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Tamil Sangam poetry to Dalit literature, translation provides a window to words that might be lost

Editor's note: This is the third part in a series on translation efforts in India. This week, we seek an answer to why people translate by asking contemporary translators as well as listening to what literary giants have said about it, in the past…

“The word 'translation' comes, etymologically, from the Latin for 'bearing across'. Having been borne across the world, we are translated men. It is normally supposed that something always gets lost in translation; I cling, obstinately to the notion that something can also be gained,” Salman Rushdie says in Imaginary Homelands. The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, who has been embraced by readers of over 40 languages thanks to translations, who wrote the first draft of his first novel in English before translating it to Japanese and has translated several works into Japanese from English has said: “I have always felt that translation is fundamentally an act of kindness. It is not enough to find words that match: if images in the translated text are unclear, then the thoughts and feelings of the author are lost.”

The prolific AK Ramanujan who most famously translated Tamil Sangam era poetry to English, once said, “I do not translate out of love but out of envy, out of a kind of aggression towards these great poems. I think one translates out of a need to appropriate someone else’s creation, done better than one could ever do.” It’s interesting to note that Sangam poetry continues to pique the interest of translators even today. Take the blog www.oldtamilpoetry.com, run by Chenthil Nathan or Suchitra Ramachandran’s Kurunthokai project (she illustrated as well as translated poems from Sangam era on a popular Instagram and Twitter page).

Suchitra Ramachandran’s Kurunthokai project. Photo courtesy Twitter/@kurunthokai

Suchitra Ramachandran’s Kurunthokai project. Photo courtesy Twitter/@kurunthokai

Talking about just how integral, even without our noticing it, translation is to our lives, Suchitra (who recently won Asymptote’s Close Approximations contest for her Periyamma’s Words, a translation of Jeyamohan’s Tamil short story) says, “In India, we grow up in the space between languages. Linguistic plurality and a culture of translation is in our ethos, and so reading translations feels intimately familiar. Translations from languages and cultures far removed from the dominant Anglophone culture, including our own mother tongues, present us with vistas and literary experiences that are potent and very unique.  In fact, it was not until I actively started translating that I realised how much of the reading that we all do, is in translation. For example, we often read translated, transcreated versions of our epics, that themselves exist in the plane of multiple languages, subcultures and retellings. We have evolved an English vocabulary that corresponds to the concepts in our epics — phrases like 'lotus feet', for example. We read the great Russians almost exclusively in translation.”

Chenthil Nathan, talking about what interested him in translation, says, “A part of it was due to my growing up in small town Tamil Nadu. I studied in English medium schools, but all around me life happened in Tamil. So there was a natural tendency to explain stuff in both languages. I used to (still do) think in Tamil and write in English. At some point of time I started observing myself juggling two languages..."

"When I started blogging in English, I wanted to showcase the progress of contemporary Tamil literature. Hence I used to do random translations of Tamil poems into Engish. Then I translated a short story by Kamal Haasan into English and that got noticed. I was hooked and started translating Bharathiyar poems. From there I went back and tried to translate Kamba Ramayanam (about 10,000 poems written in 12th century). I stopped at about 100 because the monotony got to me."

"Then I started translating into Tamil too. Couple of Manto's short stories, poems from across the world (Neruda to Tang dynasty poets) and so on. I published this in Padhaakai e-magazine. Bhaskar, an editor at Padhaakai, played a crucial part in my translation journey. Till then, I just published my translations on my blog with no editing. The comments section was the only feedback/criticism of my efforts. So naturally my translations were loose and free flowing. Bhaskar taught me discipline by asking me questions, pointing out what I was missing, probing me to improve. I owe a lot to him, though I have never met him in person.”

