without being aware of anything.

Subrahmanyam’s productivity over the last thirty years is admirable, a productivity that makes no compromise in terms of quality. I believe the following words from a review of one of his works reflect the opinion of all his readers: “Subrahmanyam seems to write top-class history faster than most of us can read.” These contributions, woven with a richness of historical sources, diversity of perspectives, and methodological refinement that no one can easily bring together, not only brought a new breath to world historiography but also showed the inadequacy, even the impossibility, of dealing with European history solely with its own resources and self-consciousness, as if it were a self-sufficient, exceptional object. Of course, what he wrote annoyed some people. One of the reasons for these reactions was Subrahmanyam’s occasional mockery of the cornerstones and heroes of that narrative with his wit. For example, he states in one of his articles: “This article is about what the Malayalis [people of Kerala] thought of Vasco da Gama. In short, they thought he wasn’t of great importance.”

In the late 1990s, Subrahmanyam began to participate directly in the discussion of historiographical concepts. The article he contributed to the dossier on “early modernity” in the journal Daedalus of the American Academy of Sciences is one of the first contributions to elaborate the concept which was already in growing use in those years with reference to non-European societies. However, it is his “connected history”, which he put forward in an article he published in 1997 and developed in his later works, that has gradually become synonymous with Subrahmanyam’s name and has turned into a concept that is known, used, and discussed by everyone even remotely related to the discipline of history. The world of the early modern period is unique, on the one hand, with the emergence of newer and much tighter connections between different continents, regions, countries, states, societies, trade networks, streams of ideas, etc.; and on the other, with the concentration of the possibilities that all these dynamics could affect and shape one another interactively. The modern world was cooked in a cauldron. And neither Europe, nor China, nor the Ottoman Empire, nor any other place, can be understood without addressing its interconnected aspects on a world scale.

Subrahmanyam is aware that if you cannot supply such discussions with concrete empirical studies and analyses that equally attend to local realities, they will remain empty words, or worse, they will be turned into a new cosmetic product. For instance, speaking of connected history, it is not easy to save this approach from becoming the prey of shallow and lazy “global historians”. That's why the historian’s feet should remain on the “ground”. Not as a show of being global that floats in the air along the lines of: “it can be thought that the boom in nutmeg prices in Southeast Asia while the insurance business was developing in England, together with the volcanic eruption in Patagonia, brought an end to piracy in the oceans, so that Queen Elizabeth and the Indian sultan Akbar shaped the modern world together.” Instead, Subrahmanyam writes connected histories by taking local histories and historians seriously, pursuing publications in all the languages ​​he knows (which are too many to even count), and always trying to frame his questions by looking at a place (or places) and their people.

As for the book in your hand, it consists of eleven published articles, of which ten are republished here with additions and revisions. However, this is not an eclectic compilation, it is a holistic book that brings together complementary articles addressing three major themes in the author’s mind from different directions. At the forefront of Subrahmanyam’s most intimate themes is the huge issue of what we might call the comparative and interconnected “grammar” of the empires of the early modern period. He looks at various states, large and small, but especially at the Mughal, Habsburg, and Ottoman empires, as political structures that bring together and try to hold together an enormous social diversity that sometimes diverges and sometimes converges, in which each structure has been shaped by different customs, climates, languages, religions, etc. Paying attention to the fact that words such as liberal, despotic, or tolerant are insufficient even if we put up with their anachronism, he leans towards the structural features and transformational dynamics of empires with their similar/dissimilar and related/detached aspects. Each empire has a way of managing and not managing diversity. There are concrete material conditions (economics, geography, etc.) and cultural traditions that determine their managing capacity. Even if they are not unchangeable, these are the things that determine the scope and possibility of transformations and changes. All these empires have a dizzying array of diversity, they all have economic exploitation, they all have the ability/inability to manage this diversity, they all have the concern of establishing an order that appeals to the ideals of justice and the like by using the sword and pen together. Of course, it goes without saying that none of them can shape matters on their own. Connected history does not claim to be the sole and supreme method, but it does claim that we can better understand these states and societies when we zoom in on their connections.

