Book Review: Translation initiative takes Tamil literature to the world

yesince 2017, the Tamil Nadu Textbook and Educational Services Corporation (TNTB&ESC) has established itself as an enabler in India’s publishing landscape with the express aim of “promoting the literature and culture of Tamil Nadu”. Its co-publishing initiative, ‘Taking Tamil to the World’, was launched in 2021 with the publication of six award-winning Tamil texts in English translation. Recently, six more titles were published as part of this collaboration between the TNTB&ESC and some of India’s leading publishers.

The titles are: In Defiance, Our Stories: Short Fiction by Dalit Writers translated by Malini Seshadri and V. Ramakrishnan (Vitasta Publishing, 2022); Hephzibah Jesudasan’s novel Putham Veedu translated by G. Geetha as Putham House (Rupa, 2021); Thoppil Mohamed Meeran’s short fiction translated by Prabha Sridevan as Meeran’s Stories (Ratna Books, 2022); S. Ramakrishnan’s popular column of literary criticism for the Tamil magazine Ananda Vikatantranslated by PC Ramakrishna and Malini Seshadri as Katha Vilasam: The Story Within (Routledge, 2022); select writings from Tamil scholar U. Ve. Saminatha Iyer’s Kandathum Kettathumtranslated by Prabha Sridevan and Pradeep Chakravarthy as Essays of U.Ve.Sa: The man who revived ancient Tamil literature (Niyogi Books, 2022); and a Penguin Classics reprint of R. Parthasarathy’s translation in verse of the Tamil epic Cilappatikaram, subtitled The Tale of an Anklet.

The TNTB&ESC’s mission statement says its objective in presenting fiction and non-fiction from “one of the world’s oldest literary traditions, which includes one of the most sophisticated pre-modern poetic theories” is not only to make Tamil writing accessible in translation to a global readership but also to acquaint a generation of Tamils, who may not read or write the language, with “Tamil antiquity, tradition and contemporaneity”.

As a government organization, the TNTB&ESC has the advantage to actively promote these titles in public libraries, book fairs and other events organized by the government. It also hopes that these translations will find their niche in university syllabi and academic research in comparative literature and cultural studies.

Stories of sweat, grit and struggle

The strikengly titled In Defiance, Our Stories is an anthology of 14 short stories, the majority of which were first published in Tamil as Dalit Sirukathai Thoguppu by the Sahitya Akademi. In her Introduction de ella, the writer and activist P. Sivakami, who curated the Tamil original, writes: “Until recently, Tamil writers had mainly portrayed Dalits as servants, minions or ignorant simpletons mired in poverty. Even in Marxist writings, Dalits were subsumed under the general umbrella of the ‘poor’. In this scenario, it was Dalit writing that first depicted Dalits as respectable protagonists in their stories, men and women with their own valid opinions and views. It gave them an identity as those who had been unjustly relegated to a backward status in society, and united them as a community of like-minded people.”

Also read: ‘The unique letter’ by D. Ravikumar

Indeed, the characters that inhabit these stories—single mothers, factory workers, koothu artists—are refreshingly unmeek and resolutely straight of spine. Each one of these stories, perfectly crafted and expertly translated, demands the reader’s admiration, and not mere empathy, as it confronts caste pride and prejudice in daily life head-on.

Sivakami also acknowledges that while “Dalit writing” has itself seen an exponential growth and visibility in Indian publishing in recent times, “the number of women [writers] among them is still low. This reflects the reality that literacy levels among Dalit women remain poor”. In Defiance features the distinct voices of Theynmozhi and Pratibha Jeyachandran, apart from Sivakami herself and Bama, as well as Cho Dharuman, Imayam, Abimani, Ravikumar, Azhagiya Periyavan and Gowthama Sannah, among others.

palmyra chronicles

Hephzibah Jesudasan (1925-2012) famously put the Christian Nadars of Nanjil Nadu, located at the cusp of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, on the Tamil literary map. Her novel Putham Veedu (literally, ‘new house’) is both the bildungsroman of young Lizzy, who comes up against patriarchy at every turn in a household that clings to past glory, and a chronicle of the community of toddy tappers “whose lives are as precarious as their perch on the tall swaying palms”. Hephzibah Jesudasan’s was among the first Tamil novels of literary realism, and she shines a spotlight on lives in the margins in their own distinctive dialect, which the translator G. Geetha has, in turn, reflected most evocatively in English.

