Rajinikanth is a superstar who rose from being a porter/coolie and a bus conductor to achieving godlike status in Tamil Nadu. He has over 150 films to his credit, many of them blockbusters, and at the age of seventy he still plays a hero! With nearly forty years of stardom, his career coincided with the Dravidian self respect movement promote atheism, his fans venerated him as ifbhe was a god by worshiping his cut-outs and bathing them in milk and beer. He has tried dabbling in politics by commenting on the policies of various chief ministers, being fairly outspoken on the river Cauvery water sharing between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and so on. In 2017, Rajinikanth announced that he would form his own political party and contest all 234 seats in the 2021 assembly elections. It created a frenzy. His fans were delighted as this was the day they had been waiting for. Tamil Nadu has a history of having actors-turned-chief ministers. So this avatar of Rajinikanth would not be out of the norm. But his political detractors considered him to be naive and there were others who were convinced he would align with the BJP, a right wing party, thereby giving the party a foothold in the state. Ultimately, after three years, Rajinikanth announced his retirement from politics citing health reasons.
The images with this post are from his comments on the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) 2019. The Act granted citizenship to undocumented members of six minority communities — Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, Buddhists, and Parsis — from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan who had migrated to India on account of religious persecution before 31 Dec 2014. The Act excluded Muslims. Rajinikanth publicly declared his support for the Act. After much intervention by civil society groups, individuals and push back from political analysts, Rajinikanth posted on Twitter (2 Mar 2020), “I am willing to play any role in order to maintain peace I the country. I too agree with their [Muslim leaders] comment that a country’s prime objective should be love and peace.”
Vaasanthi is a bilingual freelance writer, journalist, novelist and translator from the Tamil into English. In her biography of this superstar, Vaasanthi, tries to map the ascent to stardom as well as try and understand the intricacies of what makes Rajinikanth what he is. Given that she is able to straddle the English-speaking world and Tamil society, she is the ideal bridge in conveying to rest of the world on what is so special about Rajinikanth. She is able to put aside any inclination to turn this biography into a hagiography as most Tamilians would find it challenging to have a rational perspective on the actor. It is impossible to explain in words. It has to be seen to be believed. The extract from the book is a fine example of how well Vaasanthi is able to create a narrative and explain the compulsions that drive Rajinikanth. The CAA is a tricky space to comment upon but Rajinikanth opted to do so. Yet, he has lived his life sufficiently in the public eye to probably recognise the folly of his hasty announcement and how it may affect electorate sentiments as at that time he was still contemplating entering politics. So he did not exactly take back his words but he came forth to support the Muslims. It was a quick comeback but politics is not like cinema. Fans can be mollified, politics affects people at multiple levels. It requires astuteness, wisdom, knowledge and deep understanding of issues rather than glib PR stunts.
Nevertheless, this is a book that will appeal to Rajinikanth fans, political scientists, journalists and perhaps a few academics. Understandably it is embedded in the socio-political space of Tamil Nadu and it is not always easy to comprehend. Sadly, this book lacks pictures. Except for the technicolour cover design, there are no other images.
Award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s latest novel Estuary has been translated by Nandini Krishnan. Estuary is a curious book. Flat in its tone but the preoccupation of the government clerk Kumarasurar for his son, Meghas’s, welfare is universal. Many parents will identify with it. Perumal Muruagan captures the parental anxiety very well. Bulk of the story revolves around Meghas’s request for a fancy smartphone that Kumarasurar may or not be able to afford. It sort of is in step with Kumarasurar’s general anathema towards electronic devices. It is illustrated well in his locking up the government issued computer into a cupboard instead of using it. It is only when he is introduced to the vast possibilities browsing the Internet can unleash that Kumarasurar begins to understand the younger generation’s fascination with smartphones too. The enthusiasm of the younger man for edevices rubs off on to his father, a Luddite where digital technology was concerned, and transforms Kumarasurar into a new man.
Estuary is a commentary on society and a gentle dig at people who are immune to external influences and refuse to evolve. Estuary drives home the point beautifully that as the elder person you must evolve even if it means graciously acknowledging your limits. By stonewalling and refusing to understand the needs of the younger generation, you will merely alienate them and perhaps lose them forever. In a peculiar way Estuary is a bildungsroman but not of the young man Meghas but that of his father. So the metaphor of “Estuary”, the mixing of the salt water with fresh water, works beautifully in the conclusion of the book, when tables are turned where the father now hankers after the smartphone unlike his son.
Estuary is contemplative and relatable. But as with many translated works, credit has to also be accorded to the translator. Namely, Nandini Krishnan. I am unable to pinpoint what exactly it is, but her translation really soars. The sentences click. There is a rhythm but it is ever so slightly different to that of reading a text written originally in English. Yet the translation is breezy. At no point does one get the feeling that the translator is getting carried away with their art and losing the author. On the contrary. Her respect for the storyteller and his story comes through. I do not even know how to explain that any further than except urge others to read the book. Of course there are instances in the book where the dreariness and monotony of Kumarasurar’s anxiety gets to the reader. The dullness of the storytelling is an art in itself and probably intentionally created by Murugan. At such moments in the novel the only reason for reading further is the exquisite quality of translation.
Nandini Krishnan is the author of Hitched: The Modern Indian Woman and Arranged Marriage (2013) and Invisible Men: Inside India’s Transmasculine Networks (2018). Perumal Murugan’s Estuary is her first translation from Tamil. She lives in Madras, among nine dogs, eight cats, and several thousand books!
Here is an interview with her conducted via email:
Q1. How long did it take to translate Estuary?
It’s hard to calculate the man hours, but going by the calendar, I started in November 2019 and the novel went to print in May 2020. I’d promised V K Karthika, Publisher, Westland Books, that I would have a first draft ready in a month so that Westland could publish the following summer. And so, I pushed aside all my other writing projects and dedicated myself entirely to the novel. Of course, I had read it twice already, and had perhaps translated it in my head to some extent. I must have spent between five and eighteen hours on Estuary each day, depending on the sections I was doing. I had a break until they got back to me with a line edit and copy edit, and that was another intense period of immersion in Asuralokam.
Q2. What was your methodology in translating? For instance, did you translate it in snatches, refine and then proceed or did you first translate the entire novel and then edit it further?
Actually, all of the above!
I had a very tight self-imposed deadline, and I had to translate at least one chapter a day, more if I could. If I had doubts or dilemmas about which words to use, I would shortlist my options in parentheses to deal with later.
I’d take a few hours off to get mauled by my dogs and then return, entice my kitten off my laptop with food, and start restructuring and rephrasing each sentence after comparing it with the Tamil original.
Once I was done with all forty chapters, I took two days off, and then spent a few more days re-reading and editing the entire novel.
By the time it came back to me with a line edit, I had made a new document with notes on which words I must replace in the first draft, after yet another re-read of the original and my translation. So my second and third drafts were done with at least four windows open at once on the computer. While I was waiting for a final copy edit, I read the Tamil novel for maybe a fifth time, so I ended up doing a fourth draft of the entire novel before it was typeset.
Q3. Do you pause and read other translations while working on a project?
As you can probably tell from my previous answer, I don’t really have a pause mode. But I can’t eat or sleep or even sit without a book in hand, so I’m always reading. Some of the books I read while working on Estuary—and indeed my own books—were or are, inevitably, translations.
Perhaps I’m a little more tuned in to a translator’s role in my reading as well, now that I’ve translated a book. While reading Banaphool’s Wildfire (Seagull Books), translated by Somnath Zutshi, I found myself analysing the translator’s craft in particular—something I haven’t consciously done before.
Q4. What are the pros and cons a translator can expect when immersed in the translation?
I used to be fond of saying that I’m in something of a trance when I write fiction, that I write intuitively and it feels as if I’m simply a medium for a story that wants to be told. But I began to rethink this when I heard Akhil Sharma—a writer I admire hugely—talk about how only writers can sense the craft in his novels, at the Festivals des Écrivains du Monde, 2014, in Paris. He went on to analyse some of his sentences, and the use of a particular word instead of a synonym. For the first time, I found myself applying this principle instinctively, and could relate to what he’d said. This exercise really develops your language and craft.
I also feel being in such a long relationship with a work of literature in another language makes a certain cadence percolate one’s own language and enrich it. I can speak only one language so that it can be understood by its native speakers—English—but I read many, and therefore I can access various literatures in the original. I find that each new language adds a layer of nuance to one’s thinking and a lilt to one’s vocabulary in other languages, rendering one’s writing more versatile and one’s imagery more vivid.
I’m making the first of many references to Vikram Seth in this interview, but I think the beauty of his English has a lot to do with his being not just a polyglot, but also a translator.
The only “con” is the sense of heartbreak at the end. As mother of a houseful of dogs and cats, I can make something of a comparison to fostering a fur baby. You love this little puppy that needs you for nourishment, and he or she loves you too, but then you’re always aware you’re not the parent and that you eventually have to let go.
Q5. Did you have to consult Perumal Murugan during the translation?
I have a funny story to tell you. The first time I spoke to him about the translation, he asked me, “Andha pagadiye aangilathule konduvara mudiyumaa?” which means, “Will the pagadi translate into English?”
And it was a most inauspicious start because I had to ask sheepishly, “Sir, what does ‘pagadi’ mean?” He explained that it was parody, and then said, “You must have heard people say ‘pagadi-ya pesuvaan’—he is sarcastic—surely?” I had to admit I never had. I did a quick survey around my house and told him none of the Tamil speakers in my family had heard of the word either, and he began to laugh. He must have thought about how different the milieus in which we were raised are. My only brush with rural life has been through cinema and literature. And although I studied Tamil for thirteen years in school and college, I find it easier to translate Sangam poetry than contemporary literature because the syllabus was partial to the former.
Now, Perumal Murugan uses certain words and describes certain traditions which are so particular to a region that even Tamil dictionaries draw a blank. So he was often my only dictionary and encyclopaedia. I also consulted him when I had to make a choice between two phrases or idioms—I would translate the English literally into Tamil and ask him which he preferred.
I had the advantage of having read nearly all his Tamil novels and several of his short stories, because of which I’m tuned in to his style and rhythm. I’ve met him in person often, and I can hear his writing in his voice, which helps me render it with some authenticity into English.
Q6. Has your translation been absolutely faithful to the original Tamil text or did you (with the concurrence of the author) have to tweak portions of the novel?
