And local expressions vanished without a trace!

— Sundara Ramaswamy (translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)

This year we stayed overnight at a friend’s place for Thanksgiving and the next day, as we were about to leave, he popped into my hand a few books from his elegant library. All of them translations of Tamil fiction which I had already read in the source language. I left with two of them, Sundara Ramaswamy’s Oru Puliamarathin Kathai translated as The Tamarind Tree by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, and Jeyamohan’s Aram translated as Stories of the True by Priyamvada Ramkumar, but I had serious doubts about my intentions to read them. For a reader whose bucket list of books keeps increasing in inverse proportion to the remaining years allotted to him, what could be gained in expending his most precious mortality on what at best might be passable re-runs?

Reading translations is an enthusiasm that I indulge in now and then with the mad hope of discovering a solution to some of the vexing problems that I had encountered in my feeble attempts at it. I ended up reading both books in a matter of days, which is extraordinary considering my reading pace and habit of reading translations alongside the originals.

The calculated risk of translating Sundara Ramaswamy

Sundara Ramaswamy’s Oru Puliamarathin Kathai was one of my earliest introductions to the “literary” Tamil novel. Justly revered as a Tamil modernist classic, it was also probably one of the earliest instances in the history of the modern Tamil novel where a topos (in this case a busy intersection of a small town in Tamil Nadu) is the protagonist. Following the protagonist’s unrecorded history from its heydays to its eventual demise, we get a brilliantly fictionalised account of a section of Tamil society in transition. In retrospect, the novel was also prescient in anticipating the potent mix of religion and politics as an electoral strategy and the way public consent can be manipulated / manufactured with the help of a colluding media. That it can wear all its socio-historic chops so lightly and so humorously is one of the reasons for its endurance.

I might be wrong, but Oru Puliamarathin Kathai might also be the only Tamil novel to have been translated three times! Almost 30 years after Cre-A published the Tamil version in 1966, Penguin published a translation in 1995 (The Tale of a Tamarind Tree) by S Krishnan. Krishnan in his short translator’s note throws up his hands at the impossibility of finding an English equivalent for “the special kind of patois” that the characters speak in the original. His solution is to render dialogue in “straightforward, even colourless English, eschewing phrases and idioms that are native to English.” To the disgruntled reader who already has one foot out the door, he offers as enticement his paraphrases, additions, and deletions “in the interest of clarity.” After such a cop-out of a translator’s note, the reader is almost tempted to agree with one instance of Krishnan’s generic assertion about “all translations”: his translation is a “calculated risk anyway”. But Krishnan doth protest too much, barring his strategy to sporadically convert first-person speech to bland third-person reportage his translation fares much better than his note portended.

In 2013, Penguin published another translation of Oru Puliamarathin Kathai, by Blake Wentworth, a Professor at Berkeley who chose to complicate the simplicity of the original title with something weightier: Tamarind History. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get hold of this version, so I cannot comment on the translation. But a fellow translator remembers it as being a “very smooth” read.

That brings me to the latest version of this legendary novel, Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s The Tamarind Tree, published by Penguin Books in India and Amazon Crossing worldwide in 2022. What bugged me at the outset was there was no translator’s note in this version that explained the rationale for a third translation. The afterword by Sundara Ramaswamy’s children highlights the continued relevance of the novel. However, the editorial choices made during the translation do not provide this rationale either.

The “Oru” in Oru Puliamarathin Kathai has the feel of oral lore, that typically begins with generic indefiniteness as in ஒரு ஊர்ல ஒரு நரி இருந்துதாம்... (In a village there was a fox ... ). Intuitively one understands that the novel is “a story about a tamarind tree”. As the novel unfolds, the indefiniteness gradually vanishes and it becomes a particular story about a particular tamarind tree in this particular town in Nagercoil. That is, the generic tamarind tree acquires specificity (it becomes The Tamarind Tree) thereby aiding the suspension of disbelief. But at the end of the novel, the tree and the town in which it is rooted acquires universality, hence making the novel a tale about any town in a state of transition being ushered into modernity.

This movement from A The Any from generic to particular to universal is in some measure the success of the novel. Krishnan’s title is the closest to the original, The Tale of a Tamarind Tree. Blake Wentworth tries to be more daring (not necessarily a good thing) and opts for a meta-title as if trying to imply that the novel is not just a story but is also a history of a particular society, not just official history but unofficial oral history, history with a zing, as if it were infused with something tangy, a “Tamarind History”, so to speak.

