In a way this was six years in the making; not in the sense that I researched this for six years, but that the rich conspiracy of random details that usually engender my fortuitous essays took six years this time around. In 2014 Solvanam’s RS messaged me asking me if I could write a review of N Kalyan Raman translation of the iconic Tamil novel Vaadivasal. Though I wasn’t overly enthused I agreed to give it a shot if he could lug a copy of the translation on his return to Boston.

RS true to his forgetful self failed to do so, and me being the Luddite I was in those days in avoiding electronic versions of a book still available in print, the whole idea fizzled out and was promptly forgotten. But destiny kept merrily conspiring, innocuously beckoning me from the turmeric-hued cover of the translation with its pitch-black bull from one of those obscurely positioned shelves in the OUP stall, as did the gorgeously produced classic edition of the original, the one with Adhimoolam’s fantastic line drawings (why OUP chose not to mimic this classic edition is beyond me), from the prominently positioned classic editions shelf of Kalachuvadu stall during the 2018 Chennai Book Fair.

But apparently, that wasn’t enough; not accorded privileged seating in the already tightly packed shelves of my library, both the original and the translation were consigned to one of the overflow piles that lay scattered beneath them, bemoaning daily their stepchildren status from the ugly pink carpeted floor. As it turns out this eyesore of a carpet was also one of those details that conspired; after tolerating it for more than a dozen years on a daily basis en route to our bedroom (as the library doubled as my office, familiarity had trumped its ugliness and much like a worn-out old sweater it had acquired some sort of mystic comfiness aura for me), my wife finally went to the Home Depot site and ordered new flooring.

And so, my frayed companion, who had so steadfastly warmed my feet for countless winters and who as recompense got to be benevolently stared for so many years by the visages of the literary greats that adorned the Modern Edition spines in the shelves above, was finally ripped out, chopped into pieces and stowed away at the back of a truck in trash bags, as if they were some carpet-tramp trampled by countless feet on their way to indulge in their favourite pastime at some silly consumerist outpost.

Anyway, as part of the disinterment ritual, the overflow piles were now rearranged as neat little towers inside an open cardboard box. In this willy-nilly utilitarian rearrangement, the turmeric book with the menacing bull on its cover ended up cresting one of those book towers. Day in and day out, every time I turned right from my office desk, it would mock me as if I were some matador long past his prime, who dare not tempt fate and try his luck at tackling the likes of it.

Through much of the Covid months I resisted its taunts by pretending to tackle something more challenging (like editing the Bengali Special of Solvanam or writing that essay on Philip Larkin for instance), but as always destiny would have the last word. It had grown savvy over the years and was now relaying its directives from social media’s noisome shores.

This time around, it was via Kalyan’s tweet announcing joyously the second edition of the Vaadivaasal translation (while also parenthetically lamenting that he had got wind of it only in some roundabout way). That was the last straw. I bowed to destiny’s persistent machinations and reached out for the yellow book that now wryly smiled atop the cardboard battlement.

The history of Vaadivaasal

Vaadivaasal has a unique place in Tamil novel history, in being its first (and perhaps only) sports novel. It is a novel about bullfighting, as practised in its Jallikattu variant in the Madurai, Ramanathapuram districts of South India. Its author, Chinnamanur Subramaniam Chellappa, aka Ci Su Chellappa, hailed from one of those districts (Vattalakundu) and is generally remembered for his legendary sacrifices editing the iconic Ezhutthu magazine, a breeding ground for future Tamil literary stalwarts.

An earlier (and shorter) version of the novel appeared in the magazine Chandradoyam (where Chellappa was a sub-editor) and was later expanded to its final novella form and published in 1959, which, incidentally, was the year he started Ezhutthu. Languishing in obscurity for 30 years, it was rediscovered in the ’90s, first appearing in an anthology issued by Peacock publications in 1992 and then, two years later, featuring in the 1994 Special malar edition of the India Today magazine.

The publishing history of the novella and inspirational antecedents from Hemingway’s Undefeated (1927), Rajam Iyer’s Kamalaambaal Charithiram (1893), all the way up to the Kalithokai and the Rig Veda, have been lovingly documented for the interested reader in the excellent introductions that appeared in the Kalachuvadu classic edition and the OUP translation.

