Forced to retire from the literary life following protests by caste-based groups against his 2010 novel Mathorubhagan, award-winning Tamil author Perumal Murugan was “resurrected” by the Madras High Court this July when it dismissed a plea for a ban on his book and the needless controversy around it. The historic judgment that upheld freedom of expression was followed by publication of three short stories in translation by Murugan.
N. Kalyan Raman, 64, who translated Murugan’s stories into English, as well as three books by Tamil writer Ashokamitran earlier this year, has been making contemporary Tamil poetry and fiction accessible to an English- speaking audience for 25 years now. His translation of Devibharathi’s short story collection Farewell, Mahatma (2014) has been shortlisted for the Raymond Crossword Book Award in the translations category.
A satellite communication engineer, Raman, has worked with ISRO for over two decades and currently works as a part-time consultant in Chennai. He has nine books in translation to his credit, besides contributing translations of short fiction and poetry to over a dozen anthologies, and essays and reviews to journals and magazines. In an interview with Brunch, Raman talks about the craft of translation and the neglect of the genre. Excerpts:
What got you interested in translating Tamil literature into English?
I tried writing fiction and poetry in college and got published too, but I gave up too soon. I was an engineer and pursuing an MBA degree, I felt that my life was too limited for me to be an author of fiction. I was more interested in the essay form and analytical thinking. I have been a part of the literary community of people my age. When a friend was working on an anthology of short stories in translation (published as Southern Harvest, 1992) from four major South Indian languages, she asked me translate a story by writer Dilip Kumar. I did and it was well received.
Then the Indian Review of Books invited me to translate a story “Debt” by Ashokamitran for a special issue. Later, I was approached to translate a collection by Ashokamitran , which was published as The Colours of Evil (1998).
The translation of Perumal Murugan’s Mathorubhagan (2010), One Part Woman (2013), created a huge controversy last year though the original text had existed peacefully much before the translation came out. How do you view the entire episode?
In Tamil Nadu, we’d had a so-called anti-caste movement, which has effectively been an anti-Brahmin movement that ended their social-political dominance. So, the non-Brahmins are on top. They consist of the landowning caste, as well as the Other Backwards Classes and the Dalits.
But there isn’t a similar critique of caste oppression and discrimination among the non-Brahmin castes. Brahmins have been the biggest and the only villains in the caste scenario, but this fiction is becoming difficult to sustain in the public discourse. People like Perumal Murugan, with their Marxist background, believe in writing the truth. He is from the Gounder caste which has emerged as one of the powerful, dominant castes.
Murugan has been critical of his caste’s exploitation of Dalits in their areas. The dominant castes use their muscle every once in a while to maintain their position in the oligarchy. I think this is how the controversy started. Otherwise they’re not great readers of any kind. So, it was a kind of manufactured outrage.
In One Part Woman, Murugan was critiquing a barbaric ritual about the stigmatization of childless couples from a modernistic perspective. He was performing the role of the critical outsider, but they tried to silence him. The Madras High Court’s ruling was a beautiful judgement.
How different is the experience of translating Ashokamitran and Perumal Murugan?
Ashokamitran writes in a very strip down, bare style with a lot of nuances. He was influenced by the mid-century American writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Theodore Dreiser.
So, people say Ashokamitran is easy to translate, but that is not the case. And it is also not true that he writes only about ordinary things. He takes a person whom you would dismiss as ordinary and then he puts them in extraordinary situations or shows the crisis that person is going through as something extraordinary because he writes from a human dimension.
Perumal Murugan writes of a particular milieu. He is very clear that he will write only about his own people [the Gounder caste] who are doing agriculture or working on the land. He’ll write about the Dalits who work for them. His style is also modern, but he uses a lot of rural dialect whereas Ashokamitran uses familiar slang.
While translating, how do you preserve the flavour of the original?
I don’t think it is possible to not to let your style seep in, but only in so far as your style as a translator. It is your own understanding of the text, but not with endless degrees of freedom. You’re not rewriting the text.
A lot of translators tend to needlessly embellish the original text as they fear it may not sound interesting when translated by them. For instance, if the sentence reads: “He walked into the room.” It will be changed to “He strode into the room.”
But that is something you should never do. You have to realise that the author of the original is an accomplished writer. He knows more about the craft of writing fiction than you ever will. There is no need to introduce yourself into the text. It is also a question of ethics.
What are the common challenges one faces while translating a book?
There’s a learning curve like with everything else. I don’t write narrative fiction in English and so for me that was a problem: how to write a text. An original exists, but the text in English is entirely yours. It must read like a story and has to have a rhythm, and all the inflections and consistency of the original. You probably have a gift for it otherwise you wouldn’t be translating. But it takes a long time to perfect the skill, particularly the syntactical structure which is very different in Tamil and English. Also, different authors write Tamil in different ways. Devibharathi and Ashokamitran do not write in the same way.
The real challenge is to have an immersive experience of the text and have empathy for the people who inhabit it. Translating demands a certain amount of imagination on part of the translator. If you do that then everything becomes less difficult.
Vocabulary is another challenge. You have to be familiar enough with the language to understand the particular register and nuance a word represents.
You’ve also translated several contemporary Tamil poets such as Kutti Revathi, Salma, Perundevi. Which is harder to translate – fiction or poetry?
Poetry is harder because it requires your own style a lot more. You have to give a life to it in a very condensed form. There is no way you can rely on the original to supply you that compactness as sometimes a word you translate can run into four or five words in English. You have to find a way to make a poem out of it. It is related to the original, but a translator’s poem is definitely a new creation.
Despite awards instituted for it (the most recent being the Man Booker International), translation remains largely a thankless job with translators not getting enough recognition. What changes do you think are long overdue in the field?
Awards don’t matter that much. What matters is being read. What the genre needs are critics who are knowledgeable enough to write about the translated work, who would create an interest in these books and inspire more people to take up the work of translating.
Translation is dissed all the time, with some people saying great Indian writers do not get the Nobel Prize because there is no decent English translation of their work. But there is no critical conversation around the translated works being produced.
The Indian English genre is here to stay. There are books coming out every week and there are critics and there are literary fests (though there is not much critical discourse). Similar resources and attention should also be given to the genre of Indian writing in translation.
What translations are you working on at the moment?
I’ve completed translating two novels by Sahitya-Akademi award-winning Tamil author Poomani. I am also working on two collections of short stories – one by poet-novelist Salma and another by Perumal Murugan.
From HT Brunch, October 20, 2016
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