That’s a layered question, and it deserves a layered answer.
Let me assemble the first layer with an example. The opening lines in Tamil are:
Yaman azhaippu urudhi
Magan azhaippu aridhu
Now, even if you don’t understand Tamil, you can feel the music and sense the significance of wordplay in those lines. This is a crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
“Azhaippu” can mean both “call” and “invitation”. “Aridhu” means “rare”, but also has the connotation “precious”. This is another crucial aspect to carry into the translation.
It would be impossible to be absolutely faithful to the sense of irony and the semantic meaning of the first line. If I were to write “Yama’s invitation is certain”, the reader would be bewildered. I eventually went with “The call of Yama is certain”, but this doesn’t contain the wryness of the Tamil sentence. So I would have to find a way to bring that into the next line.
I also had to bring in the musicality of the two sentences, almost a couplet. If I were to write, “The call of Yama is a certainty. A call from one’s son is a rarity”, it would sound like those cringe-worthy traffic police slogans—you know, “Accident brings tears, safety brings cheers” or “Rash driving is crash driving.”
I had three options for the second line—“A call from one’s son is rare”, which is faithful to the semantic sense; “A call from one’s son is cause for celebration”, which is faithful to the emotional connotations; “A call from one’s son is an event”, which was the Goldilocks mean for me. It conveys the meaning and emotion; it has almost the same syllabic count as “The call of Yama is certain”. The last word of each sentence is dental, with emphasis on the
“t” and “en” sounds. And the second sentence contains the wryness that I wasn’t able to bring into the first, so the “couplet” works in translation.
Now, for the second layer—there are various vocabularies to be translated, because the third-person narrative is not always the author’s voice. Sometimes, it is a disguised first-person narrative. When the third-person narrative describes a character’s thoughts, it often assumes the voice of that character. I had to translate that character’s vocabulary accurately.
There are lyrical passages and empathetic ones and scholarly ones and playful ones, all of which carry Perumal Murugan’s signature. Then, there are passages in Kumarasurar’s voice. This man is a government employee who believes he is a gifted poet. But Perumal Murugan does not appear to think too highly of Kumarasurar’s poetic sensibilities. When Kumarasurar’s thoughts are narrated, his whimsical self-indulgence is interrupted by another tone—imagine a man who spends most of the day typing letters that probably go something like, “Dear Sir/ Regarding the statistics requested by you, kindly find enclosed forthwith the numbers as also a circular issued by the Department of Revenue regarding…/Kindly acknowledge receipt of the same.” The drudgery of this, the monotony will naturally seep into his thoughts too, and this is illustrated by flatness in tone. As for Mangasuri, she probably spends most of the day watching television soap operas and devotional programmes, and therefore she has a tendency to make dramatic pronouncements and perhaps imagines her reactions to be replayed twice. Meghas is clearly a caring son, but also has the impatience, quickness, and dry humour of an intelligent teen dealing with wide-eyed parents.
This is why the foreword is so important—when Prof. Murugan speaks of “deviance”, he could be referring to this little game he has played, where not just the vocalised dialogue but the internal dialogue too is in the voices of his characters.
And the voice of the narrator is not uniformed either. Sometimes, the author has a twinkle in his eye. Sometimes, he is seething with rage. And in the tightness of his clipped sentences, one feels the immense pain and fear he underwent during his years of exile.
So to be truly faithful to the novel, I had to extrapolate the lives of all the characters as well as the author himself, and rent some space in his head for the duration of the translation.
Q7. In an article you said that there were portions of the text you had enjoyed so much that you could recite them from memory. I found that such an extraordinary comment. As if you were more than just a translator but channelling it before making it your own and yet very clear that it was a Perumal Murugan story. So, what are your favourite sections in the novel? Does it have to do with the story or the style of storytelling? And the fondness that you have for these sections remain true for Tamil and English or only in Tamil?
I’m gratified by what you said about the translation. I haven’t quite articulated my modusoperandi to myself, but you put it quite beautifully.
Initially, my favourite sections in the novel were perhaps the ones I translated for Kannan Sundaram, Kalachuvadu, Perumal Murugan’s Tamil publisher, to pitch to prospective English publishers, even before the translation was commissioned—the opening chapter where Kumarasurar goes on his morning walk, his analysis of the seven questions he asks his son, their visits to these draconian colleges with over-the-top controlling mechanisms for their students, reports on selfies causing accidents, and the chapter where Kumarasurar has a psychotic episode. But one sentence hit me so hard I had to put the Tamil novel aside—it is the moment when Kumarasurar goes to bring Meghas home on the last day of school and hears of a “curated cemetery”. The paragraph about students passing away in college and their families not being informed about it comes out of nowhere, and it breaks the reader. I would not call it a “favourite”, because one would have to be particularly perverse to enjoy that scene, but I felt a great sense of responsibility because the English paragraph had to be as powerful.
Having completed the translation, I think my favourite chapter is the one which describes Kumarasurar’s second visit to the estuary. I’m satisfied that I have captured the tone, imagery, mood, and undercurrents in this very complex portion, and it is my greatest triumph with the novel.
To explain why I like these sections so much, I have to make an admission. When I read the Tamil novel for the first time, I kept searching for the Perumal Murugan I knew and couldn’t find him. It seemed such a mild novel, without the bite of his previous work. The premise seemed so light. I knew I was missing something, because Perumal Murugan wouldn’t write a simple story about the generation gap. So I read it again, and only to realise that was not the subject of the novel at all. It is, in some ways, a microcosmic, twenty-first century parallel to A House for Mr. Biswas, a quiet yet searing contemplation of the wrenching failure of an unremarkable life, the devastation of a man who was once the talk of town at the notion that he might be the only one who imagines that he is important.
It took me, an avid admirer of Perumal Murugan, two readings and a lifetime’s consumption of his works to understand the essence of the novel. His English readership has only received him in translation, and so far, his plots have stood the test of language. This novel is a work of art which is carried as much by style as by story. These sections were the ones that brought this fact home to me, and they were my own pookkuzhi—trial by fire. Because, unlike Prof. Murugan with me, I would have only one shot with the reader. And both he and Kannan had placed a lot of faith in me by insisting that I be the translator. I had to repay that trust by conjuring the same magic in English, and by fighting over every word on behalf of the writer.
I was terribly nervous until a brilliant review by Saudamini Jain in the Hindustan Times reassured me that my job was done. So, with a smug little pat on my own back and a sheepish smile, I can confess that I like the sections in both Tamil and English.
Q8. How do you assess/ decide when to take on a translation project?
To be honest with you, money is an important consideration. Respect and transparency are others. I’ve taken on two translation projects so far, and both were largely because of how beautifully both editors wrote to me and how my interactions with them made me feel.
This is particularly relevant because I’ve had unpleasant experiences with representatives from tight-fisted publishing firms who’ve tried various tactics to get me on board. It feels almost like you’re being sold insurance, really. Or dealing with an HR person who’s trying to convince you to stay on after a pay cut. “See, you have to look at the unquantifiable factors. Think of what this could do for your career.” “Our profits have taken a beating this year. We need people like you to pitch in at this critical time.” “Think of this as a service you’re doing a profession that you love.” “This is actually a much better deal than anything we’ve offered anyone else.” “You need to be realistic here.” “If you don’t want it enough, I can’t do anything except say we’re sorry to see you walk away from an opportunity.”
This is yet another reason I admire Vikram Seth—he has never allowed the publishing industry to dictate his worth to him, and he has justified every penny spent on him. He has taught writers that weighing one’s efforts is not mercenary. I also owe Jeet Thayil for this—he’s one of the kindest, most generous people I know, and perhaps an unconscious mentor to writers who are just about finding their feet. From him, I’ve learned not to be embarrassed about asking for what ought rightly to be offered.
Q9. How would you define a good translation?
A good translation must strike a fine balance—it should not read like a translation, but should also carry some of the flavour of the original. The reader must hear the syllables of a language that is not-quite-English and yet not explicitly so. He should feel he is exploring, but never be lost. I guess it’s like holidaying in an exotic country and staying at a resort that caters mainly to tourists.
Often, the choice or arrangement of words can give the reader a whiff of an unknown language. For example, if I were translating from French, I may go with “armoire” over “cabinet” or “cupboard”, and “boudoir” over “dressing room”, because these are French words assimilated into English. If I were translating a Hindi novel, I wouldn’t change “Dadima” to “Granny” or “Jiju” to “brother-in-law”. If it were a Delhi novel, I’d make sure I used “By god” instead of “I swear” and “Mom-Dad” instead of “my parents”.
If you read the first few pages of Naguib Mahfouz’s Palace Walk, you feel the place might as well be London as Cairo. This is perhaps because most of his early works were translated by teams—someone would translate it literally, someone else would correct the grammar, and yet someone else would Anglicise it for a global readership. The work that kept coming to mind when I visited Egypt was Alaa Al-Aswany’s The Yacoubian Bulding. It was translated by Humphrey T. Davies, who has been based in Cairo for decades.
Q10. Can the art of translating be taught? If so, what are the significant landmarks one should be aware of as a translator?
A translator is really a writer who is fluent in more than one language. I don’t believe writing can be taught. Perhaps one can find the tools to be a better writer, but it is also an instinct, a flair. One can always tell which translators are creative writers in their own right.
If you’ll forgive yet another analogy, I might liken a translator to an artist who is creating a portrait. One’s craft must come into play, but the artist must not encroach into the territory of the creator of the original. He cannot make the model’s nose sharper, and cannot afford to miss a single sinew. The artist may be Picasso, but this is not his palette for expression.
Often, translations fail either because the translator is not a writer or because the translator is a writer whose footprint contaminates the original author’s.
A case in point is Salma, whose novels and poetry in Tamil have not been done justice in English. Many of her translators focus on the “shocking” aspect, without contextualising her work within their milieu. The shock value is incidental to Salma’s craft. It is also a pitfall to see her work through the prism of one’s own politics, of gender or religion. It would be far more important for the translator to ask himself: “Can the reader hear the language of a Tamil Muslim household?” “Should I say ‘death’ here or retain ‘mowthu’ or use the uncorrupted Urdu original ‘maut’?”
Q11. Do you think there is a paradox of faithfulness to the source text versus readability in the new language?
No. I think poor translations exist because most publishing firms sacrifice literary value at the altar of profit margins.