A game of comparisons

Before venturing to write this piece, I googled to get a sense of how the English translation was received. The first few pages of the search results gave me a handful of entries. The legendary Asokamithran had written a piece in The Hindu, but this was more of a preview, providing a brief introduction to the author and the novel before abruptly ending with an excerpt from the forthcoming translation, pausing en route to pat Raman on his back for being a translator of international renown.

V Kadambari’s piece went a bit further – it introduced the book and praised the translation for doing justice to Chellappa’s original, and for being edited with care and a scholarly eye. It also makes the odd claim that the value of the book is “greatly enhanced” by the useful glossary at the end. A piece in by Jeeva Nayagi was more of an introduction to Vaadivasal, mentioning the translation only in passing (“oh by the way if you don’t know Tamil, you can pick up this translation by N Kalyan Raman.”)

As far as I could gauge there has not been a serious review of the translation itself, only introduction to the original, bestowing at most a one-sentence encomium on the translation as an afterthought.

But this should come as no surprise. The reviewer of English translations of modern Tamil literature is at a serious disadvantage. Their choice is limited. To put it simply and starkly, there are not many of them to go around. And to be clear, I am not talking here of multiple translations of the same original, just the total number of English translations being done from Tamil.

So, from a sheer numbers perspective it is not a promising trade. John Rutherford’s (translator of Leopoldo Alas’ La Regenta) succinct lamentation about translation is doubly relevant for Tamil- English translation reviews: “Translation is a strange business which sensible people no doubt avoid.”

Consider Julian Barnes’ famous review of Lydia Davis’ translation of Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. By Davis’ count, she is probably the twentieth translator of the novel. Her translation appeared in 2010 while the first known translation of Madame Bovary was undertaken from a fair copy of the manuscript by Juliet Herbert, governess to Flaubert’s niece Caroline (and possibly Flaubert’s lover), in 1856-57.

So Barnes, when he chooses to review a newer translation of Madame Bovary has over 150 years of translation history to pick and choose from. He can micro-analyse any particular sentence across that rich history and conclude how one version has more “mouthfeel than the other” or how Steegmuller’s version of the sentence is freer and relaxed compared to Wall’s and Davis’s, which tend to be more semantically conforming and “less interpretive”.

In fact, it is such an embarrassment of riches that another reviewer, say Jonathan Raban reviewing that very same Davis translation, can focus on a completely different aspect of it, on say, the imparfait tense which in Flaubert’s original, so amenable for conveying the tedious repetitiveness of everyday life, tending to be “cumbersome and intrusive” in its English form, and hence works best only when used sparingly and in short passages. He can praise Davis for giving us the best rendition of Emma observing the clockwork habit of her newlywed husband while chastising her for her litany of “would”s, 123 of them in a relatively short span of seven pages.

The opportunities are endless and from these pedantic particulars the reviewer can generalise on the nature of translation itself – whether faithful translations that expose their fidelity to syntactic structures tend to be “clunky”, and if clunkiness is a quality one should avoid if the author you are translating happens to be someone like Flaubert.

The abundance is not confined to the popular terrain of novels. Take something as dense and weighty as Rilke’s Duino Elegies – there is this wonderful chapter titled “Ein Gott Vermags” in William Gass’s masterly book on Rilke (and on the problems of translation), where he compares 14 of the prior translations (Leishman, Poulin, Mitchell, etc) of Elegy # 1 and then adds his own as the 15th, which has the advantage of having thought through the fourteen that came before and thereby well positioned to add something new to the extant corpus.

This is not about modernising Rilke (who would want to do that?) but about constantly expanding the semantics of his poetry through the varying sensibilities of his translators spanning multiple decades of the last century. I experienced this first hand when I translated on a whim Yeats’s famous takedown poem Scholars into Tamil, only to be reminded by a friend that we had discussed this sometime ago and that it been attempted three times before (one of the attempts being by Raman, the translator of Vaadivaasal), and, more important, another reviewer had compared the earlier versions and pontificated on them.

