N Kalyan Raman on Salma’s writing style in The Curse, his approach to translating, and the lack of literary discourse

Salma doesn’t mince words, there is no modulation or playing down. She’s very even-toned but she doesn’t hold back, says N Kalyan Raman of the Tamil author's powerful style.

Aarushi Agrawal January 05, 2021 11:01:54 IST
N Kalyan Raman on Salma’s writing style in The Curse, his approach to translating, and the lack of literary discourse

For Tamil poet and writer Salma, writing is an emboldening act. “The tag of being a writer is something that’s very uplifting, it gives me strength,” she tells Firstpost in an interview.

After being forced to leave studies and locked in at home by her family at the age of 13, she found solace in the words of Lenin, Marx, Dostoyevsky, and other writers. And soon she realised that through writing, “I could give voice to my own emotions and to the experiences of the people around me.”

Her short story collection The Curse, translated into English by N Kalyan Raman, is a layered exploration of the condition of rural Muslim Tamilian women. For instance, in ‘On the Edge,’ the collection’s opening story, Salma takes readers through a tense car ride with two old women passive aggressively quibbling over whether the AC should be on and what music the car should listen to, their intention with each move being trying to one-up the other. In ‘The Trap,’ readers experience the turmoil of a protagonist who hears a knock on the door in the middle of the night and when she enquires who it was, is abused and shut down by her husband. ‘Black Beads and Television’ is a heartening snapshot of a woman who chooses to exchange her golden beaded necklace to source money for a television, which she gleefully enjoys watching, while her husband tries, angrily, to process what she’s done.

With straightforwardness and honesty, she details the love and empathy they share, the cruelty and injustices that constitute their daily life, and the ways in which these are tackled, their sexuality, struggles, and challenges. Her writing takes readers straight into mind of the characters, allowing one to fully empathise with their perspective. “When you’re with other people and they’re going through something, it is possible to discern what they’re feeling by paying attention and being a little empathetic. It involves using your imagination to try and place yourself in someone else’s shoes. This process of imagination plus empathy is what helps me get into their mind,” she says about her process.

N Kalyan Raman on Salmas writing style in The Curse his approach to translating and the lack of literary discourse

Although writing with unflinching honesty and boldness about the things around her, Salma’s writing is nuanced, subtle, and even-toned. Bringing this ethos and delicate balance to the English language reading experience meant concentrating on and sticking closely to the original while also speaking on behalf of the text. In an interview with Firstpost, translator N Kalyan Raman talks about Salma’s writing style, his approach to translating, what the recent spike in translated literature means for the Indian literary landscape, and more.

Edited excerpts below:

You’ve been a literary translator for over two decades. Can you talk about your approach to translating?

You have the original text and it evokes a set of responses in you as a reader. And the translator of course reads in a very intimate way. So I try to reproduce the text in such a way that the reader in English would have more or less the same set of responses. So it really means you have to reproduce many aspects of the prose from the original text as they are, like tone, sense, sensibility, music, information, emotion, and so on. It’s a blend of all that. The piece of prose contains all that.

As a translator I go into the text and I speak on behalf of the text. I don’t speak on behalf of myself. I mean myself will obviously be there because I’m processing it through myself, but that’s really it. I don’t have something independent to say apart from the text. And that is the kind of discipline that most translators have. Or they should have. That’s what I think a good translation is. It should work as a literary text and it should contain as much of the richness of the original as possible.

[For example,] if you read ‘The Orbit of Confusion,’ in any paragraph you can see that it’s spoken in a distinct way. It has its emotional ups and downs. Salma has this very precise description of the involuted thought of a woman. And of how she achieves equilibrium within herself in the face of disturbances. So all that is a result of my trying to achieve that as accurately as possible.

N Kalyan Raman on Salmas writing style in The Curse his approach to translating and the lack of literary discourse

N Kalyan Raman

In regards to having discipline as a translator, since synonyms have varying connotations, each word subtly influences the meaning of the text. How do you make sure you’re being responsible about your word choices?

Yes, you have to be careful. But that can’t be theorised or explained. And another thing is that translation is also a matter of endless revision. You come back and you see how it sounds and instinctively you know whether something is not right, so maybe you meditate on it, and then maybe in the shower you get the correct word. You really have to concentrate.

For instance, long back I was translating a story by Ashokamitran, the title’s called Vimochana. It’s like you’re freed from something, a mythological phrase. Like you have a certain hardship and then you’re released from it. At first, I thought it was salvation, then I thought it was redemption. And then finally after about three months I realised it’s neither of those, they’re biblical terms in some ways. And then I hit upon deliverance. And that’s something which doesn’t have anything to do with the soul or anything. It’s just [that] you’re delivered from some situation or hardship.

So that’s what I meant, in the sense that you need to really concentrate, especially when you know that something is not right. There are hundreds or thousands of choices [to make, especially] when you do a book. And that’s part of your skill as a translator. Most of the time you pick the right thing. And maybe 20 percent of the time you really have to slog, depending on how complex the language of the text is.

