There is no question that literary translation is political. Translation is at its core an act of provocation and influence, seeding new ideas in a different language and culture. Many times, translation itself confers prestige on a work. So deciding what gets translated and broadcast to another culture, which works deserve that prestige, is often a deliberate political choice. There are also finer political considerations. There is the external politics of the two languages between which the exchange takes place. Their historical relationship and their relative balance of power frequently come to bear on how a translation is published, received and read.
Translations in turn create impressions of a language’s ideological and linguistic culture in the minds of its readers. Translators frequently slip into the role of cultural ambassadors, persuasively convincing readers of the riches their language brings to the rest of humanity, with the potential to reshape its image in the global arena. There is also the internal politics of how a work is situated in the ideological culture of its own language. Translation can double as commentary, and different translation choices can shape how the same work is read by readers from another culture, how the politics of one culture is presented to and interpreted by another, quite differently.
At the same time, for a great many practising translator, translation is primarily an act of pleasure. It is immersive play – in ideas, in language, in the music between the two languages. Oftentimes translators pick up a work exactly like a child picking a toy – because they are transfixed by it, because they simply can’t not translate it. So what is translated and how it’s translated end up becoming profoundly personal, aesthetic decisions, shaped by periods of long engagement and meditation with the work. Therein lies the creativity of the translation practice.
How does this personal, aesthetic element in translation square with political considerations? Two recent English translations of the Kural, or Tirukkural, from the Tamil, provided ground for me to reflect on this question at length: The Kural: Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural, translated by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma (Beacon Press, 2022), and The Book of Desire, translated by Meena Kandasamy (Galley Beggar Press / Penguin Books India, 2023). It was a question I tried to answer for myself as I read these translations side by side.
‘A mustard seed that encloses the seven seas’
The Kural, or Tirukkural – Tiru, meaning “eminent”, “beautiful”, “holy”, signifying its stature as a text among Tamil laypeople – is an iconic collection of poetry and practical philosophy, composed in the two-line kural venba form, attributed to the 5th century CE Tamil poet Tiruvalluvar. The Kural is an exceedingly compact and demanding prosodic form, with the second line exactly five-eighths in proportion to the first. Its beauty lies in its pithiness: its poetry expresses complex ideas about right living, material life, and love in a few, precise words. Yet an ocean of meaning is packed into it – the kural has been traditionally compared to “a mustard seed that encloses the seven seas” or “an atom that contains the whole universe.”
The Kural is similar to the literary form of the sutra (string, thread), a condensed manual of aphorisms meant to be memorised. And indeed, the Kural is perhaps one of the most memorised texts in Tamil today, often quoted by children, scholars, and laypersons alike. It is considered a “universal” text in Tamil, ulaga podhu marai – revealed wisdom for all of humanity. It has influenced writers, scholars, statesmen and leaders all over the world – a famous example being Gandhi, who was introduced to the Kural by – of all the people – Leo Tolstoy, who had read it in German translation (“A Letter to a Hindoo”, 1908).
Its popularity in translation reflects its influence. The Kural is by far the most translated Tamil literary work – in English, there are more than 60 translations of the Kural till date, with the earliest attempt made in 1794 by Nathaniel Edward Kingsley, a British civil servant attached to the English East India Company. In the following years, a succession of British civil servants and missionaries carried out translations of the Kural, some partial, some complete. The Kural has 1330 poems, stacked into three unequal sections – right living (aram), material life (porul), and love (inbam). Many of the missionary translators refrained from translating the section on love.
However, it was an Anglican missionary who made the first complete translation of the Kural – George Uglow Pope, in 1886. Translation is one way of intensely meditating on a text, and the Kural is a text that bears meditation; this may be one reason why so many Kural translations have been attempted down the ages. A couple of popular English translations in recent times were made by PS Sundaram (1987) and Gopalkrishna Gandhi (2015). Most of the English translators of the Kural have been men. I was able to find only two exceptions – a 2015 translation by Tamil writer Jyotirlata Girija, and an online translation by Vaidehi Herbert.