Another theme of the book is the question of the world of nation-states that came after empires. He tries to understand why they differ greatly in their structure, scale, and attitudes toward uniformity/diversity (for example, linguistic unity or plurality) in the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Indian geographies. Here again he opposes the idea that the line of development attributed to Europe offers a telos to the whole world, that nationhood follows the same path everywhere. Subrahmanyam shows that we must understand the after-effects of early modern empires in terms of the traditions and tensions inherent to those imperial structures.

There are many things in the book that directly interest Turkish readers. For example, according to Subrahmanyam, a result of the new world order marked by the early modern empires was the emergence of a new world historiography at the end of the sixteenth century. This essay, in which Mustafa Ali of Gallipoli is read together with his contemporary Chinese, Indian, Mexican (indigenous) and European historians, will undoubtedly attract the attention of readers of Ottoman history. This article discusses how, compared to the universal historiography of previous ages (for example, Isidore of Seville or Rashid-ud-Din Hamadani), a different world perception and understanding of writing world history emerged and developed among some historians in different cultures during and after the 16th century, and what kind of parallels are found between them. Along the way, we meet Piri Reis as well as the Tarih-i Hind-i Garbi.

Another thesis of Subrahmanyam included in this book, which is also worth discussing in Ottoman historiography, questions the narrative that when the Europeans found the way to reach South and East Asia via the Cape of Good Hope, the international trade network of the Mediterranean collapsed. In this regard, he benefits from the works of Jean Aubin (d. 1998), whom he had the opportunity to get to know closely and work with during the years he spent in Paris. (I hope this reference will also serve as an invitation for the translation into Turkish of the works of Jean Aubin, whom readers of languages ​​other than French know little.) Subrahmanyam, who found the Venetian sources’ lament concerning the new sea-trade routes exaggerated, prefers to underscore the political crises that rendered insecure the Red Sea route, which was a hinge between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean in the turbulent period that accompanied the final years of Mamluk rule, as was pointed out by Aubin.

Returning once again from the book to its author, I started by saying that I don’t think anyone would be surprised if you were to say that he is one of the most important figures on the scale of today’s historians. Besides the majority who agree, there will also be those who object. He welcomes this too. I want to say a little bit about his personality, leaning on our three decades of friendship, because he doesn’t like historians to wear an armour of impersonal objectivity, and this view is an important layer of his mental world. He likes arguments, that is, he sizes-up and wants to be sized-up. He has no stake in trying to weigh heavy in everyone’s mind. One of his most important criteria when evaluating a work is to ask “well, who didn’t like it?” He doesn’t want to be one of those historians who try to make everyone like him, who don’t make arguments and don’t take a stand. But he sharpens his tongue especially when he encounters ready-made answers, opinions, and judgements that are adopted without any diligent research and disguised as scientific in works produced by the established elites and circles (be it Oxbridge or the Ivy League) whose prominence and success are rather self-proclaimed.

In the framework of India's intellectual life, he stirs things up, and is always reticent about the Bengalis, who see themselves as the intellectual centre, as well as more generally resistant to the North-India-oriented view (including Delhi and Mumbai), and he has not fallen in with either the Subaltern School or Aligarh. His use of South Indian sources in Tamil and Telugu, even novels and films, is a response to those who want to write Indian history and post-colonial world history without going beyond Bengali, Hindi, and English. He steers clear of those who attempt to write the history of the medieval and Mughal periods of Indian history, and even of large areas of the subcontinent outside the Mughal domain, without reading Persian sources. However, he reacts most strongly wherever he sees West-centric historiography or “global” history that presents itself as an alternative but is written without paying due attention to local languages and resources, and that appears in new forms in European and American institutions. Because he is aware of the public nature of intellectual, and hence scientific pursuits. Although he is a person of deep research and contemplation, he thinks that it is wrong to engage in them by staying in the ivory tower. Besides, we should not forget that Subrahmanyam is one of the historians who has the most joint publications, that is, he thinks and produces together with his different colleagues. I hope readers will enjoy the book, keeping in mind Subrahmanyam’s versatile historiography and combats.

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