Aniruddhan’s translation drops the story/tale from the title, perhaps with the thought that it might make it too tautological (after all a novel is a story), but one has to cut some slack here. The translator is in a unique position where no one has ever been before – he is translating a twice-translated novel, and all the straightforward and zany titles seem to be already taken! But no harm done, The Tamarind Tree works quite well.

Tamil is notoriously diglossic and this diglossia poses a severe hurdle for a translator. Buried in this diglossia are shades of meaning that allude to caste and status. More important, the diction modulates the tone across a whole range of emotions. In my opinion, what will endure in Sundara Ramaswamy’s fictional oeuvre is his extraordinary humour, which manages to be both sarcastic and humane. Several sections of Oru Puliamarathin Kathai are laugh-out funny and this time, as I was re-reading them in bed, my wife admonished me to stop rattling it!

An astute reader will also find in this novel the roots of his erstwhile disciple Jeyamohan’s technique of modulating diction and use of dialect to traverse the comedic spectrum in both his short and long fiction formats. Although the book is rife with comedic interactions amongst a plethora of characters, three comedic voices make it riotously funny: the voices of Damodara Asan the raconteur par excellence of the book, the municipality official Valli Nayagam Pillai, and Isakki the local journalist. In my mind, the success of any translation of Oru Puliamarathin Kathai is largely determined by how these three voices are rendered in the target language, in this case, English.

Aniruddhan manages to get most of it right in the episode in which Damodaran Asan manages to prevent Koplan from axing the tamarind tree, the marvellous back and forth between the two. The formality of English as necessitated by the translation mutes the comedic register a bit, but this is unavoidable (as Krishnan lamented in his translator’s note). But by and large, the episode is still funny, even if it’s not the laugh-out funniness of the original. As a sample, let’s randomly pick a snippet:

“நீ லேசுப்பட்டவன் இல்லே. நான் ஒன்னெ ஒரு மாதிரி நெனச்சுப்போட்டேன். சாமி ஒனக்குப் பிரத்தியக்ஷமாட்டுல்லா நிக்கு.”

“ஊரிலே அப்படித்தான் பேச்சு.”

“நல்ல பேருனு சொல்லு”

“ஊர்விட்டு ஊரு தெரியும். நெடுகப்பரவிட்டு இப்பம்”

“You are not an ordinary fellow. I was wrong in my judgment of you. It’s clear that the deity makes itself known to you.”

“That’s what they say in the village,” Koplan said, proud.

“So you have a good reputation.”

“Initially only people in the nearby villages knew. But now it’s spread even farther.”

— Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation

The whole episode hinges on how well Asan strings Koplan along on his ego trip and manoeuvers him into a soft landing. The word பிரத்தியக்ஷம் is a heavy one, with Sanskrit origins (pratyaksha, that which is perceptible to the eye), when it suddenly shows up in the demotic, especially after those first two sentences, and is followed by that splendid நிக்கு (nikku – stand), it is intrinsically funny, even without the context. In English the sentences are not intrinsically funny – the comedy needs the context to work. Note also how English needs modifiers like proud to convey the tone, which is also intrinsic to the Tamil demotic. Also “I was wrong in my judgment of you” is too clunky, a simple “I was wrong about you” would have worked as well. (Krishnan’s translation is simpler: “You are not an ordinary fellow, as I thought.” But he needs to follow that with a clunky “You are deep”.)

Sometimes in a translation, you have to bail out and not try too hard for exact fidelity. In the latter half of the book, Isakki the intrepid journalist meets the press owner Francis in one of his morning forays. In the ensuing conversation, the comedic high point hinges on Tamil orthography. In Tamil, education (கல்வி) differs from sex (கலவி) only by the diacritical dot. Francis asks Isakki if he has sufficient dot fonts and then makes the point about the lamentable state of the country’s education by saying that even if Isakki didn’t have sufficient dot fonts, he could use education and sex interchangeably and nothing would be lost. This is how Aniruddhan translates this passage:

“I hope you have enough dots to put above the I. Otherwise, you will end up printing Kalavi (sex) instead of Kalvi (education). Although it’s not going to be the end of the world....”

Here is Krishnan:

Francis asked him if he had enough dots to put over the second letter to make it into an “I”. “If you don’t have enough dots, go ahead and print it as ‘kalavi’, what difference does it make?”

He then follows it with an explanation of the “elaborate pun.”