However, translating the Kural is not a straightforward task. The Kural is poetry, quite simple at first glance. It is only on further reflection that we realise how profound its simplicity is, how elegantly it expresses so much in such few words. A kural is like a rock-cut pillar at Mamallapuram – slender, elegant, lion-faced. English translations that genuinely preserve the Kural’s simple elegance are rare. Many of the older Kural translations try to approximate poetic effects by adopting old-fashioned language. Their attempts to achieve a semblance of rhyme in convoluted ways in truth end up distancing the reader.
Moreover, any translation becomes relevant only when it speaks to the audience of its time. Some of the ideas expressed in the Kural sound rather archaic to the modern reader, especially when accompanied by the gloss of traditional Tamil commentators. A wife who revers no god but her husband says rain and rain pours down, goes a verse. Others make much of the karpu, or the nirai of women – terms translated as “chastity” in the past – and caution men against demanding wives and wily courtesans.
The Kural seems to be addressed to the male, heterosexual reader in a certain station of life. It is certainly honest if a translator wonders what to make of all this, and questions whether the Kural is truly a universal text. The political considerations of translation – whether the Kural is a text that is relevant to the present age, what kind of a picture it paints of Tamil culture to the world, and how its internal politics are understood within Tamil society today – become relevant here.
It is in this context that the recent translations by Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma (The Kural) and Meena Kandasamy (The Book of Desire) are particularly important. These are arguably two of the most modern takes on the Kural. Pruiksma’s is a complete translation. Meena Kandasamy has chosen to translate just the third book of the Kural, the section on love and desire (inbam, also known as kamathuppaal) from a feminist, decolonial perspective. While both are “modern” translations, the intent, style and aesthetics of the two translations provide a fascinating contrast.
I provide some sample translations from the two books below, to give a flavour of the Kural and the styles of the two translators.
Like truth beheld without wisdom – virtue performed— Kural 249 - Tr Pruiksma
The wicked are luckier than the good – nothing— Kural 1072 - Tr Pruiksma
Troubles their hearts
In Praise of Her
Her smile – pearls – her arms – bamboo – her smell – perfume –— Kural 1113 - Tr Pruiksma
Her body – new leaves – and her dark eyes – lances
My bamboo-shouldered beauty has— Kural 1113 - Tr Kandasamy
a slender frame, a pearly smile,
a fragrance that drives me wild,
and eyes that pierce like lances.
The Signs of Attraction
Only the eyes of lovers— Kural 1099 - Tr Kandasamy
are capable of glancing
the defiant public stare
of weapon-bearing foes.
The Pleasure of Sex
Quarrel.— Kural 1109 - Tr Kandasamy
These, the lovers’ rewards.
Thomas Hitoshi Pruiksma is a writer, poet, translator, teacher, magician, musician, and self-described “lover of life”. He is a performer – a sort of modern bard – combining poetry, story, magic, and song in his stage expressions. Pruiksma was born in Seattle, Washington to Japanese-American parents. An unexpected post-undergrad trip to a small town near Madurai, India, brought him in touch with KV Ramakoti, a professor of Tamil, a fateful brush that was destined to be a life-changing experience. Consequently, Pruiksma went on to stay with Ramakoti for a few years and learned classical Tamil literature, including the Tirukkural, from him. His recent translation, The Kural, was born out of this association.
Pruiksma, poet and musician himself, speaks of “getting some of the Kural’s rhythms into his body” when he mentions his experience of memorising the Kural in the traditional way. His translations reveal that he is sensitive to the music of the kurals, the way their consonances and assonances work together to create poetry and meaning. “Tiruvalluvar speaks to all of our senses with all of his,” says Pruiksma in his foreword.
Most Tamils must have heard the Kural recited even if they have never found occasion to read it, and often remember it aurally, as verbal music. It is to Pruiksma’s credit that he preserves the verbal music of the kurals in many of his English translations in a way that previous translations have not. So the popular kural whose verbal rhythm (thup-thup) mimics falling rain,
thupparkku thuppaya thuppakki thuppaarkku
thuppaaya thooum mazhai
Making food fit for feeding and itself— (Kural 12, The Glory of Rain, tr Pruiksma)
Food that feeds – rain
Other aurally pleasing renditions include:
The weight of good done without weighing results – grace— (Kural 103, Gratitude, tr Pruiksma)
Greater than oceans
Seek to subdue the senses – seek to release— (Kural 343, Renunciation, tr Pruiksma)
All you seek through the senses
In love’s vast waters I see no shore – no one but me— (Kural 1167, Pining Away, tr Pruiksma)
In the night
Each verse is musical, pregnant with meaning. As I turned the pages, the kurals leaped off the pages anew. Each one opened up like a flower the longer I lingered on them. Pruiksma preserves the two-line economy of the original. His use of the dash adds quite a modern touch to the poems, adding drama and depth, making them “turn” at the end like a short story would.