Old Tamil Poetry project happened by chance, Chenthil says. “Till 2011, I hardly knew classical Tamil literature. I knew the names and a smattering of poems, nothing more. The beauty of Sangam poetry is that once it pulls you in, it is hard to get out. In December 2015, a friend pointed me to @sentantiq, the Twitter handle of a classics professor in the US who was translating Greek and Latin quotes one at a time (on Twitter). She asked me is there is anybody doing such stuff in Tamil. Around that time, Suchitra R was doing an illustrated translation of selected Kurunthokai poems on Instagram. That gave me an idea: why not try to showcase the 2,000-year-old heritage of Tamil literature. Hence I named it Old Tamil Poetry, not wanting to restrict myself to Sangam poetry alone."

Chenthil, by his own admission, had "dropped many projects midway", so he set himself a task of posting daily. "That's how OldTamilPoetry came into being. In hindsight, I started my translation journey from 20th century literature and travelled back to 200 BC,” he says.

Suchitra quips, “When I started reading a lot in Tamil, I realised that there was a wealth of literature out there that isn't being read and recognised as much as it should be. In addition, many English translations I read from Tamil and other Indian languages were at some level unsatisfying, and I found myself always re-writing them in my head, trying to make them sound more elegant. At some point, I started translating poems and parts of stories I had read and enjoyed.”

This sentiment is something many translators attribute to their need to translate. Murakami, while explaining why he decided to translate The Great Gatsby to Japanese, has said, “In the case of The Great Gatsby, I found that none of the translations I looked at satisfied me, regardless of their quality. Inevitably, I would think, 'This feels a bit (or a lot!) different from the Gatsby I know'. I must hasten to add that this reaction was personal, based on the image I carried in my mind, and had nothing at all to do with objective — or academic — critical assessments of the works at hand, such evaluations being beyond my power anyway. All I could do was scratch my head at how wide the gap was between 'my Gatsby' and the impression I received from the translations — this again from a purely subjective perspective.”

Yogesh Maitreya, who is a translator of Dalit literature, when asked what brought him to translation says, “If we look at the history of translation in India, one thing becomes very apparent to us: only upper caste writers (majorly Brahmins) have been translated from one language to others. Their work was translated into international languages. Because of this, readers from outside India were provided with ideas about India only through upper caste agencies."

"The India which readers (especially English speaking population) came to know was through Brahminical perspectives, which was a minor imagination of India, shaped by the inheritance of privileges. With the arrival of Dalit literature in India, people across states and castes were creatively compelled to read the imaginative work by Dalits that captured and explained the reality of an India which was so far unseen by readers outside India. At this point, translation of Dalit literature into English has played the major role in introducing people, through fictional and nonfictional work, to the inhumane realities of India. Yet, only few Dalit literary works have succeeded in being translated into English and other languages. Equally important, non-fiction, Dalit literature from rural areas, are yet to be known to a wider readership due to lack of translation efforts, and means of production and circulation. As I started reading Dalit literature not considered as popular or having great value, I realised its importance; after reading it, my ideas, imagination and perspectives about literature became wider."

"Such obscure Dalit literature helped me enhance the horizon of my imagination of literature and the spirit with which people live their lives. I wanted to share the same experience with a larger readership. And what could be a better means of doing this than by translating them into a language that is spoken widely and is known to you as well? Despite this, my experience of reading Dalit literature is not of bleak lives but of victories people achieved. I wanted it to be known to many people and that, as I imagined, would help them perceiving India through Dalits’ eyes and see this society as it is. With this small objective, I started my efforts at translating.”

Anita Raja, the award-winning Italian translator, in an essay Translation as a Practice of Acceptance that appeared in the Asymptote Journal (a wonderful e-magazine that focusses on translations and translators), says, “What does it mean for me to translate literature? It means establishing an intense relationship which unfolds entirely within the written word, a relationship which begins with one written text and produces a second written text; it is therefore not only a relationship between two languages but above all a relationship between two modes of writing, between two utterances that are by nature strongly personal.”

“Translation helps you enhance your views about the lives of people; it brings you closer to the wider and the deeper reality about human society. Translation democratises the perspectives of people. This is most appealing factor of translation, I think,” Yogesh signs off.

Also read parts one and two.

The writer is the founding editor of The Madras Mag


Updated Date: Nov 11, 2017 17:43 PM