A skilled translator will find ways to make any sentence work. If you think about it, even books written in English but set in a milieu where English is not spoken contain the dialogue in translation—such as Junot Diaz’s entire oeuvre and a fair bit of J M Coetzee’s and Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. An example that comes to mind right away is a line from Amit Chaudhuri’s Freedom Song, where two friends are speaking to each other:
‘You should get a walking-stick, Mini,’ said Khuku. ‘It’ll be much easier for you. Your leg,’ and in Bengali the words ‘tor pa’ sounded so affectionate, as if she were referring to her leg as if it were her daughter, ‘won’t have to take the weight.’
I remember reading this when I was in college, and thinking “If I ever have to translate the phrase kaadhal-kathirikka, this is what I will do.” Google Translate will tell you I’ve written “love-eggplant”.
We’re fond of repeating received notions, like “English can never have the beauty of the mother tongue” or that the elegance or poetry in prose is lost in translation, without analysing them for truth. As someone with no real “mother tongue” and a passion for languages, I feel English is the most beautiful language I know, because it absorbs something of every other language I learn—it is my home, which somehow accommodates souvenirs from around the world.
Q12. What are the translated texts you uphold as the gold standard in translations? Who are the translators you admire?
My favourite translator is Vikram Seth—he translates not only between languages, but between genres and disciplines and art forms. Who else would marry music and calligraphy and poetry (as he does in The Rivered Earth)? His Three Chinese Poets, from which I recently read poems, is a revelation to me—he dismantles and reassembles poems to stay faithful to rhythm and sense and imagery. He seems to be my gold standard in everything, no? J But we had poems from Beastly Tales when I was in Class 6 and 7, and I can never forget “Neither stones nor prayers nor sticks/Insults or complaints or bricks/Stilled the frog’s determination/To display his heart’s elation.”
In terms of translated texts I admire, I thought Aniruddhan Vasudevan achieved the near-impossible with his translation of Lara Fergus’ quite stunning My Sister Chaos. He translated it into Tamil as Izhappin Varaipadam, and the sections I read were just as stunning. Mr Kalyan Raman’s translation of Ashokamitran’s Manasarovar carries all the heartache and intensity and ethereality and complexity of the original.
I’m not sure it would be fair for me to speak about translated texts whose source language I don’t read, but I enjoyed Srinath Perur’s translation of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar-Ghochar, Rimli Bhattacharya’s translation of Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s Aranyak, Arunava Sinha’s translation of Sankar’s Chowringhee, all of Maureen Freely’s translations of Orhan Pamuk, and all of Howard Goldblatt’s translations of Mo Yan.
On 30 June 2020, I was in conversation with the eminent and award-winning Franco-Moroccon author, Tahar Ben Jelloun. It was to celebrate the launch of Tamil translation of Le mariage de plaisir ( A Marriage of Pleasure). The book has been translated by S. A. Vengada Soupraya Nayagar and published by Thadagam Publications. Dr Christine Cornet, French Book Office, was the moderator. The digital book launch was organised by Oxford Bookstore and French Institute in India.
This was a unique experience. I had the privilege of participating in a book launch which involved three languages — English, French and Tamil. Tahar Ben Jelloun comes across as a gentleman who is a deep thinker and an “activist” with words. Reading him is a transformative experience. Something shifts within one internally. It was memorable!
To prepare for the launch, Dr Cornet and I exchanged a few emails with the author. Tahar Ben Jelloun is fluent in French but has a tenuous hold over English. Hence he prefers to communicate in French. Whereas I am only fluent in English. Dr Cornet is profficient is bilingual. All of us were determined to have a smooth digital book launch with minimal disruptions as far as possible. Tough call! So we decided that I would send across a few questions to the author to answer. Given that the Covid19 lockdown was on, it was impossible to get the English translations of the author’s books. Fortunately, I found ebooks that coudl be read on the Kindle. Thank heavens for digital formats! I read the novel and then drafted my questions in English. These were then translated into French by the French Institute of India. This document was forwarded via email to Tahar Ben Jelloun in Paris. He spent a few days working on the replies. Once the answers were received, these were translated into English for my benefit. It was eventually decided that given the timeframe, perhaps it would be best if we focused on only five questions for the book launch. So we went “prepared” for the launch but only to a certain degree. While we were recording the programme, something magical occurred and we discussed more than the selected five questions. In fact, at a point, Tahar Ben Jelloun very graciously opted to reply in English. We discovered not only our mutual love for Mozart and Jazz musicians such as Ella Fitzgerald, John Coltrane etc but that we play their music in the background while immersed deeply in our creative pursuits — painting and writing. Coincidentally the conversation was recorded on Ella Fitzgerald’s death anniversary, 17 June. How perfect is that?!
Born 1944 in Fez, Morocco, Tahar Ben Jelloun is an award-winning and internationally bestselling novelist, essayist, critic and poet. Regularly shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature, he has won the Prix Goncourt and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His work has also been shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. He received the rank of Officier de la Légion d’honneur in 2008. Some of his works in English translation include About My Mother (Telegram), The Happy Marriage, This Blinding Absence of Light, The Sand Child and Racism Explained to My Daughter. He won the Goncourt Prize in 1987 for La Nuit sacrée. His most recent works published by Éditions Gallimard include Le Mariage de plaisir (2016) and La Punition (2018).
Q1. Why and when did you decide to become a writer? Did the internment at the age of 18 years old have anything to do with your decision?
When I was a child, I didn’t dream of being a writer, but a filmmaker. At the same time, I wrote short stories, I illustrated them with drawings.
When I was sent to an army disciplinary camp in July 1966, I never thought I would get out. Everything was done to mistreat us and it gave us no hope of liberation. So, I clandestinely started writing poems with lots of metaphors so I wouldn’t be punished in case they were found. Nineteen months later, in January 1968, I was released and I had little papers in my pocket on which I had written poems. It was the poet Abdelatif Laabi who published them in the magazine Souffles that he had just created with some friends. He himself was thrown in jail a few years later, where stayed for 8 years!
This was my debut as a writer.
Q2.You learned classical Arabic while learning the Quran by heart and yet you choose to write books in French. Why?
Yes, I learned the Quran without understanding it. But my father changed my birth date so that I could join my older brother at the bilingual Franco-Moroccan school. That’s where I learned the French language and I started reading a lot of the classics and also a few novels of the time like The Stranger by Camus, The Words by Sartre or Froth on the Daydream by Boris Vian. But I preferred poetry above all else.
Q3. Your books have been translated into multiple languages. At last count it was 43. Now Tamil too. Is your writing sensibility affected knowing that readers across cultures will be reading your books? Or it does not matter?
For a writer, being translated consolidates his legitimacy as a writer, he is recognized, it helps him to continue; to be more demanding with himself. It’s a source of pride, but you can’t rest on your laurels, you have to work, you have to pursue your writing with rigor. For me, each translated book is a victory against the current trend of young people reading less literature. It is true that they are solicited by easier and more attractive things.
Translation is a gift of friendship from an unknown language and culture. I am happy today to be read in Tamil, just as I was happy to be read by blind people thanks to an edition in Braille, just as I was happy and surprised to be translated into Esperanto, that language which is meant to be universal, but which remains limited to some 2000 readers.
Q4. Your preoccupation with the status of women is a recurring theme in your literature. Why? The two points of view presented by Foulane and Amina about their marriage is extraordinary. At one level it is the depiction of a marriage but it is incredible art, almost like a dance in slow motion. Did you write The Happy Marriage in reaction to the Moudawana law passed in Morocco? If so, what was the reaction to the novel in Morocco?
For me, as an observant child, everything started from the condition of the women in my family, my mother, my sister, my aunts, my cousins, etc., and then went on to the condition of the women in my family. I could not understand why the law ignored them, why one of my uncles had two wives officially and why both women accepted this situation. From childhood, I was interested in the status of women. Later, I had to fight for my mother to be treated better by my father, who didn’t see any harm in her staying at home to cook and clean. Then I discovered that it is all women in the Arab and Muslim world who live in unacceptable conditions. Wrestling has become essential for me. My first novel Harrouda is inspired by my mother and then by an old woman, a prostitute who came to beg in our neighborhood. It is a novel that denounced this condition of women not in a political and militant way, but with literature, with writing. The novel then became stronger than a social science essay. This struggle is not over. Things have changed in Morocco today; the Moudawana, that is to say the family code has changed, it has given some rights to women, but that is not enough. This change is due to the will of King Mohammed VI, a modern and progressive man.
In Morocco, people don’t read much. I never know how my books are received. In general, I tour high schools and universities and try to encourage young people to read. Let’s say my books are circulating, but illiteracy is a tragedy in Morocco where more than 35% of people cannot read and write, especially people from the countryside.
Q5. Have you tried to replicate the structure of Mozart’s Concerto for piano and orchestra No. 16 in D major, K 451? I read somewhere that you liked the composition very much. I felt that there were many similarities in your form for The Happy Marriage and K451. Something about the predictable opening of the story/concerto which develops smoothly, almost intoxicating, and then the last movement, a complete surprise, a triumph. Was this intentional? ( Aside: Here is a recording that you may have already heard. I play it often while working. Barenboim & Argerich : Mozart Sonata for Two Pianos, K.448)
This similarity comes as a surprise to me. I love Mozart’s music, which I listen to a lot. But I never associated his music to this novel. I’m also a big jazz fan. I listen to jazz when I paint, but I need silence when I write. In any case, thank you for pointing out this link, which makes me proud.
Q6. Do you think fiction is a more powerful tool to communicate with readers about commenting upon society and suggesting reform rather than a straightforward narrative non-fiction?
Yes, fiction has a more effective power for information or statistics. During the confinement here in Paris, it was Albert Camus’ The Plague that was most commissioned and read. TV was overwhelming us with often contradictory information. A novel allows the reader to identify with the main character. Literature and especially poetry will save the world. In the long term, especially in these times when cruel, stupid and inhuman leaders rule in many countries. Against their violence, against their vulgarity, we oppose poetry, music, art in general.
Q7. Do you think the function of an artist is to be provocative?
