Renowned translator N. Kalyan Raman, who has dedicated his career to making Tamil literature accessible to the Anglophone reader, speaks to Bhumika Popli about the art of translation.


Q. How do you choose the books you want to translate?
A. It can happen in several ways. Often, I make the choice through direct interaction with the author. Sometimes, the publisher approaches me after having bought the translation rights from the rights holder. Sometimes I choose the work myself and approach the author for permission. In all three cases, the decision to translate a particular work is influenced solely by my response to it as a reader and my perception of its importance in the pan-Indian literary domain. I have found that it’s very important for me to bring such involvement and conviction to the process of translation. Others in the milieu—translators, commissioning editors, rights holders to the original works, authors and even those who act as “native informants”—are also moved primarily by the same considerations of literary significance of the work chosen for translation.

Based as they are on individual initiatives and the power of networks, these choices, aggregated over the milieu, can hardly ensure that all the best works in a particular language are prioritised for translation. The same goes for new and important works, especially by younger writers. I wish the choices had wider participation and accommodated a range of opinion. We should perhaps move in that direction.

Q. The writer-translator relationship is full of anxiety and scepticism. A writer is bound to be apprehensive about the quality of the translated version of his work, about its efficacy in conveying the intent and nuances of the original. Have you ever had to face this as a translator, and if yes, how do you overcome such hurdles?
A. Yes. As Hegel has said, “The nature of the spirit is anxiety.” So a writer’s anxiety is to be expected. Most authors I have worked with have not imposed such anxieties on the process of translation and I am grateful to them. In my view, any high-handed intervention by the author is avoidable. That said, the translator is trying to replicate the author’s voice and vantage in the work. So it helps to know the author in a wider sense, either personally or through their other writings, some of which may be autobiographical. It also helps to have the author review the text and make suggestions and comments. At all times, the translator should have absolute control over the text.

That said, a translation can be only as good as the translator, and the author cannot realistically compensate for any serious deficiency. At any rate, all translations are provisional and there is always scope for another translator to produce a better translation of the same work.

Q. When you started out as a translator did you have to read a lot of translated texts to actually get started in this field, or was there a different path you undertook?
A. When I was starting out, reading translated texts from Indian languages helped me to convince myself that it could actually be done, making translation real for me. Reading translated texts also helped me evolve standards for myself initially. Beyond this, I did not and do not learn a lot from reading texts translated from Indian languages, though I enjoy reading them, often with a critical eye. Translation is profoundly personal, just as creative writing is. A translator brings to the process of translation not only his sensibilities with respect to language and literature, but also everything he has learnt and experienced in his life up to that point.

Q. Could you tell us what should be the translator’s approach with certain phonetic words that are untranslatable?
A. By phonetic words, if you mean onomatopoeic words, there are always ways such words around. It is important to remember that the translation of such words need not necessarily be onomatopoeic, although it would be fun to find a similar equivalent. This is really one of the many, many technical problems for which translators seek and find solutions all the time.

Q. Between poetry and fiction, which form is more difficult to translate?
A. All translation is difficult, and translating poetry poses a different order of difficulty, involving as it does a highly compressed language, distilled to its essence, and the rendering of cadence and rhythm in a new language. I found Edith Grossman’s observation that a translated poem, though linked to the original, is a wholly new utterance, very useful. In fact, it’s the only way for a translator to honour and fulfil the aesthetic requirements of the form, by daring to create a new poem in the target language.

In fiction, “invisible” features like narrative structure and the tonal qualities of speech can be quite difficult to reproduce effectively. All successful fictional narratives engage the reader’s imagination by leaving a lot unsaid. I would say that this, too, is a major challenge for translators.

Q. What are the new creative possibilities when two languages—in your case, Tamil and English—come together?
A. They don’t come together so much as the ethos and cultural rhythms of the source language (Tamil) enter the target language (English), thereby enriching and expanding the scope of the latter. I should think this is the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of reading a translated text. If the reader is generous of spirit, they can also marvel at it.

Q. You have translated books by Ashokamitran and more recently, Poonachi by Perumal Murugan. What were the similarities or differences you observed in the works of these two writers?
A. I can expound on this for an hour or more, but I will limit myself here to a couple of brief observations.
Ashokamitran brings out the complexity of people and situations by describing the surface of events. A lot is left unsaid. His language is very spare, and the details in his descriptions are very minimal but telling. The setting of his stories is largely urban.

The world of Perumal Murugan’s fiction is rural Kongunadu, where the lives of his characters are inextricably bound with the features of the landscape and the animals that roam there. He also uses a modern language, but inflected by the regional dialect, especially in his speech. In a landscape dominated by nature, people and situations are more vividly described, through a language that remains simple and elemental.

Q. As a translator how do you prepare yourself when you shift from one author to another?
A. I suppose I do prepare myself, but not consciously. The process with every author is the same: read intensely and try to reproduce the authorial voice in the text. Obviously, this can’t be done with two authors simultaneously. I would prefer not to.

Q. What would be a good starting point for those who want to acquaint themselves with Tamil literature?
A. For a native reader of the language, it’s simple enough. They are part of the life of the community and have innumerable sources of knowledge and experience that can contribute to their understanding of contemporary Tamil literature.

For a non-Tamil reader of texts translated from the Tamil, literary discourse that contextualises such texts along the historical, sociological and ideological dimensions is very important. It is particularly so for the community of Anglophone Indian readers, who can be so staggeringly diverse in terms of their disposition towards Indian life and literature. Unfortunately, the discourse on translated texts is very sparse and limited. In my view, it fails to do its job engagingly and effectively. Not enough space is available for such discourses. Moreover, the complex and network-driven gate-keeping system that controls our Anglophone discourses has prevented the emergence of newer and better informed voices from the Indian language spheres and where they have emerged, they are not taken seriously enough. So, as an interested reader, you can begin by pushing for a better and more open discourse on translated texts, and then you can hope to get somewhere.

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