I remembered you I said and she pulled back –— Kural 1316, Sulking’s Subtleties, tr Pruiksma
So you forgot
Sulk my bright jewel – and may our night— Kural 1329, Sulking and Bliss, tr Pruiksma
Of pleading be long
So much for aesthetics. But what about politics? What does Pruiksma make of the difficult parts of the Kural?
The Kural is a text marked by the social conditions of its time. It is an advice manual for men, pragmatic to a fault. It urges the benefits of a healthy marriage to a good wife, and the bearing of intelligent children. It talks about sons, not daughters.
Even the love it describes is in the classically “prescribed” mode, proceeding along the stages of pre-marital courting always followed by wedded love. Many of these traditional modes of living sound narrow, stodgy, boring and irrelevant to us today. Pruiksma, who is gay and married to his husband, belongs to a time and place far removed from the time when the Kural was composed.
However, reading Pruiksma’s generous translation made me feel that there is life in the Kural’s poetry even beyond some of its stodgier beliefs. It could be that even while a work is rooted in its time and place, as long as its values are deep, we can still find relevance to them in our own lives, in our time and place.
She who rises revering no god but her husband— Kural 55, In Praise of One’s Life Companion, tr Pruiksma
Says rain and the rain pours down
This kural could be, as Pruiksma said in a gathering once, about fidelity and devotion – not merely devoted wives – or husbands –- but students, artists, pets, or even translators. Single-minded devotion can bring down metaphorical rain with a single word. Wives who revere husbands as gods may be a relic of the past, but such devotion is timeless. So when these archaic stereotypes become symbols of enduring values, we can quite easily manage to transcend their narrow origins and take their essential values alone with us, relegating the specific stereotypes to the past where they belong.
There is, in Pruiksma’s The Kural, an earnest attempt by the translator to situate each kural in the framework of his own personal life, as it opens it up him, while maintaining fidelity to the language and music of the original. Pruiksma’s commentary of notes are full of thoughtful jottings on why he chose one word over another.
While his translation uses the word “husband”, the notes clarify that the Tamil word used, kondaar, literally means “the one who has received one”, broadening the scope of meaning for the word considerably. Karpu, a controversial Tamil word traditionally translated as “the chastity of women” is rendered as “fidelity”: “Chastity is too chaste for the power that Tamil and Tiruvalluvar perceive in this quality,” notes Pruiksma. Where birth and lineage are favourably mentioned, he points to contrasting verses within the Kural where “highness” and “lowness” is attributed to behavior, not birth – clearly, the Kural itself has room for such diversity of thought.
However, the intention of Pruiksma’s commentary is not just to engage with the Kural’s politics, but to open up the meaning of each word as widely and deeply as possible, to make them as close and relevant to the reader’s life as possible. As he does that, he also manages to rise above the limitations of the text. Life is the touchstone upon which Pruiksma tests the Kural, and this approach yields much richness with each brush, with little narrowness to mar it. In Pruiksma’s translation, the Kural, and the Tamil language itself, appear bright, deep, vast and universal, with a generosity that is timeless and holds all of humanity in its embrace.
The Book of Desire
If The Kural essentialises and universalises, Meena Kandasamy’s The Book of Desire is far more particular in its outlook. Kandasamy is an anti-caste activist, poet, novelist and translator. In her foreword to The Book of Desire, Kandasamy speaks about attempting “the first feminist interventionist translation of the Kural into English” as a Tamil decolonial feminist.
She also focusses entirely on the third book of the Kural, the section on love. With poems in subjective male and female voices, stylised as an ideal male and female lover respectively, the poems in the third book of the Kural allow room for the expression of a personal voice. The female voices in particular are special: perhaps here is the only place in all of the Kural where a feminine point of view is privileged.