An artist is not a petit bourgeois in his slippers. An artist is an agitator, an impediment to letting mediocrity and vulgarity spread. Some people make a system out of provocation, I am for provocation that awakens consciences, but not all the time in provocation. It is necessary to go beyond and to create, to give to see and to love. You don’t need to be sorted, but you don’t need to be provocative either. Beauty is a formidable weapon. Look at a painting by Turner or Picasso, Goya or Rembrandt, there is such strength, such beauty, that the man who looks at it comes out of it changed by so much emotion. Look at Giacometti’s sculptures, they’re enough on their own, no need for a sociological discourse on human distress, on stripping.
Q8. As a writer who has won many prestigious awards, what is it that you seek in promising young writers while judging their oeuvre for The Prix Goncourt?
When I read the novels submitted for the Prix Goncourt, I look for a writing style above all, a style, a universe, an originality. That’s very rare. It’s always hard to find a great writer. You look, you read, and sometimes you get a surprise, an astonishment. And there, you get joy.
Q9. You are a remarkable educator wherein you are able to address children and adolescents about racism and terrorism: India is a young country, today what subject animates you and what message would you like to convey to Indian youth?
The subjects that motivate me revolve around the human condition, around the abandoned, around injustice. There is no literature that is kind, gentle and without drama; Happiness has no use for literature, but as Jean Genet said “behind every work there is a drama”. Literature disturbs, challenges certaines, clichés, prejudices. It makes a mess of a petty, hopeless order.
To Indian youth, I say, don’t be seduced by appearance, by the fascination of social networks, by addiction to objects that reduce your will power and endanger your intelligence. We must use these means but not become slaves to them. To do this, read, read, read and read.
Q10. You are one of the most translated contemporary French-language authors in the world. In India, French is the second most taught foreign language, what is the future for the Francophonie?
France has long since abandoned the struggle for the Francophonie. The Presidents of the republic talk about it, at the same time they lower subsidies of the French institutes in the world. Today, French is defended by “foreigners”, by Africans, by Arabs, by lovers of this language all over the world. France does little or nothing to keep its language alive and lets English take more and more space.
Q11. What next?
What more can I say? Poetry will save the world. Beauty will save the world. Audacity, creation, art in all its forms will give back to humanity its soul and its strength.
Krishnan worked with Macmillan India (1980-2000) and with Oxford University
Press (2001-2018) to source, edit and promote translations into English of
works by Indian writers from 13 languages many of which won national prizes and
are included in study courses both in India and in universities overseas.
She is currently co-ordinating multiple publishers to build a programme of Tamil-English translations. This is an initiative designed by the Tamil Nadu government and located in their Textbooks and Educational Services division.
1.How did you begin your career as an editor of texts translated from Indian languages into English?
it is fair to say that it began as both an accident and an affinity for things
Indian long submerged by training in English Literature! I always felt a vague
dissatisfaction with the texts I was reading / studying but had no clear idea
of how to access materials written by Indians. Nor how to relate them to what
seemed to be important intellectual tools gained in UG and PG degrees in English
Literature. In the late 1960s-early 70s when I was a student, books were not
that easily available. Because my father was with the Deccan Herald (Bangalore) I got to read the books he received for
review and that was about all. My college and university libraries did not
stock books by Indian authors.
after my post-graduation I got an opportunity to freelance with Macmillan India
in Madras. I was put to work on anthologies of prose, poetry, fiction and so
on. Quite dull work really but I kept asking my editor why she couldn’t include
some Indian writers other than Nehru, Sri Aurobindo and Tagore. “The members of
Boards of Studies do not even consider other Indian writers worth teaching,” she
said. I thought to myself that if I ever got a chance I would campaign for the inclusion
of Indian writers in foundation English courses.
I got my
chance when my editor (Viji Sreenivasan) left, creating a vacuum which I
filled. I was a square peg in a square hole. A week later the Kerala Sahitya Akademi
and Macmillan India signed agreements to produce a two volume publication
titled Comparative Indian Literature
edited by KM George; with 16 chief editors and 200 contributors, it was a
stupendous work. The entire chronology of Indian literature was catalogued and described.
Ancient Poetry (all the languages recognized at that time) Modern Poetry.
Ancient Theatre, Modern Theatre. Fiction. Short and Long. And so on and so on.
It was 4000 pages and took five years to push into shape. I worked on nothing
might all those Indian language works, described in this publication be
accessed? Only a very small number of them were available in English
translation. So, since fools rush in, I designed a project of modern novels
from eleven Indian languages and tried to persuade Macmillans to invest in the
idea. They were astounded. They were textbook
publishers and I was their golden goose publishing for the school and college
market. Why waste editorial time and money on translation? So I set about
looking for support outside Macmillans. If I secured funding I would be allowed
to do the project. For seven years I went from door to door trying to convince
powerful institutions to part with some money for Indian literature. Mind you I
had nothing to show anyone as a promise of what might be possible. Only a
single failed translation by V Abdulla of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s Verukal.
Finally, in March 1992, my friends Valli Alagappan, her father, Mr AMM
Arunachalam and her aunt Mrs Sivakami Narayanan who jointly ran the MR AR
Educational Society of Madras agreed to fund me. I still do not know why they
decided to help me. I had nothing to recommend me but my enthusiasm and
determination. I received a letter saying that they would set aside Rs 80,000
per book for 50 books.
No one was more surprised than my highly commercial management but there
was trouble. Though my Vice President R Narayanaswamy supported me, my Managing
Director Sharad Wasani was unwilling to let me spend a lot of time on what he
saw as an unsaleable project. When he received the forms seeking his approval
he refused to sign. I wrote him, “You are the only person in the world who will
refuse funding for his country s literature”and closed by offering to resign.
Only two people from that time left — Jayan Menon and Sukanya Chandhoke—
who will remember this.
Anyway, after Wasani changed his mind, I invited eleven eminent writers to be the chief editors for the languages I had selected for the project ( Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Gujarati, Marathi, Oriya, Bengali, Urdu, Hindi and Punjabi) and they helped to make up lists of five post-Independence novels from their respective langauges. Because I had been dealing with 16 chief editors on the C.I.L volumes I didn’t think this strange at all but anyone who discussed the project with me was astonished at the volume of work I had undertaken. It didn’t seem like work at all to me ! At last I was getting to do what I had really wanted to do when I entered publishing 12 years before.
Many important works were published in full for the first time in English: Brushte ( Outcaste) by Matampu Kunhukuttan, Randamoozham ( Second Turn) by MT Vasudevan Nair, Bharathipura by UR Ananthamurthy, Danapani (The Survivor) by Gopinath Mohanty, Subarnalatha by Ashapurna Debi, Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki and Karukku by Bama.
In all, between 1996 and 2000 when I left Macmillans I published 37 volumes. They went out of circulation a year or two after I left the company and the C.I.I.L Mysore bought the whole project including unsold stocks in 2007 with a view to republishng the entire list. It never happened because the Director (UN Singh) whose dream it had been, left the Institute.
2. What were the languages you first worked on? How many languages have you worked upon so far?
The first scripts I worked on were translations from Malayalam and Tamil. In all, I’ve worked on translations from Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam, Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, Odia, Hindi, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Urdu, and just one from Dogri.
3. How do you select which book is to be translated especially if it is a language you are unfamiliar with?
As I said because of the work I did on Comparative Indian Literature it wasn’t difficult to identify what needed to be translated particularly if the Sahitya Akademi had not already commissioned translations. Then again once the Macmillan project took off I was flooded with advice and suggestions. The difficulty was what to leave out. A great disadvantage is that I could not and therefore did not read the critical material on any of these works. I rely a great deal on the advice of others. But when it comes to translators I use a process of running trial drafts of different kinds of passages from the selected work — one might be a descriptive paragraph, a second something very emotional or lyrical, a third passage would cover conversation – to check the translator’s strengths and where s/he might back off, or skip or be lazy. The editing process can take anything from two drafts to six depending on the competence of the translator and the cooperation between all parties. Long silences, gaps in the process are not healthy for the project nor is impatience or being a speed queen the answer. As for the reception of a translation! Much depends on how well the publisher promotes the finished product. Publishing is only 50% of the responsibility. The other 50% depends on promotion and follow-up.
4. Do you think it is necessary for an editor to be familiar with the source language? If not, how can the editor ensure that the translation is true to the original text?
Of course it is important for the editor to know the source language but then in how many languages can one gain proficiency? The editor/ publisher must appoint reviewers who will read the translation carefully to ensure (as far as possible) that nothing has been left out or distorted. Then the editor can take over and polish in consultation with the translator and author.
5. What are the kind of guidelines you think an editor of translations should be bear in mind while working on a manuscript?
Listen very carefully to the voice of the author. Does it chime with the
translator’s? It helps to have someone read out the original even if you do not
know the language while you follow the English in a parallel reading. You
cannot but help hear the inflexions and emotions as the reading proceeds.
Be respectful. Very important to gain the confidence of the translator. Make suggestions tactfully. Once the translator is convinced you are not out to destroy his work or appropriate it, he will breathe easy and work and redraft willingly. It helps to read other works from the same period and familiarize oneself with the language – bank of that time. You need to enter that world emotionally through images and atmosphere not just intellectually through words.
6. What is your definition of a “good translation”? What are the qualities it must have?
This is something I have been trying to figure out for 30 years! Sometimes a smooth read will fail to capture the imagination of the reader. Sometimes even if a translation is jerky and appears to be rushing along, it will work. I think it is a combination of inspiration and zeal on the part of the translator and very patient work on the part of the editor. The qualities? The language must bring the author alive. It must make you think “If XY had written in English instead of in Marathi this is how he might have phrased it”. Now it is all very well to say this to ourselves but to someone who is not Indian, this might still not work at all. Basically I think we should be translating first for our Indian market before trying to reach spaces and minds outside India.
7. When you began translating texts into English for the Indian market, at the time, most publishing houses ignored translations. Today the reality is very different. Most publishing houses have dedicated translation lists and even the local literary awards are recognising translators. What in your opinion are the pros and cons of this deluge of translations in the market — locally and globally?
It is extremely encouraging to see the increased interest in translations and the care with which they are produced but a worrying feature is the way publishers are responding to criteria laid out by the big literary bursaries and prizes for translation. There is a growing tendency to ignore works published more than 20 or 30 years ago and no one seems to want to do a fresh translation of a classic. Then there is the secret craving on the part of publishers to promote a translation as not a translation. So the translator’s name disappears from the cover page, a most unfair practice. I put this down to the second-classing of translations—as if they are something inferior and not worthy of being viewed as works of art in themselves.