The absence of reviews

This is not to say that I had produced a “better” translation, but just one which had the advantage of coming afterwards, and which probably took into account the variant editions of the poem, as Yeats wrote the poem in 1915 and kept working at it to get to its present form which was published in 1929.

In light of the above, it’s safe to claim that there has not been a sincere review of Kalyan’s translation of Vaadivaasal, only advertisements for it touting the excellence of the original. But even if a reviewer were inclined to do so, what is he to do when the field is so barren that even “slim pickings” might turn out to be a wild expectation?

Go back to the basics would be my answer to such lazy hand-wringing. Let’s not forget that though Gass had 14 versions and Barnes more than 20 versions to play around with, they still read them all against Rilke’s German or Flaubert’s French originals. The original and how well its diction, tone, idiom, and details are ported over to a foreign ear is the true litmus test for any translation.

This, no one can take away from the bi-lingual reviewer, and he owes this sort of close reading to the thankless efforts (god knows these guys don’t rake in the moolah) of the poor Tamil-English translator who for the large part toils in relative obscurity. It’s a pity that to date the best introduction to Raman’s translation of Vaadivaasal is Raman’s “Translator’s Note” on Vaadivaasal (Arena). Surely we can do better? Or at least give it a sincere try?

Details, details

Egged on by the persistent mocking of the conspiring details of my “reading fate”, I picked the 2013 edition of N Kalyan Raman’s translation of Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal, titled Arena. But before plunging into it, I had this hunch that this time around I shouldn’t do the vanilla cover to cover reading and the usual summary of the verdict in clichéd banalities after singing the praises of the original for most of the review.

No, I was going to be anal in my “close reading” of this translation. Accordingly, I devised a strategy where I would first read two paragraphs of the Arena and follow that up by reading the same two paragraphs in the Kalachuvadu edition of the Tamil original. I would pause where the English felt a bit “clunky” or the where the music of its phrases felt odd to the English ear, and then looked specifically for those spots during my second reading as I reheard them with my Tamil ear.

In some sense, I was reading the original as the translation of the translation, but was also simultaneously scoring the translation in my mind, as if I were playing a weird variant of the “Cows and Bulls” game I liked playing when I was young. Cow meant that the paragraphs felt botched in the translation and Bull meant it was spot on. A no-brainer for a bullfight story one might say.

I also have to confess that I couldn’t stick to the protocol consistently; the force of the narrative would sometimes carry me beyond my self-imposed two-paragraph limit either in the translation or the original, and I would have to go in reverse gear once that force had expended itself. Throughout this zany exercise, I kept reminding myself what Raman had confessed in his translator’s note: that he had “copped out on fashioning some sort of English dialect that would mimic the richness and sweetness of Chellappa’s vataara-tamizh (regional dialect).”

One bails to keep the boat afloat as Gass would memorably say. Not because he was not up to it, but because in 99% of the cases this is an intractable problem that brooks no solution. Noted translator Arunava Sinha and I talked this when I interviewed him for the Solvanam Bengali special. I direct readers to that interview for his insights on this vexing problem.

‘A packed crowd had gathered’

So, from the word go, even before we plunge headlong into the first sentence, the translator is already starting way back in cow territory in terms of expectations. I will now attempt to summarise my reading below using particular instances of typical categories I wrestled with as I waded from the translation to the original and back.

Piqued by that honest confession (what would you have done armchair reviewer? Nothing, it is a spurious beef against the brutal unjustness of fact), in fact goaded by it almost, my carping eye alighted on the “கூட்டம் எகிறி நின்றது” characterisation of the crowd at the end of the first sentence of the original. “A packed crowd had gathered” that seemed smooth enough prior to the reading the original now seemed to lack some sort of bounciness on reflection. Would “bobbed around” have given it that extra bounce I asked myself and moved on only to be delayed for a moment by the words “forming” and “pooled” on page 2. The original:

“துளிர்ந்து வெடிக்கும் வேர்வைத் துளிகள் பளீரிட்டு நடு முதுகுக்கு ஓடிக் கலந்து வாய்க்கால் வகுத்து வழிந்தோடிக் கொண்டிருந்தன”

This evokes a lot of wet coursing of sweat streams rippling forth across dark shirtless backs, momentarily reflecting the scorching sunlight on their way to the centre of those backs from which they flow as a more voluminous body down to the base of the spine and eventually brimming forth and disappearing elsewhere. It is a visual image full of non-stop movement momentarily flash photographed by a solar eye. Now let’s see what happens in the translation:

“Drops of sweat forming and bursting on the skin glistened and flowed to the centre of the back where they pooled into a canal and streamed down...”