Seascapes and salt lives

Like Hephzibah Jesudasan, Thoppil Mohamed Meeran (1944-2019), too, wrote in a singular Tamil, the Tamil-flecked-with-Malayalam spoken by the Muslims of Kanyakumari district. He tells the truth and tells it slant in this delightful dialect, bringing us closer to lives on the edge of the ocean, as it were, while Prabha Sridevan’s translation coasts the stories home, complete with all their cadences of caste and community. As Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s blurb sums it up: “Meeran’s Stories give us a glimpse, at once, of the inner life of two entities, two identities. First, of South India. Second of Muslim South India. They are about a particular people but more, they are about people. They are about a particular place but more, about the place of feeling in the desert of custom.”

Also read: ‘Calendar Bawa’ by Thoppil Mohamed Meeran

The house that stories built

When the writer S. Ramakrishnan began a new series following the success of his column ‘Thunai ezhuthu’ in Ananda Vikatan, I intended it to “introduce readers to important short story writers in Tamil”. The series, titled ‘Katha Vilasam’ (literally, ‘the abode of stories’), grew into a grand hall of mirrors, of stories nested within stories, like in the best oral traditions from all over the world.

To quote from the blurb: “In each unit, [Ramakrishnan] describes an incident from his own experience and relates it to a short story he has read by a particular eminent Tamil writer. He paraphrases/summarises the writer’s story, melds it into his own reminiscence of him, and allows the two to resonate and create a musical signature in the reader’s mind. ”

Also read: ‘They fell silent’ & ‘They turned into water’ by S. Ramakrishnan

Translated seamlessly and with detailed chapter-wise glossaries by PC Ramakrishna and Malini Seshadri, Katha Vilasam: The Story Within showcases for a wider readership the 50 Tamil writers whose short stories Ramakrishnan has suffused with his own special brand of storytelling.

The grand restorer

Tamil scholar Thiru.Vi. Kalyanasundaranar once declared that if the publication of ancient Tamil classics were to be compared to the construction of a house, it was Arumuga Navalar who laid the foundation, CW Thamotharampillai who built the walls, and U.Ve. Saminatha Iyer who thatched the roof and completed the house.

While all three scholars were instrumental in tracing and restoring works of Sangam literature in the early twentieth century, it was Saminatha Iyer, or U.Ve.Sa, as he was known, who made it his life’s mission to retrieve sheaves of palm-leaf manuscripts lying scattered and moth-eaten in temples, monasteries and the puja rooms of village homes across the Madras Presidency. With the exacting zeal of an evangelist, U.Ve.Sa traced down, collated and compiled three of the Aimperumkappiyangal (literally, ‘five great epics’), Civaka Chintamani, Cilappatikaram and Manimekalai, and restored them to the world through his precise, erudite printed editions.

Essays of U.Ve.Sa: The man who revived ancient Tamil literature, translated by Prabha Sridevan and Pradeep Chakravarthy, and with a Foreword by Perumal Murugan, is a cross section of U.Ve.Sa’s anecdotal writings, and includes “oral tales, autobiographical sketches, histories of places, life-stories and the author’s encounters with music and poetry”.

Offering posterity these glimpses into the mind of a grand old man of letters who was not only an editor but also a biographer and historian, and who the writer Kalki christened “Tamil thatha” (literally, patriarch/grandfather of Tamil), is perhaps the best poetic justice to him.

Iconic Tamil Everywoman

Arguably, Cilappatikaramone of the 6th century epics attributed to Prince Ilango Adigal and rescued from oblivion and printed by U.Ve.Sa in 1892, is to the secular Tamil psyche what the ramayana and the Mahabharata are to the rest of India. Time and again, the story of its protagonist Kannagi has been taught to schoolchildren, performed as dance and drama, seen on the silver screen, discussed and deliberately threadbare at public debates and study circles in Tamil Nadu. Kannagi, immortalized in the Tamil imagination as a crusader holding aloft an anklet and about to avenge her partner Kovalan’s institutional murder, is a symbol of strength and empowerment; Cilappatikaram is the saga of a lone woman’s fight for justice.

Winner of the 1995 Sahitya Akademi Prize for Translation, the 1994 PEN/Book of the Month Club Translation Citation of the PEN American Center and the 1996 Association for Asian Studies AK Ramanujan Book Prize for Translation, R. Parthasarathy’s translation titled Cilappatikaram: The Tale of an Anklet is a pleasure to read both as a poem and as a gripping, if black-and-white, tale of crime and punishment.

The second phase of the TNTB&ESC’s translation initiative underscores how relevant it still is to build bridges and foster connections between languages ​​and readers in today’s glocal village riven by ideas and languages. As Mini Krishnan, Co-ordinating Editor, TNTB&ESC, puts it, it is a coming together of “the creative potential and the special understanding of the world the Tamil language has, and, consequently, the distinctive way Tamil carries the memories and histories of those who use it and live in Item”.

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