And indeed, it is in the female subjective voice that Kandasamy’s translations shine the best. Her voice is bold, flamboyant, taking emotional cues from the Kural – passion, longing, anger – and heightening it to great effect in her translation.
What would be the fate— Kural 1165 - A Lament of the Lovesick, tr Kandasamy
of his enemies, I wonder,
when he unleashes so much
suffering towards his friends?
He has a strict guard— Kural 1205 - The Lament of Memory, tr Kandasamy
banning my entry to his heart.
Isn’t he shameless, then,
to constantly walk into mine?
However, at this juncture, it is important to clarify that like the rest of the kurals, the love poems in the third section of the Kural are not personal poems in any sense. In her foreword, Kandasamy speaks of translating the poems as a Tamil-woman-in-love, claiming for herself the space of the “terrifying Tamil goddess” depicted in the poems.
A recent review of The Book of Desire made reference to “Tiruvalluvar’s unabashed sensuality”. But the Kural itself is an impersonal work. Its poems do not speak of the poet’s personal feelings, but are stylised expressions, harkening back to the Tamil classical literary tradition’s exploration of agam, or interiority.
The poetics of agam constructs an ideal pair of lovers, who go through a set of conventional moments (first sight, attraction, union, separation, longing, and reunion) as they fall in love and live in marriage. Agam poetics traditionally places each of these moments in a different landscape – mountain, grassland pastures, fertile fields, seashore, and desert – and describes the emotions using many conventional metaphors. For example, the heroine’s longing is usually depicted with the metaphor of the sea and endless night.
The creativity of agam poems lies in the variations the poet is able to show in the scape of the conventional situations and metaphors, the depth of emotion conveyed. The Tamils were certainly a romantic people. But the evocative beauty and poignancy of the Kural’s verses on love, their sensuality too, is aesthetic and cultural – belonging to the Tamil world – rather than personal – tied down to an individual and their specific love life.
But romance is only a part of the story. A complete life requires a full love life, the Kural seems to say, with just enough sulking to season it like salt – but love is still a part of life, a life that is virtuously lived and materially successful. All parts, public, private and secret, have their place in a well-lived life. Sensory delights are part of life, but so is the renunciation of one’s senses. The Kural is thus a very balanced text.
One of the problems with any partial translation of the Kural – whether it just focusses on love or eschews love altogether – is that it it breaks up this classical balance, and creates a one-sided picture of the intent of a text as important and iconic as the Kural. This is especially true of a book aimed at a world audience: The Book of Desire is one of very select translations from Tamil to be published in the UK.
Interestingly, the Galley Beggar press edition of The Book of Desire doesn’t feature either the name of the author (Tiruvalluvar) or the language the poems are translated from (Tamil) on its cover – unlike the Penguin edition, which does both. Nor, for that matter, does it say that it is a translation: at first, I assumed that it was the author’s personal commentary or reflections on the Kural. For a translation with clear political motivations on how it fronts the Tamil identity, its cover is a rather unusual choice.
In Tamil, there has been a long male commentarial tradition on the Kural, from the 10th century onwards. Only one woman has written commentary on the text: KSV Lakshmi Ammal, the woman zamindar of Marungapuri, in the 20th century. Her commentary, from a Hindu perspective, is known as the Thirukkural Lady Zamindar Commentary. There have been two English translations of the Kural into English by women before The Book of Desire. This is the extent of women’s engagement with the Kural. None of these translations or commentaries have engaged with the politics of the Kural, particularly from a woman’s point of view. It is in this context that The Book of Desire becomes relevant.
However, for a translation that intends to focus on the eroticism of the Kural and female agency, one of my major disappointments with The Book of Desire was how unerotic many of the poems sound in Kandasamy’s translation. Rather than preserve the pithy two-line economy of the original, Meena goes in for a four-line verse, which often tends to unravel and overgloss the poem, blunting its eroticism. Keenness is as crucial to poetry as it is to eros.
A popular poem, in the male voice, singing the praises of his lady love is rendered thus:
If it could see her, the blue water lily— Kural 1114, In Praise of Her Beauty, tr Kandasamy
would fall over, hang its head in shame,
and say: I can never be a match to the eyes
of this beautiful, bejewelled woman.