8. Recently machine translations such as Google’s neural technology are making an impact in the space of translation. How do you feel about the impact of machine translation in the literary sphere?
Any technology which helps the human translator will be of enormous help I’m sure but I doubt whether it can supplant imagination and nuanced word choices. For mundane passages for instance this interview can be processed by Google translation but — a poem full of feeling and fire? I doubt it. An approximation would surely be possible but would it be good enough? I’ve always maintained that the translator is as much an artist as the writer of the original work.
9. Your name in Indian publishing is synonymous with translation evangelism. You have been responsible for kick-starting many notable projects. The current one being the Translation Initiative of the Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University (TEMU). Please elaborate more on this project.
Actually I did not initiate the TEMU project. That was designed by K
Jayakumar the first VC of the University. It was a simple plan: an advisory
committee selected works, I commissioned the translations and marketed the idea
with multiple publishers. In some cases, the publishers already had scripts on
hand; in other cases, I found the translators and did some light editing before
handing over to the concerned group. The University signed agreements with the
publishers to buy 300 copies at a discounted price and the publishers agreed to
carry the logo and mission statement of the University in the selected works. I
did not initiate any project other than the Macmillan list. In OUP I enlarged
and diversified an already extant list which had not — till I began work in
2001— published a single woman writer. Nor had Dalit or Adivasi writers been
considered. That was an arm I grew for OUP India and it has done well.
For a year now, I’ve been working with the Tamil Nadu Textbook Educational Services on a Tamil- English translation project modelled on the TEMU plan. Our collaborators in the first phase are OBS, Niyogi, OUP, Ratna Books, Harper Collins and Vitasta.
10. Can the art of translation and editing a translation be taught or is it a lived experience?
Commitment, determination and passion are crucial to sustained work in
this area. To find a forgotten work, to convince people that it must appear in
English, to struggle with the translator at its rebirth and to learn that a
major publisher in the language of the original work decided to reprint the
book (which had lain in a rabbit – hole for four decades) —- that is the best
thing an editor of translations can hope to enjoy.
Strategies in translation can certainly be taught. Translator training is certainly possible and necessary but finally the translator is on her own except for her editor and together they complete the phantom work. It might succeed. It might not. It might succeed as an aesthetic product and bomb in the sales department. But then that is the fate of any human product which is judged by both ignorant people and by those who know far more than you do. No amount of reading about tennis or watching it on television can help you to be a good player on the court!
11. Translations are most often construed as being undertaken as a labour of love with little financial resources being available for underwriting the costs involved in the task. What are the economics of publishing translations in India? What has been your experience?
Love is great but it won’t put food on the table. Translations need financial support either from a patron or from another line of books from the same publisher who sets aside resources for the translations list.
12. What do you think is the future of literary translations in the world of publishing?
The world literary mart is only just waking up to the hidden power of translations and what they do to cross-pollinate creativity across cultures and civilizations. Consider all the talk about world peace! How can this happen if cultural understanding isn’t an organic process? One way to ensure this is to expose children and young adults to writing from different parts of the world at an impressionable time in their lives. Translation can help the humanities to make a brilliant comeback in a global sense. Comparative literature is impossible to teach without discussing the central role of translation. If we are to survive all the artificially orchestrated hatred and violence and misunderstandings created by politicians and power –mongers, venues of mutual understanding need to be very deliberately developed. Cultural competence, soft –skills — these are words one hears very often but what are we doing to build that theatre of human understanding? I think that if literary translations can be included in academic programmes and introduced into high-interest professions like management, finance and public policy it would help humanize these professions and give publishers the big print runs and inflow they need to keep doing what only they can do.
Note:Women Writing in India edited by Susie Tharu and K Lalitha (OUP) was a reprint of the Feminist Press publication, 1993, NY and not commissioned or developed by Oxford University Press.
The Women in Translation (#WiT) month is celebrated annually in August. There was a flurry of activity online with a number of gems being unearthed and discussed. It is a really fascinating time to discover new writers, new translators, new publishers etc. Whilst I enjoyed reading the various articles, interviews, profiles and even book extracts that were made available online, I realised there was a deafening silence from the Indian subcontinent.
Another fascinating aspect of the Indian publishing industry is that as it grows, the market grows, and so does the interest in the craft of writing. For long writers have written and published their works in various literary magazines, “women’s magazines”, newspapers etc. Of course there are now online literary spaces, discussion forums and sometimes even in the print media where writers are interviewed and their craft discussed. But interviewing writers, especially women, is an art unto itself. Women writers inevitably have to find the time to write amongst the rhythm of many other duties and commitments they need to fulfil. This was more so in the past than now when increasingly there are more and more “professional writers”. Even so, reading about the craft of writing by women writers continus to be an exciting world since irrespective of socio-economic class, many writers share the same concerns and have similar pressures. Women Unlimited, an associate of Kali for Women, has for years published interviews with women writers. Their latest publication is Lifescapes: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers from Tamil Nadu. The Tamil publishing landscape is not an easy one to understand with many interesting threads running through it, all of which were influential upon the seventeen women writers interviewed by the editors — K. Srilata and Swarnlatha Rangarajan. While the interviews themselves are insightful, it is the structural arrangement of each entry that is fascinating for it has the mandatory biography about the author, a sample of her writing, a head note by the editors introducing the writer and why they chose her specifically to be included in the anthology and finally, the interview. Every detail adds just sufficient information creating an image of the writer that the reader definitely wants to know more about.
Ever since World Literature began to open new publishing horizons in the Anglo-American book market as well as the growth of the desi diaspora as a lucrative readership, did the spotlight on translations from regional languages into English become an attractive proposition for many firms. As a result there is a feast of offerings particularly as the multi-national publishers expand their fare. Be that as it may there are some fabulous publishers such as Women Unlimited, Zubaan, Orient Black Swan, Speaking Tiger, Permanent Black ( on occasion), Aleph Book Company, Yoda Press, Westland/Amazon and Oxford University Press that have been publishing translations for a while. It is impossible to list all but here some of the wonderful titles published recently.
The Solitary Sprout: Selected Stories of R. Chudamani ( translated from Tamil by C.T. Indra and T. Sriraman) is a fabulous collection of short stories. In fact, R. Chudamani (1931-2010) has often been considered as an early feminist among Tamil writers. The Solitary Sprout is a wonderful selection of Chudamani’s short stories with “No fury like a mother’s”, “Herself” and “Not a stepfather” standing out as very modern stories. It is hard to believe that these were written many decades ago. The sharp insight and clear ideas that the writer shares can take one’s breath away even now. For instance, “No fury like a mother’s” is about three mothers of young schoolgirls who are furious at how their daughters are ill-treated by their school teacher. The punishment meted out to the young girls by the teacher is to strip the girls publicly. The three mothers team up and pressurise the teacher to resign otherwise they threaten to mete out the same treatment to her as she did to their daughters. “Herself” is about a mother who once her children are married and settled with families of their own, discovers her trueself and becomes a music teacher as well is a voluntary worker at the Primary Health Centre in her village. Much to her visiting daughter’s dismay who had expected a month’s vacation at her parent’s home free from all responsibilities including babysitting her own son. Instead the daughter discovers she has to pitch in with household chores at her parents home and continue to look after her own son. She is deeply disappointed and upset as her memories of her mother was one who was always free and available for the family. It rattles the daughter. More so as her father supports his wife’s actions and sees no wrong. “Not a stepfather” addresses issues like widow remarriage, single parenting, stepfather etc. It is beautifully told from the perspective of the disgruntled mother of the bride who is not amused that her daugther has remarried and expects the new husband also to take care of her young son. It is complicated but within the first visit of the newly married couple to the mother’s house, the son warms up to his new father and gets the blessings of his mother-in-law too. It is a powerful story as it raises so many questions about gendered and social expectations of a woman and a man. The Solitary Sprout is worth reading, sharing and discussing in more forums. These are stories that need to be told more often.
Prolific and powerful writer K. R. Meera has a new collection of three novellas called The Angel’s Beauty Spots. As often is the case with K. R. Meera’s stories, she explores love and its various angles. Sometimes well meaning and powerful love for all intents and purposes can go horribly wrong as in the title novella. K. R. Meera’s stories have this remarkable quality of taking the wind out of the reader’s sails with the horrific and at times inexplicable sequence of events except that some bizarre form of love propelled many of the decisions taken by her characters. Somehow the team of author and translator, K. R. Meera and J. Devika, works well. It is difficult to pinpoint an exact reason but the translation reads smoothly without losing any of the cultural characteristics of sharing a story set in Kerala and written in Malayalam. It just feels perfectly satisfying to read.
The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) are the diaries written by Manubehn ( Mridula) Gandhi, who was the youngest daughter of Mahatma Gandhi’s nephew, Jaisukhlal Amritlal Gandhi and Kasumba. These diaries are preserved in the National Archives of India and for the first time are being translated and edited from Gujarati into English by Tridip Suhrud. Manu Gandhi as a young girl had been encouraged by Mahatma Gandhi to maintain a diary. Manu Gandhi was the one walking beside Mahatma Gandhi at Birla House before his would-be assassin, Nathuram Godse, pushed her aside, so as to be able to shoot his target.
Diary-keeping of Gandhi was an essential duty for all those engaged in pursuit of truth and hence obligatory for Ashramites and satyagrahis. He constantly urged the Ashram community and constructive workers to maintain one. ….A daily diary,he believed, was a mode of self-examination and self-purification; he made it an obligatory observance for all those who walked with him on the Salt march.
While The Diary of Manu Gandhi ( 1943 – 44) is of more academic and historical interest to many readers, it is accompanied by a fine commentary by Gandhian scholar Tridip Suhrud. He offers insights about maintenance of a diary, the translation process, making available critical empirical material such as these diaries which till now many knew of its existence but not many could access. It also documents the growth of a young, under-confident girl to a mature person as evident in the style of her writing, longer sentences, more time spent describing incidents rather than restricting it to scribbles as many of the early entries are. Interestingly, as Tridip Suhrud points out in his introduction, Mahatma Gandhi or Bapu as he was known, would often read and scribble his thoughts in the margins of Manu Gandhi’s diaries. Ideally though it would have been a preferable if in this volume an interview with Tridip Suhrud with a leading gender/oral history expert had been included. It would then give some critical insights in what it means to translate a young girl’s diary many decades later by a highly reputed Gandhian scholar. With due respect even the best academic scholars tend to gloss over certain gender issues that irrespective of how many times they are repeated continue to be important and need to be highilghted. At the same time it would be fascinating to see what emerges from the conversation of a Gandhian expert with a gender expert to see how much Gandhian ways of living influenced the minds and hearts of those in the Ashram or did the basic gendered ways of seeing also get scrubbed away.