The question that arose when you first read the English version was a snarky one, wouldn’t bursting drops of sweat already imply that they had first formed, and where else would they form if not on the skin? The answer becomes obvious as one reads the first two words of the original, there is a brief split-second gap, perhaps one could almost imagine the anticipation of the body before the actualisation of the sweat drop...hence the need for the word form... maybe “burst as they formed?”... the skin still seems superfluous.

“Glistens” captures nicely the flashing sweat drops as they stream as rivulets down to the centre of the back... so far so good, until we hit that word “pooled”... which somehow slows down the coursing momentarily before they channel downwards as a canal. That momentary slowing down bugged me a bit and I tried doodling on the back of an envelope to see if it can be avoided...

Bursting as they formed, drops of sweat glistened as they coursed to the middle of the back and continued downwards as a single channel that eventually brimmed over”. Not exactly better, and that word eventually sticks out like a sore thumb, and “brimmed over” gets a bit too clunky as it goes for semantic fidelity a tad too much... but it achieves a sort of motile fidelity instead.

Win some lose some is the motto of the translation game. The point of such gruesome nitpicking is to lay bare the potential choices that might have confronted a serious translator like Raman and try to understand why he went one way versus the other.

‘Brute hug’

Let’s move on to page 4, where we are given a concise blow-by-blow narration of, not a live bull fighting session (for that, impatient reader, you would have to cultivate patience for which you will be amply rewarded by the goodies that await you further down in the book) but a PowerPoint version acclimatising newbies like us before the real thing.

Either you threw your arm around a bull’s hump in a brute hug, grabbed its horns and pushed him down, and while keeping the animal from rearing free, made it stand still on its four legs for a few seconds; or better still, you held the bull down till its legs gave way, make it stumble, bend at the knees and slide to the ground. If lacking strength and ability... he had to let the bull get away, he had to admit his incapacity...In this contest of strength a one-on-one bout between man and bull during the slanting sun’s hour of descent. There could be only one victor in that Vaadivaasal.”

Threw, grab, push, rear, stand, held, stumble, bend, slide... that’s a lot of action detailed so lovingly and with such economy of means in such cramped novella real estate. Here we see in all its glory, the true strength of this translation, its extraordinary attention to details, so vital in a book such as this that so effortlessly visualises for the reader synesthetically with its wonderful “as-it’s happening” descriptions of the precise sequence of movements that aid man or beast to best each other.

Pause and relish that precise sequencing, hear the singing “ slanting sun’s hour of descent” as it elegantly attempts to capture the exquisite music of “சாய்கிற சூரியன் விழுகிற பொழுதில்”. As you bask in all of that, observe how the translation modifies the grammatical construct of the original.

The original is a bit loose with its syntax. It goes Either “A1, or even better A2” or B and then goes on the finish the sentence a bit confusingly with “The Vaadivaasal will witness one of these two results.” Although we infer easily by context it’s not clear if both A1 and A2 will result in victory for the man. Raman avoids this completely by sidestepping the confusion and sticking with the obvious, which nevertheless is clearer.

And what about that term “brute hug”, the original’s “காளையின் திமிலில் கைபோட்டு அணைத்து” automatically modulates with the appropriate force relevant for a sporting gesture while the translation needs the additional qualification of “brute”. Perhaps now is a good time to talk about the term “bull tamer”.

As English language readers, we are conditioned to put on our Hemingway blinkers every time we encounter bullfighting in a story. Justifiably so, one might add for most of our bullfighting jargon – picador, corrida, barrera, cuadrilla, banderillo... if one were to randomly pick from the story Undefeated that inspired Chellappa – comes from him. So, it’s natural that we expect the term bullfighter instead of bull tamer in a novella about bullfights.

