In late 2018 both The New York Times and The New York Review of Books carried long reviews of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman following its reprint for the American trade book market by Grove Atlantic. Controversy following the murderous threats to the author no doubt played a part in the attention it received. But it was also a symptom of changed times.
Times were when it was difficult to find a mainstream English publisher to publish an Indian language novel in translation. The translation was done for love, or in vanity, usually by an academic; the author waived royalty for the honour of being married to the duchess; publishers thought they were doing a favour by bringing out the translation between covers. Reviews, if they came out at all, were few, far between and patronizing. More often than not remaindered copies piled up on pavements looking for their readers. Happily, all this has changed. From the beginning of the new millennium, literary fiction in translation has carved its own place now in the lists of most Indian trade publishers. Though no one has done a bibliometric study, I would reckon that Tamil holds a prominent place in the list. How did this come to be? The volumes under review provide a useful sourcebook to understand this phenomenon.
CT Indra, an academic (retired professor of English at the University of Madras) and R Rajagopalan, also a retired English teacher (of Tamil Nadu government colleges) but better known as a member of the editorial collective of an important little magazine (of the 1970s and 1980s), Zha, have joined hands to edit these volumes. This is especially to be welcomed as English teachers in Tamil Nadu colleges, almost as a rule, are ill-informed, if not actually ignorant, of trends in contemporary Tamil literature. The contrast with, say, the Malayalam literary world is striking—for a long time I used to think that to be a Malayalam poet one had to be a professor of English.
Tamil is exceptional among Indian languages to have a technical term for ‘translation’. ‘Mozhiperthu’ is a term that occurs in the pre-common era Tamil grammatical text, Tholkappiyam. Paralleling its long history of engagement, argument, negotiation, and polemic with Sanskrit there is a tradition of translating from Sanskrit into Tamil.
Tamil’s engagement with European languages, especially English, is also long. Tamil was the first non-European language to use Gutenberg-ian movable type. Tamil was the first Indian language in which the Bible was translated in full—as early as in 1714, by the missionary Bartholomeus Ziegenbalg. The foundation of the College of Fort St George 1812 was near contemporaneous with the College of Fort William in Kolkata. The Madras Government instituted one of the earliest administrative bodies for public instruction in colonial India. This was followed by the establishment of a university along with those in Bombay and Calcutta. With a strong network of good colleges across the Tamil-speaking areas (towns such as Palayamkottai are often referred to as the Oxford/Cambridge of South India), and an aspirational and dynamic English-educated middle class, the history of two-way translation between English and Tamil is necessarily rich. ‘Power’ and ‘identity’ were necessarily part of this process and they therefore figure prominently in the titles of these volumes.
Translation means different things in different cultures and different temporal contexts. As any student knows, translation is no simple act of conveying a text from one language to another. For instance, for well over half a century the state-funded Sahitya Akademi, and to a certain extent the National Book Trust of India have been publishing translations from and into various languages listed in the Eighth Schedule of the Constitution of India. But these translations rarely draw wide attention. But when Indian language texts are translated into English the author and translator gain prestige, win recognition and often some reasonable money in the process. This brings to mind a controversy that erupted at the time of the 2014 parliamentary elections. The English translation of an award-winning Tamil novel by Joe D’Cruz was commissioned by Oxford University Press. The translation was ready. But when, in his wisdom or folly, the author endorsed Narendra Modi’s politics, the translator withdrew her translation. This made a splash in the media. Now, let’s assume that the translation in question was in Odia or Konkani. Would anybody have cared if the translation had been withdrawn?
Given the power that English as a master language continues to exercise, the volumes under review are useful. They provide information and insights into the engagement between Tamil and English over the past few centuries.
R Rajagopalan’s introduction to volume one draws an all too brief outline of the history of Tamil language and literary practice in the colonial period. While surveying the work of missionaries and the colonial government in educational and translational activities he misses the role of the College of Fort St George and FW Ellis which was the first important institutional location where British scholars and Tamil pandits interacted.
A Noel Joseph Irudayaraj gives an extended treatment of language interaction and translational transaction in four centuries from 1500. The title—‘Semio-machi(a)nations and Translation’ promises much (or does it!) but delivers little even as the author concludes that ‘An elaboration of the “imbrication, nay entanglements” nay imbrications, and entanglement of Western cultural politics and onto-theology in more specific terms and on a much larger scale is a desideratum.’ The essay is based on a limited body of secondary literature and has not taken into account much recent work in the area—for instance that of Ines Zupanov and Thomas R Trautmann. Therefore, it misses the work of the Madras College and repeats errors such as the suggestion that Punnaikayal was the location of an early printing press.
