My relationship with literature has been academically uncurated, thanks to which, my interest and curiosity are unmitigated by institutional proclivities. Still, I approach opportunities to translate texts with a hunger that can only be attributed to envy – an envy for the student of literature who learns from teachers who are wonderful writers.

But when one of Prof HS Shivaprakash’s essays on history of theatre was commissioned to me for translation by a journal a couple of years ago, I did not realise that it was, in fact, a moment of serendipity that would take me beyond the learning it offered in that one essay. A very warm communication followed from this between the professor and I and it led to me translating his four plays that comprise this book.

The Legend of Manteswami

I’m not sure what gave him the confidence to trust me with the first – and the most challenging – of his plays, The Legend of Manteswami, but I accepted it with the joy of a child who had been given a new toy to play with. Little did I know that I was actually jumping into the deep end of the pool of translation. While all I felt was the absolute thrill of finding creative solutions to the many challenges this linguistically nuanced and socially important play threw up as I worked with it, I only realised what a feat it had been when I rose to the surface having discovered so much about language and society and theatre – and about myself – in its depths. It is a plunge that proved to be, to borrow a line from his other play, The Madure Episode, “a calling for a calling”.

Manteswami contains layers of dialect that are an indication of the class differences among the characters, which is, in fact, the core of the Manteswami oral tradition as it contains lessons of reform of, what was considered, a social reform movement gone haywire. I worked to recreate those layers through linguistic manoeuvring.

The risk was the possibility of going overboard with the liberties I took with grammar for this purpose, which could lead to the rendition sounding like a caricature. But I think I have managed to stave away such a risk by standardising the linguistic difference I created, which gives it a regular feel and does not seem like haphazard spikes of manufactured rusticity.

The hybrid nature of plays can be both a blessing and a challenge for translation. It is many genres rolled into one – it is story, it is song, it is narration, it is poetry in motion. While a translator has to be conscious of the need to transpose meaning while ensuring that the mood and the magic is retained, this very performative nature gives her the respite of allowing the director/actor to smooth the rough edges that the translation might have left behind.

Madhavi and The Madure Episode

For me, translation is nothing but intimate reading. It is important that I find a deep connection with the work I translate. So, while in Manteswami I formed a close bond with the precarious yet enjoyable linguistic journey it was, the other plays in the collection, viz, Madhavi and The Madure Episode were more personal engagements with the characters and the settings.

In that, I am glad I was asked to translate Madhavi before The Madure Episode, the two disparate episodes from the Kannagi story. Despite being consciously aware of its problems, I cannot help fall into the trap of forming culturally relativist opinions about characters in stories. Kannagi is an intriguing character who at first exhibits softness that can be construed as weakness, but blows up into a raging, vengeful, gutsy woman in the end in The Madure Episode.

From where I am situated in time and space, I must confess I grappled with her loyalty to a man who had wronged her. And what is the point of Kannagi’s short-lived triumph in the ultimate tragedy of her love story if what drove Kovala’s return to her was simply his sense of guilt and duty?

There is tenderness between them, yes – perhaps even underplayed love as the play hints – but that question drew me in into the hopelessness of loss in the story. So, had I not translated these two plays in this order, I would probably have villainised Madhavi – the “other woman” in Kannagi’s life – in my head and perhaps that would have coloured my translation.

Although I know I wouldn’t consciously alter anything, I might – unconsciously – have found less enthusiastic equivalents when transposing descriptions of her beauty, for instance. She plays elaborate scenes of dressing up every day in anticipation of her lover, the father of her child, who despite his love for her has left her over a more righteous calling; the expected culmination of her desire never occurs. But having first worked through the scenes of longing and separation that Madhavi experiences, I felt the realness of that pain.

With this thought, I realised how translation involves a whole spectrum of possibilities and something as unimaginable as order of reading could have an impact on it! Also, as these conflicting, gripping feelings that played out in all their complex textures and colours, they helped open my mind beyond the narrow moralising I was unconsciously conditioned to. Perhaps that made me a better reader of literature – perhaps even a better person. That’s the learning I’m grateful for in this entire endeavour.

The Bride

The Bride gave me the sense of a crashing storm that settles down into a gentle drizzle in the end. In all these plays, the common thread is the depiction of the quality of mercy: when all reason and judgement fail to resolve the unexplainable suffering, only mercy and compassion give it an acceptable conclusion. Unlike in Portia’s speech, these plays show this rather than tell that. And that stayed with me.

In working with the various songs and complex moods in all the plays I translated, I learnt that a text is full of spaces that you can occupy with your own literary substance; in rewriting something or annotating seamlessly when the new language demands an explanation of an unfamiliar situation or creating a proverb to suit the implied meaning of an existing one, you can make it your own. But a good translation is one that owns these spaces with the humility and gratitude of a welcome guest and not a coloniser’s impudence. The idea is to hope for a lasting welcome.

Four Plays, HS Shivaprakash

Excerpted with permission from the “Introduction”, by Maithreyi Karnoor, to Four Plays, HS Shivaprakash, Sahitya Akademi.