Speaking of memoirs, Rosy Thomas’s He, My Beloved CJ about her life with her husband and well-known Malayalam writer and critic, C. J. Thomas. It has been translated by G. Arunima. C.J. Thomas died young. His wife wrote this memoir much later. While it is a very personal account of her courtship, her marriage and the brief time she spent with her husband during which he opposed her desire to seek employment. Apparently in the Malayalam text, Rosy Thomas often refers to her husband as moorachi ( a colloquial term for conservative). Hence within this context it is quite amazing to read an account of a life that does not necessarily romanticise the couple’s love but is able to subvert the prevalent notions of wifehood. It has descriptions of their homes, their families, their circle of friends and at times some of their discussions on art, creativity and politics. At least in the memoir she comes across at times an equal participant despite his conservative mindset on having a wife who earned a living. Be that as it may, the monotone pitch at which the memoir is written or has been translated in —it is difficult to discern the difference — does not make He, My Beloved CJ easy to read. Of course it is a seminal book and will for a long time be referred to by many scholars interested in knowing more about the literary movement in Kerala or about the legend himself, C. J. Thomas — a man who seems to have acquired mythical proportions in Kerala. How many will access it for being a woman’s witnessing of a fascinating moment in history, only time will tell. Meanwhile the translator’s note is worth reading. G. Arunima writes:
…this biography is as much about C J Thomas and their marriage, as it is about Rosy as a writer. The act of remembrance is also about fashioning her own self and subjectivity, both as a ‘loving’ subject, and as a ‘writer’ and raconteur, observing, weighing, annotating and narrating their life as a text. Rosy Thomas grew up in a literary home; her father, M P Paul, was an intrinsic part of the Progressive Writers’ Movement, the Sahitya Pravarthaka Sahakarna Sangham ( Literary Workers’ Cooperative Society) and had also set up the tutorial college that was named after him. Writers, books and a culture of reading were a central part of her life. Even though these reminiscences do not dwell too much on her own literary or political formation, it is evident that CJ’s world wasn’t alien to her. In her later life she was to become a published writer and translator in her own right; such creativity is obvious even in this text where the nuances of a remembered life are testament to her wit and literary flair.
There are many, many more titles that one can discuss such as Sharmila Seyyid’s Ummath: A Novel of Community and Conflict. It is set during the three decades of the Sri Lanka’s civil war. It is told through the lives of three women, Thawakkul, Yoga and Theivanai — one a social activist, the other a Tamil Tiger forced into joining the movement as a child, and the third a disillusioned fighter for the Eelam. The novel has been translated from Tamil by Gita Subramaniam. While it immerses one immediately into the strife torn landscape, it is also puzzling as sometimes the voices of the three main characters seem to acquire the same pitch, making it seem as if the author’s own devastating firsthand experiences of the conflict are making their presence felt throughout the narrative. It is impossible for the English readers to ever solve this puzzle but there is something that comes through in the translation and is not easy to pinpoint. While promoted as fiction, it is easy to see that Ummath with the insights it offers, nature of conversations documented and descriptions of the landscape make this novel a lived experience. This is a challenging story to read but is worth doing so as the conversations about women/gender and conflict are relatively new in public discourse and need to be share more widely.
The final book in this roundup is a translation from Bengali of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s The Children’s Ramayana by first-time translator Tilottama Shome. It is the Ramayana told with its basic story sans the many digressions and minor tales. It is the epic with many of the popular stories retold that many generations of Indians are familiar with. It does not come across as a novice’s attempt at translation. In fact as she says in her translator’s note, “I have tried to retain that delightful quirky tone and the hint of humour told with a straight face that has endeared Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury’s works to readers for generations” seems to be true. Again it is impossible for English readers to confirm this fact or not but there is something about the zippy pace, ease of reading, a rhythm to the storytelling, making it immensely attractive to read. Perhaps Tilottama Shome being a trained singer ably assisted her in finding the rhythm to this translation. There is something to be said for a trained musical ear and discovering the cadences of a written text making the translation from one language/culture to the next a pleasurable experience!
India is a sub-continent. In terms of the book market there are many markets that reside within it. The vast variety of literature that exists in the Indian regional languages is a testament to this fact. For some years now translations from various regional lanaguages into English has been growing. Three of the recently published translations are from Malayalam, Tamil and Kannada. These are Outcaste by Matampu Kunjukuttam ( translated from Malalayam by Vasanthi Sankaranarayanan), Kalpakam and Other Storiesby K. Savitri Ammal (translated from Tamil by Sudha Ratnam) and No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories by Jayant Kaikini ( translated from Kannada by Tejaswini Niranjana).
Outcaste ( Brushte) is an extraordinary story recounting the sensational excommunication of the high-born Namboodiri Brahmin Kuriyedathu Thatri and a large number of her lovers ( some say 64!) from the Hindu kingdom of Kochi. It is a true incident that rattled the aristocracy as well as the Brahmins. Although this incident occured in 1905, more than a century later it continues to haunt the imagination of Malayalis. Interestingly Thatri’s lovers belonged not only to the most powerful families of the Malayali Brahmin aristocracy but also were Nair and Sudra men. It was a scandal that was written about in the papers such as Malayala Manorama.
Mayampu Kunhukuttan wrote the novel in Sanskritized Malayalam. According to the translator Vasanthi Sankaranaryanan this encapsulated the grandeur of lifestyle of the Namboodiris and the practices that prevailed amongst them and the Nairs while also lacing it with the acerbic wit of the Namboodiris. While the story itself is fascinating for it evokes a historical moment when attitudes towards women were conservative despite the Namboodiris and Nairs following some matrilineal customs. The novel was first published in Malayalam in 1969 and translated in to English for the first time by Palgrave Macmillan in 1997. At the time the formidable editor Mini Krishnan was responsible for the list. In fact the novel was also adapted for theatre. Now that list is defunct but fortunately select titles from the Palgrave Macmillan backlist such as Outcaste have been resurrected. Aleph’s publication of it is timely. The issues raised in the story as well as the depiction of the strong women characters and the revenge wrought on her paramours by Thatri do not in any way seem dated. In fact the astounding events gain relevance in modern times with the conversations revolving around women and of course the #MeToo movement. While the story itself is gripping the presence of detailed footnotes while explaining the context/customs to the reader can also prove to be very disruptive to a smooth reading experience. Nevertheless Outcaste will be talked about for a long, long time to come.
Kalpakam and Other Stories by K. Savitri Ammal was first published in Tamil in 1958. While the primary focus of the stories is on upper-caste households in the early part of the twentieth century, it is the women characters that are unforgettable. Many of the situations, the predicaments depicted such as conversations about marriage ( “Sarasu’s Marriage”), finding the appropriate bridegroom (“Kalpakam” and “Remarriage”), the social pressures of being a childless woman (“Parvati’s Decision”), balancing career and love at a time when the concept of working women was considered unusual (“An End Unforseen”), treating single women irrespective of age as free labour ( “Dilemma in Kindness”), the idea of love and freedom of choosing one’s partner (“A Journey to Rangoon” and “Kalpakam”). Many of the situations described are very similar to scenarios women of today find themselves in. Take for instance the social attitudes towards single women of perceiving them as commodities rather as individuals with their own free will, barbed comments towards childless women and the insistence on getting married at the appropriate age. The gentleness of K. Savitri Ammal’s writing, with its even tenor of tone while sharing a story, however disturbing it may be, is conveyed beautifully in the translation by her grand-niece Sudha Ratnam. Not being familiar with the original language of Tamil in no way hinders the fine reading experience of the stories translated smoothly in to English. The translation seems to retain the flavour of the period when the stories were first written as evident in tiny details of using “Chennai” and “Madras” interchangeably without in any way being adamant about transfering phrases in Tamil in to English as is — a characteristic trait often found in translations of Indian regional language texts into English. The emphasis in this translation seems to be on the pure joy of reading about another culture through its stories in a more-than-competent English translation — it is a translation imbued with love.
Kannada writer Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories won the DSC Prize 2018. It is a collection of his short stories written in Kannada over the past few decades. They begin in the 1980s and some are as recent as a few years ago. These are stories of ordinary folk, ordinary situations, every day predicaments that exist in the vast melting point of Mumbai. It is a vast metropolis where the vast gap between the haves and have nots are stark. Mumbai is associated with vast crowds, masses of humanity moving from one place to the next. Whereas in Jayant Kaikini’s expert hands even the ordinary nameless person has a distinctive personality and identity. Some of the stories are moving, some are haunting, some are full of kindness and warmth, some are disturbing but the one common feature they all have — the stories are unforgettable. The stories were jointly selected by the translator and author. There is an essay included in the book about the translation process. It is insightful for the snippets of conversation shared between the author and translator particularly in translating “the flavour of speech, the hybrid Hindi-Urdu-Dakhani speech which is the cultural vernacular of Bombay and is signalled prominently in all the stories.” Tejaswini Niranjana continues “In the flow of plain Kannada writing, these hybrid phrases are signposts that function in such a way as to mark, in Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s phrase, a sort of territorial realism. Jayant an I argued about how much of this to translate into English. After he complained about my frugality, I put back some of the phrases I’d removed or translated out. But I also worried about the book what we were setting adrfit in the world, away from Bombay, and the fact it would acquire readers without proficiency in Hindustani. I solved the problem by doing parallel translations — leaving in the Hindustani word but giving the meaning in English either close by or elsewhere in the sentence so that the attentive reader eventually understands the meaning. This way, nothing goes completely unexplained, even as the public language of the city makes itself heard in the sentences.”
The Indian book market is also known for its vast variety of original literature in English as well as for many international titles. It is a market that is growing at a phenomenal pace with a growing number of readers, particularly many young people, but it is also a price sensitive market. So for publishers to offer good literature while being acutely conscious of the pricing structures will always be challenging but it does not deter them from creating it.
