Of the five novels shortlisted for the inaugural JCB Prize for Literature, two were translations, and one, Benyamin’s Jasmine Days, was the winner. The other was Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi: Or The Story Of A Black Goat, which has been translated from Tamil into English by N Kalyan Raman. Raman has been translating Tamil fiction and poetry into English for the last two decades, for which he received the Pudumaipithan Award in 2017.
Some of the fiction writers he’s made accessible to an Anglophone audience include the late Ashokamitran, Devibharathi, Vaasanthi, Perumal Murugan, and Poomani. He has translated numerous Tamil poets, including forty poems by forty Tamil women poets for an anthology curated by Kutti Revathi. Speaking to Scroll.in, Raman detailed the ways in which the discourse around translated literature in India can be strengthened, his reaction to Poonachi being shortlisted for the JCB Prize, the immersive research he puts into translating the voices of identities he doesn’t inhabit – such as Dalit or female experiences – the need for recognising and supporting younger and newer Tamil voices, and much else. Excerpts from the interview:
In a previous interview, you’ve spoken of a learning curve in the skill of a translator. When looking back at your body of work, is it obvious to you that there’s been a gradual accruement of skill over the years? Can you talk to us a little about some of the ways in which you’ve grown as a translator over the years?
My first book as a translator, a collection of short stories by Ashokamitran, was published twenty years ago. Ten more have followed since. I can say with certainty that I am no longer the timorous amateur who worked on that first book. As to how skilled I am today as a translator, it is not for me to say.
A basic skill that I’ve learnt is: how to write a literary text of narrative prose fiction in English, with all the nuances – of voice, intent and context – of the original work intact. It took me several years to be able to do this effectively and with a degree of confidence.
Beyond that, translating poetry, especially women’s poetry, was a huge challenge. On the dimensions of language and form, writing the translation as a poem in English stretched my abilities as a creative writer. To be able to read these feminist poems right, I had to acquire a serviceable understanding of the cultural, political and emotional contexts of feminist poetry and discourse. So, I read a lot of women’s poetry, and tapped into my own personal exposure to and understanding of such themes and concerns. A similar process of self-education became necessary when I started translating Dalit and subaltern literary texts, both fiction and poetry.
In terms of personal growth, I have been able to work with texts across a variety of genres and themes, but they are only a tiny fraction of what exists out there.
You’ve pointed out that there is an insufficient ecosystem around literature in translation in India. Could you tell us about some of the ways in which you believe coverage in the media and organisation of events can support and critically evaluate translated literature and translators?
Literary texts in any Indian language (other than English) emerge from the literary tradition of that language and from the life and history of that language community. We need a discourse in English on translated texts that is alive to these contexts and is also able to meaningfully map these works to a wider Anglophone milieu. So, what we need is a cadre of reviewers with the necessary background and experience, who can contribute to the development of such a discourse, even across languages. Obviously, we need to encourage and accommodate such people within existing structures for reviewing and critical assessment. I am not able to say how feasible this might be.
As for translators, I think more of them should get into reviewing translated texts, to improve the state of the art, as it were, so that others might learn from it.
Indie presses devoted to translations can promote translated texts with more vigour and conviction than most mainstream publishers with a range of obligations are able to do. Web magazines devoted to translations and dialogue with translators, something on the lines of the Asymptote Journal, can do a world of good.
As for events, I think more sessions and panel discussions featuring only practising translators to cover the art and craft of translation would be a good idea. Identification of the best translations published each year and publishing profiles of their translators would also help to promote translated literature and bring it some level of prestige.
If there is a pie-in-the-sky feel to what I’ve said here, I guess that’s wholly unavoidable, given where we are right now.
What does being shortlisted for the JCB Prize mean for you?
It means a certain degree of public recognition and I am happy for it. As a translator, I am even more pleased that it’s a context where people can talk about and evaluate literary texts without worrying about the language of origin. As a translator, I am happy to be in the land of what Walter Benjamin has called a language beyond languages.