My translation instinct initially went down the rabbit hole of School and Stool but returned to its senses eventually. Perhaps, “Do you have enough dots to put above ல, otherwise you will end up printing கலவி (kalavi: sex) instead of கல்வி (kalvi: education)?

I am perhaps nitpicking, but this is to illustrate the nuances that go into a translation. The translation runs to 190 pages and barring a few hiccups like the ones I mentioned it is quite breezy and easy to read. There are some fine bits that I relished (“they were like newsreels on legs”, “return telegram”, “like a table fan turning he moved his head” [or oscillating/turned his head perhaps?], the scene in which Isakki is bitching about the wife of his late boss and many more). The narrative portions are ported over accurately without too much fuss and have an elegant feel to them. This is a non-intrusive translation that is funny despite the loss of diglossic texture. That in itself makes this a worthwhile rendition.

The dharma of translating Jeyamohan

Imagine a translator’s debut expending three more words than the original’s succinct single-word title (Aram versus Stories of the True), and then expending even more words explaining this increase in her translator’s note, first rejecting a quite popular and almost Tamil-sounding alternative (Dharma) because she has a problem with equivalents of Sanskrit origin, and then invoking Sanskrit (for a quotation from the Upanishads) to justify her prolixity. Off the bat, you might say this translator is starting on a sticky wicket. But luckily for us, she bats right through, and after reading 12 splendid stories you are almost tempted to believe that she might have a point.

With over three hundred short stories, close to a dozen novels, several works of literary criticism, and a 26-volume fictional recreation of the Mahabharatha (Venmurasu, White Drum) Jeyamohan is arguably the most prolific Tamil writer of modern times. That begets the question of how many more should he write before the overlords of the translation industry deign to bestow their graces on him. But now several of his books are finally in the process of being translated.

The Tamil word “Aram”, typically construed as virtue or ethics, is very rooted in the Tamil psyche; from works as ancient as the Thirukkural (one-third of whose 1,330 couplets are devoted to the exposition of Aram) through its splendid formulation of retributory justice in the great epic Cilappathikaram down to modern times, it has traversed through over 2,000 years of haloed literature, accruing several shades of meaning, both public and private, in that long journey. Ethos is the equivalent Greek word that comes to mind, which simplistically translates as “a way of living.” It is in this sense (by what ideal does one live?) that Jeyamohan explores it in this set of stories that he wrote in a frenzy in an astonishing span of just 40 days.

The Tamil reading public is by now quite used to these “frenzies” of Jeyamohan, the recent one resulting in a spate of 100 stories and, of course, the decade-long one that delivered his 26-part roman-flueve in daily instalments. Although not his greatest work, Aram might be his most popular. It interestingly combines biography and fiction, even giving some stories the intrigue of gossip. From popular writers, singers, forest officers, and civil service bureaucrats to forest officers, missionary doctors, and cranky visionaries, the book abounds with a plethora of interesting real-life personalities who make it an intriguing read. As they go about their private and public lives, they reveal both to themselves and the reader an ethical epiphany that clarifies things. Barring one or two stories, Jeyamohan keeps it very down to earth without veering off to some of his more esoteric concerns.

Priyamvada Ramkumar’s translation is superb, and I don’t mean it as mere pat-on-the-back words of encouragement for a newbie translator. I read it over a weekend and I hardly felt the need to go to the original, trying to clarify sentences that sounded clunky. There is a wonderful rhythm to this translation that makes full use of the range of the English language to achieve its ends.

Tamil is in my opinion a very emotive language that often veers to the melodramatic. A story like Aram that opens this collection can only be conceived in Tamil. That we can now read it in English without flinching or frowning is a testament to the quality of this translation. Often a translator falls into the trap of staying too close to the Tamil phrasing resulting in a translation that sounds Tanglish, and while editing they try to overcompensate resulting in a muffling of the emotional crescendo of the original. Ramkumar strikes this wonderful balance where the limpidness of the English sentence is sustained even as it attempts to go out of its comfort zone to achieve the emotional import of its Tamil counterpart. I adduce the beautifully rendered first section of “Palm-Leaf Cross” as evidence.

Jeyamohan is a master at establishing the believability of his character and its setting. He has close to an eidetic memory, and this allows him to effortlessly amass detail upon detail to precisely delineate the traits of his characters and make them “individuals”. Editing novice translators for some of our literary specials, I could see how many of them were more interested in getting the highs of the story, the startling metaphor, or the clever turn of phrase right. They didn’t mind missing out on the, to their mind, “minor details”.