The Tamil term for bullfighting gives us a clue – Eru Anaithal the term used by Chellappa whose antecedents go all the way to Sangam literature where Eru Thazuval, literally “hugging the bull” was a demonstration of a man’s honor and virility. As a reward for that demonstration, he got to “embrace” (Anai) the woman he loved, in matrimony.

So, the connotation in Tamil admits of both intense physicality as well as delicate domesticity. The ferocious bull acquires a feminine aspect when confronted with the more ferocious bull tamer. Anai in Tamil also has the meaning of put out (as in தீயை அணை, put out the fire), so the bull tamer in a sense hugs the bear and puts out its rage. Ergo the sense that the tamer “tames her” with his “brute hug”.

In a translation one language attempts to imagine in the other and some amount of semantic osmosis results in syntactic choices. This osmosis isn’t always one way; if the translation doesn’t have in its arsenal the equivalent of a regional dialect, it has riches of its own, a linguistic and cultural tradition not available to the original.

There’s this innocuous bit of transactional history recounted before the event commences; Kaari, the centerpiece of the novella, is a famous bull of much renown. Its former owner rides on its glory and jacks up the price, which the zamindar promptly coughs up; the seller’s line of thought is revealed to us as part of the narration “We have seen the glory, it’s time we saw the money.”

This succinct gem of a line has a special resonance to the American ear and brings in its wake the line “Show me the money” from American sports movie lore; it is an iconic line from the movie Jerry Maguire; bah! a baseball movie, one might protest as if it were a less manly sport; but any New Englander blessed to witness Game 6 of the 2004 American League Championship Series will remember Curt Schilling’s blood-soaked sock.

Yes, baseball can be a bloody sport too and when it is against the New York Yankees the game is one in which honour is at stake too, if you happen to be the Boston Red Sox. Naturally, the first part of DeLillo’s Underworld comes to mind. Translations can result in readings that have nothing to do with the original.

The long and the short of it

Every translation leaves in its wake a litany of choices that the translator has made. Let’s look at one specific one that Kalyan calls out in his introduction, the transgression of mutilating Chellappa’s long and musical sentence buttressed by the “structural fluidity” that Tamil grammar facilitates and chopping it into smaller chunks separated by the punctuation mark. He hopes the reader can forgive him this “minor deformation of the original text”. But is it really that minor? Let’s sample one sentence randomly from page 28 of the original:

“ஒன்றுக்கு இரண்டாகக் கழுத்துகளில் புரண்ட பட்டைச் சலங்கை மாலைகளுடனும் கால் சதங்கைகளுடனும் கலகலப்புக்கு இடையே பூமி அதிரும்படியாக பெருமிதி போட்டு, தூசியைக் கிளப்பிக் கொண்டு காளைகள் வந்தன.”

Observe closely the music, economy, and continuity of that sentence that so gloriously synesthesises the auditory and visual elements of the scene, as if it were a cinematic shot in one extended take. One almost envisions the bulls emerging out of a smokescreen of noise and dust, as if the tinkling, clanging, and the dust storm pre-announce their arrival. Tamil has the syntactic advantage; the bulls arrive literally at the end of the sentence. Now let’s see how its translated brethren fares:

Each animal was adorned with a couple of metal chains embedded with strips of little bells swinging around the neck and dancer’s anklets. The bulls marched amidst all the hustle and bustle and noise on giant strides fit to shake the earth, raising a storm of dust.

One can see here, yet again, the attention to the detail, nothing is missed, and yet something vital is lost. The unity of the single take is sacrificed, the rhyming of சலங்கை with சதங்கை is unavoidably lost and கலகலப்பு oddly requires three words hustle, bustle and noise to communicate its exciting commotion. It is as if the set designer meticulously planned the scene down to its minutest detail but the cameraman botched the shot.

With doubled-up bell-strip chains dangling on their necks and dancer’s anklets jangling on their feet, raising a storm of dust with giant strides fit to shake the earth, amidst all the hustle and bustle the bulls arrived?