The first time you’re translating, you won’t even know when you’ve got things right. You wouldn’t have that kind of confidence. The first time you do make a lot of mistakes. And there are many tricks you learn as you go along. Like, the sentence structure in Tamil is very different from English. In Tamil you can have run-on clauses, you can keep adding clause to clause to clause, which you can’t do in English, unless you’re Henry James. So you have to split it. You have to restructure the sentence or break it into several sentences, but at the same time not alter the rhythm of the prose and all that. This is not something that a rookie translator would know immediately. That’s something you learn. There’s a learning curve for everything.

Can you talk about Salma’s writing style and how you navigated it when translating?

She’s very authentic. She doesn’t write from a cerebral, abstract place. She’s not writing to illustrate ideas. She writes directly from experience. In Tamil also she’s very direct, powerful. And she doesn’t raise her voice. But the tone is very powerful. She doesn’t mince words, there is no modulation or playing down. She’s very even-toned but she doesn’t hold back. The drama is in what she writes about [and not in the writing itself]. It’s a matter of craft, and she does it very well. You’ll notice there’s not a lot of dialogue in the stories, not a lot of conversation. And even if there is conversation it’s very domestic and commonplace. She writes a very clean prose, very stark and direct. And she writes with great brevity, with no extra words or anything.

N Kalyan Raman on Salmas writing style in The Curse his approach to translating and the lack of literary discourse

Tamil author and poet Salma

One of my principles is that I stick very closely to the original text, except for aesthetic reasons where I have to restructure sentences and all that. But otherwise, I stick to the text. All the writers I translate are complex writers. For a translator, it’s well to keep that in mind, that there is nothing that you are going to add by rewriting or whatever. That’s the respect you really need to look for. And I do that.

Since every language is structured differently, and reflects a certain way of thinking, is anything gained when translating into English?

Sometimes. I wouldn’t want to talk about this particular text, because it’s too close. But yes, sometimes the original writer’s sentences are not pared down to the essential, there’s something redundant. In English you don’t repeat the same words, in the same paragraph or in the same sentence. But in Tamil you can do that because that’s the way the rhythm of the language works. It can be incantatory. In Urdu you repeat things all the time. But you can’t translate it like that in English because it would stick out. In English the aesthetic is that you don’t repeat words. The prose becomes dead if you do.

So what the translator does is import the ethos and culture of the first language into the other. It is hard but that is what translation is. You’re not afraid to actually break the rules or extend the scope of the English language.

[For instance,] the narratives in Salma’s stories are never told in English, originally. So when you transport them to English you don’t inhibit the original story to fit the language. You change the language but still remain within the rulebook of readability and aesthetics and all that. You don’t want to impair the story.

In terms of the Indian literary landscape, there’s been a recent trend of translating works from other Indian languages into English. Can you talk about why this is important, for authors and readers?

Salma and a few others, the kind of things they were writing were written by medieval woman poets in Tamil also, but none in the modern age. The quarrel basically was settled within the Tamil milieu itself. I think her real strength and the reason she’s [applauded] when she’s read in translation is because it’s the nature of what she’s saying. And her characters are very specific, they belong to a very specific milieu. But she has a certain universal quality. She does speak for all women, although it’s a grand thing to say. So she has developed this aesthetic and language and craft and everything that goes into making it right. That’s what is evident in her stories.

For instance, [take] the story ‘Toilets.’ The way it’s constructed is fantastic because she brings so much into it. She’s talking about a specific problem, but it has so many ramifications. It affects the way a girl gets married, and her health, it’s completely brilliant. And she makes it all hang together.

[As for there being more translations,] I’ve been translating for a long time. In the initial days, the number of titles that were published were few and far between. What’s given translation the place it enjoys now is I think the sheer number and quality of translations that have come out. And the quality of the writing in bhasha languages. And of course, the initiative of translators who have worked very hard to learn the craft and then do this good work. Previously people used to think that translations by default were inferior quality. But it’s no longer the case. So it’s quite exciting that more and more titles are coming out, and the publishing industry itself is improving its capacity to identify, go after the good stuff and commission it and get it published. So I think that translators have come to stay, have won their place in English language publishing. That’s one part.

The part I have a problem with is it is not being talked about enough.

All literature requires discourse. It’s through discourse that we discover literature.

In India, although many writers have published in translation, the mainstream anglophone discourse is not about them, it’s about their own writers. This gap [between English writing and translated writing is] very sad because people who are writing are say first-generation learners, Dalits, a middle-class Muslim woman like Salma. If literature is a mode of learning, then there is a lot to learn there. But unless people are willing to talk about these works [not as commodities but as part of literary discourse, the place given to them is not going to improve.] The conversations about these translated works has not yet reached the level where they’ll be clearly meaningful.

And there’s no space for it. These literary discourses are not conducted in the pages of a newspaper [and are not part of the mainstream cultural discourse]. I don’t know if that can be solved very easily. If academic institutions get into it, they can conduct seminars and publish journals which are not large circulation but which the right people will read. But that is not happening yet, with respect to translations.

Salma’s interview quotes translated from the Tamil by Ram Sarangan

The Curse: Stories is published by Speaking Tiger Books

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