I studied in Tamil medium till the 6th standard. English was really a foreign language for many years. I thought only in Tamil and translating my thoughts into English was not an easy effort, especially when it came to English language exams.

In the 4th standard, in my first exam in English, I got zero marks and had to kneel in the class for a few days for this shameful performance. In the second exam I got 14 marks out of 100 and was quite pleased with myself. My father, who thought it was the duty of every South Indian to master English, was rather upset. I told him, “But Appa, I have improved; I got a zero last time and now I have fourteen marks!”

In the 5th standard we had to deal with English grammar. We got a series of sentences like “The Crow is sitting on the tree” and were told to convert them into interrogative sentences. I could not believe that the English language could be so easy. I rewrote the sentence and instead of a full stop put a question mark: “The crow is sitting on the tree?” and so on. I assumed that it was only a tonal variation like very often it is in Tamil.

So translating ideas into English in a creative exercise was something that was not even remotely a part of my efforts at expression. Around 1990, Lakshmi Holmstrom translated one of my stories for the Inner Courtyard collection and working with her was an experience that I enjoyed. It also made me realise that translation was an effort similar to how a critic named Idaikadar described Thirukkural, a book of aphorisms based on moral codes and ethics written by Thiruvalluvar more than two thousand years ago.

Idaikadar said that writing the aphorisms stating such profound truths in two lines was like piercing a mustard seed and pushing seven oceans into it. Translating an Indian language into English was a similar effort, I felt. I also understood that what we were dealing with was not just two languages but two different cultures.

Sights and sounds

In a hot country like ours if someone touches you with a cool hand it is exciting. But when you translate it into English it has to be a warm hand, or the meaning would change. In Tamil we sometimes describe eyes as “rain-eyes”, which are considered the most beautiful. Translated directly into English as “rain-eyes”, the eyes would lose their beauty. And we have fish-eyed and lotus-faced women and sometimes some men have lotus feet. The images of these flowers evoke different memories in us not just of the flowers but also of the qualities and the emotions they evoke.

Many years ago I remember narrating the Ramayana to a four-year old American child to put him to sleep. The next day his mother asked me if I had told him some horror stories. I told her I had told him one of the epics of India. She told me, “Please don’t tell him horror stories of men with ten heads and monkeys that cross oceans and speak like humans.”

I thought to myself, “If a mouse speaking like an American and dressing like one can be normal for an American child, why not Hanuman and Ravana?” But I also understood how easily we accept the ten heads of Ravana, the snakes crawling on Shiva’s body, Mahavishnu sleeping on a snake bed, and Krishna eating kilos of fresh butter.

Apart from meanings translation also involves perspectives in terms of distance. In Tamil, the woman standing close to you is ival. The woman on the other side or at a little distance is aval, and a woman far away is uval. In English you have only the word “she” and the distances between persons cannot be denoted unless a special effort is made.

And then there are those sounds. The river flows with a jalajala sound in Tamil. You walk fast in Tamil in a viduvidu manner and you run in a kudukudu way. A terrible trembling is called a kidukidu tremble in Tamil. You sob vikkivikki in Tamil. And you climb madamada. And birds make different sounds in Tamil and the verbs are also impossible to translate. So also do animals. The sounds that go with a noun or an act create a certain rhythm in the story. All of this is lost in English.

There is also the question of images that the words create in the translator’s mind and that of the author. I remember once I had written about a city that lay like a demon. The translator merely translated it as a city that looks like a demon. I had to explain to the translator that a city stretched out is harmless. It is demon-like but there is no violence conveyed whereas a city that looks like a demon has totally different connotations. It is dangerous and fearful.

Cultural crossing

Translation is also many times an act where the translator reinterprets our culture for us in terms we have long ago forsaken. I have often narrated the story of an American anthropologist who visited Mumbai – she was supposed to talk about the symbols and metaphors in civilisations. Many of us assumed that she would be talking about Greek or other European cultures. But to our surprise she began to distribute pictures of some ancient sculpture of the yoni, and also a picture of Vishnu lying sideways, his hand supporting his head, on the snake bed with Lakshmi at his feet.

She said that the wonderful pictures were to tell us how rich our culture was with symbols. She explained that Lakshmi sitting at the feet of Vishnu may make her appear to be submissive but she was actually tickling his feet to inspire him to do his duty of creating and making this world go. I could not help intervening to ask her, “Why should Lakshmi tickle his feet if her act of tickling can inspire him to do this great job? Could she not tickle her own feet?” The American anthropologist did not appreciate my comments, but nor did I appreciate her translation of images from my culture.

Similarly, translation often creates a hierarchy between the translator and the translated. The translator who translates an Indian language into English always feels that it is an act of favour, where the Indian language writer is being raised to a different level. The Indian language writer also feels this act of translation to be some kind of a “promotion”. It is almost like a magical transformation, where an ugly frog becomes a handsome prince or a divine blessing where a cursed stone turns into a woman when a divine man steps on it.

In the process of this transformation the writing is turned into a consumable product that can be easily consumed by a market of a different kind of readership. Many things are involved in creating this product to be consumed by a choosy readership. In the first place the product has to be turned exotic and ethnic, an exhibition piece that can please a certain readership. Hence stories that “belong to the soil”, stories of “protest” and “suffering”, and stories that have explicit cultural elements like arranged marriages, dowry deaths, witch-hunting and poverty become more saleable than other kind of stories. Some other elements are also seen as part of our culture. These have to do with India being a land of desires, of sensuous women, the land of Kama Sutra.

The second method of turning the writing into a market-friendly product is to give as many footnotes as one can. The writing must be made as transparent as possible. No space must be left for opacity. So idli will become steamed rice cake; dosa, a salty pancake; and murukku, rice dough twisted into round shapes to make a design and deep fried in oil. Jilebis and other food items will similarly be explained as if the writer were serving a menu instead of a story.

Clothes are also given such elaborate footnotes. I remember a footnote for the dhoti once: it said it is something similar to a sarong. Will the sarong be further footnoted, I wondered, or was it an image accepted by this market as an exoticism understood? Turning a culture into footnotes is power politics that a writer has to constantly resist.

Unwanted hierarchy

When we were young and read French and Russian novels, even American ones at times, I don’t think footnotes were provided. One did not understand certain references to Greek and other mythologies, nor some references to certain kinds of food. One did not quite know how champagne tasted, and for a long time pronounced it as champ-page-ne. But it did not in any way take away what the book contained.

Literature of that category when it came to us was seen as something that was flowing down to us. We had to receive it the way it came and raise ourselves to its level. But our literature is seen as something that is flowing upward, and something which takes that kind of a direction has to suit itself to the needs of that upward path.

In a recent conference on translation, a translator said that as far as he was concerned the author was dead and that he perceived the entire act of translation as an act of subversion. His job was to subvert the entire text in a way that the translator would become its owner and the text would acquire a thousand different meanings. I had to tell him politely after the conference that I would have to be really dead before he touched any of my stories as texts to be subverted.

Whether translations are seen as acts of subversions or acts of making a certain writing saleable, I feel that they alter the original story from what it actually stands for and they unravel a story in ways in which it was never intended. Like Draupadi’s sari, a story has hidden strands that would keep appearing at different points in a reader’s life, to amaze the reader at every point. That is why a story cannot be totally opened up, but just enough to let out its perfume.

Whatever the argument a translator can offer, I feel that stories are not about revealing; they are about hiding. Stories hide elements and emotions in a way that they reveal things in a manner totally different from what the translator can conceive. Everything about a story cannot be made bare like everything about a culture cannot be given exact meanings to be understood. Some mysteries must remain.