Translation, as Gayatri Spivak says, is a part of the “responsibility to the trace of the other in the self.” We find this trace of the other foremost in the act of reading. By reading literature, we can enter other people’s worlds, and find that our imagination can discover the traces of that other in the text, traces that we may ourselves never experience. Since translation is the closest reading of a text, a translator can feel the others in the text very intimately.

However, this tracing of the other is not to be confused with relatability. This relatability is ultimately a shorthand for reducibility: I relate to this text, this text constitutes my experience. By “relating”, we limit the understanding of a text to a literal reading connected to our real-life experiences, rather than labour to expand our imagination to the experiences of the text. Like the word “labour” suggests, this involves hard-work on the part of the reader, and therefore, the translator.

In the preface, the translator of Rising Heat, Janani Kannan, begins a paragraph with: “My own paternal grandfather was a farmer all his life,” narrating the travails of her family’s ancestral farmlands, noting that some of her neighbours sold their property to housing developers. This “personal experience,” she claims, “connected [her] with the characters and the events in the novel intimately.” This kind of reading, although common, conflates the singular experiences of the family portrayed in the novel with one’s own experiences, however painful they may be.

Too real to be true

This literal reading of general events – losing farmlands to housing corporations – eclipses the complexity of the particularities of Rising Heat. Kannan does note Perumal Murugan’s layered foray into the psyche of his characters, but because of her literal reading, emblematic in the above instance, English readers are served a lacklustre text to savour. The literality is more visible in the translated text, where text is favoured over context, word over meaning, syntax over texture.

Consider these lines. The protagonist is lamenting the loss of the lands where he had played until recently, and complaining about the lack of open space in his new house: “How could anyone even feel like playing in this environment? The only thought that occurred to him there was to scoop up some dust, sprinkle it on everyone’s face and run away somewhere.”

For a moment, one wonders why the boy would want to sprinkle dust on everyone’s faces, until we realise that this is the Tamizh phrase, “kaNN la maNNa thoovardhu,” an idiom that suggests hoodwinking, fooling people in order to escape. The idiom is an articulation of the boy’s desire to fool his family and escape from the closed space, rather than to actually scoop dust and sprinkle it on the faces of his kith and kin.

Despite having an English counterpart, “throw dust in someone’s eyes” up her sleeve – or in the folds of the ends of her saree – this translation literalises his idiomatic desire, and only leaves us confused. The Tamizh reader may be able to make sense by reconstructing the idiom in her language, but that makes a translation redundant.

Fine writing blunted

The Tamizh reader indeed has access to Rising Heat as Eruveyyil, Perumal Murugan’s critically acclaimed debut novel from 1991. Narrated in limited third-person, it follows the protagonist, Ponnaiyya as he is called by his grandmother, from adolescence to adulthood, against the backdrop of increasing urbanisation. While the novel begins a few months after the boy’s family has sold off their farmlands, the narrative pulse is in the aftermath, with each member of the family coming to terms with the change in their own ways.

Murugan is so perceptive to the oscillations in each character’s psyche that he captures the force of the event even in the family’s dog, Mani, who begins and ends the novel. Murugan is a chronicler of people’s lives, rather than a sentimalist about the old times, and so the novel is neither melancholic nor nostalgic, even as some of its characters – including the protagonist – wallow in a longing that is resistant to change.

His mother, on the other hand, needs to deal with the family’s expectation of sadness. For her, Murugan tells us, the shift to the new house is the inauguration of a new lifestyle. From having to do drudge-work in the fields when not cooking for the family, she now plays thaayam with her neighbours, begins to wear bras and blouses, takes her daughter to the cinema, and satisfies herself with occasional gossip.

She has to tug between newfound independence and patriarchal typecasting when she begins a small finance for women and it fails: a woman should never be given money, the other women declare. It is a complicated commentary on gender, as Murugan provided in Mathorubagan too.

Indeed, Eruveyyil is closest in its tone and construction to Mathorubagan. For readers who are more familiar with the allegorical and subtle writing style in his novels, Poonachi and Kazhimugam (translated as Estuary), the translation of Eruveyyil should have taken us back to what made Perumal Murugan famous in Tamil Nadu: hard realism, layered political commentary, detailed descriptions, and the flourish of his dialogue.

Lost subtlety of dialogue

However, like One Part Woman, the translation of Mathorubagan, Rising Heat romanticises Murugan and his language, quite against the unsentimental literary mindset of Murugan himself. We experience an example of this in reading the dialogue of Eruveyyil.

Murugan spotlights his characters through the idiosyncrasy in their conversations. Distinctness, a feature prominent in every part of this novel too, is most noticeable in the dialogue. Indeed, the boy’s helplessness, the mother’s protestations, the father’s insecurities, or the paati’s laments are perceptible through the way they present themselves to others in the novel, and through them, to us. Kannan also registers this, commenting that the translation “strive[s] hard to capture [the] subtleties as closely as possible to the Tamil work.”

In her attempt to be as close as possible to the Tamil work, however, the translator focuses on preserving the particular linguistic-dialectic formulations of Murugan’s Tamizh. The Kongu dialect even finds mention in the research section of the preface. Contrary to the motivations of the methodology, though, the translation sacrifices, apart from the seamless lyricism of Murugan’s original text, the very distinctness it wants to preserve.

The homogeneity of the translation can perhaps be attributed to the loyalty to the Tamizh idiom. A meticulous precision to the exact meaning of the word or phrase means that the poignancy of the sentence is lost, as is the consistency of voices. “She came here yesterday,” a literal translation of a character’s dialogue – suggesting a woman’s foreignness to her husband’s familial traditions – is followed by the Words-worthy “a lass laughing coyly”.

Elsewhere, we have: “His mother and he had tied a pot to the irrigation apparatus to draw water from the well...He drew it, weaving his legs around the apparatus…” How one weaves their legs around anything is unclear. But, otherwise, we can only praise the juxtaposition of different registers in English: the poetic “weave” and the scientific “apparatus”.

Still, Murugan’s scenes are themselves so rich and sensitive that we can momentarily forget the distance of this translation. Take this scene for example: the boy and his group of friends go to the shores of the lake behind the colony notorious for sex work. On reaching, a woman comes out from hiding to welcome them.

This is Ramayi, once their farm-help, who raised the boy as a child, but has now been forced to resort to sex-work after the boy’s family sold their lands. We get but a peek into the consequence of the event on her. Though she does not see the boy, he recognises her voice and runs away. When finally alone near the well in his house, he struggles to deal with the intense collision of emotions in his mind.

Murugan deftly weaves perspectives, narratives, and temporalities – of the boy and Ramayi, of her time as his caretaker and how she adored him as the little Saami, of the extent of his shock and the echo of her voice – in a succinct yet haunting scene. And this scene is but one part of a kaleidoscope that is this novel. For this experience, it is necessary we trudge through the frustrating translation. What is more necessary, of course, is a better translation next time, more attuned to the sensibilities of Murugan’s text.

Rising Heat, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan. Hamish Hamilton.