The 2020 JCB Prize for Literature longlisted author Megha Majumdar wrote in her fantastic debut novel, A Burning, “What words can do? Not very much.” But it’s that very powerful sentence that makes it achieve “very much” across the literary landscape it has entered.
However, A Burning — a reality of a sort of contemporary India — is not the only work to celebrate. There are two others, too: one is Avni Doshi’s Girl in White Cotton (published as Burnt Sugar in the UK) securing its place in the 2020 Booker Prize shortlist, and the other is Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat (Kalachuvadu, India ; Black Cat/Grove Atlantic, USA) translated from Tamil by N. Kalyan Raman, making it to the longlist of the 2020 National Book Awards for Translated Literature.
The National Book Foundation created this category in 2018, and in these three years, Perumal Murugan has made to the longlist twice. The first time was for his novel One Part Woman, translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
In an online event organised by Mother Tongue Twisters’ founder, writer and translator Mohini Gupta with the title ‘The Life and Afterlife of Literary Translation’, N Kalyan Raman, author, translator and publisher spoke about the book and its worldwide acclaim. The event was held on September 17, 2020.
Written in less than three months flat, “fearful of writing about humans, even more fearful of writing about gods,” Perumal Murugan wrote Poonachi after the legal fiasco on his previous work was concluded. One Part Woman was a phenomenal success, and it’s one of the five books shortlisted for the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature in 2018.
As N Kalyan Raman was trying to connect to the online session, in the meantime, Mohini asked Kannan Sundaram and Perumal Murugan about the novel. Assuming the role of the interpreter for the time being, Kannan, the publisher, told the viewers that Perumal never thought of writing a novel, “He decided to write a short story and it sort of developed itself into a novel.” And he confirmed, translating Murugan, “It’s definitely not the kind of novel he’s planning to write for a long time.”
The comfort and ease, and the underlying politics of the novel — Murugan chose to write a book on goat because goats are “problem-free, harmless, and above all, energetic.” To this, Kanan mentioned how this would make the novel a compelling read and acknowledged that he “felt that this is the sort of novel that will travel across the world. The theme is universal.”
Appreciating the translation, he says the “political tone” — which he says for any work need not be overt but must reflect in the texture of the book — has been preserved in the translation, and almost “nothing has been lost in translation; it’s as good as reading in English as it’s in Tamil.”
Commenting on the attention that any book or work of art receives after getting shortlisted or longlisted in an international award, he lamented: “What happens in the US is noticed throughout the world, and sometimes in India.” He added, “The US still happens to be the place where you’ve to make your mark if you want to travel internationally.” Though he’s indeed happy, for “it’s for the first time that works of a Tamil writer were published by reputed publishers in the US. And in that sense, we’ve broken the glass ceiling.”
Just like Murugan’s novels, which are concise, concrete and impactful, his comments were short and precise, and soon disappeared and gave way for the translator to take over, like he does with his text for his readers in the English language.
There are several questions that’re often put across for translators: How did you ensure that you’re getting “the voice” correct? You’re a city boy, how did you get the village-setting right in English? How did he, as a man N. Kalyan Raman, translate (and has been translating) poems of Salma to get the “female voice” right?
For all these array of questions, N. Kalyan Raman’s responses were measured, gracious and direct. For any aspiring translator, he advices to “listen to it [the text] actively, the voice is already there. You’ve a guide.” And he himself doesn’t “necessarily rub off all the rough edges.” Taking liberties with the text, he tries not to complicate the translated work and keeps it concise “for comprehensibility”, without deviating from the text.
Having confessed an “emotional connection” with the Tamil language, N. Kalyan Raman tells us that he began appreciating and “learning the ways of the world, history” through what he calls a “great source of learning” — literature. He has read Dickens, Shakespeare and several nonfiction books — which he says are “social realism and art for art’s sake types” — in English.
He began translating in the early nineties with an urge to “make Tamil literature available in English,” and for the world to know that it’s no less in literary quality than any other work published in English. Taking the initial “slow steps” into translation, battling imposter syndrome and learning, on the other hand, how literature shapes society by immersing himself into reviewing books critically, he says that it’s Ashokamitran’s works that “triggered [his] translation career.”
With an experience of translating over dozens of books and hundreds of poems in the English language, the translator feels that prose has its unique advantage of “space”; however, for poems, one has to “shape the language, it’s a wholly new utterance,” he says — i.e. “something that you do instinctively” to give to the text its poetic touch in the translated language. “In poetry, you don’t have to comply with the ordinary rules of syntax, but you still have to make it sound like a poem and convey the meaning at the same time,” he adds.
In translating works of women, he doesn’t deny “the distance, which is there,” but also feels that “an informed person” won’t be paralysed in doing this exercise if they’ve their “ears to the ground”, and after that it gets down to the job in hand: translation.
Not shying away from critiquing the current ecosystem of publication of translation, which suffers from a “serious limitation,” N. Kalyan Raman says though it’s achieved much in the past 30 years, there’s a sort of “center and others are peripheries” situation, as most multinational publishers’ subsidiaries are in Delhi. This puts Delhi in a unique position to “benchmark standards” and choose, with impunity, what’s worthy of being published.
He feels those publishers and their subsidiaries are far remote from the communities that produce this literature or the translators that produce this work. The selection of the works of translation is not what it should be, and a lot of catching up has to be done.
He feels there’s a dearth of “opportunities [for translators] to grow their craft, and even people who make it to the center [Delhi] don’t get any attention at all.” As a corrective action to decentralise this Delhi domination, he feels that production of translation-focused region-specific journals could be a game-changer, which can be done by “translators who are not constrained by where they are.”
At the end, he says, “It’s always a trade-off.”