Perhaps not completely clear or accurate, but something akin could have been worked out to keep the musical and visual unity of the original sentence? Win some, lose some.

It is not as if Raman is not adept at matching the sinuousness of Chellappa’s prose as it gradually accretes details wending its way through the visual confines of any given scene. Take this early example for instance:

As the bulls bought to the Vaadivaasal... with torsos thick as barrels and heavily muscled necks, the clanging chains made of strips of metal balls on their necks and the tinkling sounds of tiny anklets strapped around their powerful legs just above the hooves, filled the air.

Yes, the alliterating onomatopoeic கல கல and கலீர் of the original are somewhat muted by being rendered as clanging and tinkling but a lesser translator might have chosen to combine them both as “sounds made by the chains on the neck and anklets on the legs”. Indeed, one is thankful for the clanging and tinkling and also for not losing the தாக்கான qualifier for the legs and is grateful enough to overlook the minor loss of specificity that insists in the original that all the four legs had bells tied to them.

So, it is a considered choice made by the translator based on his sensibility and what he is going after in any given paragraph. In some places, musical sinuousness is sought after and achieved. At others, the profusion of details and fidelity to particulars and considerations of rhythm as perceived by the English ear outweigh the need to match syntactic unity. I will close with one last example describing Kaari’s magnificent entrance:

பட்டத்து யானைக்கு படாம் போர்த்தின மாதிரி பல வர்ணபட்டு, ஜரிகை, ஜிகினா இவைகளால் ஆன சிங்காரப் பொன்னாடை திமிலுக்கு முன்னிருந்து புட்டாணி வரைக்கும் முதுகோடு படிந்த் இருபுறமும் மணிக் குஞ்சலங்களுடன் தொங்க, ஒரே புஷ்பாலங்காரமாக ஜல்ஜல் என்று சலங்கை மாலையும் கொம்பு, கால் சதங்கைகளும் அசைவுக்கு அசை விட்டு விட்டு ஒலிக்க, நாட்டியக்காரி மேடைக்கு வருகிற மாதிரி நிமிர்ந்து நிமிராமலும் முகம் லேசாகத் தணிந்து கண்கள் கீழ்நோக்கி இருபக்கமும் பார்க்க, கம்பீர நடைபோட்டு அமரிக்கையாக வந்தது காரி.”

Like a royal pachyderm draped with a royal flag the bull had a golden shawl embroidered with multi-hued silk, zari and glitter draped tightly across its back from hump to rear end. Tassels with bells attached to them were hung on both sides of the bull. The animal was adorned with flowers all over. The garland of little bells around the bull’s neck and the bells tied to its horns and feet sounded intermittently - jhal jhal- in time with each step. Like a professional danseuse entering the stage, holding itself upright but not quite, its face slightly lowered, eyes cast down and glancing on both sides, the Kaari bull walked down humbly with a dignified gait.”

Once again, the single sentence in Tamil, with its pachyderm-like monolithic grandeur, built as a gradual accumulation of visual and auditory details is broken into five shorter sentences in English. But the English has a subtle music of its own, it is masterly in the way it retains every minute detail and that brilliantly transliterated jhal jhal that estranges, as it should, reminding us that this is a translation. In his translator’s note, Kalyan astutely observes that Chellappa reads like some other-directed Henry James. If Chellappa were Jamesian Kalyan has given us a Hemingwayesque Chellappa. That’s no mean achievement.

Many such glories await the reader of this translation. Vaadivaasal is a very visual novel, almost a running commentary of a live sporting event, rendered in lilting conversational prose. This translation is a labour of love that pays such wonderful attention to every last speck of dirt swirling in Chellappa’s Jallikattu arena.

My zany cows and bulls scoring ended up with a preponderance of bulls. Rilke’s poem comes to mind. Paraphrasing it, one might say, If Chellappa’s Vaadivaasal were an orange, Raman’s Arena dances the orange and flings its sunny clime and makes the ripeness shine in non-native breezes. The supple pure reluctant rind of the English translation shares with the reader the relation it has with the juice that fills the joyous Tamil fruit. Tackling a mighty bull story Raman has given us a bull’s eye. Almost!