N Kalyan Raman, a bilingual translator, is best known for his English translations of the works of eminent Tamil modernist writer Ashokamitran. Suchitra Ramachandran, a young translator who won the Asymptote Close Approximations translation fiction prize in 2017 for her translation of the Tamil short story “Periyamma’s Words” by B. Jeyamohan, works in the same languages.
The two translators met in Chennai, the capital city of Tamil Nadu and home of the Tamil language, to discuss the practice and politics of translation, posing questions as wide ranging as: What is the role of translation in an astoundingly multi-lingual country? Does English as a language, a post-colonial residue, oppress or enable? What is the literary legacy of translation and how can it shape the understanding of a diverse society? What follows is an edited excerpt of their conversation.
Suchitra Ramachandran (SR): Translation—a weighty literary activity, a difficult craft—seems to have no prestige associated with it in India. And that’s a reason, I think, why a lot of people don’t pursue it seriously.
N Kalyan Raman (KN): The translator is marginalized as a matter of course and for no good reason. A senior editor in Delhi told me that there is simply no space available in the media to talk about translators. What we must do first is accept the translator as part of the literary community, as producers of literary texts. Editors and other institutional intermediaries are given far more space in the translation discourse than translators themselves.
Also, I don’t think of translation as one separate trick. It’s as much a part of the literary culture as anything else. And translators do other things (in the literary ecosystem) as well, which hardly receive any notice—reflecting, engaging, reviewing, it is all a part of the culture. And understanding it, developing a reflective awareness of the trajectory of the literary culture of your community. Languages imply community above all else. What good is language if there is no community around it? In India, the English language seems to facilitate, in any field, only interest groups. It’s not amenable to a truly open space.
SR: Could you explain what you mean by ‘community’?
KN: The body of people who speak a language, with all their internal differences, diverse histories, cultural legacies, conflicts, contradictions, politics, everything. But they live their lives in and through that language. And therefore, they have a claim to everything in that language. They also contribute to it. They import things from other places. The great Tamil poet Subramania Bharati of the early twentieth century declared, ‘Let’s bring all the artistic treasures of the world here, into this language, into this community.’
But translation into English is problematic because there is no such resolve. In the Tamil community, there are people who read Orhan Pamuk or Mishima or Marx or García Márquez, and they aspire to bring these authors’ works into Tamil. Whereas, in English, books not aligned with the Anglophone sphere’s priorities of the moment are not championed at all.
What happens then is that these great works that are available in every major Indian language, when they are published in English, often become nothing; they curl up and die. There are very few who can push it, or discuss it intelligently.
SR: Introduce it properly to the Anglophone sphere. It’s unfortunate that we don’t have the sort of people you are talking about. Who would say, oh, I read this new writer on the block and they are so good! Why don’t we translate it, why don’t we all read it? That’s really what will drive a pan-Indian literary renaissance.
KN: Precisely. And these interest groups really don’t care. Something is being fed to them on a platter, but they are not equipped to care about it, because they don’t have the necessary background and there is no discourse they can draw upon.
SR: Do you think if we brought up a generation of readers who read extensively in both languages, it might bring about a change?
KN: Perhaps. But there’s a serious limitation to current translation practice. We’re both from generations far apart, but we belong to the same social class. As a community, we haven’t really tapped into so many other Tamil speakers and readers from different socio-economic strata, who may be equally interested in translation and literature.
SR: Who may bring new perspectives to the table.
KN: Yes. It’s also true that unlike people in the Anglophone sphere, who are often monolingual, all major writers in Tamil and elsewhere read widely in world literature, either in English or in translation. The discourse in Tamil and other major Indian languages far outstrips English both in terms of conceptual sophistication as well as foundational knowledge. The range of exploration of Indian life far surpasses what has been possible in Indian writing in English. But it’s not acknowledged, nor taken into account, yet, and that’s sad. But it will have to be. And I am sure that translations of essays and commentaries from Indian languages into English will happen on a big scale.
SR: Yes, that needs to happen. It’s also true for translations. We don’t have much of a discourse on what constitutes a good translation, especially from an Indian language into English. We don’t talk about the quality of a translation at all.
KN: Absolutely. We don’t even distinguish between a good translation and a bad translation, which breeds a needlessly patronizing attitude towards all translations. Reviewers and critics are reluctant to hold up something as a good translation and talk about it.
SR: Even when I read reviews of your translations of Perumal Murugan, for example, people talk about what the stories mean to them and so on, but there’s no critical evaluation of the translation itself.
KN: That’s true. There is something else, too, that serves to obscure the contribution of a translator. People don’t realize that the translator brings all they know into the translation. Wouldn’t you agree?
SR: What words we choose, what phrases we employ? Things like that?
