Translation as a central topic in Salman Rushdie s novel the Satanic Verses

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2000

26 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)


Table of contents


1.Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. An introduction to the topic of translation in “The Satanic verses“

2.Saladin Chamcha's way to conquer Britain : An attempt to achieve complete assimilation

3.John Maslama : A true believer

4.The Imaam : An exile captured in the prison of a foreign country

5.Hind Sufyan : A story of success, but with many obstacles

6.Mishal and Anahita Sufyan : No immigrants at all

7. Conclusion

8. List of works


In this paper I would like to focus on the aspect of people being translated from one culture into another within Salman Rushdie's novel “The Satanic Verses“. At the example of various immigrants which are subject to the novel I try to point out the problems these people have when coming to a foreign country. Different types of immigrants are described with their own peculiar characteristics and their way of coping with the new situation. Finally it shall become clear that there are at least three types of immigrants which differ completely from each other in their way of coping with their situation in a “foreign“ country. Furthermore the question shall be answered, whether complete assimilation to a foreign culture is possible or not. In the first chapter the two protagonists of the Satanic Verses, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta are introduced, illustrating how much both characters are subject to the aspect of translation. Then, in the following chapters I am going to introduce three types of immigrants which are characteristic of people coming to a foreign country, critically judging the way in which they try to cope with their personal situation. For this purpose the Indian-born people Saladin Chamcha, John Maslama, Hind Sufyan, the Imam and Mishal and Anahita Sufyan are introduced. The paper concludes in chapter 7 with a summary of the most important points of discussion.

In addition it should be mentioned that this homework is different from the usual literary-based papers of students studying English literature. Here, the emphasis is put on a close reading of the Satanic Verses instead of a deeper analysis of secondary literature. Thus, I only refer to one source of information in the list of works cited which helped me to understand various aspects of Indian religion und society.

1. Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. An introduction to the topic of translation in “The Satanic verses“

At the beginning of his novel, author Salman Rushdie introduces his two main characters, Gibreel Farishta and Saladin Chamcha. Gibreel Farishta, born Ismail Najmuddin is an Indian film star, specialised in playing Hindu gods, though he himself is a Moslem, takes the form of the archangel Gibreel later in the novel. His friend and enemy at the same time Saladin Chamcha[1], born Salahuddin Chamchawalla is a voice impersonator and - through a slow mutation - is turned into a goat-like devilish creature later in the story.

On the first few pages we find ourselves in the middle of an airplane crash in which we encounter our two protagonists falling from the sky. The central and reoccurring phrase throughout the whole novel “To be born again first you have to die” (first mentioned on page 3) is very interesting for our consideration of translation. This sentence clearly expresses that when a person tries to change from one culture into another it is necessary to abandon one's former life completely (to die). Being born again means leading a new and wholly independent life within the new (here British) culture. Both, Saladin as well as Gibreel can be considered as such “converts” who try to leave their former Indian values and roots behind, exchanging them for new British values, though because of different reasons.

By the way, within this passage on page four the fate of many more migrants on board of this flight is mentioned in an interesting way. Here, the author expresses the humiliation immigrants have to suffer when they apply for a British visa.

“Also – for there had been more than a few migrants aboard, yes quite a quantity of wives who had been grilled by reasonable, doing-their-job officials about the length and distinguishing moles of their husbands’ genitalia, a sufficiency of children upon whose legitimacy the British Government had cast its ever-reasonable doubtssevered mother tongues, violated privacies, untranslatable jokes, extinguished futures, lost loves, the forgotten meaning of hollow, booming words, land, belonging, home.”(p. 4 below)

It could not have been made clearer by the author that immigrants rank very low on the social scale and (if they have any social status at all) and that they have no chance to protect themselves against the arbitrariness of Government officials. Furthermore within this sentence the most important wishes and dreams of immigrants are expressed through three simple words: land, belonging, home.

Another interesting phrase for analysis in employed on page 5. Here it says:

“’O, my shoes are Japanese,’ Gibreel sang. Translating the old song into English in semi-conscious deference to the up rushing host-nation, ‘These trousers English, if you please. On my head, red Russian hat; my heart’s Indian for all that.’“

By describing Gibreel’s clothes Salman Rushdie makes clear that this person’s identity cannot be described as belonging to one particular culture; on the contrary it becomes clear that Gibreel has several different identities or that he takes the best of all worlds to make up his own identity. But one important thing becomes transparent here : although a person can try to hide his identity behind exclusive clothing from all over the world – one cannot deny his roots in front of his own heart and therefore Gibreel admits in the quotation above that his heart is Indian, in spite of all the expensive clothing he wears. Their fall from the sky is also a recurring theme throughout the whole novel. Even the picture on the cover of the hardcover edition reflects this. Other references are listed below in order of occurrence: on page 6, allusion to Alice's fall down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, Rheka’s fall from Everest vilas on page 15, and on page 133 the satanic narrator discusses falling in the second paragraph on the page.

If we have a closer look at falling as an action, we will soon recognise that the action itself always has a beginning and an end. In our story the beginning of their fall towards earth is the explosion of the airplane “Bostan” and the end when they are discovered alive at the beach. This action is comparable to changing from one culture into another where a person leaves his “native“culture behind and receives a new identity by entering the desired culture.