Here is Pruiksma’s translation for contrast:
If water lilies could see they would look to the ground— Kural 1114, In Praise of Her, tr Pruiksma
Unable to match this beauty’s eyes
The momentary look-and-disappointed-turn of the waterlily – it can’t bring itself to raise its eyes again, it is so ashamed – is sorely missing in the first, over-glossed translation.
A popular poem on lovesickness is rendered thus:
Budding in the morning,— Kural 1227, Evening Melancholia, tr Kandasamy
preparing to blossom all day,
this disease flowers
in the evening.
The same poem, in Pruiksma’s translation:
At dawn it buds – all day it swells – and at dusk— Kural 1227, The Misery of Evening, tr Pruiksma
It blossoms – this disease
A flower buds, swells and blossoms – into a disease. This turn and contrast in the Kural is what makes it wise, universal, special – for who among us who has not known this disease?
Kandasamy makes use of certain contrived word choices in her translation to reflect her feminist approach, and they are not always effective. In particular, Kandasamy’s use of the word “sex” for the Tamil word kaamam – which, in the Kural, is used to denote all the jouissance of eros, from the physical to the emotional to the spiritual – considerably dampens the ardour of the poems. In bringing eros to the level of the flesh, the translation paradoxically limits the agency and psycho-emotional range accorded to women in the Kural. Many translations in The Book of Desire are interpretations where the woman’s body is looked upon as an object of enjoyment, while far more liberal, hence feminist, interpretations are possible.
To look, to hear, to taste,— Kural 1101, The Pleasure of Sex, tr Kandasamy
to smell, to touch:
all my five senses enjoy
the presence of this bangled beauty.
Here, the implication is simply that a man’s senses enjoy a woman. However the same poem can be rendered thus:
Sight sound taste touch smell – in this shining jewel— Kural 1101, The Joys of Joining, tr Pruiksma
I know all five
Here, between the lovers, sense knows sense, implying a joyful union of two, rather than the enjoyment of one by the other. Sensory knowledge in both the Jaina and Sankhya worldviews also points to knowledge of nature: the poem, then, can also imply the moment when man, through love, becomes alive to the physicality of nature that surrounds and nurtures him. (Tiruvalluvar is thought to be a Jain monk).
She begs with her eyes,— Kural 1280, Reading the Signs, tr Kandasamy
which speak of how she aches
for sex – it is said, then –
the woman is being womanly
Women among women – those whose eyes tell— Kural 1280, Making Signs Known, tr Pruiksma
The love that ails them
The utterly glorious femininity of “women among women” is sorely lacking when “the woman is being womanly” and begs. The mute entreat of a woman ailing in love – speaking volumes with her suffering eyes – is a far cry from the aching look of a woman who begs for sex. The agency of the latter is missing in the former.
The radical politics of the text
There are, as I argued earlier in the essay, reasons to reads the Kural broadly, and free it from some of its narrow concerns. So a feminist take on the Kural is important and timely. However, rather than the book on love, it is the poems in the first two sections, on right living and material life – with predominantly “male”, “social” concerns – where a feminist intervention might prove transformational today, radically reinterpreting old mores.
The Kural speaks of a woman’s “safety within”, it speaks of a woman “guarding herself” as her highest calling. These terms can be freed of its narrow interpretations: words like “self”, and “within” can be read as pertaining to a woman’s interiority, her agam, the process of keeping her sacred inner balance intact, regardless of her relationships with others.
For long, women have been relegated to playing their sexual roles in society, whether as wives or lovers: the third book on love, for all its female agency, situates a woman in relation to a lover and spouse, presumably male. But the Kural also hints on the relationship a woman has with herself, her own fullness, from where her passion and agency, goodness and glory emerges. These are areas untouched yet in Kural scholarship to the best of my knowledge.
However, in reading Thomas Pruiksma’s The Kural, I feel that such approaches are quite possible, if translations and commentaries are made with the kind of keen attention he bestows on the text. As reading The Kural reveals, all the politics of a text – situating it in an external culture, resolving its internal politics, testing its universal, humanistic appeal – are perhaps paradoxically, best addressed by being genuinely attentive to its aesthetics, its form and music, rather than any kind of reductive means. Perhaps being truly true to a text is its own form of radical politics.