KN: Also, their knowledge of the world, history and culture, politics and worldview. Everything comes into the process of translation, doesn’t it?
SR: So, when you read a work of translation, it’s not just the author you are reading, at some level you’re reading it filtered, or even enriched, through the perspective of the translator.
SR: And I think the erudition of the translator—how well-read he or she is, how he or she can craft the language—all really influence how the final text turns out.
KN: Here is something that I understood only through my translation practice: we are prisoners, not just of our time and space, but also of our language; we are condemned to think and speak in contemporary language. It is contemporary language that is intelligible to us and makes us intelligible to others, which makes it imperative that whatever you translate has to be in contemporary language. One of the things that Indian translators—the L2 translators—do poorly, or not so well, is that they do not train themselves in, or they are not sufficiently engaged with, the literary culture of the target language. I think it’s a crucial requirement.
SR: I see. Yes, if I am translating into English, I really need to know a lot about the contemporary literary culture of that language.
KN: Yes. You need to be widely read in English. You need to know how the prose operates. You should have your own subjective feel of the right prose rhythm for your material. You should know how James Baldwin writes or DH Lawrence writes, you should be familiar with a range of styles in order to be able to invent your own style that feels right for the text you are translating. With poetry, it’s even more important to have this sense of what’s right, and this is something that L2 translators typically don’t get. There are many translators who are very good, passionate about their work, but they have no sense at all of how poetry is written in English.
SR: They are not translating a poem into a poem.
KN: Yes. If the translation doesn’t read like a poem, what’s the point?
SR: Yes, even with prose, I have observed different translation styles. Many people prefer to use Indianisms and translate idioms word-for-word rather than find an English equivalent. And to some of my friends from the West who read translations from Tamil, this sounds foreign to their ear. Someone once told me that they liked the story, but wished it was in English!
KN: But literal translation of idioms is meaningless, right? It’s not going to get through.
SR: I prefer to find a close idiom that conveys the same evocation, but that can also preserve the tonality of the language. It’s hard!
Changing tacks a bit—we’re both bilingual translators. Both of us have translated from Tamil and into Tamil. How do you see that?
KN: I have always been troubled by the hegemonic position of English. I still am. It is certainly something I would like to work against. But at the same time, I am an English translator. As A. K. Ramanujan says in his essay, ‘Is there an Indian way of thinking?’ The moment India got independence, the Indian elite imported English into the Indian public sphere and gave it the formal, hegemonic position enjoyed by Sanskrit in the days of yore. That’s a beautiful insight. And that is the reason why Indian languages were not developed, in epistemology, science, or any other domain. They could have been. There could have been an attempt at least. Unfortunately, one of the things that happened with the formation of the Indian state was the centralization of power, and along with it the centralization of the intellectual-cultural elite at the national level.
SR: And that was centred around the English language.
KN: Yes. And at the same time, we were switching to a different mode of learning and a different concept of education. And that education was centred around English. Although we have constituted ourselves as a democratic republic.
SR: There is still this linguistic elitism.
KN: But, you know, this is not even part of the discourse. One of the most dismaying things about the public sphere in India is that the discourse is often so inadequate and is controlled by clueless gatekeepers and under-equipped, but well-connected establishment intellectuals. It seems like a juvenile thing to say, but I think it is true. It’s a con game to say that people should get English before they can participate in the discourse. It’s a complete travesty. We are not supposed to organize our society along these lines because it tends to seriously disadvantage individuals and communities that are disenfranchised in so many other ways to begin with.
SR: And language is one more hegemony on top of that.
SR: (speaking in Tamil) Even this interview, both of us are Tamil speakers, but we prefer to have it in English.
KN: Yes. This is why I chose to start translating into Tamil. Notwithstanding my ‘politically emancipated’ stance, to weed out this unconscious notion of linguistic superiority in the discourse. It’s also part of my longstanding resolve to stay inside this culture. The way things are in India, it needs constant work. I mean, you have to come from somewhere. You can’t come from nowhere. I wanted to be a person who comes from somewhere.
N Kalyan Raman, a bilingual translator, is best known for his English translations of the works of eminent Tamil modernist writer Ashokamitran, whom Raman began translating in the early 90s. He has also translated the Tamil writers Vaasanthi, Devibharathi, Poomani, and Perumal Murugan, and the poetry of Salma, Kutti Revathi, Perundevi, and others. The first translation he did, however, was into Tamil, for a little magazine called Pragnai—a translation of TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’.
Suchitra Ramachandran is from Madurai, India, and translates between Tamil and English. She has previously published translations of Tamil Sangam-era poems. Her translation of the Tamil short story “Periyamma’s Words” by B.Jeyamohan won the Asymptote Close Approximations translation fiction prize in 2017. Suchitra is currently based in Basel, Switzerland.