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Author Perumal Murugan And Translator N Kalyan Raman On The Act Of Literary Translation

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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.

Poonachi Perumal Murugan
Perumal Murugan speaking during the Mother Tongue Twisters’ ‘Translation Thursdays’ session.

From Exile To Worldwide Acclaim

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.

Author Perumal Murugan (L) and translator N. Kalyan Raman (R) of Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat

“Don’t Deviate From The Text”

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.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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