Every Monday I post some of the books I have received in the previous week. This post will be in addition to my regular blog posts and newsletter. In today’s Book Post 26 included are some of the titles I received in the past few weeks as well as bought and are worth mentioning.
Kannan Sundaram, Publisher, Kalachuvadu, was invited by Neeta Gupta, Founder, Jaipur BookMark, to participate in the JBM Copyright Roundtable.T
It was held at Diggi Palace and the keynote was delivered by Michael Healy. The other participants were Aditi Maheshwari Goyal, Alind Maheshwari, Arpita Das, Claudia Kaiser, Kannan Sundaram, Maggie Doyle, Michael Healy, Phillipa McGuinness, Prashasti Rastogi, Safir Anand and Urvashi Butalia, moderated by Naveen Kishore.
The cue given to the panelists by JBM was: Copyright underpins everything we do as an industry and without it all opportunities quickly recede. The principle of copyright is threatened at a global level and to a degree we have never seen before. This is true in India as it is in many countries. This session is a call to publishers, literary agents, rights managers, lawyers, authors and international book fair organisers for the protection of copyright.
Kannan Sundaram gave a short speech putting forth the concept of nationalising prominent Indian writer’s works rather than restricting them to a copyright life arguing that this had been done for Tamil poet Subramania Bharathy. Whereas in the case of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore the copyright period had been extended by a decade so that Visva-Bharathi University, the main benefactors of Tagore’s literary estate could continue to earn royalities for a few more years.
Here is the complete text of Kannan’s speech delivered at Jaipur BookMark. It has been published with permission.
you JBM, Neeta Gupta for this opportunity to share my views.
will be making a few remarks on copyright issues in Indian languages in general
and Tamil in particular.
premise of this panel that copyright is facing a threat in contemporary times
is not entirely true of many Indian languages. I would not generalize the
publishing context of all Indian languages. Every Indian language publishing
has its own eco system. However, in most languages the adherence to copyright
has never been strong.
I know that Malayalam market is an exception. There could be other languages where copyright is adhered to but that is not the overall picture of Indian language publishing. In Tamil copyright has been an option not a rule. It may have been extended to popular authors, authors who would fight it out, but not to most authors who had no clear understanding of copyright acts. In Tamil publishing adherence to copyright regulations is improving only now. Writers are fighting back using social media and prime time debates in television on copyright are happening. And there are publishers who appear on TV and argue why they cannot pay royalty!
copy left is an idea and an aspiration for many in the world, in the state of
Tamil Nadu it has been practiced legally in some instances for some decades now.
This is a practice that is unique to the state of TN. So we have had an opportunity
to access copy left in practice.
over 60 years now the government of Tamil Nadu purchases copyright of an author
by paying a lump sum money to the copyright holder and then puts it out in the
public domain. This process is referred to as ‘nationalization’.
This practice was initiated after a
controversy surrounding the rights of our national poet Mahakavi Subramania
Bharathy. Responding to public demand that no one can own the rights of a poet
who was perceived as belonging to the people, first the Tamil Nadu government
bought the rights of Bharathy’s works in 1949. Then in the mid-fifties it was
nationalized, that is gifted to the people. (If you want read this story I
recommend the book ‘Who owns the Song?’
by A.R. Venkatachalapathy).
would like to quickly compare this to the story of a nationally treasured
writer Rabindranath Tagore. Visva-Bharathi University had an iron clad hold
over Tagore’s copyright through the term and then succeeded on extending
copyright for 10 years!
up on the new tradition established for Bharathy, various Tamil Nadu governments
over the years have nationalized the works of over 130 writers. It started as a
trickle and then became a sludge. When any of the governments in India decide
to patronize culture, it usually starts well but the rot quickly sets in and
then it typically goes to the dogs. What started as a process of national
honour to outstanding personalities of Tamil literature has now gotten
entangled in nepotism, patronage and corruption. I would not be able to
recognize the names of a quarter of the nationalized writers!
are the pros and cons of this nationalization process?
Tamil writers do not bother to assign copyright when they create a will for
their belongings and property. It not valued by them or their families since it
typically brings in little money. Therefore, posthumously it often becomes
complicated for any publisher that wants to publish them. Nationalising a
writer’s works clearly this all up nicely. The family gets some money and the
publishers are free to publish the works. This as far as I can see is the only
pro of this process. The honour is not there anymore since writers are
nationalized with little discrimination.
cons are many.
is a bestselling author, there is a price war between publishers undercutting
quality of the books published drastically.
the books of authors that have been nationalized remain out of print. This
obviously is because their works are not valued turning the process of
nationalizing their works irrelevant. Also if the author is a slow and steady
selling, thena publisher with exclusive rights might do limited editions but
when there exists the possibility that somebody else too might publish it and
eat into the limited market, then there is little initiative to publish it.
copyright goes, no one exerts moral rights of work. This may not be the legal
position but that is how it works in practice. This means publishers take
liberties with the text. They feel free to edit, delete, change, condense and
adapt the text in any way they like.
One publisher who publishes only nationalized books dedicates all the books to his mother. After sometime this publisher realized that the readers do not understand that he is dedicating all the books to his mother but wrongly assume that all writers are dedicating their books to their own mothers. So now the dedications are accompanied by photographs of his mother! A very commendable sentiment but ethics of it is debatable. Since no one can represent a nationalized book or can sign a contract, essentially any possibility of translation becomes very slim.
I interviewed the French Ambassador to India, Alexandre Ziegler, at the Jaipur Literature Festival 2019. The interview has been published in the online news portal Scroll. The text of the interview has been c&p below while the original url is here.
Alexandre Ziegler, the French Ambassador to India, was at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year to announce the winner of the 2019 Romain Rolland Book Prize. Recognising the best translation of a French title into any Indian language, including English, the Indo-French jury takes into account the quality of the translation and the publication itself while selecting the winner.
The award comes with an invitation to the Paris Book Fair 2019 in March for the publisher of the work and an invitation for the translator to attend a one-month residency in France.
This year, the longlist included essays as well as fiction and a very strong contribution from Indian languages apart from English, with four translations into Malayalam, two into Hindi, and one each into Tamil and Bengali. The winning title was The Life of an Unknown Man by Andrei Makine, published in France by Le Seuil, in India by Kalachuvadu, translated into Tamil by SR Kichenamourty.
The Romain Rolland Book Prize is just one of the actions of the French Institute in India to support translations of French books in India. It runs the Tagore Publication Assistance Programme and also launched a special training programme for translators this year. The first step was a one-day translation workshop focused on Indian regional languages, which took place on January 22 at the Centre for French and Francophone Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and brought together more than 60 participants from various universities in Delhi. Ros Schwartz, the acclaimed translator, conducted the workshop. The long-term translation programme is part of the roadmap leading up to, on the one hand, the Paris Book Fair 2020, where India will be the focus country, and on the other, the New Delhi Book Fair 2022, where France will be the guest of honour.
Ziegler, who has been the Ambassador of France to India since 2016, spoke at the Jaipur Literature Festival about these initiatives. Edited excerpts:
Why was the Romain Rolland Prize instituted and what is its main focus? Does France have similar prizes in other countries too? The Romain Rolland Book Prize is a translation prize that aims to support publishers and translators involved in the translation of French titles into Indian languages. The purpose is to find the best book and to be able to negotiate for it on best possible terms while also promoting texts in translation. My feeling is that we speak about strategic and economic partnerships, of which both are growing well but we still have to invest more in culture.
In this age of machine translations, we often forget the human touch of a translator is critical. Translators are at the very core of the relationship between books and the world. What we have realised through our interventions is that it is not just texts in English and Hindi but we got very good texts from other languages like Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and Malayalam, too. It makes one realise that languages are very crucial to reaching out to other cultures, not necessarily in entire diversity of language. This is very reassuring for us.
The second Romain Rolland Book Prize is being awarded because of the quality of text. Creating the prize happened organically through the ongoing Tagore programme to recognise translations. We wanted to reinforce the initiative. As a result we are also co-organising a translations workshop with the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The first one happened in January with acclaimed translator Ros Schwartz.
France has an active book trade, bookstores and book fairs. How receptive are the French to literature from India? Recently you released Over & Underground, a joint production between French and Indian writers and illustrators. How successful are such literary experiments? Does the cross-pollination of such cultural experiences help foster bilateral relationships, not necessarily confined to the literary domain? Translation of the work of Indian authors in France has experienced several waves. Today there is a renewed interest among the French public for Indian authors. The dynamism of Indian publishing, its diversity and India’s international outreach have created a new curiosity for India and its authors and thinkers. The example of Over & Underground shows the combination of creativity between Indian and French authors, poets and illustrators. These co-publications need to be further encouraged and that is what we are working on.
Cross pollination of cultural experiences is exactly what we strive for to strengthen the ties between India and France. Books and other expressions of cultural diplomacy are a significant part of fostering bilateral relations.
What is the size of the French book market ? What are its characteristic features such as which genre sells the most, are print books preferred to ebooks, what is its growth rate etc? Is digital publishing making inroads with French readers? The French publishing market is worth 4 billion euros, 300 million of which is in e-books. Overall, the French reader prefers printed books but there is a real growth in e-books. For consumer books, it represents only 3% of the market but for the B2B and books on law or medicine, this market reaches 9% with an annual growth of 10%. The e-book is also directly linked to the presence or absence of bookstores. E-books sell better where bookstores are not available.
The time of traditional reading has decreased but a recent survey conducted in November 2018 shows that 69% of the French population is connected: they read online but not necessarily literature! Each day, the French spend an average of 33 minutes on a computer and 52 minutes on a mobile phone. Reading is therefore omnipresent on other platforms but basically there is an attachment to the printed book in France: an average 5000 copies are printed but real successes vary between 200,000 and 300,000 copies. This is the case of [Michel] Houellebecq’s latest book, which will reach 400,000 copies. The trend is also to publish more titles each year. The number of prints is hence lower today than it was ten years ago.
France is known for its robust independent booksellers. Globally independent bookstores are finding it difficult to thrive but not necessarily in France. It is a remarkable success story. Do you have any interesting case study/report to share about how these independent bookstores have managed to continue? There are about 1,000 independent bookstores in France. All those located in city centres are working well with an annual growth rate of 0.8%. This is a stable figure. Since 1981, the single price of the book has also allowed these bookstores to diversify. 37 countries, including 11 European countries, are currently applying the single price on books.
