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Why translation is the ultimate goal of literature
The Tamil texts through translation attain exposure and visibility, which, in turn showcase the Tamil ethos, culture, history, opine authors and translators from the city.
The book Poonachi is Perumal Murugan’s return to writing after a short sabbatical. Wrought by the imagination of a skillful storyteller, the book is a delicate yet complex story of the animal world. It is about life and death and all that breathes in between. Poonachi is a commentary on our times — on the unequal hierarchies of colour and class and the vulnerability of individuals who choose to speak. Many would have missed this literary gem because the book is in Tamil.
After realising the importance of translating this book into English, well-known translator N Kalyan Raman took up this project. One most common reason a bibliophile says is that she/he cannot read the language, even if it is written in their mother tongue. We take a look at this situation and understand how important translations are in today’s day and age.
Translation in Tamil is as old as Tamil itself. Tholkappiam, the first book on grammar and aesthetics (around 2nd Century AD) mentions translation practices.
N Kalyan Raman has been a translator of contemporary Tamil fiction and poetry since the mid-nineties. He has so far published nine volumes of Tamil fiction in translation, six of them authored by the distinguished Tamil writer, Ashokamitran. “Storytelling is one of the best ways to understand the culture and life of a particular region. Essentially, translations give you access to stories that are told in language that is alien to you. By reading them, you can be informed about the life lived in those regions and understand the distinctive identity. Because you acknowledge the nature of the people, you learn to respect their life and thereby, realise the importance of co-existence,” he says.
For instance, the topic of Dalit has been discussed commonly in Malayalam, Tamil, Bihari and Marathi novels. But native language speakers aren’t able to read and understand the topic. “If translated into English, many would be able to relate with the oppressed and this could possibly lead to political unity,” adds Kalyan Raman.
R. Rajagopalan, former reader in English from Presidency College, says that the Tamil texts through translation attain exposure and visibility which in turn showcases the Tamil ethos, culture, history and philosophy to the rest of the world.
“For instance, AK Ramanujan’s translations of Tamil classical poetry (Poems of Love and War) have done a world of good as they reveal the history and culture of the Tamils to the western mind. Thanks to these great attempts of translations, Tamil is regarded as one of the living, vibrant classical languages of the world today,” he beams.
Without translations, writers would live on an island however great their works may be! Translations bring into focus one’s relation to writers of other languages and put them on a pedestal, making them comparable with any other writer in any other language. Indira Parthasarathy, Ashokamitran and a less serious but popular writer Kalki are well-known outside TN and their works in translation are included in the academic syllabi.
“The translations of Jayakanthan’s works not only gave him visibility but recognition nationwide. A day may come when translations are made simultaneously alongside the original and thereby acting as conduits of immediate cultural transmissions,” hopes Rajagopalan.
What worries author of Seppadu Viddhai (Conjuring Tricks), Sam Manekshaw is what if translations went wrong and gives out a wrong message to readers. “I will think thrice or more before allowing someone to translate my book. I cannot take risks with my ideas and thoughts. It’s tough to find a person who can do the translation with the same tone and tenor,” he opines.
We ask Rajagopalan how translations help widen readers’ perspective and make them develop a more matured and balanced world view. “By reading translations, the readers are exposed to different times and cultures. They are made to undergo fresh life situations alien to their own.
Translation is a critical enabler in the sense that the reader widens his perspectives to fathom and comprehend hitherto untouched human values and power. A reading of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Kafka would make one come to grips with gray areas of life, leaving them in search of the true meaning of life, which is after all the ultimate goal of literature,” shares Rajagopalan, who recently launched his book Culture, Language and Identity at British Council.
CT Indra, former HOD of Madras University, strongly believes that translations can help cultivate a larger perspective. “It will promote a better understanding of culture not only from Tamil to English and vice versa but also between Tamil and other Indian languages. Most regions and states share similar socio-economic and political predicaments which are reflected in their productions/ creative output,” she says.