The song Gibreel sings during his fall is also of importance because it contains fragments from the first verse of "Rule, Britannia” composed by James Thomson.[2]

When Britain first, at heaven's command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sing their strain--
Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.

The information supplied by the footnote is interesting as such because it reveals that the author provides no information unintentionally. This small passage makes us aware of the fact that both, Saladin, though educated in Britain and “equipped” with a British passport, as well as Gibreel, the film star who could also be described as cosmopolitan, have their origins not in Britain but somewhere else and are therefore still foreigners. Thus, concluding one can say that very early in the novel we find many things which deal with the subject of people being translated from one culture to another, although one must admit that even more impressive examples of people having difficulties when they encounter a new culture are still to come later in the novel and are thus subject in the following chapters of this paper.

2. Saladin Chamcha's way to conquer Britain : An attempt to achieve complete assimilation

The most striking example of a person being translated from one culture to another is Saladin Chamcha. From the very early age of thirteen Saladin showed affinities with Britain and the British life-style. This can be concluded from a statement given at the bottom of page 37.

“When the England cricket team played India at the Brabourne Stadium, he prayed for an England victory, for the game’s creators to defeat the local upstarts, for the proper order of things to be maintained.”

This illustrates in an impressive way that even at this early stage he had already developed an interesting sympathy for the former colonial power. This is of course very unusual for a boy of that age because normally little boys ardently support the home team, especially against the despised former colonial power. The impression that Saladin prefers the English way of life and believes his own culture to be inferior and primitive becomes clear on many occasions throughout the whole story, for example on his way back from India when he even curses his native country.

“Damn you, India Saladin Chamcha cursed silently, sinking back into his seat. To hell with you, I escaped your clutches long ago, you won’t get your hooks into me again, you cannot drag me back.” (p.35)

From this statement we can conclude a deep-rooted hatred against his own origins which mainly came into being because of his father treating him cruelly. Nevertheless, the imagery used in this quotation is also of interest, as India is described in terms of a monster with long clutches and which uses its clutches as a hook to drag people back into its ban. The imagery is so expressive and excellently chosen by the author that the reader must almost feel the disgust Saladin harbours against his mother country. Another interesting passage in which Saladin’s attitude towards “Britishness” is clearly expressed, can be found at the bottom of page 35. Here, on the way home from school he finds a wallet lying on the floor which is full of money.

“… - opened, - and found, to his delight, that it was full of cash, - and not merely rupees, but real money, negotiable on black markets and international exchanges, - pounds! Pounds sterling, from proper London in the fabled country of Vilayet[3] across the black water and far away.“ (p.35)

The former assumption that Saladin considers every little bit of Indian culture and lifestyle to be inferior to the British is once more manifested in this sentence. He even believes the Indian currency to be worth nothing compared to the British pound and consequently he says that has found real money which is negotiable on black markets and international exchanges. Of course it is not only a question of believing in the superiority of the English culture because it is an indisputable fact that on the black markets of the country the English pound is the currency which is mostly accepted, much more than the domestic currency of rupees. Again it becomes evident here that everything which has got to do with England has got a “mystical touch” for Saladin when he speaks of London in terms of the fabled country of Vilayet. Somehow he seems to admire the traditional British virtues, as for example, order, politeness and punctuality. Thus, he often uses the term proper in connection with typical features of “Britishness” which he seems to admire most. Very early he knew that he was destined to live in England, being fed up with his immediate environment of textile factories and local trains and all the confusion around him.

“ Salahuddin Chamchawalla had understood by his thirteenth year that he was destined for that cool Vilayet full of crisp promises of pounds sterling at which the magic billfold had hinted, and he grew increasingly impatient with that Bombay of dust, vulgarity, …... temples of the flesh.” (p. 37)


[1] Also called “chum” and “spoono” (because “chamcha” is Hindi for “spoon”. A chamcha is a very humble and everday object. It is, in fact a spoon. The word is Urdu; and it alson has a second meaning. Colloquially a chamcha is a person who sucks up to a powerful people, a yes-man, a sycophant. The British Empire would not have lasted a week without such collaborators among its colonized peoples. You could say that the Raj grew fat by being spoon-fed.(Brian Paul: Notes on the satanic verses, List of principal characters, p. 1 1)

[2] James Thomson, the composer of this song, was a Scot (which explains why the title of his song refers to Great Britain rather than simply England). Thomson went to England in search of work and had to take lessons to change his accent; so he, like so many others in this novel, was a colonial immigrant. .(Brian Paul: Notes on the satanic verses, Comments on page 6)

[3] Vilayet: Literally "foreign country," used as a name for England (Hindi). (Brian Paul: Notes on the satanic verses, Comments on page 6)

Excerpt out of 26 pages


Translation as a central topic in Salman Rushdie s novel the Satanic Verses
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Institute for Foreign Language Philology)
HS The Satanic Verses
2+ (B)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
425 KB
Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, Translation, Mutation, Indien, Indische Literatur, novel
Quote paper
Eric Mühle (Author), 2000, Translation as a central topic in Salman Rushdie s novel the Satanic Verses, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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