Interview: Jayasree Kalathil, translator - “Read the text for what it is”

Published on Nov 18, 2022 09:44 PM IST

The award-winning translator from Malayalam to English on collaborating with authors and dismantling the literary canon

Translator Jayasree Kalathil (Courtesy the subject)
Translator Jayasree Kalathil (Courtesy the subject)
ByKunal Ray

How do you choose a text for translation?

Translation involves a long, intimate relationship with a text, and as with any relationship, it is important that I feel intellectually and emotionally involved. So, for me, the main consideration is that I like the text I am translating as a reader first. There are other considerations too. I like texts that challenge me as a writer, that are relevant to our times, that try, in one way or another, to trouble the existing hegemonies of language and literature in Kerala.

What role does the writer of the source text play in this process? Do you think of translation as a collaboration?

Translation can be a collaboration, but it varies from writer to writer and text to text. With my first book of translation, Diary of a Malayali Madman, a collection of novellas by N Prabhakaran, I had the opportunity to meet him and discuss his writing, his creative process and conceptualisation of the stories and characters, which gave a deeper insight into the stories. I think of translation more as a process of creating a new work of literature from a text in a different language, where the translator’s co-creator is the voice of the author captured in the text rather than the author themselves. That said, I have had extensive conversations with all the authors I have translated, which have led to close friendships. In practical terms, the conversations usually are about clarifying words, usages and ideas, as and when I have asked for them. It is important to me that my creative space is free from unnecessary interferences.

420pp, ₹699; HarperCollins; Nominated for the JCB Prize for Literature 2022. (Stories of a land and its people)
420pp, ₹699; HarperCollins; Nominated for the JCB Prize for Literature 2022. (Stories of a land and its people)

I also think translation is an act of writing, of creating a new work. Do you hold similar views? And don’t you think that we need to dismantle the original vs translation binary? 

Translation is definitely an act of creating a new work, and new not simply in terms of its appearance in a different language. I firmly believe that the translator should try as much as possible to remain an invisible presence in the translated text, but this is also an impossible task. Every word chosen, every comma added to a sentence, renders the translator visible because these choices are personal, subjective, pointing to the translator’s own creative, aesthetic and political tendencies. Also, different languages behave differently and there simply is no way to adhere to a notion – a false notion – of faithfulness to the original in linguistic terms. Multiple readings can reveal the inherent universal “affect” of a text, and, to my mind, a translator’s task is to carry this over as closely as possible. I have found comparisons between the original and the translation – often framed in terms of “lost or found in translation,” and often by people who do not read or understand the original language – redundant and unhelpful. Read the text for what it is.

Do you feel personally responsible for translating more women writers or is that very restrictive you think? 

I read way more women writers than men, and way more writers of all genders from the Global South. I would love to translate more women writers – in fact, the next couple of books I am working on are by women writers. But I do think that gender is only one of the factors that result in the marginalisation and minoritisation of writers in any given literary canon – it is indeed so in the Malayalam literary canon. Anthologies, special issues, literary panels, conferences, poetry meets, boards of influential literary institutions that are all-male, or with the token presence of women, are entirely common in Kerala to this day. But equally common is the fact that these spaces remain predominantly savarna, heterosexual and ableist, but this fact is less remarked upon. As a translator, I don’t think my job is to recreate the existing canon in a different language. In fact, translation opens up the potential to dismantle the canon.

Translation is also political. Do the books that you choose to translate also reflect your politics as an individual?

Most definitely. As I said earlier, translation for me is an intimate relationship with a text. It must sit well with my own personal politics intellectually and emotionally.

I am also curious to know if you watch new generation Malayalam films. There’s so much good work happening in that area. Do you see any parallels between this film practice and the books that are being written in your home state? 

Unfortunately, I don’t have the opportunity to watch as many Malayalam films as I would like anymore. I do agree that contemporary cinema in Kerala reflects current literary efforts in troubling hegemonies in terms of language, aesthetics and content.

360pp, ₹599; HarperCollins; Winner of the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 (Of myth and masculinity)
360pp, ₹599; HarperCollins; Winner of the JCB Prize for Literature 2020 (Of myth and masculinity)

You live in the UK and translate from Malayalam to English. Malayalam may not be present in your immediate surroundings or amongst languages spoken around you. How does this physical distance impact the work you do? Does it make you more attentive to language in some ways? 

There are positive and negative impacts. I don’t get to read new books as easily as I could have if I lived in Kerala. And I am removed from conversations in the public sphere (which, to be honest, can also be a good thing!). The positive impact has more to do with my English rather than my Malayalam. As migrants living in the colonizer’s country, our languages disappear into insignificance on an everyday basis. The sound of our names, the food on our plates, the clothes on our bodies, the lilt of our words, the stories we tell are in constant translation. I am, in other words, a self in translation, or as translator Madhu Kaza puts it, we live “in the silence between languages.” As a translator, the question, “What does it mean to live untranslatability?” is something that I grapple with, and I think it has an impact on how I translate.

Also, since 2003, I have worked here in the UK as an activist and researcher interested in the material and theoretical aspects of madness as a human experience. An important part of this work was confronting and challenging Eurocentrism, structural racism and institutional whiteness. I have found these questions equally relevant in the field of translation. What does it mean to render the diversity and idiosyncrasy of a language into English, a language with a long history of colonialism and erasure of cultures and identities? How do we work towards translations that embody difference, otherness, unease? These questions have made me more attentive to the ways in which language is inflected by race, caste, class and gender.

What are you reading now? 

I have just finished reading The Education of Yuri by Jerry Pinto, which, like all his books, was absolutely wonderful, and Hiroko Oyamada’s The Hole, translated by David Boyd. Recently, I moved out of London and into a small village in the New Forest in southern England. It is a land of ancient forests and heathlands, steeped in myths and legends, and I have been reading a lot about the place. I am currently immersed in a retelling of myths about nature and plant life called Botanical Folk Tales of Britain and Ireland by Lisa Schneidau.

Kunal Ray teaches literary & cultural studies at FLAME University, Pune.

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