This is your first translation of a Tamil work into English. What was the process like?
It was joyful because, for over two decades, my touch with Tamil, after moving from Chennai, was minimal. I speak little Tamil — to friends or family — and watch Tamil movies sporadically, and read Tamil works infrequently today. Writing the book was a happy start though the process was quite demanding. I began by simultaneously reading and translating the first three chapters of Pasitha Manidam. Then, when I felt a momentum build in my reading and writing, I began to read the novel repeatedly and work on it.
Would you ever attempt to reverse the process, that is, translate an English book into Tamil?
I have done it. Nearly a decade ago, someone in Chennai published a work of non-fiction in Tamil — a collection of essays — and I had a wonderful time translating it into English. It was tragic that the work never saw the light of day as its publishing was aborted but I still believe the experience was special.
What is the hardest thing about translating from Tamil into English?
Dialects and usages. Tamil is one of the world’s ancient languages but is amazingly adept at keeping abreast and adding new words to its vocabulary. We don’t say Facebook, World Wide Web, or Nasdaq in Tamil. We have translated them into Tamil even though they are proper nouns. Similarly, when it comes to modern classics or literary works like Hungry Humans, dialects and anachronisms that were authentic to the early 20th century can pose a challenge. As in any Indian novel dealing with family and relationships, names of family members in relation to the characters differ. Not everyone is an uncle or aunt, maternal cousins and paternal relationships have different names that need careful translation.
Did you come across anything that was untranslatable?
Certain dialectical cadences and descriptive passages and the writing on sexuality and sex were challenging. They read with a different emotive heft in Tamil. English educated Indians are often conditioned to be outraged by vernacular descriptions of sex while they are acceptable in English. Torrid expressions of sexual feelings shift in languages. It’s a bit like when some Indians swear in English easily but baulk when they hear cuss words in Indian languages. It’s difficult to hit the high pitch, melodramatic notes, and fervidness in translation. My other bother was the wokeness of my reading towards the characters, the unabashed male gaze, the caste conceit, and the treatment of women, trans men and gays and how I would translate them being true to the attitudes prevalent in the period the story is set in.
The book has extreme themes like disease, desire, and spirituality that immerse the reader in Ganesan’s story. What was your experience at first, as a reader and a translator of the novel?
Honestly, I felt quite shook up. It took me many readings to understand that the story reads raw because it is without literary artifice. It is a hard gaze at how human beings are. Hungry Humans discards familiar storytelling. It is not a linear narrative; the characters are many; no one is good or bad. Everyone is damaged one way or the other. If I am partial and asked to choose, I’d pick Bhuma and Sama. Bhuma is a clear-headed woman, warm hearted and generous sexually and socially. Sama’s craziness, funereal jobs and his wild sadness nudged my heart.
You speak Tamil, English and Bengali. Which language do you think in?
I feel like a linguistic chameleon. I love to flirt and chitchat in languages; they ease up the fear many have socially to try a new language. I think in English, feel in Tamil and flirt in Bengali.
What does the Booker International win of Tomb of Sand mean to you as a first-time literary translator in India?
Spectacular wins in all fields are hugely inspirational. Arundhati Roy’s win gave heart to Indian writers that their English was recognised by the world. Similarly, Geetajanli Shree’s win gives hope to many translators of Indian languages. I’ve been at the pearly gates for a vision of AK Ramanujam after his extraordinary translations of Sangam literature since I read him in college. For a first timer like me, it offers the courage to dream in translations.
Arunima Mazumdar is an independent writer. She is @sermoninstone on Twitter and @sermonsinstone on Instagram.