Recently the French Book Office (FBO) participated in the New Delhi World Book Fair (NDWBF). What was the response from the locals to your participation? Did the FBO gain significant learnings from its presence at the fair? The French Institute in India invited four publishers of children’s literature and social sciences, and organised four professional panels. The exchanges between Indian and French publishers were very constructive but the NDWBF is not the ideal place for professional meetings. On the other hand, the invitation of a French author whose work has been translated in India and invited for a dialogue with an Indian author would allow exchanges with a wider audience. But our four publishers were very satisfied with their discovery of the Indian market and the prospects for collaboration in social sciences and children’s literature.
In 2003 I attended the Salon de livre Jeunesse at the invitation of the French government. It was extraordinary to see the throngs of children attending the book fair and buying books. I would be curious to know if the children’s book fair continues to be as popular. If so what are the kinds of books for children and young adults that are trending in France? Would you consider collaborating on projects for children’s and young adult literature with Indian publishers? The Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse in Montreuil attracts a large number of visitors each year. In 2018, for the 34th edition, there were no less than 179,000 visitors in 6 days, 4,000 more than in 2017. So I think we can say that children’s publishing is a booming sector in France. The dynamism of publishers and all those involved in books and reading contributes greatly to this success. Access to the fair was free for a good number of visitors and it is a real desire for cultural democratisation. As well as the multitude of actions that take place throughout the country and throughout the year around reading: meetings, workshops, debates, readings, competitions, prizes, etc.
Children’s literature in France is a market that knows how to renew itself, to question itself and, finally, to innovate. Thus, the early childhood segment develops real nuggets with sounds and materials to touch. The album is full of creativity with an incredible diversity of illustrators. The documentary is now close to coffee-table books by offering books that appeal to adults and children alike, whose aesthetics are so neat that it gives one pleasure to open and read them. As for fiction, from its first readings to “young adult” literature, publishers are increasingly perfecting their skills by offering books of high quality, covering all the themes that may interest young readers.
Would you consider instituting a prize similar to the Romain Rolland Book Prize for children’s literature as well? We are in fact planning to consider children’s books as potential winners of the Romain Rolland Prize. This will be discussed in Jaipur with the jury members.
How well are translations of world literature received in France? How have you fostered and continue to manage a cross-pollination of literary traditions in France and India? The French market is also influenced by Dan Brown and other Anglo-Saxon authors. But the phenomena of great success such as Elena Ferrante (Italian) or Arundhati Roy also shows that the French readership is open to world literature beyond Anglo-Saxons. This is why we believe that Indian authors have their rightful place in the French market.
Do you have any details that may be shared publicly of a road map planned for the 2020 Paris Book Fair where India is the guest of honour? What are the significant features of such an extraordinary event? We are hoping to select many writers including children’s and young adult writers, across genres, as well as initiating new translations. We do not want only established writers to be invited to the festival. We would prefer to have a range of outreach programmes too. For instance, conferences, debates, collaborations with libraries, bookstores, universities etc.
What are the events planned at the 2020 Paris Book Fair? Anything exciting that the Indian publishers and readers should be aware of? The Syndicat National de l’Edition and the National Book Trust have just signed the partnership agreement on 22 January 2019 for Livre Paris 2020. This book fair is a meeting place for the French public and Indian authors. We would like to organise panel discussions between French and Indian authors. For example we could have our two Nobel Prize winners in Economics enter into a dialogue. We also wish to encourage translation of Indian authors who have not yet been translated into French in order to introduce the French public to new young authors from all over the Indian Union. We also hope that this meeting will foster professional exchanges between Indian and French publishers. Several steps are planned. Pre-meetings in March 2019, a breakfast networking at Frankfurt between French and Indian publishers; invitation of French publishers to Jaipur 2020 and a professional training session on publishing that we would like to organise in India at the beginning of 2020. Not to mention the translation training programme that we recently launched with Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Madhorubagan, translated into English as One Part Woman, is the story of a couple from Tiruchengode city in Tamil Nadu who face social discrimination due to their inability to bear a child. The novel had led to outrage from Hindutva groups in 2014. A number of cases were filed in the Madras High Court, but the court quashed them in 2016.
In 2016, when the Sahitya Akademi announced the award to Vasudevan for the English translation of Perumal’s book, opponents filed a plea in the Madras High Court. The court allowed the award ceremony to go ahead, but imposed a stay on the prize for English translation, until further notice.
Kannan Sundaram, of Kalachuvadu Publications, which published Madhorubagan, told The News Minute on Wednesday that Vasudevan did not want to fight a legal battle. “He also does not want eminent writers like Githa Hariharan, Koyamparambath Satchidanandan [who were the jury for the award] and others being scrutinised.”
“He sees this [the case against the prize] as part of the ongoing problem of hounding Perumal Murugan, and does not want to be a part of it,” Sundaram added.
Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who was a recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation 2016, for his translation of Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubhagan, has now written to the Akademi declining the award.
Kongu Kalvi Valarchi Arakattalai, the same group that hounded author Perumal Murugan, also filed a petition in the Madras High Court against his translator, Vasudevan, and the jury that gave him the Sahitya Akademi Award for One Part Woman, the English translation of Madhorubhagan. M Loganathan, who had filed the petition, also alleged that the jury members, in selecting the English translation for the award, were “prejudiced” and “biased.” In December last year, the High Court put an interim stay on the award. The Indian Express quoted the High Court bench’s observation, “…prima facie it appears that the translation is both incorrect and inaccurate.” Vasudevan, in his letter, stated that he is declining the award as he does not want to start a fresh chapter of controversy around the novel.
What is your response to Aniruddhan Vasudevan declining the Sahitya Academy award?
I wish Vasudevan had not declined the prize. He deserves it. And, in our multilingual country, translation is essential and needs all the support it can get. In this case too, the jury took into consideration the critical function of translation in a multilingual country like ours. As responsible writers and critics, we need to ensure that readers have access to translations of a high quality, particularly of works that we, as well as other critics and scholars, have recognised as an important part of our rich and diverse literary practice. The only considerations before the jury, in this case, were the quality of the translation, and the literary merit of the work being translated.
Why do you think this group filed the petition opposing the Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation?
This petition is not about the translation prize. It seeks, instead, to raise an issue that has already been dealt with effectively by the Madras High Court in its Judgement delivered on 5/7/2016 on the original publication. The Judgement observed that the writer should continue to “do what he does best”, i.e., write; and that both the writers and his opponents should move on “as citizens of an advancing and vibrant democracy”. In view of this sound advice, raking up the same issue is a waste of the valuable time of our Courts, as well as a mischievous attempt to impede the free practice of imaginative endeavour that sustains our culture with multiple narratives and viewpoints.
In addition to wasting the valuable time of our Courts, who have a considerable load of genuine petitions, this petition undermines the free practice of literature by writers, critics, publishers and readers, by ascribing to itself the role of judging the merit of literary texts. I would like to remind the petitioners of Jawaharlal Nehru’s views on the individual freedom of the writer. “As soon as writing is put in a straight-jacket,” he said, “it is bound to lose and suffer.” He added, “A State cannot produce good writing. It can provide conditions where good writing can be encouraged.” Any attack on these conditions — of freedom to imagine, write, translate, judge, discuss, and debate — would hinder our citizens from producing and partaking of varied and critical literary perspectives.
What is your response to the accusation in the above petition that the jury was “prejudiced” and “biased” in their selection?
No award norm was breached. The Sahitya Akademi prepared a short list from the books entered for the prize and sent the short list to the jury members. Each member was not aware of who the other jury members were till we met for the final decision. When the jury members met, they had read all the shortlisted books carefully, and prepared notes on the merits of each translation. All ten books were discussed, and there was detailed discussion on those considered prize-worthy. Based on the criteria of a good translation into the English language, the jury members reached a consensus that Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation, One Part Woman, deserved the award. The book falls within the eligibility period. It is a complete and unabridged translation, and the quality of both the translation and the novel has been acknowledged by critics, scholars, reviewers, and award juries. The jury members for the Sahitya Akademi prize agreed that this translation achieved the difficult task of rendering a specific cultural context and language into a highly readable translation that sounded “natural” in the target language, something every good translation aspires to. Specific mention was made of the skill with which words, phrases, expressions, and songs that are hard to translate were handled by the translator. In short, our discussion of One Part Woman, as well as our choice of the book as the award winner, was based purely on literary indices, i.e. the literary merits of the translation.
The petition alleges that this is not a “true” translation of the work. May I suggest that debates about the quality of a translation belong in classrooms, seminars and the printed page, and not in petitions or Courts? Debates on literary merits are informed and meaningful when conducted by the community of literary practitioners, students of literature and scholars. Such debates are not based on sentiment.
The translation was chosen for the award in good faith, and for valid reasons, free from any sort of bias. Members of the jury had written earlier about the book, and the attack on the book, in our capacity as writers, reviewers and cultural commentators. I must point out that the three members of this jury are by no means the only people who have written about the “controversy”. Across India, a large number of writers have taken part in protests against the attack on the book and its author Perumal Murugan, not because they were “canvassing” for the book; but because of their deep concern for freedom of expression, essential to any form of literary work. Again, the three members of the jury are not alone in admiring the novel. Reviews, articles in the media, and the large number of readers in India and elsewhere, bear testimony to the interest in the book, as literature, by discriminating readers.
The petition further alleged that the three members of the jury have been acknowledged by Perumal Murugan in the Preface of his novel. First, he has acknowledged only one of the three members, A.R. Venkatachalapathy, as a friend. Second, acknowledgements in a literary work do not imply that those thanked for support are in any way responsible for the actual work. Writing a novel is a solitary task, neither planned nor “conspired” by a group. It is ridiculous to imply that any “conflict of interest” applies to a friend or relative who may be acknowledged by a writer as having provided any sort of support during the lonely period of writing a novel.
Petitions such as these are part of the insidious process of misusing the Courts, in the name of hurt sentiment, to harass writers, critics and artists. My submission to the Court — if the case continues — would be to dismiss this and other similar petitions, and lay down a principle that such harassment is an attack on two of our cherished values: critical thinking and freedom of expression.
Such petitions are frivolous at best; and, at worst, a danger to the practice of the arts, as well as the diversity of opinion and critical thinking guaranteed by our Constitution, and upheld a number of times by our Courts.