How often do you choose the texts you end up translating, and how often do people approach you to translate a text? What are some of the considerations before you take on a translation project?
In a majority of cases, I choose the text in consultation with the author (or their representative, as the case may be) and make a proposal to the publisher. I have also done translations under my own steam and found a publisher later. It’s rare for a publisher to approach me with a project of their own. It happened, though, with the two Perumal Murugan books I did recently.
For me, the consideration is always the literary significance of the text and my own personal engagement with it as a reader and critic. It would be impossible to translate a text that one didn’t feel strongly about.
Arshia Sattar has said that the jury of a literary prize must “seek the outlier, and not the conventional, mainstream writer.” Do you see the role of the translator in a similar way?
Well, a jury’s job ends with the selection of a winner, whereas a translator’s job begins with a choice, and if I may so, the latter involves a lot more work! Seriously, the two contexts are not strictly comparable because translation involves choosing from works produced over a long period. In the case of modernist Tamil literature, it is 80 years and counting. Moreover, the choice of works for translation is a collective, social enterprise and not just an aggregation of choices made by individual translators. There are many institutions as well as special interests involved.
That said, the number of works in modern Tamil literature that can and should be translated is huge and only a small fraction of that number has been published in translation. So, any translator would be spoilt for choice.
Right now the selection of books for translation is guided by good intentions on the part of all concerned – publishers, editors and translators – but it is also haphazard to the extent that there is no invisible hand behind this process to ensure that the best works in a particular language are translated on priority. Even among contemporary writers, some are pushed forward through contacts with publishers and others, equally meritorious, are ignored. An attempt at a broad-based and consultative selection of works for translation and finding publishers for them is being attempted in Malayalam through the university system. We might need some variant of this model as the engine for choosing works for translation from literature in every major Indian language.
There is another flaw in the current process which needs conscious correction. Selection of texts for translation is highly skewed in favour of well-known books by famous authors, in other words, modern classics published at least a few decades earlier. In the Tamil literary milieu, new and experimental writing, especially by younger writers, hardly ever makes it to the ranks of the chosen. This needs to change.
What were some of the most rewarding aspects of translating Poonachi? What were some of the challenges?
Poonachi is a very special work, a superbly imagined tale for our times, which is also profound in its exploration of the human condition through the life-trajectory of a little black goat. It was fun to bring this dazzling story alive in English. It is also gratifying to see that it has caught the imagination of the reading public across the country. It may even endure as a classic representing this particular, and particularly unfortunate, period in the life of our country.
Murugan’s prose style is elegant and modern even when he is describing the life of a subaltern community. In most of his works, the lives of his characters are inextricably merged with the terrain and landscape, trees and plants, along with bird and animals. Poonachi is a differently imagined story composed using the same elements. Having read his novels and written about them, I did not find this part difficult.
Poonachi is also filled with grief, especially towards the end, and reproducing his humane but unsentimental tone was quite a challenge. But the biggest challenge was meeting the deadline for publication, barely four months from start to finish. I, along with Karthika, my editor at Westland, did this book virtually on the run, and this was certainly a novel experience for me.
In the coming years, whose work would you like to see readers pay greater attention to? Whose work would you like to see translated into other languages?
I would like to see readers pay more attention to Ashokamitran. A lot of his work is available in English translation and much of it is world-class, but his work hasn’t received the kind of critical attention it deserves outside Tamil Nadu. It would be a great loss and a pity if his work doesn’t reach succeeding generations of Indian readers.
As for authors whose work I would like to see translated into other languages, especially English, here is a very personal list:
Fiction by older writers: Pudumaipithan, more of Sundara Ramasamy and Ashokamitran, Thi Janakiraman, Na Muthuswamy and fresh translations of Jayakanthan.
Fiction by living writers: More of Imayam, Devibharathi, Poomani, Jeyamohan, Vaasanthi. Experimental fiction by Payon.
Poetry: Atmanaam, Perundevi and Payon.
Plays: Na Muthuswamy and Indira Parthasarathi.