“I think that most readers – and again I’m excepting the specialist reader or indeed the discriminating and sensitive reader – don’t understand what exactly is involved in a translation. They can’t quite grasp the notion that languages differ hugely in lexis as well as syntax; that one language doesn’t ‘move into’ another automatically. Nor do they realise that when you translate a work, whether it is a poem or a long work of fiction, you have to keep in mind the integrity of the whole thing. Words and sentences may be the bricks and mortar but it has a structure as a whole that you are constantly aspiring towards. But of course, I’m also aware that different translators read, interpret and work differently.”

— Lakshmi Holmström on translation.

I’d known Lakshmi Holmström for less than a decade, while we have exchanged innumerable emails, I’ve met her only a half dozen times. But I feel a sharp sense of loss and am immensely grateful to have crossed paths with her.

Lakshmi’s fine translations of the twentieth-century prose writers opened the doors of the Tamil literary world to English readers, in India and around the world. Not only did she translate some of the acclaimed masters such as Sundara Ramaswamy and Ashokamitran, but she also translated succeeding generations of interesting and important writers – Ambai, Bama, Cheran, Salma and others.

Each translation was distinct in texture and tone. She was able to inhabit and convey the varied voices of the different writers and yet each translated text carried Lakshmi’s signature. She could capture the austere clarity of Ashokamitran just as well as the spiky precision of Ambai or the passionate provocation of Sukirtharani or Kutti Revathi.

I am the rain’s fall;
you are the pull of the river.
The force of our love’s union
is like red earth and pouring rain –
the leaping of fish into the body –
the entwining of water-weeds.
The fierceness of your embrace
whirls me about
tosses me against the rock-beds
makes me lose my breath.
Your lap is my wheeling miracle-seat;
the prize conferred by the ancients.
The soft skin of your hands
strokes my eyes, reaching
around my neck.
When you come towards me, beckoning,
the grass tears my feet.
You are the hastening of time;
I am the blossoming season.

— ‘Rain-River’, Kutti Revathi. Translated by Lakshmi Holmström,

I first read Lakshmi as a writer in her own right: her elegant and haunting retelling of two classical texts, the two great Tamil epics, Silappadikaram and Manimekalai. Though most know her as an award-winning translator of modern and contemporary Tamil writing, she has made not insignificant contributions to rendering classical Tamil poetry in English.

With K Srilata and Subashree Krishnaswamy she conceptualised, selected and translated poems from the very beginnings of Tamil literature to the present day – a range spanning two thousand years – in The Rapids of the Great River. In the last few years she devoted herself exclusively to translating poetry, her focus resting on the acclaimed Sri Lankan Tamil poet Cheran and young women poets Kutti Revathi, Sukirtharani, Malathi Maitri and Salma.

From time to time
the younger girl, disturbed
by the shameful, falling words,
tries to muzzle them
with her own foolish

That entire night
the new bride
disentangles her sister’s advice
caught in her dangling ear-drops,
and lays them out carefully
upon the marriage bed.

— From ‘New Bride, New Night’, Salma. Translated by Lakshmi Holmström

She was rigorous and steely eyed in her attention to language and ideas. And witty and twinkly in her dealings with the world. I found her insightful and delightful as a colleague and ally. One of the last occasions I met her was in Norwich, at her home, with her husband Mark.

I went to visit her with Kate Griffin from the British Centre of Literary Translation. It was a cold day in March. The magnolias were just beginning to bloom. We had hot lunch – cooked by Lakshmi – and cold cider, and there was good conversation. It was the highlight of my trip.

All of us in the loose network of people employed in and by Indian literature – writers, teachers, editors – will miss her. Tamil literature has lost one of its most significant champions. Now, in the words of Cheran, translated, poignantly, by Lakshmi herself:

A great desert divides us
no dove will fly across it
to bring a letter;
she dissolves into silence

Two fragments in translation

Pale blue fields.
Pomegranates, lit up by the sun’s rays
Weaver birds’ nests, hanging down,
Under the shade, women opening
their bundles of food.

— From ‘Three Dreams’, Sharmila Sayeed. Translated by Lakshmi Holmström.

The Sun god sits shyly
like a morning lamp at the bedstead
while Lake Ontario lies unmoving,
caught in love’s languor.

You, Sun, are a wanderer in the arctic winter.
I, a roaming beggar, journeyed across a long sorrow
chased by war weapons.
Who drove you here to become a refugee, too?

— From ‘Ploughing the Fields of Snow’, Thirumavalavan. Translated by Lakshmi Holmström.