As the syntactic structures of Tamil and English are inverted, a sentence that grows accreting details poses a dilemma for the translator – should they keep it whole, or chop it into smaller bits, thereby sacrificing the music of the longer sentence? Ramkumar thankfully has avoided this pitfall and I relished (with a jealous cherry on top) her cake-like layered sentence constructions.

Let’s sample these lines to give you a sense of what I am admiring: Here’s a self-description of the narrator of “Meal-Tally”, one of the finest in this collection:

“தலையில் வைத்த தேங்காயெண்ணை முகத்தில் வியர்வையுடன் சேர்ந்து வழிய கணுக்கால்மேலே ஏறிய ஒற்றைவேட்டியும் பானைக்குள் சுருக்கி வைத்த சட்டையும் செருப்பில்லாத கால்களுமாக பிரமை பிடித்து நடந்து போனேன்.”

“With coconut oil oozing from my hair and mingling with the sweat on my face, clad in a half-length vaetti that stopped short of my shin, a shirt crumpled from having been stored in a pot, and with feet unshod, I walked in a trance.”

No detail is lost, everything is in place in a single sentence and more importantly (for me, as this cannot be always achieved) the details are layered in the same order as the original.

Here’s the IAS officer from the intensely moving “A Hundred Armchairs” describing the sight of his vagrant mother in a hospital shed:

“மூன்றாவது ஷெட்டின் கடைசித்தூணருகே என் அம்மா கிடப்பதைப் பார்த்துவிட்டேன். ஒரு பனம்பாயில் மல்லாந்து கிடந்தாள். பெரும்பாலும் நிர்வாணமாக. கரிய வயிறு பெரிதாக உப்பி எழுந்து ஒருபக்கமாக சரிந்திருந்தது. கைகால்கள் வீங்கித் தோல்சுருக்கங்கள் விரிந்து பளபளவென்றிருந்தன. முலைகள் அழுக்கு பைகள் போல இருபக்கமும் சரிந்து கிடந்தன. வாய் திறந்து கரிய ஒற்றைப்பல்லும் தேரட்டை போன்ற ஈறுகளும் தெரிந்தன. தலையில் முடி சிக்குப் பிடித்துச் சாணி போல ஒட்டியிருந்தது.”

“In the third shed, I caught sight of my mother lying beside the last pillar. Sprawled on her back, she lay on a palm-straw mat, practically naked. Her dark belly was distended and had tilted to one side from its own weight. Her hands and legs were swollen, stretching her wrinkled skin to a shining smoothness. Her breasts had slumped on either side, like filthy bags. Her mouth was open, revealing a solitary black tooth and leech-like gums. Grimy matted hair was plastered to her head, like cow dung.”

Here again, visual details are amassed in rapid succession in an almost staccato fashion generating a rhythm that’s poignant (except for “own weight” that sticks out). And that last sentence is a small miracle!

This was why I was mightily miffed encountering, a couple of paragraphs later a sentence that began like this: “As Amma had just gorged on something, she had found somewhere to the point of dullness...”

Agraharam glowing like “a soft-red brushstroke against the black canvas of the night”, “In the vast sky of emptiness, a solitary soundwave the sole remnant of ‘existence’ wiggled in awe at the sight of its own being.”, ‘wavy sweeps of the broom were punctuated with a variety of footprints...” I can go on and on but I will leave the rest for the discovering pleasures of the future reader.

Allow me to nitpick one last time. Unlike the Tamil “தாயோளி” the use of “motherfucker” in its endearing tone or as meaningless superfluous slang is not as prevalent as “fuck”, “bastard” or even “asshole”. It worked for me when the context was one of rage but jarred elsewhere.

When I met Sundara Ramaswamy in the early 1990s, we talked about Spanish literature in translation. He told me that to translate the “greats” the translator needs mighty wings that will allow them to soar with the authors. After reading The Tamarind Tree and Stories of the True, I’m pleased to realise that the future of Tamil literature in translation is in good hands.

Nambikrishnan writes and translates in English under the pen name Nakul Vāc. His English translations have appeared in Sahitya Akademi’s Indian Literature journal and several online literary magazines. Nambikrishnan’s first collection of Tamil essays Pandiaattam was published in 2020. His second book on TS Eliot was published in 2023 and his latest collection of essays is slated to come out at the Chennai Bookfair in January 2024. He writes and translates fiction, essays, and poetry.