The joy and challenges of translating Perumal Murugan's Thondra Thunai — an evocative account of his mother
From his mother’s reluctance to accept Ezhilarasi as her daughter-in-law, to his decision to send her off along the path of the wind, Perumal Murugan's 'Amma' is as social an account as personal. His Amma is a tough woman and will remain a lasting influence on him, and yet, in his book, Murugan does justice to the writer in him, by not allowing the magnanimity of her persona cover up for her shortcomings and limitations of being part of a patriarchal setup. He does not shy away from speaking about it, and on his ways of handling the issues that cropped up due to the contradictions that existed between them.
Thondra Thunai (Amma in English) was more than a well-crafted, stunning personal account of Murugan’s childhood and the bond with his mother, or Amma.
It had the writer's impeccable narrative style, his nuanced Kongu dialect, and it goes beyond his personal life.
In talking about his Amma, her world and her beliefs, Murugan not only opens himself up to the reader, but he opens the doors to a new culture and its practices as well.
Every time I ran into him, Perumal Murugan and I would inevitably end up speaking about translating his works. “You should give it a try,” he would often say. “I am sure you will like it.” I was already translating Murugan, but those were confined to the short pieces that he sometimes wrote for newspapers and magazines. To translate a full-fledged literary work appeared daunting, given Murugan’s rich yet very intricate Kongu dialect that remarkably sets him apart in Tamil literary space.
But when the opportunity to translate his non-fiction work Thondra Thunai (meaning 'invisible companion') came up, along with Nandini Murali, the offer had an uncanny appeal. Thondra Thunai, I initially thought, couldn’t be as complex as it is personal. It was after all a work of non-fiction and consequently, less complicated than translating a fiction. It was perhaps the right kind of work to find if Murugan was correct about my ability to translate him. When I finally started working on its translation, I was proved wrong on all counts — and delightfully so.
Working my way through the translation, I realised Thondra Thunai (Amma in English) was more than a well-crafted, stunning personal account of Murugan’s childhood and the bond with his mother, or Amma. It had the writer's impeccable narrative style, his nuanced Kongu dialect, and it goes beyond his personal life. In talking about his Amma, her world and her beliefs, Murugan not only opens himself up to the reader, but he opens the doors to a new culture and its practices as well. A culture and world where an innocuous act of making crispy murukkus entails an elaborate process, a ritual in itself.
Amma was warm and funny in parts, deep and reflective in some. In talking about his mother's practice of keeping accounts for gifts given and taken, Murugan sheds light on the practice of Moi (Mandatory gifting), its social repercussions and dangers – something I was only vaguely aware of as a journalist. In Murugan’s language and narration, the practice was distinctly vicious than what I had learnt previously. Murugan speaks about the cultural contours of the tradition in a very matter-of-fact tone, yet makes you realise the gravity of its repercussions.
From his mother’s reluctance to accept Ezhilarasi as her daughter-in-law, to his decision to send her off along the path of the wind, Amma is as social an account as personal. Murugan’s Amma is a tough woman and will remain a lasting influence on him, and yet, in his book, Murugan does justice to the writer in him, by not allowing the magnanimity of her persona cover up for her shortcomings and limitations of being part of a patriarchal setup. He does not shy away from speaking about it, and on his ways of handling the issues that cropped up due to the contradictions that existed between them.
As intense and evocative as it might sound, Amma had its own set of challenges. His dialect was a delight to read, but difficult to translate, especially for someone like me who has been brought up in an urban society, with no clue of either the agriculture that his family so lovingly practised, or the culture associated with his Kongu region. 'Pannadai', to me, was only a cuss word, till I started reading Murugan. From his works, I learnt that they were our regular palm or coconut sheath used to light fire. The many vegetables that Murugan’s family nurtured in their backyard have largely remained merely names, absent from our fast food plates.
Working on this translation also meant that I worked closely with Murugan, often checking his Whatsapp last seen status on several nights, and wondering if I could still trouble him with a call to get a doubt cleared. Silly as it may sound, the doubts left me with a very gnawing feeling till they were done away with. Being a teacher that he is, Murugan was patient with doubts and made sure that I was got it right. Often, he brought in different contexts into those conversations, to give me a larger picture, — something I found immensely valuable while translating him.
This project was a process in learning. It was often a struggle, as I frequently found myself looking for that right word or right term to capture the essence of his emotion. The challenge was real – not something I would encounter while translating his columns.
Translating someone like Perumal Murugan will never leave you with the feeling of having done a perfect job. It was next to impossible to bring his regional dialect into an alien language. To savour it in all its glory is a privilege meant only for his Tamil readers.
All I had aspired for is to do a neat job, if not a perfect one. In the process, I did feel exhausted, like a student would after writing her final exams. But when I finally received copies of Amma with my name as one of the translators, the exhaustion gave way to exhilaration. On the same day, Perumal Murugan phoned me from Delhi to tell me about the book release, and that it was being received well. “I never realised this translation and its final product will leave me this happy,” I told him. In response, he said: "Now you have no excuses."
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