This is followed by a rich and informed essay by the distinguished lexicographer PR Subramanian. Analysing the compilation of bilingual dictionaries he traces three phases. Designed primarily for missionary use, in the first dictionaries Tamil was paired with Portuguese, Latin and French; in the second phase of a century and a half beginning from 1750, English became dominant. In the last phase native scholars led the scholarly enterprise. Subramanian focuses on the second phase, and argues that the shift from pre-colonial monolingual to bilingual dictionaries occurred during this time. He also analyses how lexicographers engaged with the question of diglossia, and delineates the improvements in the dictionaries through the analysis of select entries in the dictionaries of Rottler (1779) and Winslow (1862). By the end of the nineteenth century, he concludes, dictionaries had become comprehensive and secular in nature.
This is followed by a disappointing paper by V Richards on the translation of the Bible into Tamil. Bible translation is a rich field, and with regard to Tamil itself, there are the stellar works of Sabapathy Kulendran and Sarojini Packiamuthu. The author makes no reference to these works and the chapter ends up stringing together platitudes.
The editors of the volume, in a joint paper, then take up for careful analysis the translation of moral and ethical texts into English. They consider Thirukkural and Naladiyar as well as a collection of proverbs compiled by the missionary Herman Jensen. They point out that these translations focus on content rather than on literary merit. The last chapter in the first volume, by Padma Narayanan, is on Krupabai Satthianadhan’s pioneering English novels Kamala (1894) and Saguna (1895) and their near contemporaneous translations into Tamil (in 1898). While the potted history of women’s writing in Tamil prefacing the essay is superfluous, the chapter itself is useful in understanding how the unnamed translator engaged with the challenge of translating back into Tamil an English text that is set in a Tamil milieu in the first place.
CT Indra’s introduction sets up the second volume with an overview of the institutional and political context for the expansion in the field of translation. This is followed by two long but unproductive chapters by Padma Srinivasan on the translation of classical Tamil poetry and medieval Bhakti poetry into English. Without situating the individual translations in context, random comparisons are made. I could not fathom the purpose of the appendices that set out the original Tamil poems followed by their transliteration in roman script and then by English translation.
Little magazines have played a key role in literary production in the postcolonial Tamil literary sphere. This has especially been so in relation to the translation of western literary texts—the subject of R Sivakumar’s chapter. Sivakumar has been a major player in this field and one expected many insights from him. Rather than to contextualize and analyse the fecundity of the little magazines the chapter often slips into a survey. And when one tries to list a lot within a short space, errors invariably creep in.
R Azhagarasan’s is arguably the most challenging chapter. Based on his project of translating Catherine Belsey’s Poststructuralism: A Very Short Introduction into Tamil he foregrounds the question of power that operates when a western critical text is translated into a ‘vernacular’ language, and points out how he undermined this by his footnotes and glosses that index ‘native’ scholarship and context.
The last two chapters are companion and complementary pieces by the two editors where they survey and analyse the translation of Tamil literary texts over the past half a century. While in the first chapter fiction, poetry and drama are considered in detail the second attempts an evaluation of some individual texts. The authors tend to be judgmental but in the process bring out the shifting nature and contexts of translation.
The volumes could have been better conceived. As they stand now, the contributions are uneven. Translation as concept and practice varies widely but an interrogation of ‘translation’ itself is missing. At one point, R Sivakumar refers to adaptation, abridgement and complete translation, but the central question of how translation is variedly understood in different cultures is not posed. Even within the Tamil cultural world there have been intense debates on translation. For instance, in the late 1930s, major Tamil writers such as Pudumaippithan, Ka Naa Subramanyam and others debated translation. Further there is an evident tension between an analysis of the context of translation and the evaluation of translation of particular texts. This tension is never really foregrounded much less resolved. In the absence of such an interrogation some sections of the essays end up being pointless lists and gratuitous praise.
Criticisms notwithstanding, these volumes mark a good beginning. While an informed insider will necessarily carp, there is much in this for non-Tamil scholars. It is hoped that future scholars will take up the challenge of furthering these explorations.
A word for the publishers. The two volumes could have been published as one single volume by the paring of some essays. This would also have avoided the repetition of Susan Basnett’s foreword, editorial preface, acknowledgements and the afterword. Overall the copy editors have let down the editors in what is evidently an onerous project. Words in Tamil script look unsightly as proper DTP fonts have not been employed. An index is sorely missed.
AR Venkatachalapathy’s recent books include Who Owns That Song? The Battle for Subramania Bharati’s Copyright and Tamil Characters: Personalities, Politics, Culture.