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Discovered in translation

N Kalyan Raman

Culture, Language & Identity: English-Tamil in Colonial India 1750-1900 CE

Language, Culture & Power: English-Tamil in Modern India 1900 CE – Present Day

Edited by C.T. Indra and R. Rajagopalan, Routledge (India), 2018

No man is an island; neither is the culture a man is born into. In the same way, no language can grow in isolation; to survive, a language must constantly reinvent itself over time, which necessarily involves transactions with other languages, near and far. Throughout history, and especially in the contemporary age, translation has been a pivotal mode of transaction between languages, and thereby between cultures and communities.

Expanding Tamil

The two slim volumes under review is a marvellous attempt to tell the fascinating story of how, since the middle of the 18th century, "the Tamil language has grown in status, asserting its history and expanding its horizons," and how "it has done this with the help of translations, both from and into that language," as Susan Bassnett says in her foreword.

The story in the first volume begins with the arrival of European colonisers in the Tamil country during the 16th and 17th centuries and the introduction of communication technologies, including the printing press, as instruments of domination. Translation of religious texts into Tamil was undertaken by Christian missionaries as an aid to proselytisation. Literary translation was also copious, with works by Shakespeare, Milton, George Eliot and Dickens being rendered into Tamil multiple times. Initiation of modern prose in Tamil was a transformative achievement during this period. In addition to Cankam ethical literature (Kural and Naladiyar, among others) and twin major epics (Silappadikaram and Naladiyar), grammatico-theoretical works like Nannul, Saivite mystical poetry and Saivite philosophical tracts were translated into English. Chapter 2 is a fascinating account of the development of Tamil and English dictionaries aided by in-depth knowledge of literary, grammatical and philosophical works in Tamil and a growing familiarity with the family of Dravidian languages. Next, the political and linguistic aspects of translating the Bible, intended as the first bridge between the coloniser and the natives, are delineated. The translation of ethical and moral texts, of Jain and Buddhist origin, into English was an important step in understanding "the whole ethical and social philosophy of Tamil people," from both Christian and secular perspectives (Chapter 4).

Towards the end of the 19th century, Krupabhai Sathianandan, a Marathi convert to Christianity, wrote two novels, Kamala (1894) and Saguna (1895), each narrated from a woman’s point of view, respectively dealing with the social environment of Hindus and Christians. The novels were translated into Tamil a few years later. A study of the two novels in Chapter 5 shows how the translations paved the way for Tamil women to venture into writing in the 20th century.

Volume II deals with translations since the beginning of the last century. Chapters 1 and 2 present a detailed treatment of translations, respectively, of classical Tamil poetry and works of the Bhakti period. Perhaps for the first time in recent memory, we see A.K. Ramanujan in the company of his peers. His lustre is undimmed but he is no longer the lonely hero.

Western ideas

Chapter 3 is a brilliant account of the role of ‘little magazines’ in contributing to the literary journey of Tamils through translation of texts as well as literary criticism from outside. Works by a large number of European and Latin American authors have been translated into Tamil over the past 40 years. Since the 1980s, the influx of modernist and post-modernist theories of literature, either as translated texts or as treatises of the introductory type, has transformed critical practices in the Tamil milieu.

In his fascinating paper on Translating Theory (Chapter 4), R. Azhagarasan traces the process by which western critical theories such as structuralism and post-structuralism were translated into Tamil, largely by the so-called Little Magazines. Azhagarasan points out that the translators looked for parallel concepts in the Tamil tradition, debated their relevance, formulated sites of contest and shaped local struggles with insights gained from these theories. In Cultural Empowerment and Translation (Chapter 5) and Mapping the Nuance of Language (Chapter 6), C.T. Indra and R. Rajagopalan present a study of translations produced since 1970 of selected Tamil works in various genres (novels, short fiction, poetry and drama). Besides showcasing the variety of themes, they also elaborate on the challenges met by translators in terms of conveying the tone, register, aesthetics and ideology of the original. As they say in conclusion, "translation today is not a monological, isolated, purely linguistic or literary activity. It has inevitably aligned itself with literary and critical theory, emerging socio-economic and aesthetic discourses, political upheavals guided by alternate philosophies of life and the art of representation."

Minor quibbles

These volumes present a fascinating history of Tamil-English translation in a lucid and engaging manner. That said, I have a couple of quibbles. In her introduction to Volume 2 covering the ‘boom’ in Tamil-English translation over the past few decades, Indra provides scant space to the community of translators who are, after all, primary producers of translations. I hope that someday translators would become as much a part of the narrative as, say, other contributors to the field. Second, an editor is quoted as saying that “Translation is the product of a collaborative venture between the translator and the editor of a publishing house.” As a literary translator, I would like to say that an editor’s contribution, important though it might be, is still ancillary to the effort of writing the translation. The cause of translation, and translators, can hardly be well served by the propagation of such tendentious claims.

Review published in The Hindu on August 11, 2018


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